Sermon for Sunday, September 2, 2018 || Proper 17B || Mark 7:1-18, 14-15, 21-23
I’m so excited for the baptism of four-month old L.J. this morning. I’m excited because we get to share in welcoming L.J. into what the baptism service calls “the household of God.” I’m also excited on a personal note because L.J. is the first baby I’ve baptized for a couple whose marriage I officiated. L.J.’s parents were married here in 2015, and they are active members of our faith community. The longer I remain the pastor of this church, the more milestones I will see and participate in – the more births, baptisms, confirmations, graduations, weddings, and funerals. And all that fills me with immense joy.
And yet, Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel lesson give me pause. There’s an interesting irony at play today. Jesus criticizes the scribes and Pharisees for what he sees as the empty ritual of their washing, a ritual that has not filtered down to reshape their interior lives. And here we are about to engage in the most profound of ritual washings, a baptism. To alleviate the irony, we can hear in Jesus’ words to the Pharisees an invitation for ourselves – an invitation to take seriously the path of life which our baptisms have set us on. Baptism runs the risk of being another empty ritual if we never leave space for the baptismal water to ripple out into our lives.
So let’s talk about the baptismal life for a few minutes this morning. The word “Baptism” sounds likes a fancy word until you put it back in its natural habitat, where it comes from the word that simply means “to wash.” In fact, today’s Gospel lesson uses the word twice when talking about washing dishes and washing items bought at the marketplace. The humble origins of the word “Baptism” remind us that the baptismal life is part and parcel of our daily lives. You don’t just take a bath once and then say, “Ok, I’m done. No more baths for me.” The ritual washing of baptism happens only once, but the waters of baptism continue to cleanse us throughout our lives, washing away the stains of sin with the power of God’s forgiveness.
Whenever we wash our hands or our bodies, the water flowing over our skin can serve as a reminder of our baptisms. And not just a reminder but a deeper participation in the baptismal life when we use those moments of washing to reconnect to God in prayer and listening. We all wash our hands a lot – and I know this because I have to remind the little ones to do it all the time. Imagine how much richer would our lives of prayer and contact with God be if we conditioned ourselves to pray whenever water touched our skin.
With this constant contact through prayer and listening, we can more readily embrace the true identity that baptism celebrates: our identity as God’s beloved children. Baptism does not create this identity, for God delights in all that God has created. But baptism gives us an opportunity to celebrate our belovedness in God’s eyes, to join together in a beloved community, and to reflect that love to one another and out into the world. The baptismal life embraces this belovedness, not as something we earned or purchased, but as something that makes us who we are.
When we embrace our belovedness and feel it in our bones as God’s fundamental gift, then we are ready to see God’s belovedness resting at the core of each person we meet. We are so conditioned to interact with other people based on what they can do for us. We decide their worth as a function of their usefulness. But the baptismal life reorients our basic interactions. Our initial posture upon meeting people becomes one of appreciation for their unique personhood because the same God who delights in us delights in them. Thus our daily interactions move from the transactional to the relational. We no longer see others as objects to use but as subjects to be in mutual relationship with. This facet of the baptismal life runs so counter to the way the world functions that it is so hard to live into. And that’s why we pray when the water runs over our hands. We pray to remember our belovedness. We listen for God’s voice saying to us what God said to Jesus upon his baptism: “You are my beloved.” And we ask God for the vision and perseverance to live like everyone is God’s beloved (because everyone is).
To help us live like everyone is God’s beloved, our baptismal service offers us a covenant built around eight questions. The first three locate us within the Christian expression of God’s presence in creation. The final five invite us to promise, with God’s help, to live the baptismal life. We promise to build God’s beloved community based on the apostles’ teaching, the breaking of bread, and the prayers. We promise to re-embrace our identity as God’s children whenever we fall away. We promise to speak and act the good news of God’s reconciling love. We promise to seek God’s belovedness in all we meet and serve them as Christ served. And we promise to strive for the justice and peace that comes when the dignity of all people is respected. That’s the baptismal life. It’s my life. It’s your life. It’s the life we live with God’s help.
The ritual of baptism runs the risk of being empty if we see it merely as a ritual – a nice photo-op with a baby in a white gown. No, the ritual of baptism is a door we step through into a new life and a new way of living in the world. The baptismal life is a life of prayer and listening. The baptismal life is a life of embracing God’s belovedness in all people. The baptismal life is a life of promise.
When I graduated from college, my parents gave me this as a gift. It is my baptismal certificate from June 1983, all nicely matted and framed. I was five-months old when I was baptized at St. Bartholomew’s Church in Yarmouth, Maine. The framed certificate hangs on the wall in my office beneath my certificates of ordination as deacon and priest. My parents urged me to hang it there as a reminder that my baptismal life is catalyst for all that came after and all that is still to come. Now, you may not be able to find your baptismal certificate, but I urge you to remember your baptism, not as empty ritual, but as the driving force in your life. And the next time you let water flow over your hands or your body, remember the special word that simply means “to wash.” Remember your baptism. And with God’s help, step once again into the flow of the baptismal life.