Baptism is not easy to explain to those of other faiths, and even
many Christians, when asked what their own baptism means to them, would
be hard pressed for an answer. Baptism was so serious to early
Christians, however, that the baptism of Jesus was a much bigger deal
than Christmas, It was celebrated as one of three feasts of light:
Epiphany, in which the sages of the East acknowledge the remarkable
nature of the Christ child; Jesus’ baptism, and the wedding at Cana, at
which Jesus performs his first miracle, turning water into wine. These
feasts illuminate God’s nature; for Christians, they demonstrate what
God is like, as made incarnate in the person of Jesus; and they tell us
what kind of persons God would have us be.
These days, the baptism of Jesus, coming in the shadow of Christmas,
has lost much ground. But it deserves our attention. Baptism has been
much on my mind, as I recently helped teach a confirmation class of
fourteen teenagers at St. Clement’s, Honolulu, with a curriculum based
on the baptismal covenant. The promises Christians make at baptism are
good stuff: about resisting evil, both spiritual evil and the evil
powers of this world; about proclaiming God’s love in our words and
actions; about serving Christ in our everyday encounters.
Confirmation and baptism are rites of passage, in which we adopt a
new identity, and new responsibility, within a faith community. Today we
are asked to hear the words God speaks about Jesus—“This is my
beloved”—and take them to heart. We are also beloved of God, as
distracted and fault-ridden and weak as we are; like Jesus, we also find
in baptism a new identity.
But it’s hard to talk about Christian identity when so many Muslims
fear that Christians in the West are waging a new Crusade against them,
and when many Christians have taken to chest-thumping in return: My God
can beat your God! And you’d better get out of the way of me, and my
Jesus! What does this have to do with baptism? About enjoying the
incomparable blessing we receive as beings created and loved by God?
Well, baptism is about responsibility as well as identity. The baptism
of Jesus initiated his public ministry, which led him to the cross. For
individual Christians, baptism is our first call to the community of the
church, where we are to witness to joy and peace in a cruel and violent
world; to bring a message of hope in the face of despair. Whatever the
worldly power may be—a Roman Emperor, a military dictator, a corrupt
lobbyist, or overpaid executive, or war profiteer—Christians are
called to witness to another, greater power. Our baptisms mark us for
Baptism is important, then, and as current as Internet chat.
Following the tsunami disaster in Southeast Asia, I did something I
rarely do; I entered chat rooms. I hoped that the horrendous scope of
this tragedy would elevate the level of discourse, but I was wrong.
Among the voices of compassion, there was a strident hatred: 55,000 dead
Asians, so what; 90,000 dead Asians, so what; 135,000 dead Asians—and
I quote—“give them to the sharks.” The word “Asian” was not employed,
but I will not repeat the racist terms.
Americans, at least those on the Internet, revealed themselves as a
people of bad science and bad theology. Some blamed the earthquake on
global warming; others, demonstrating a pitiful ignorance of a tsunami’s
destructive force, blamed the victims for not swimming to safety.
Predictably, God was blamed as well: God punishing the human race for
moral laxity, God punishing all those Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists,
who refuse to recognize Jesus as the only way to salvation. This can
satisfy a desire to justify ourselves at the expense of others, but it
is exactly the kind of sinful prejudice and easy judgment Jesus came to
destroy. And gave his life in doing so.
The topic of baptism surfaced on the Net. As most of the dead had not
been baptized, people asserted that they were going to hell. But baptism
is a blessing, not a bludgeon. It’s a sacrament, not a Weapon of Mass
Destruction. Baptism is much larger than even Christians acknowledge.
You often hear people say, “I was baptized a Catholic,” or an
Episcopalian, or a Methodist. Not so. A Christian is baptized into the
Christian faith. Baptism is larger than any denomination. And I believe
that today’s readings allow us an insight into something larger still: a
God who is not limited by our understanding of baptism, or salvation,
but who has created all people in the divine image; a God whose love is
so great, it is beyond our understanding, and certainly our comfort
Today, we hear the prophet Isaiah say that the one who is of God
brings justice, and shows mercy – a bruised reed he will not break. In
the account of the first Christian apostles, we are told that God shows
no partiality, but in every nation accepts those who do what is good in
God’s sight. And in the gospel God says, “this is my beloved, with whom
I am well pleased.” He is speaking of Jesus, of course, but also of us.
We can’t earn God’s love, but we can simply accept it – and without
denying God’s love for others, even those who differ greatly from
ourselves. Those of us who are Christian hear in this gospel a call to a
But identity is a thorny issue: there are those who make me proud to
be a Christian, and others who give the faith a bad name. Identity is
also a thorny issue for the citizens of Hawaii. I once read that
Hawaiians lead the nation in awareness of their ancestry. Our Miss
Hawaii contestants proudly list their heritage, and often it’s a mix
such as this: Chinese, Hawaiian, Portuguese, Russian, English. Prejudice
and discrimination exist in Hawaii, but the ease we have with race is
epitomized for me in our Christmas pageants: imagine a Mary of Japanese
and Portuguese descent; a Joseph who is Samoan, African-American, and
Chinese; and a baby Jesus of East-Indian and Caucasian ancestry. Today,
in Hawaii, we glimpse the future of the human race.
It was a privilege to grow up in a place where the Methodist Youth
met with the Young Buddhist League, making it impossible to understand
America as a Christian country. It was a privilege for me, as a
Caucasian, to be in the minority, because I grew up in the world as it
is – mostly Asian, and non-Christian. While some in this country still
use the term “American” as a synonym for “white,” Hawaii has long
demonstrated that it isn’t so. When America was at war with Japan, and
many Japanese-Americans were wrongfully interred in camps, young men
from Hawaii such as Daniel Inouye volunteered for the European front.
Their units were among the most decorated of World War II.
But pride in our identity is a mixed blessing. What it means to be
“local” is hotly contested. Some say it requires indigenous Hawaiian
blood; others take it to mean anything but white. Some say you’re local
if you’re born and raised in Hawaii, whatever your race.
Hawaii is the only state that was once a kingdom, and that, too, is a
mixed blessing. Among our state holidays are Prince Kuhio Day, and King
Kamehameha Day. But much bitterness remains from the overthrow of the
monarchy in 1893, and native Hawaiians still suffer disproportionately
from the ravages of poverty. As we enter the 21st century, Hawaii’s
indigenous people are still working out their identity as related to the
rest of America.
Hawaii enjoys a special relationship with the Episcopal Church
through King Kamehameha IV, and his wife, Queen Emma, who invited the
first Anglican missionaries to the Islands. The King translated the Book
of Common Prayer into Hawaiian, and Queen Emma journeyed to England,
Scotland, and Wales to obtain funds to build St. Andrew’s Cathedral in
downtown Honolulu. Its cornerstone was laid in 1867, the year that Queen
Emma founded St Andrew’s priory, a school that still educates young
women. Queen Emma also helped establish a hospital for the native
people, who had no immunity to diseases brought by foreigners. Queens
Hospital is today the largest public hospital in the state.
The world knows Hawaii as a tourist paradise. But our identity is
deeper than that: richer, happier, and sometimes, more tragic. Our
islands, the most isolated island chain on the planet, harbor one-fourth
of the endangered plants and animals in the U.S. A recent New York Times
editorial, “Aloha Po’ouli,” lamented the loss, just last month, of a
bird native to the upper slopes of Maui’s Haleakala volcano.
Hawaii is indeed a pleasant place, but we suffer from the usual
problems of American life: traffic jams and potholes, pollution and
waste management, and organized crime that profits from drugs, gambling,
and protecting the many hostess bars that front for prostitution. A
pervasive, bi-partisan corruption of campaign finance has long marred
our political landscape and eroded trust in public institutions. We lead
the nation in the percentage of families sending their children to
private schools. We have a serious lack of affordable housing that
contributes to homelessness.
But we also have the spirit of Aloha, which is not a cliché, but
something we try to live, even if it shows up in odd ways. We have lots
of auto theft, for example, but comparatively little crime against
persons. It’s not uncommon to see morning commuters give city bus
drivers fresh gardenias or papayas from the trees in their yards. In a
drugstore in Honolulu’s financial district, one clerk often hands out
hibiscus flowers from her garden. She looks you in the eye, until she’s
sure you’re paying attention, and she says to each customer, “God bless
you; enjoy your day.” You leave her checkout stand changed, re-named,
baptized. You know you are loved, perhaps even beloved of God. So –
Aloha. God Bless. And Amen.