January 13, 2019, Baptism of Our Lord Year C, Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
This past week I read a blog post by Karoline Lewis, Lutheran pastor and preaching professor at Luther Seminary. In it she shared how years ago she preached a sermon to a congregation in Minnesota that communicated to the congregation about what Luther’s Small Catechism teaches about baptism. She said that afterward, a ninety year-old parishioner who was a long time member of the parish came up to her and asked, “Is that really true? That GOD baptizes you?” She told her that yes, that is what we believe.
The woman then shared with her why she had a hard time believing that. She told Dr. Lewis that she had an older sister who she never met because she had died shortly after birth. Her sister had been born too early and the doctors knew she wouldn’t live more than a few months so they sent her home for the remainder of her short life span. At some point during those few months the grandmother baptized the baby. Then when her sister died the parents went to meet with the pastor of the church to plan the funeral and the pastor told them that because he didn’t perform the baptism the funeral couldn’t be held in the sanctuary. He told them it would have to be held in the church basement.
After explaining this the elderly woman then asked Dr. Lewis, “Do you mean my sister is okay?” For her whole life she had mourned for her sister wondering, “Is God really for her?” But that day Dr. Lewis assured her that her sister was okay. In the baptism done by her grandmother as her sister clung precariously to life her sister heard and received God’s unconditional promise. God’s unconditional promise of love, grace, and forgiveness freely given to all who God calls as God’s own.
Then later this week I again came across an article that I had seen originally back in December that told the story of an incident that happened early that month in Michigan. It told how the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Detroit issued an apology for the pain caused by one of its priests around the funeral of eighteen year-old Maison Hullibarger. When Maison died by suicide in early December his parents asked the Rev. Don LaCuesta to focus his sermon on how Maison lived not how he died. However, instead of trying to bring comfort to the family in this way, the priest made their grief greater as he spent much of his funeral sermon referring repeatedly to the fact that Roman Catholic Church doctrine considers suicide immoral and that suicide separates us from God.
The Hillbargers were shocked and felt the priest judged their son, someone he never met, by calling him a sinner in front of the hundreds gathered for his funeral. The father even tried to stop him during the sermon, but Father LaCuesta continued on. The family was so pained by Father LaCuesta’s funeral message that they didn’t allow him to join them at the burial, instead offering their own prayers at the graveside.
After the funeral they asked the archdiocese to remove Father LaCuesta from his position as a parish priest so that no other family would ever have to go through what they did. The archdiocese responded by issuing an apology and saying that Father LaCuesta would not be allowed to preach at funerals for the foreseeable future, had to have all his sermons reviewed by a priest mentor, and said they would be seeking help for him so that he could see how he failed the family.
Both of these stories made me think of how each of these pastors got it all wrong in communicating to these families that God’s message of love, grace and forgiveness is for all. Each failed in answering for those families the question that the ninety year-old woman had for Dr. Lewis in the first story when she asked of her deceased infant sister, “Is God really for her?” The answer for both families is yes, God is really for their deceased loved ones. Because in baptism each heard and received God’s unconditional promise of love, grace, and forgiveness and nothing could ever get in the way of that.
We humans might think that baptismal promise should be conditional to who we think is deserving of it, the rules we think should govern how it is to be administered, and under what conditions or limits its effects should apply, but all that isn’t under our control no matter how much we try to make it so. We might try to limit it or legislate it like each of those pastors did. The first over ninety years ago by exiling a family to the church basement to mourn their deceased infant because he judged her baptism inadequate and ineffective because her grandmother performed it, even though Christian teaching says in an emergency any Christian can baptize. And the second by telling a family that because their son died by suicide the promise of God’s unconditional grace, love, and forgiveness became null and void for him because some church doctrine says the manner in which he died somehow excludes him from God’s love, though St. Paul tells us in his letter to the Romans that nothing can ever separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ.
We humans might like to set limits and conditions on the promises God offers in baptism. But we can’t because we aren’t the one offering them. God is the one making the offer to all no matter who we are or how deserving others think we are of God’s grace, love, and forgiveness. God is the one saying to us, “I have chosen YOU. YOU are mine. YOU are beloved. These are my promises to YOU.”
We see this in our gospel reading today as we read Luke’s account of Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist. Throughout history theologians have debated about what is often seen as the scandal of John baptizing Jesus. If Jesus is greater than John how can John baptize Jesus? If Jesus is supposed to be without sin and baptism is for forgiveness of sins then why does Jesus get baptized? There are countless questions that theologians have debated about the baptism of Jesus over the years, but I wonder if in getting bogged down in those questions they miss the bigger picture of what is happening in it.
Do they miss that our reading says, “Now when ALL the people were baptized, and when Jesus had also been baptized?” “ALL the people.” It doesn’t say all the good people. All the holy people. All the sinless people. All the people who follow the religious laws correctly. All the people who never make bad choices or mistakes. Just ALL. Jesus gets in line to be baptized along with ALL the people. In his commentary on the text Robert M. Brearley writes, “Jesus simply got in line with everyone who had been broken by the ‘wear and tear’ of this selfish world and had all but given up on themselves and their God. When the downtrodden and sin-sick people formed in hopes of new beginnings through a return to God, Jesus joined them. At his baptism, he identified with the damaged and broken people who needed God.” (Feasting on the Word, Kindle location 8354)
In other words, he identified with all of us. Saints and sinners. Episcopalians and Lutherans. Regular church attendees and those who make it only on Christmas and Easter. Black and white. Citizen and refugee. Gay and straight. Rich and poor. He got in line to identify with ALL of us. God comes in Jesus because God loves ALL of us and wants ALL of us to know that love more fully and completely so that we ALL can live that love out in him by sharing it with ALL the world.
I wonder also, do they miss when God says to Jesus, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased”? YOU are my Son. YOU are the Beloved. With YOU I am well pleased. In Jesus’ baptism we hear God call, name, and claim Jesus as his own beloved son in the same way as God calls, names, and claims us as God’s own in baptism. God doesn’t make us jump through a lot of hoops first to earn God’s love, grace, and forgiveness. God doesn’t make sure we have passed all the right tests with flying colors or checked every box on some checklist to make sure we meet the criteria to receive the gift of baptism and its promises. No. First out of love God sends Jesus to offer us grace and forgiveness. And through our baptism into his life, death and resurrection God calls, names, and claims us as God’s own beloved. Then through our new life in him he invites us to join him in living out that new way of life found through the power of that love, grace and forgiveness and to share it with every other beloved child of God we meet.
Too often when we talk about baptism – about Jesus’ baptism by John or about our own baptisms – we get bogged down in all the deep theological issues and rules we humans have made that surround it. But I think in our gospel today we see what’s most important about what God wants us to know about it. It is for ALL and it is for YOU. ALL the people. YOU my beloved. ALL of YOU. May we never forget that through the baptismal waters God calls all of you, and you and you and you and you and there is nothing anyone else can do to keep us from that gift of God’s unconditional love, grace and forgiveness in life or in death, no matter how anyone else might try to convince us otherwise. Amen.