Water, the stuff of life or dangerous, and swift the river. The staff of life or chaos and death.
It is the stuff of our baptism into a new life – a new life offering companionship and also the danger of where that life might lead.
I find it fitting, and intriguing, that the story of Jesus baptism is paired in our lectionary readings with the creation of Israel as it passes through the River Jordan to become a new people.
“When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;”
But let me get there with a story from my early childhood.
As a young boy, one of my favorite stories was about a little tug boat, “Little Toot.” Little Toot was the most rambunctious screw-up in New York harbor. Up to mischief of one sort or another. He had no sense of propriety. Just like boys my age. His father’s constant refrain, “Won’t you ever grow up?” Sounds like a parent, doesn’t it?
Well, the little boat finally goes one prank too far and is escorted by stern police boats out of the harbor and banished. Out there alone at night, out on the high seas as a storm gathers itself. Soon waves are crashing all around. Lightening streaks through the skies. Thunder deafens the ear.
Amidst mountainous waves, completely dwarfing the small tug, Little Toot spies a S.O.S. flare high up in the sky. The story ends most satisfactorily as Little Toot rescues a distressed ocean liner and, as clouds part to sunshine, brings the ship safely into harbor to his father’s praise.
I had been given a record of this story. With all the terrifying sound effects of the raging storm and towering waves, that’s where my mind froze. In my imagination I can still hear the fog horn, the music swelling as Little Toot was lifted on one gigantic wave, only to plummet down the other side.
It may be that I identified our family’s dysfunction with Little Toot’s predicament. My father’s volatile moods and temper were that storm that crashed around helpless Little Toot. At most any evening meal, the tension in our family was like waiting for the first thunder clap of that story.
In the second-grade room of our Sunday school, one morning a fellow came in asking for me. I was to follow him into the church. My teacher said it was okay and there I met my brother and another adult from his class and we were led up the aisle of this huge sanctuary of the Methodist church our family attended in Compton, California.
I remember the minister in a black robe saying some things, then sprinkling water on my head. Afterwards, I was led back to my Sunday School room.
That might have been the end of it except our family continued to attend church up until I was in junior high school.
Over the years, I now realize that no matter the storm, my baptism has always pointed my small boat towards a safe harbor where there is welcome.
After we stopped attending church as a family, I continued because my girlfriend went. Church was a short walk about six blocks up the main street behind our house. She lived across the street from me and we’d walk up together holding hands.
Later, I would be invited to the college group on campus by my roommate – Wesley Foundation. At that point I had pretty much dropped out of church. Our new pastor was so conservative he opposed fair housing, equal rights for Black people. Women’s rights hadn’t even appeared on the scene yet, but he would have been against that, too.
It was plain to me that either Jesus loved all people – and we should as well – or he didn’t matter much at all. I was on the didn’t-matter-much-at-all end of that argument. Our church affirmed the upper crust, not so much others. Jesus seemed irrelevant to their plight. Of course, our family didn’t know any of these in the Willowbrook section of town.
Our college group had chartered, along with other college Wesley Foundations in Southern California, a bus to the quadrennial national conference of Methodist college students to Lincoln, Nebraska. We had been talking up this event for some time in our group. It was the in-thing to do.
The keynote speaker was one Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I’d never really heard of him, but when I actually heard him speak on the closing night, I said to myself, “If this is what the church is about, sign me up.”
At which point, that mysterious journey up the central aisle of my church in Compton became real. I was a part of THAT club, THAT family. I had found a taste of that Beloved Community where ALL did matter. This is what Jesus was talking about.
I met Black students from the South there who told me of their lives. The scales fell from my eyes. I had known nothing of the KKK and night riders, of segregation and lynching. Or separate and unequal, or just lack of opportunity.
All this newfound knowledge was dangerous. My Republican, conservative parents were not ready at all for this Epiphany. This was dangerous, my father told me. I should just let these things be. Fair housing would just run-down property values. Our only responsibility to Black people was “don’t say the N word” and just be “nice.” Whatever that meant. Be “nice.” Obviously, nothing about being just or finding out what they’ve endured. Talk about “deep waters.” My dad was soon convinced that a communist cult had taken me in. Maybe worse, a cabal of Democrats. For a number of years, we didn’t talk.
As I began to read the adult church curriculum of Bultmann, Reinhold Niebuhr, H. Richard Niebuhr, Tillich, Bonhoeffer, and King’s writings, I discovered that my baptism had now led me far beyond simple Sunday school platitudes. Or maybe it was that these writers had put meat on those basic Sunday school bones. My new learning and experiences were definitely an Epiphany. A whole new world of the Spirit opened up. Joe Wesley Matthews of the Ecumenical Institute presented a muscular vision for my newly developing faith. Not for the timid.
Later, as a medic in the army, my education in diversity continued, serving alongside folks of all sorts. Some, their word you could take to the bank, others were best avoided. People are just people; you take them as they come. Race, class, background – seemed to make little difference. I ended up friends with people I never would have imagined encountering. I met my first Buddhist friend. Another Epiphany. God works through all sorts.
I wonder if that’s something of what happened with Jesus as he emerged from the waters, or was it the desert time? Was he baptized with the Holy Spirit and with fire? Did all this happen suddenly like a thunder clap, or smolder in him slowly as he lived into his ministry.
I have had Spirit-filled mentors along the way who enlarged the promise of my baptism. By word and example, they were “Little Christs” to me. They were seeds of hope. By their steadfast persistence and belief in what I could become, they kept that hope alive, even when I had lost it.
Later in Los Angeles, I found a church community that did affirm a generosity of welcome – to ALL. Many a Sunday as we closed worship, me on the string bass, with that raucous song, “Let the Sun Shine In,” from the musical “Hair,” I knew I stood on holy ground.
All the while living amidst the hustle and bustle, sometimes the chaos of life. I figure my baptism is my general orders for living in chaos. In the military, general orders enumerated one’s duties should, in the midst of chaos, you become separated from your unit or from command authority. Or taken prisoner. Such things as render aid to those around you, secure government property, work with others to restore order. By our baptism, we all have holy orders, both lay and clergy – the same – live into the Beloved Community and welcome ALL.
Our nation is presently in CHAOS, with forty-some percent believing that Joe
Biden is not a legitimate president, and a good number in denial about the insurrection on January 6th – just a normal tour group of visitors to the capital.
The mandate of baptism is to continue to work for a nation in which ALL are included, have a say and a chance for sharing in the bounty of America. In Caesar’s time Christians did not have this privilege, but we do.
Baptism is entered into as a life process. Even Jesus was said to have grown in wisdom. He grew to understand that even a Syrophoenician woman was included in God’s embrace.
We work in an imperfect system with imperfect people. I trust the Holy Spirit which descended on Jesus at his baptism to continue to mingle amongst us, bringing out our best. Lincoln referred to this happy outcome as the “better angels of our nature” taking hold.
These days, chaos swirls about us and about our nation as much as it ever did around Little Toot. What we are promised is that there is a welcoming harbor – a place of refuge.
As we are reminded of the chaotic scenes on the one-year anniversary of January 6th insurrection, equally distressing scenes flood in from our nation’s hospital emergency entrances. Images flash across our TV screen of utterly exhausted medical staff as the Omicron variant lays America low. The camera lens catches nurses scrambling to find one more bed. Struggling to resuscitate another patient. Again, gift shops and lunch rooms are repurposed to accommodate the sickest. Hallways are in utter disorder. Staff rushing to critical patients with IV lines and bottles as various monitors beep a cacophony of alarms. Doctors flipping frantically through charts of the newly admitted. Chaos. Exhaustion.
When through the deep waters…we will hold on to one another. We will keep faith. Our baptismal holy orders.
“Weeping may endure the night, but joy comes in the morning.” Though a deep darkness has settled over our nation, as Tony Judt put it, though “Ill fares the land,” there remains yet another, a newer chapter, to be written in the history books. The content of that chapter is up to us.
We continue the work to strengthen and uphold one another. All working on the House of Hope in both the Ohio Valley and in San Bernardino, we press forward towards the goal. Funding is now in sight.
WE HAVE SO MUCH MORE WORK awaiting us in the days ahead. The problems we face are legion: racism, voter suppression, the unleashed forces of sedition, a right-wing disinformation media complex, addiction, apathy, hunger and homelessness in our streets. AND, not the least, a still-raging pandemic.
It’s like housework – it’s never done. But as St. Paul proclaims, “Here we are. Alive.”
That is the full meaning of our baptism into the Jesus Movement, the Beloved Community.
Yet, in Christ, here we are, ALIVE! Amen.
January 9, 2022, The Baptism of our Lord
“When Through the Deep Waters”
The Rev. Dr. John C. Forney
Isaiah 43:1-7; Psalm 29; Acts 8:14-17;
Luke 3:15-17; 21-22