Serious business, weighty words
Yesterday, right here in the church, we received five beautiful children into this household of God, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. One of them was sporting sparkly silver hightop tennis shoes. Another wore an elaborate family heirloom Christening gown - all of them fresh from heaven trailing clouds of glory as Claudia and I poured the waters of baptism over their heads and sealed them with oil to mark them as Christ’s own forever.
We gathered as a body and heard the story of Jesus being baptized himself, and how God proclaimed at that moment that Jesus is the beloved belongs to God and how there is nothing we can do to earn or lose the love and pleasure God takes in our belovedness. We took or reaffirmed our baptismal vows. We promised to continue to gather together for prayer, for nourishment in the Eucharistic feast, for teaching and learning from our Scriptures. We promised to persevere in resisting evil and whenever we fall into sin to repent and return to the Lord.
We promised to proclaim through our words and through our actions the Good News of our salvation - that God loves everyone. We promised to seek the face of Christ and serve the person of Christ in all the people of the whole world, to love our neighbors as ourselves. We promised to strive for justice and peace and to respect the dignity of every single human being. We promised to support the children and their families and to nurture them as they grow and live among us through their joys and their trials.
These promises are our job description as Christians, individually and as a community. We make them in the knowledge that we, too, are God’s beloved.
We heard the story and we made these promises as we gathered around the light of Christ, symbolized by the Paschal candle, its flame steady over our heads, the beacon of the household of God.
Baptisms are joyous occasions. We all love seeing the children and their families, we love the looks of wonder in their faces reflected in the font as they gaze at those gathered around them. We love their outfits.
But this business is still serious business: being marked as Christ’s own forever, of coming through the waters of baptism just as the Israelites did when they were led through the sea, out of bondage - out of their slavery - in Egypt.
These words we speak are weighty and profound: Love; Justice; Peace; Dignity; Evil; Sin; Repent; Prayer. These promises are elemental and could be even dangerous - what does it mean to be the light of Christ in the world around us?
At baptism, we recognize that water is both life-giving and dangerous. In it, we can be cleansed or we can drown. It can support us and it can sink us. The ancient people of the earliest Bible stories knew the fearful power of water, where chaos reigned, where the great Leviathan lived, and they rejoiced (read Psalm 18 for a dramatic account) that their God controlled the thunderbolts and rode black clouds through the storm to swoop down and save them when they were afraid and overwhelmed. They well knew the story of the great flood and how only one family survived the rising waters by being sealed up in a little boat.
Biblical scholars are not all in agreement about whether or not Jesus wants the disciples to stay in the boat or not in our Gospel reading today. Some say that Matthew always stresses community and how it is important to remain united in the community for safety and freedom. They should stay in the boat together, so of course Peter fails because he gets out.
Others declare that since Jesus commands Peter to come to him through the waters of the storm - to get out of the boat - then Jesus is calling us as individuals and as a community to take risks for his sake. Because following Jesus really can be risky.
But Peter loses faith and fails. Therefore, some focus on the need for keeping one’s eyes on Jesus whatever we do, deepening our faith and piety.
A case can be made for all of these. There doesn’t have to be one answer.
But honestly, this story is not primarily about Peter or about the boat anyway. As in most Gospel stories, our focus really should be on Jesus. This story is another take on Psalm 18. The Great I AM comes through the chaos where we are floundering helplessly in the wake of whatever is overwhelming us right now - and reaches out for us and pulls us to safety.
Jesus pulls Peter to safety whether or not getting out of the boat was a good idea, whether or not Peter was in the wrong place at the wrong time, whether or not he messed up by not being faithful enough or by thinking he could walk on water. Jesus pulls Peter through the storm to safety because Peter is his beloved. Jesus pulls him to safety because that’s what Our Lord does. It’s who Our Lord is. Our savior.
Storms are going to overwhelm us. We are going to feel afraid. But Our Lord comes to us in our fear and reaches out for us because we are his beloved.
That said, I’ve always been one who believes that following Jesus means I’m going to have to get out of the boat sometimes. I’m going to have to follow him into some chaos, into some place I might be scared to go. I am often tempted to stay in the boat, but sometimes I’ve got to step out. And the only way I can muster up the courage to do that is by believing that Our Lord will reach out and save me if I become overwhelmed. That Our Lord will save me even if I am wrong. Even if I meant well but messed up royally in my efforts. Because I am his beloved. Because that’s the promise in which I have faith.
This morning there is much that feels overwhelming to me. During the week I have sat with the dying and the bereaved. I have felt the shock of sudden death and dire diagnoses. I have worried about the possibility of war. And yesterday I watched with horror the images coming in from Charlottesville, images embedded in the sin of racism, people with distorted hateful faces bearing weapons and gathered around and illuminated by the light of torches carried with the intent of intimidation; crashes and fire and blood; violence; death. Where is the peace that God speaks to his people? Where are the beautiful feet of the one who brings good news?
But take heart, Jesus says, it is I who comes to you in your despair over the fearsome sea. Through the life-giving dangerous waters of baptism all we have come, some with beautiful feet wearing sparkly shoes, our faces illuminated by the light of Christ, the steady flame of the Paschal candle that is the sign and beacon of the household of God. Christ comes to us to save us through any storm when we are losing hope. This is good news, the promise that God is with us.
And in response, we have promised to be the messengers of good news ourselves - with God’s help. We have promised to uphold one another in love. We have promised to resist evil. We have promised to repent when we fall into sin. We have promised justice, dignity, respect, love for all God’s beloveds. We have promised prayer. We have promised peace.
These are weighty words and we may fail miserably trying to live up to them, but following Jesus, living into my baptismal vows, means I’ve got to try. Maybe I try by encouraging others in the boat. Maybe I try to getting out of the boat and taking a risk. Whatever I try, I try with God’s help.
I’m going to take part in a vigil downtown at 3rd Street Bethel AME church this Wednesday evening at 6:30. It is sponsored by the same congregations that joined with us when we showed the movie 13th here at St. Stephen’s. I invite you to join me and other people of faith to stand against bigotry and to repent the sin of racism.
Maybe this will be stepping out of the boat, or maybe this will be steering the boat together toward justice. Either way, this is how I will live out my baptismal vows right now. We will mourn the dead and the injured and we will pray for justice, respect and dignity.
May our beacon be the light of Christ shining over against the torches of hate. May we light the way for justice and walk in the way of peace. May we repent the evil we have done and the evil we have failed to challenge. And when we are floundering in our grief and in our paralysis in the face of whatever overwhelms us, may we call upon our Lord to save us in sure and certain knowledge that he will.