"Swimming Lessons"

Sermon January 11, 2015

Mark 1:4-11


You may not know this but the first time a minister performs a sacrament, we do so with some fear and trembling. What if I mess up? What if it is ruined? I remember how nervous I was as I led a procession down to the lake on a congregational retreat to do my first immersion baptism. What if I go under instead? What if I forget the words? We were singing “As I went down to the river to pray” as we walked and I was praying that all would go smoothly. I am not the only one to experience such fear. There was a Baptist minister who, at his first baptism, became stagestruck. Standing in the baptismal pool with the candidate, the pastor suffered a complete lapse of memory. He became so muddled that he forgot which sacrament he was administering. Eyes heavenward, he borrowed words from the communion service instead of the baptismal service and gave this command, “Drink ye all of this!” (Dynamic Preaching, “All That From a Little Bit of Water?”)


I wonder how many of you remember your baptism. Of course, you cannot recall it if you were baptized as an infant. Whether you took vows or someone did on your behalf, what difference does it make that you are baptized? What does baptism mean to you?


There are many different beliefs about baptism. Some traditions emphasize infant baptism, others believe one must be old enough to make their own decision. Traditions like the UCC believe in both. I remember my baptism. My parents chose to let us make that decision. I was twelve. I went through confirmation and at the end we had to decide whether we would be baptized and confirmed. I remember sitting on my bed and thinking to myself, “I have no idea what this means, but it seems important to do”. In some ways, that describes my faith journey over and over again - I don’t really grasp where this will take me, but I’m taking this path. I said yes, and I remember the water dripping down my long hair. I am grateful that I could say yes without all the answers and make a decision that would shape the rest of my life. I think that baptism shapes us in ways we may never fully grasp.


Each year after Epiphany we hear the story of Jesus’ baptism and then are given the opportunity to reflect on the meaning of baptism for our lives. This morning, we will “remember” our baptism after the sermon. I am aware that many don’t remember your baptism, but you will be invited to come to the font and take a stone from the water to remind you of baptism in the weeks to come. It is an invitation to live like you have been baptized. When the theologian Martin Luther found himself struggling, he was known to yell, “I have been baptized”. It was his way of reminding himself that he belonged to God and nothing could undo that. We believe that when we are baptized it “takes”, it doesn’t have to be repeated every time we mess up. Remember the powerful scene at Jesus’ baptism, the heavens open and a voice says, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Baptism is a sign of God’s closeness to us. It is the beginning of a journey.


Matthew begins with the geneology, Luke begins with the birth, and Mark begins with baptism. For Mark, baptism is the beginning of life in God. That doesn’t negate the life that has happened before baptism, but it is a new beginning. Baptism didn’t originate with Christianity. A similar ritual happens in Jewish conversion. There is something powerful about water as it cleanses us and helps us begin anew.


You may remember that we read some of the gospel lesson today during Advent as we were introduced to John. Today, we meet John again as the one who baptizes Jesus. As interesting as John and Jesus are, they are not the heart of the story. Some want to argue about whether Jesus needed to be baptized or not. This baptism story is less about Jesus and more about God who receives us and loves us. Baptism is offered as a gift. It is a cleansing and a commissioning. Baptism is an outward sign of our life in God and it is followed with a call to mission. Jesus goes from baptism to living as God’s beloved in the world. What does it mean to live as God’s beloved? It is beautiful to imagine God calling each of us beloved.


There was a Sunday School class studying the baptism of Jesus, and the teacher asked the kids what Jesus heard God’s voice say when the skies were opened. A little girl raised her hand and said, “God said, ‘You are my beloved child—now go act like it!’”


I think that is an amazing interpretation. God calls us to live baptism, not just celebrate it. Macrina Wiederkehr calls us to “believe the truth about yourself no matter how beautiful it is.” Can we see ourselves through God’s eyes and live in a way that our lives are a reflection of that love? That is what we are about in the church.


Several years ago, I heard Craig Dykstra speak. Craig was senior vice president for religion at the Lilly Endowment for many years. He impressed me with his gentle wisdom and his broad view of things. At a forum, Craig said he put himself through seminary by teaching children how to swim at the YMCA. He described them coming to the pool cold and shivering. They were scared and unsure. Craig said he would take them in his arms one by one and talk with them as he carried them through the pool dipping them into the water a bit and lifting them again to help them become comfortable with the surroundings. As he reflected on that many years later, he said faith is trusting in the buoyancy of God and congregations are where we teach people how to swim.


Learning to trust in the buoyancy of God is a life’s work. It isn’t a one-time achievement, but it happens step by step often when we have no choice but to trust. Let’s face it, if we can do it ourselves without having to depend on God, don’t we often choose that route? But there are times when we are in over our head and we know we cannot take another step without God to lead us. And so we lean back and discover that God is holding us. This isn’t just true for individuals. Congregations learn to trust in God when everything they know isn’t enough. As a congregation we can offer swimming lessons – not because we have all the answers, but we are willing to get into the water and learn as we go. The water we call church is always changing. It requires that we keep learning and rather than relying on our own skills, we practice trusting in God. We will have many opportunities to practice trusting in God in the coming year and in the years to come. Whether you are an expert swimmer or never learned to swim, God invites you into the water of baptism, into the water of life and promises to teach you to swim so that you can navigate this river we call life. All you have to do is step into the water.