Some of the most tender moments happen in baptisms- we set everything aside to gather around water, hear God’s word and watch as parents and grandparents bring little ones here. And smiling faces speak God’s word of welcome and love. And we forgive the baby or young child for however they behave because this is a special moment. They are our beloved, not just for their families but hopes and dreams for all of us. Then there are other tender moments when we set everything aside to gather and watch as a beloved one is dying or to remember them. We gather to hear God’s word and pray that the welcome and love are for real, and that there really is forgiveness. We hope God really loves our beloved. Recently I was called to the hospital bedside of such a man. When I arrived, only five minutes before the family met the medical team and learned, there was nothing more to do, it would only be hours. And what had seemed like the thing to do, to call the pastor, and for the pastor to come took on God’s timing and purpose.
I was told he wasn’t really religious. That though Pastor Radcliffe had baptized and confirmed him, he fell away after he left. Then the conversation got stuck for a minute as the family awkwardly paused unsure what the response to that revelation might be either from me, or perhaps later from God. I have these conversations all too often. Moments of “after the fact” evaluating a life, in some ways popularized by the poem “The Dash” that one of you shared in our devotion time recently. The author notes that on a tombstone there are two numbers, the date we’re born and the date we die. Two numbers separated by a dash- a little line that represents our lifetime in between. And it asks the question how will you have spent your “dash”? How will you have lived? As noble a sentiment as it is, encouraging us to live life meaningfully, there is often another meaning. It’s the one I heard in that hospital room. We haven’t been to church often. And perhaps we’re fearing God might think we haven’t lived up to the deal. Somewhere beyond baptism, there isn’t much to the dash in between, at least as far as the church is concerned. And what does it mean? Feelings of guilt, shame or doubt surface. Will it be enough? Then there are the conversations when people tell me they think baptism “covers” you until you can speak for yourself, as though what parents and the Pastor share in is almost provisional. Til someone is old enough to articulate a mature faith and know what it all means as a Christian. Because true believers will be able to do just that. But for me growing up in a different faith, I was supposed to be able to not only give a statement of faith but to talk about THE MOMENT I had accepted Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior. A conversion moment. The problem was, I never had that crystal clear moment. I’d just kind of grown up in the church and in faith. What would it mean if I don’t have a “story”? Will I meet God and find I missed the mark? What if I find myself standing before God hearing “Not enough” as far as I am concerned? So many questions about our role and response to baptism I wonder how we feel today about Jesus baptized.
Why would Jesus even do it? He didn’t need to. Some writing of the time beyond Scripture even suggests he just did it to make his Mom happy. Maybe we recognize that.
SO what does it really mean? Today we hear God’s words for us about just why our relationship really is forged and what it means. Words that were literally critical to the man and his family in the hospital in moments that feel like waters raging, and fires consuming. Words that are critical for us. We hear God assure us- I am with you, I am for you, I have chosen you. You belong to me. And we see God’s Son come not as someone exceptional but as someone who stands exactly where we are to show us part of how far “with you and for you” will go. Where God is revealed in a prayer and a promise.
A prayer and a promise were exactly what were needed that day in the hospital. After the family thought they should have me come, no one was sure the man might want anything from a pastor. I asked if he might want a prayer. With tears in his eyes he acknowledged he WOULD like a prayer. Almost instinctively, God drew this “not religious” family around a bed, to hold hands and pray and entrust a beloved into God’s hands. I reminded him that God WAS still with him, and placed that reminder on a weary brow- that sign of the cross. The same one made in baptism, reminding him he was still a beloved child of God for whom all God’s promises were true. And then-God’s healing love and peace broke in, standing there with ordinary people. A peace so profound that the family continued to talk about it for days. I hope they continue to live into it forever.
What God revealed was that neither this man nor any of us could stand and deliver to prove worthiness to God, neither our history nor ability to find the words that would be enough. None of us are special Christians. Our dashes are often unremarkable in that way. We’re all just one in a sea of people. And sadly the greatest loss of disappearing after baptism is that we just move around in that sea of people never really enjoying the benefits of being beloved with others. We wrestle with the reality that not in all our hopes or abilities can we rise to meet God. And the love and assurance we long for eludes us. It’s into this sea of all our worries and doubts Jesus comes and is baptized by John- as just one in our sea of people. Walking the same earth, standing in the same dirty water.
Sharing in the same struggles of our earthly life. God comes to us and binds us together. There’s no trying to meet God on some higher plain.
But what God also revealed is that God comes to all our ordinariness and stands in it with us to open our eyes and ears as God proclaims that Jesus is “Beloved” and Chosen to fulfill God’s will- for us. Bringing to life the words of Scripture that God longs to draw all the sons and daughters to God, even after really horrific times and flat out reprehensible behaviors. Salvation. For the exceptional, and for the ordinary and even those we’d rate as missing the mark altogether.
Made known as Jesus is baptized and begins his ministry and that journey to the cross. Made known that day in the hospital as I spoke again God’s promise, that in our baptism we share in that cross of Jesus’ death but also in resurrection, and new life. Made known for us this day.
And it happens not because we have the right words or deeds, but for no other reason than because God says so. God says we are Beloved, and breaks through in the Spirit, making us family. While God’s deepest desire is that we live as Beloved, in the end, nothing we can say or do is more powerful than God’s “beloved” spoken to us. Blessedly good news!
To only hear this at both ends of our lives is to miss out on living baptism in between. Where we smile and share forgiveness, because it’s special, where we gather and pray because all around us are our beloveds. Bound together by God who stands with us, and for us, who choses us. How we respond is still up to us. Whose lives will we draw close? May our ministry begin and begin again knowing that because of Christ, we don’t live to become beloved.In Christ, we the beloved, get to live.