13Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. 16And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:13-17, NRSV)
How many of you were baptized as infants in this church or somewhere else? How many of you were baptized when you were older, perhaps in elementary school or in college? How many of you were dunked, fully immersed, like Lori and me and other former Baptists?
My family runs the gamut when it comes to baptism. I was dunked as a good Baptist when I was 7-years-old. Colleen was baptized in a Methodist Church as an infant. Later when she was a student at Baylor University, a Southern Baptist institution with over 17,000 students in Waco, Texas, Colleen wanted to spend a summer helping people in need in Houston. Since the sponsoring organization was Southern Baptist, her infant baptism did not count. After being dunked the Baptist way, Colleen was deemed worthy to serve those in need. In 1997 when our son Mathew was a baby, I baptized him here in our church. He wore the baptismal gown worn by my grandfather, James Cowan, when he was baptized by his father, my great grandfather, Rev. Benjamin Cowan, a Presbyterian minister. Alina was born in Dnipropetrovsk, Ukraine 2001. We only have one picture of her as an infant. She is being held in the hands of a Ukrainian Orthodox priest who was required to baptize her before she could enter the orphanage. When we asked the orphanage director about this practice, he explained that no one wanted to be responsible for the fate of a child that was never baptized. Our family and perhaps yours too have family members who were baptized in a variety ways and some who were never baptized.
Today’s scripture lesson recounts the baptism of Jesus by his cousin John the Baptizer in the Jordan River. One of my favorite seminary professors, Bill Leonard, wrote, “John the Baptizer stormed out of the wilderness, demanding repentance of everyone. Jesus showed up, seeking baptism, but John hesitates. Jesus insists and under [the] muddy Jordan he goes, taking all God's people with him….Regardless of mode, baptism itself is an act of faith, a celebration of grace and an enactment of the word of God. Faith and baptism are linked inseparably; [most] all Christian communions affirm that unity….Amid continuing periods of personal depression, Martin Luther clung to his baptism. In baptism, he said, it is not simply that we have chosen Christ, but that Christ has chosen us….To be baptized is to enter the river…through which all the saints have trod. It is to belong to a people of liberation, captivated by a gospel which is often too radical for us. This liberating gospel sends the church into the world, confronting issues of race and gender, worship and spirituality, witness and mission with revolutionary good news.” Leonard concludes, “In this New Year let us return to the river, rediscovering the implications and complications of divine grace. To do that will require great patience and humility since we will probably never create a baptismal theology on which we can all readily agree. But like Martin Luther we can know that Christ has found us after all, at the river. Perhaps that must be good news enough, until all God’s people gather at the river that flows by the throne of God” (http://www.abpnews.com/content/ view/7042/9/).
I’ll never forget the hot August day in 2014 when I noticed something peculiar in the water at Manorhaven Beach in Port Washington. I had taken Matthew and his skateboard to the skate park in Manorhaven. No skateboard for me, I brought a beach chair and an escapist novel. I sat in the shade under a scraggly tree wishing for more shade and more breeze. Before settling in with my book, I noticed something strange…someone was in the water at least 25 feet off shore. Since there are no lifeguards at the beach, swimming is forbidden. And yet there was a man in the water dressed in khakis and a dress shirt no less. On the beach I saw a gathering of people, at least half of them in white robes. They weren’t a choir preparing for a beach concert. No, they were dressed in white robes because they had come to be baptized in Manhasset Bay of all places.
Having grown up Baptist, I am well acquainted with the ritual of baptism by full immersion, but not at Manorhaven Beach with the sound of giggling and splashing from the swimming pool and the smell of French fries and chicken fingers from the snack bar. What kind of place was this for a baptism? As it turned out, the perfect place. The joy of children in a pool on a hot summer’s day mixed with the sound of sea gulls and the lapping waves, creation’s music to accompany this baptismal service. As I watched the holy spectacle of it all, I noticed the expressions of those awaiting baptism, their faces a mixture of excitement and fear at the prospect of being dunked in the bay by the waiting preacher. Down they went, one at a time, baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen. Arising from the baptismal waters their smiles were enormous as they tightly hugged every person waiting in the water and then every person watching from the beach. Eavesdropping on this moment of grace I couldn’t help but smile at the beauty of it all. Dripping in pure white robes renewed by the Spirit hovering over the waters like it was creation being born again, because for those children of God it was just that.
When they finished and prepared to leave, I walked over, not sure what I was going to say. As it happened my words were useless as I tried to converse in English with a group that only conversed in Spanish. Finally one person, the pastor, approached me and introduced himself in English. I explained that I was a minister and had so much enjoyed their seaside baptismal service. It turns out they were members of a Spanish speaking congregation in Hempstead. Someone in town hall had given permission for their service at Bar Beach, but when they arrived, the powers that be hadn’t gotten the memo. As a result, the service could not proceed. Someone in the group knew of Manorhaven Beach so over they came. Before they went home, the pastor asked me to lead them in prayer. We formed a circle on the beach holding hands. When I finished we all said amen together and everyone started hugging me, the dry ones and the wet ones too. As I walked back to my beach chair and novel, I realized that through them I had once again experienced the baptismal waters, if only on my shirt.
I would like all of us to experience the baptismal waters this morning. In a few moments as Craig plays the organ, you will be invited forward to experience again the waters of baptism. This baptismal font contains both Long Island water and water from the Jordan River in Israel where Jesus was baptized 2,000 years ago. As Lori or I make the sign of the cross on your forehead, we will remind you that you are God’s beloved child. Feel free to come forward whether you’ve been baptized or not. Your coming will serve as a reminder that no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, that you are God’s beloved child, and you are welcome here. AMEN.
Written by Rev. Jimmy Only
Baptism of Christ Sunday (observed)
January 12, 2020
The Congregational Church of Manhasset, New York (UCC)
Loving God, whose Spirit parted the waters at Creation’s birth, who parted the Red Sea to free your people the Israelites, who parted the sky to appear in the form of a dove when Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River, speak to us this day. Speak to us words of hope that we might never give up. Speak to us words of faith that we might know we are never alone. Speak to us words of peace that we might be as one with all our sisters and brothers. And speak to us the words you spoke to Jesus saying, “You are my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.” Remind us that we are all your beloved children, every last one of us. And that as your children, we all count, we all matter, we all bear more significance, more than we could ever imagine, to you, to one another, and to the world.
Through our baptized and beloved Savior we pray. AMEN.