I am a parish minister currently serving the Eliot Church of Natick MA. Eliot Church is a Community Church affiliated with the Unitarian Universalist Association and the United Church of Christ. Any statements made and postions held in "Unity," however, are solely mine(of course, they may be used with appropriate atribution). Therefore if you disagree, please do not blame the church!

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Baptism Sermon +

I have been a bad blogger as of late. Things have been very busy around here! The church has been experiencing quite a flurry of activity around issues of outreach and social justice. Also, we are planning for spring when folks return and annual meeting occurs. There is never a dull moment in church! Also, I managed to bang up my wife's car. Everyone is OK, but we are a one car family for a while as we get it repaired...

So anyway, I have been way too busy even to think about Unity for a while. I am feeling somewhat guilty, however, thanks to Peacebang and her posts from Madrid! So I am posting now...

Here is a sermon I gave recently on Baptism:
In The Spirit
Rev. Adam Tierney-Eliot
Eliot Church

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.

Baptism is one of the most controversial parts
Of the Christian tradition
And this has been the case from the very beginning

The Bible Scholar and Roman Catholic priest
John Dominic Crossan
Once wrote
Nothing is more certain about Jesus than this: that he was baptized by John in the River Jordan. The reason for our certainty, he continues, is that the Christian tradition shows increasing embarrassment about that baptism.

What does he mean by this?
From the earliest Gospel
(Which would be Mark, the one we heard from today)
To the latest (John)
The description of Jesus’ Baptism
Continued to change as the early church
Tried to make sense of some rather nagging questions:

Why, after all, does one of the most fundamental
Aspects of the church
One of two sacraments that almost everyone can agree on
Why does this sacred and central act of Christianity
Come not from Jesus (from whom this religion stems)
But from the earlier rabbi John?
John the Baptizer, in fact

Was Jesus a follower of John?
Did this movement we all know today
Have its roots in an older movement
Founded by another, different prophet?
At the very least, it shows
That some of the revolutionary teachings of Jesus
Must have evolved from something else

Crossan concludes that
Since the church would hardly have invented a story that caused it such problems, that very embarrassment gives us confidence in the historical reality of [the sacrament]

So, we know that the act existed
Before the beginning of Christianity
But when we talk about baptism today
There is still quite a bit of confusion about what it means
Different traditions have different beliefs
Some reject the sacrament altogether

But some people believe that the act of Baptism
Is a physical or magical washing away of sin
The accumulated sins
Of a life on this earth
For adults
And for children
Of the original sin
That is a part of being born into humanity

This is, not surprisingly, tied to a very old theology
Of sin most connected in our minds
To the Roman Catholic church
But it can be found in some protestant denominations as well
From this same theology comes the doctrine of confession
And atonement

Now, quite a bit that is positive can be said about this world view
For one thing, the Catholics have spent a great deal of time
Articulating an understanding of evil
A classic weakness for overly optimistic mainstream protestants

This understanding of baptism, however
Has, in the case of the Congregationalist and other
“Low church” movements
Given way to another, more symbolic understanding
In Mark we read …just as [Jesus] was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torm apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven. “You are my son, the Beloved; with whom I am well pleased”.

While some may read this passage and see
A special relationship between God and Jesus
Our tradition sees a change in the relationship between God
And all of humanity
John himself tells us that while he washed away sins
In the same way that the temple priests of the time removed sin
Through sacrifice
Jesus’ Baptism welcomed the spirit of God

This welcoming, this personal access
That we are all invited to participate in
Changes the way we live in two ways
First, Baptism impacts the individual’s relationship with God
Second, it impacts the individual’s relationship with the church

The first of these in our tradition is the more important
Baptism is a reminder of our constantly changing
Commitment and relationship
With the Universal, the Transcendent
The Handbook for Church Life
Put out by the National Association of Congregational Christian Churches
Describes it this way
The sacrament of Baptism declares the never ceasing love and good will of God for all people. It demonstrates the infinite worth of each individual soul.

So, though it may not be a literal cleansing
It is meant to affect us, to change us
To pull us back and give us
The opportunity to start anew
To support us
When we fail or when we lose our way

We are not changed by the sacraments our tradition tells us
But by what they represent
Our Baptism calls us to live good lives
By rules such as those found in our reading from Leviticus
But isn’t a requirement for the good life

One of the more common elements in the liberal church today
Regardless of what denomination one might feel affiliated with
Is the doctrine of Universalism,
Though one can see the name
Right after the word Unitarian on our literature
I doubt that too many people have given it much thought, lately
Simply put, Universalists do not believe
In the eternal torment of the fires of Hell
Do not believe in a God who could be all loving
And yet so arbitrary and cruel
As to damn souls to eternal suffering

This is a departure from the more traditional theologies
And that, of course, has implications
For what we are talking about today
The famous Universalist theologian
Rev. Hosea Ballou put it this way
If your child fell into the [mud] - would you long to clean him up because you loved him, or would you only love him after he was clean?
The rather obvious answer to this question
Ballou and other Universalists feel
Gets at the basic relationship between us, the children
And God, the parent
Just as we may be frustrated with our children
But still love and care for them
A loving God does not require us
To be cleansed before being welcomed back home

Now, this is, of course, only part of what baptism is about
And when we baptize children
We do not expect them to make any conscious decision
About their personal relationship with God
Or anyone else, for that matter
Because of this, certain traditions and certain individuals
Make the choice to wait until adulthood

But, for the most part, this is not the tradition in the United States
Except amongst the Baptists (hence the name)
Who, in lieu of child baptisms perform a dedication service
As a sort of first step before the child reaches an age
When they can decide what they believe for themselves
This is an option that is also available here
In part because of our belief in a free and unfettered mind
And partly because of that connection to the Universalist Church
Itself a Baptist denomination
(You didn’t know we were also Baptists, did you?)

Child Baptisms and Child Dedications
Emphasize the requirements of the community
The act isn’t so much for the child
But for the congregation
We are witnessing a family’s commitment
To raise an upstanding, moral, and religious person
In the context of our tradition
And we are also committing ourselves to this very same task
(Something to think about
The next time you are asked to teach Sunday School)

However, because of our congregational theology
Baptism is not a requirement for membership
For belonging to this church is through a shared covenant
In our case the Ames covenant
Not (in the words of the Cambridge Platform)
Not Baptism, because it presupposes a church estate…one person is a complete subject of baptism, but one person is incapable of being a church.
Now, are most members of this church baptized?
Probably, but I have no way of knowing
Because we do not ask for information like that
Our only concern is that the individual commits to travel with us
In the love of truth the spirit of Jesus [uniting] for the worship of God (however conceived) and the service of all

Baptism means different things to different people
And, we do not have to agree
As the Universalists declared so long ago We agree to admit all such persons who hold the articles of our faith and maintain good works, into membership, whatever their opinion may be as to the nature, form, or obligation of any ordinances
But I do think that there is a place for this sacrament
And I do believe that it can and has
Worked wonders in the lives of many of us

The root that makes up the word “Baptize”
Means to dip, steep, dye or color

There is something to be said for steeping
For being connected to,
Surrounded by/Soaked in the Divine
And something to be said for that dying or coloring, too
After all, our relationship with God
Should color our lives
It should bring a vibrance that we wouldn’t otherwise have
Teach us to see that color in someone else
And, hopefully, (in recognizing our interconnectedness)
To learn to be sympathetic
To practice patience and forgiveness
Love and Peace

At its root, Baptism is a form of dedication
A dedication to living out
That full and rewarding and good faith-filled life

So let us dedicate our selves, today
To living the lessons taught to us
By all the great prophets
Reaching out instead of lashing out
To open our hearts to the inspiration
That comes from God and nature
Rather than closing ourselves off
To all but own needs and our own percieved uniqueness

Let us all strive to find for ourselves
Some way, public or private
To make peace with the world
And commit to an authentic faith
Whatever that may mean for us