In the name of the living God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
There’s a wonderful old story about baptism that is no doubt apocryphal, but it conveys an important point. The story goes like this. There was a factory assembly worker at Ford Motor Company who faithfully worked there for 35 years and he experienced a spiritual conversion and elected to get baptized. The day after his baptism, as he was reflecting on his baptismal covenant and the vows that he had taken, he started to feel guilty. You see, over the course of those 35 years, he every once in a while happened to steal spare parts as they were going along the assembly line. Over 35 years he had amassed quite an assemblage of spare parts. He knew he had sinned and he wanted repentance. I mean, he paid attention when he was baptized and so he decided that he needed to rectify the situation and repent.
He got a large truck, put all the spare parts in the back of this truck, drove it to the plant, went to his boss and confessed, showed him the spare parts amassed over 35 years and explained about his conversion and his baptism and he was now returning what was rightfully the company’s. Well, the boss was a little bit flabbergasted, didn’t know what to do with this, picked up the phone, called Henry Ford, told him about the man and he’d been baptized and he brought all these stolen parts back to which Henry Ford said, “Quick dam up the river. Let’s baptize the whole plant!”
Okay. It’s a little corny, but don’t miss the point. Our baptism should mean something. When we commit ourselves as followers of Christ—and in our baptism, we do it in a sacramental public way—something in us should change. We should be different. I think so often in these important passages in our lives, sometimes they can go so quickly that we don’t really take the time to reflect and think about what does this mean in my life? How am I called to be different? How am I as a follower of Christ called to serve and to model and to do what Christ taught us to do? Sometimes I think we can just miss it.
Pastor Roger Nishioka reflected on a time in his own ministry where someone missed it. He tells the story of Kyle, who was a fifth grader. Kyle and his parents began to attend his church, somewhat sporadically, but they were attending. It was a tradition in that church that ninth graders were given the opportunity to prepare for confirmation. It was a serious undertaking. So the pastor went to Kyle and his parents and asked if he wanted to be a part of that confirmation class and they said, “Yes, very much,” that they did.
It was a serious covenant that all of these ninth graders made. It entailed at least two retreats, a mission activity, a mentor, and then weeks of instruction and reflection and prayer and preparation. During those weeks, those ninth graders really bonded as their own community of faith within a community of faith. Then on Pentecost, the great day came, Kyle was both baptized and confirmed with all of his fellow ninth graders and it was a joyful, joyful occasion.
Then the pastor noticed that Kyle and his parents seemed to just sort of disappear; they weren’t coming to church anymore and he couldn’t figure out what had happened. He made an appointment to talk to them and he said, “What happened?” To which Kyle’s mother said, “Well, I don’t know. I thought once he was confirmed, he was done. He’s done, isn’t he?” The pastor knew he had failed. He had failed to impress upon them that confirmation is not like graduation. It’s like a commissioning: that at our baptism it is an initiation, a sacramental initiation into the household of God, and that it is a lifelong journey of faith.
When we look at the gospel lesson today of Jesus’ baptism, note that the story of Jesus’ baptism appears in all four gospels, which underscores its importance. While the situation in the language changes a little bit, these things are consistent: Jesus is baptized, the Holy spirit alights on Christ, the voice of God says, “This is my son, the beloved with whom I am well pleased.” It is only then that the Holy Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness where he fasts and prays and is tempted by Satan for 40 days. After that period of fasting and prayer and preparation filled with the Holy spirit, then Jesus launches his public ministry—filled with the Holy Spirit, the very beloved of God who goes forth and shows us what it means to live in righteousness and justice and grace and love and healing and wholeness.
That is our call too, for those of us who seek to be followers of Christ. It is a lifelong journey. Our baptism is just the formal sacramental beginning of our journey of faith. A few years ago, in visiting our sister cathedral, Salisbury Cathedral, this whole notion of a lifelong journey was brought home to me by a more contemporary addition that they have made to this 750-year-old cathedral. Right in the center of the cathedral, about 10 years ago, they commissioned this extraordinary baptismal font. It’s huge. You cannot miss it. It’s the first thing you see when you walk into the cathedral. It’s about 10 feet wide. It’s in the form of a cross and it’s full of flowing, life-giving baptismal waters, all 800 gallons of them. One of the things that’s so extraordinary about it is on the surface of the font, it’s positively still just like the still waters that our Good Shepherd leads us beside. But out of the four corners of the font flow streams of living water that remind us that our faith is infused with the living, life-giving water of baptism in our Lord Jesus Christ.
Immediately following this sermon, we are all going, together, to renew the baptismal covenant. I invite you to pay close attention to that which you are affirming because it’s a lifelong, life-giving journey and we don’t know where the Holy Spirit will lead us and take us to new and surprising places. As that wonderfully irreverent Christian writer Anne Lamott puts it, “Most of what we do in worldly life is geared toward our staying dry, looking good, not going under. But in baptism, in lakes and rain and tanks and fonts, you agree to do something that’s a little sloppy because at the same time, it’s also holy, and absurd. It’s about surrender, giving in to all those things we can’t control; it’s a willingness to let go of balance and decorum and to get drenched.”
Our baptismal waters are streams of living water that abide and flow in us as we remember our Lord, the one to whom we seek to follow. So remember on this day, our baptismal covenant, be thankful and remember that sometimes getting drenched is truly a blessing. Amen.