Every few weeks, I carry the baptismal bowl to the kitchen. I dump out the water that’s grown stagnant and cloudy. I scrub away the rings of filmy residue. I refill the bowl with fresh water from our tap—water that is both sacred and ordinary, water that gives life, water that is life. Then I set the bowl on the kitchen counter and dry the drips with a towel. Finally, I carefully carry the bowl, now brimming, back into the sanctuary and set it again in our font. Over the years, this ritual of refreshing the baptismal bowl has evoked lots of questions. People often ask, “Oh, is there a baptism today?” Or, they tease, “Are you filling that up just in case?” And I always say, “No… it’s about remembering our baptismal identity.” “Oh,” they typically reply with a slightly furrowed brow.
A baptism of repentance—that’s what John invites the crowds by the Jordan River to participate in. I know this word, repentance, is laden, for many of us, with unhelpful stuff. It sounds like a guilt trip. It sounds like we’ve been bad, or we are bad. But, just for a few minutes, could we set that baggage aside? Could we carve out some space to receive this message of repentance a bit differently?
What repent really means is: turn around, go in a different direction, make a new beginning. And I think that’s why today’s passage describing the baptism of Jesus is paired with the creation story. Repentance is a moment of re-creation. Like the wind from God hovering over the face of the chaotic deep the spirit-dove descends on Jesus standing in the muddy waters of the Jordan. Like the word of God that spoke light into being, the voice from heaven illuminates Jesus’ identity: you are my child, the beloved one. We see that repentance is a rebirth, in which we come to a deeper awareness of our true self; we, too, with Jesus, are God’s beloved ones. Whenever we let those waters wash over us, we set aside what is on the surface of who we are—our ordinary awareness, the fear-driven agendas that hold us captive.
But baptism is not simply a personal awakening. Our belovedness has wider implications. It is a relational reality. Because I am God’s beloved, so are you, so is this whole creation. The baptism of repentance is an immersion into the ocean of spiritual connection that flows through all things. We belong to each other. There is no separation.
This past Thursday, we held a funeral service here celebrating the life of Bill Seeley. In my sermon that day, I talked about my relationship with Bill, and the church’s, neither of which were always easy. I want to tell this story again because it illustrates something important about who we are, about that baptismal identity. If you knew Bill, then you know that he loved to have a good debate. Over the many years he belonged to this community he disagreed vocally with a number of our resolutions and initiatives. Our choice to become involved in the sanctuary movement last spring was particularly difficult for Bill. A few months later, he made the decision to leave First Church. When Bill suddenly became sick, though, God went to work, in him, and in us. I reached out to him, along with other members of the church, with the message that we wanted to be with him through this, if he was open to our presence. He agreed, welcoming us into his journey. In the end, Bill returned to First Church in spirit, though he was too sick to be here physically. What a sacred time this has been, as we have all chosen to leave space for grace, and to let God’s healing presence wash over us.
The physical journey of those who came out into the wilderness with John is important. For them, repentance meant moving their feet, turning their bodies. They left the values, norms and power structures of their society. And they went to a place beyond those constraints, a wild place, a place of freedom, where they could breathe and think differently, a place of danger that brought both challenge and growth. The Gospel of Mark insists that baptism is not a private spiritual act. It is a public statement, a political announcement. In baptism, we join ourselves to community in a deep and binding way. We become part of the powerful movement grounded in the beloved-ness of creation, the movement inaugurated by Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. That’s what today’s multi-faith worship service at the Basilica, “Seeing All as God’s Children” and ISAIAH’s Faith Delegate project are all about: proclaiming, amid the life-denying, soul-crushing politics of our time, our baptismal identity.
In the centuries since John and Jesus preached their baptism of repentance, just a few complications have arisen. For one thing, our spiritual tradition has been used, again and again, to do violence. Because Christianity has been a tool of white supremacy, colonialism and slavery, our faith is damaged, corrupted. Our moral compass has been repressed, and even, at times, destroyed. We who are shaped and held in this fractured religious tradition, and the culture it has birthed, carry these contradictions, this hypocrisy, within ourselves. Those of us who are descendants of the perpetrators of violence are wounded, too, in mind, body and spirit (in a different way than the victims of the violence). In her poem “Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings,” poet Joy Harjo creates a litany of different voices articulating this trauma and destruction. It’s a long poem, an incredibly powerful poem. I only have time to read a small piece of it.
If you raise this white flag of peace, we will honor it.
At Sand Creek several hundred women, children, and men were slaughtered in an unspeakable massacre, after a white flag was raised. The American soldiers trampled the white flag in the blood of the peacemakers. …
If you send your children to our schools we will train them to get along in this changing world. We will educate them.
We had no choice. They took our children. Some ran away and froze to death. If they were found they were dragged back to the school and punished. They cut their hair, took away their language, until they became as strangers to themselves even as they became strangers to us.
If you sign this paper we will become brothers. We will no longer fight. We will give you this land and these waters in exchange “as long as the grass shall grow and the rivers run.”
Put your hand on this bible, this blade, this pen, this oil derrick, this gun and you will gain trust and respect with us. Now we can speak together as one.
We say, put down your papers, your tools of coercion, your false promises, your posture of superiority and sit with us before the fire. We will share food, songs, and stories. We will gather beneath starlight and dance, and rise together at sunrise.
For me, the poet’s last few lines articulate both what our Christian tradition—rooted in white supremacy—has lost, and what we must somehow recover. That is, an intimate, embodied sense of connection to one another and creation. Of course, the trick is, we need to do this without doing further violence, without simply appropriating spiritual ways we don’t understand, and which don’t belong to us. I honestly don’t know how this repentance can happen. But I suspect it has something to do with the font, with baptismal identity, with knowing, in our bodies, our relationships, our practices around money and possessions, and our public, political witness, that water is life. I have a hunch it is about plunging in whole-heartedly to the ocean of spiritual connection that flows through all things. So are you ready, yet, to install that running water font? It could go right back there, near the columbarium…
Schizo is a word used in our Gospel lesson to describe the tearing open of the heavens so that the spirit-dove can bless Jesus. This word is rarely used in the New Testament. It comes up again when Jesus, on the cross, cries out to God and breathes his last, and the “curtain of the temple is torn in two, from top to bottom.” (Mk 15:38) The deep change, the great turning, which will make us, and our faith, whole again, means nothing short of death and rebirth, crucifixion and resurrection. Baptism is a struggle, a movement, an opportunity to work together in communion with God, until the world knows itself to be God’s beloved. How will we respond to the invitation of the font, to wade in these waters of life?