Isaiah 43:1-7; Psalm 29; Acts 8:14-17; Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
You are mine
There is an adorable meme going around Facebook that has a cute-as-pie toddler, bow on head, saying into a cell phone, with much expressiveness: “So, today in church, a guy in a dress tried to drown me. And, I kid you not, my family stood there taking pictures.” From a child’s point of view, Baptism may be a kind of belonging he or she could do just fine without, yes?
Last year, I was introduced to a beautiful piece of music called You are Mine by David Haas, a Catholic composer who writes contemporary but often very folksy melodies about our journey with God. And it is infused with the words of Isaiah 42. The chorus sings, over and over, “Do not be afraid I am with you. I have called you each by name. Come and follow me, I will bring you home. I love you and you are mine.” As we prepare to Baptize two beautiful babies into the community and life of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, I think it is important for us to remember what it is all about. Baptism reminds us that no matter how strong the flames of our life’s challenges become or how the floods of time seem to wipe away so much of what we have come to know, the love of God that claims us for Her very own refuses to abandon us. Our Baptism reminds us, as we are marked as Christ’s own forever, that even when the raging waters threaten to overwhelm us and the fires of life seem to burn everything down, we are claimed by a God who doesn’t need us; there is nothing we can do for God. Yet, Baptism reminds us that the promise of God is that we are forever His; we belong, now and always, in Baptism, to God.
Baptism is one of two central Sacraments of our tradition, along with Holy Eucharist. Baptism is a shorthand, in a way, for a much deeper meaning. Our belonging to God, as Isaiah so wonderfully declares today, means a number of things: we need not fear; our redemption is at hand; we are purified by God’s love and mercy; and God calls us each by name. All of the above means that we are God’s. But these images of fire and water are everywhere in today’s readings and I think it is worth exploring a bit this morning.
John the Baptist declares that not only is he not the Messiah but that the baptism that he offers is limited. He can baptize with water which cleanses but the One who comes after, the Messiah, the Christ, will baptize with not only water but with a purifying and consuming fire of the Spirit. The Baptism into which we are baptized is a powerful reminder that the love and sacrifice of God in Christ purifies, burns, blesses, and makes us ready for the life that God would have us live: one of hope and strength, not one of fear.
So, water cleanses and fire purifies … except when they don’t. The waters of life often, actually, threaten to drown us – both literally and spiritually. The floods of Hurricane Florence, among others last year, devastated North and South Carolina, destroying homes, businesses, and lives. The Camp Fire alone, in CA, burned nearly 1 million acres – the most devastating fire imaginable, leveling the town of Paradise and making more than 10,000 people homeless.
Though we know that water and fire can devastate we also know they are necessary for life and can carry with them, too, a beauty and a sense of purpose…so it is with the waters and fire of Baptism. They carry in them renewal, belonging, and light; they may remind us of the destructive forces of separation from God but they also cleanse, purify, and bless.
I was watching the Today show recently and they updated an old story. It was the story of Matt Swatzell and pastor Erik Fitzgerald. Swatzell, in 2006, was a firefighter/EMT. He was driving home after a 24-hour shift in suburban Atlanta and fell asleep, crossed the center line, and crashed into another car. A woman, several months pregnant, June, Pastor Erik’s wife, was killed in the other car. Their 19-month-old daughter, Faith, also in the car, survived. Matt was initially charged with a felony and faced real prison time. But Erik believed he was called to forgive Matt and, at sentencing, asked the judge for leniency. Matt was given a fine and many hours of community service, instead of jail.
But Matt’s life was devastated. He could not get past the fact that he had killed someone: a wife and mother. The day before the two-year anniversary of the accident, Matt was getting into his truck in a grocery store parking lot when he saw Erik Fitzgerald approaching him. Matt immediately began to cry. Erik told him, before he said anything else, that he forgave Matt and felt that God was calling him to be in relationship with the younger man, that he felt connected to him. Matt confessed that for whatever reason he felt the same way. And the two men began forging a friendship, driven by not only Erik’s desire to forgive, but his willingness to help ease the young man’s pain. Twelve years later, Matt is married and has two young children and Erik has remarried and has a new child. Erik’s daughter Faith, now 12, and Matt have become very close. Matt is quick to say that the story does not have a “happy ending.” Someone died. He will never be the same and has “demons” still. But forgiveness and belonging – and relationship – has made both men’s present life possible.
Our Baptism does not guarantee us escape from the flames that burn us in life, or the floods that come up to our neck, threatening to drown us entirely. Baptism is, rather, a promise that the light and water of God’s burning love will always be with us – we belong to God - and therefore we will get reminders of that love and belonging along the way, if we are willing. The outreach of a friend, the note from a brother or sister, the forgiveness of another person whom we have wronged, the embrace of the community into which we are baptized – that is not just a St. James Parish, Farmington or a St. John’s, West Hartford, or any physical place ... that is the community of Baptized Christians. We are connected and made family – brothers and sisters – by virtue of our Baptism and connection to God in Jesus Christ; we belong to God and, therefore, we belong to one another. In Baptism, we are marked as Christ’s own forever, a strong symbol of God’s overwhelming promise of love, forgiveness, and relationship that no flood or flame in this life can ever take away; we are God’s eternally.
The baptized love and belonging that we share as God’s children is one that is, importantly, offered to all. The Holy Spirit that we receive at Baptism, and are called to constantly remember and renew, is a call to life, a life flooded – if you will permit me - with the love of God that we are bound to share with a world caught up in the human-made flames and flood of politics, racism, anger, bitterness, and fear. We are called by the forward-moving power of the Holy Spirit – Christ’s continuing presence among us - to frame our lives with God’s unending love and share it with those suffering from the capricious floods and flames of illness, disease, poverty, hopelessness and even personal tragedy. Knowing that we are God’s does not keep us from all harm. Baptism does tell us, however, that after the fire, beyond the floods, we are still God’s.