On June 9, 2013, I was privileged to baptize my little friend, Shayden. When she was born, I told her the truth about who she was: a delightful child of God, fearfully and wonderfully made. It’s all there in Psalm 139. This week, I gave her “the rest of the story” – and welcomed her into the club for schnooks. Hey, someone had to do it. Our scriptures for the day were Deuteronomy 29:9-15 and Romans 6:1-7.
For a number of years, I’ve had this little item sitting on a shelf in my study. It’s my own personal bottle of “Wash Away Your Sins Bubble Bath” – that “helps redeem sinners the easy way.” It’s a “Bishop – tested”, “Cardinal – approved”, “sanctified soak” that will “remove stubborn guilt” and leave you with a “tempting, ‘do-it-again’ scent.” According to the directions, the user should
- Kneel before thy tub
- Reflect upon wrong-doing
- Run warm bath
- Pour enough bubble bath to equal your sins (double the amount you estimated)
- Submerge thyself in blessed bubbles
- Arise, cleansed from sin and ready to do it again.
It’s a cute little gimmick, and I am delighted to keep it on the shelf in my study – it’s good for a laugh, and it prevents me from taking myself too seriously. I like it.
I like it, too, because it reminds me that there’s not any sort of magic or hocus-pocus involved in the baptismal event. It is very important – but not because it creates some incredible new reality – just the opposite: it reminds us of what is.
Our church’s constitution, The Book of Order, reminds me that the leaders of the church are responsible for “encouraging parents to present their children for Baptism…after appropriate instruction and discussion with the parent(s) or one(s) rightly exercising parental responsibility, acquainting them with the significance of what God is doing in this act…” (W-2.0312)
When I meet with parents or others involved in baptismal decisions, I need to stress the fact that we are doing real and serious work here. The way I do that is to have “the meeting”. When you ask to have Junior baptized, we have to sit down and talk through some things. About half of that meeting involves who is going to stand where and say what and the other half involves my attempt to correct bad theology.
I believe that one reason that all that business about “acquainting them with the significance” is put in the Book of Order to make sure that I impress upon you the fact that baptism is not some sort of secret handshake that gets you into heaven if or when something really terrible happens to you, and to make sure that you know that baptism is a really lousy form of eternal “fire insurance”.
And so we get together, as Erin and Mike and I have on several occasions, and I tell you that “baptism is not like joining a club – we’re not buying anyone a ticket to heaven this morning”
Except really, baptism is exactly like claiming membership in a club. It’s not the “Great, I made it to heaven” club. In fact, it’s the most indiscriminate, inclusive club ever. But it is a club.
Paul talked about it when he wrote to his friends in Rome, saying that baptism is an acknowledgement that we are dead in sin. Baptism is a washing of all that befouls us. Baptism is submerging ourselves – it’s yielding control of ourselves, plunging into the depths, and crying out. Baptism, whether it’s infant or adult, sprinkling or immersion, is the means by which we demonstrate our membership in the “wow, am I a sinner and my life is screwed up” club. And baptism, no matter how we practice it, involves a degree of helplessness, vulnerability, indignity – and a fair amount of messiness.
Because sin is messy. And no matter how much we try to pretty it up and pretend that it’s all about growth and deciding to follow Jesus and so on, the reality is that baptism is joining the club whose opening greeting could be, “Hi, my name is Dave, and I am a sinner in need of salvation.”
And some of you are saying, “Oh, come on, Pastor Dave. It’s not like that. Baptism is nice. I like baptisms.”
And I can guarantee you that at some point today, someone will steal into a corner with little Shayden and hold her and look down into those beautiful blue eyes and that cute little nose and that…hair and say, “What does that mean old Pastor Dave know anyway, Shayden? He says that you’re a sinner. Oh no you’re not. You are just perfect!”
At which point I hope that you will look down and find that your pants are on fire, because, my friend, you will be lying. In baptism, we acknowledge membership in that club which reveals to us that we are all great sinners in need of a great redemption.
Look, I know that little Shayden doesn’t look like much of a sinner now, but trust me, she’s affected by the sin of the world. Her life – like everyone you know – is shaped by brokenness. And besides, you know a lot of people who seem to be wonderful, but then you find out later that they are schnooks. And you there are a lot of other people who you know are terrible schnooks, but you find out that they aren’t nearly so bad as you thought. Because the bottom line is that the only people you know – including me…including you – are schnooks. Because we are all sinners who stand in need of forgiveness.
Baptism is the sign that we acknowledge that. We name it for ourselves, and we claim it for our children. “Hi, my name is Dave, and I’m a sinner.”
We don’t like that. We would prefer to be “good” or “cute” or “whole”, not sinners.
And if we want, we can pretend that we are all of those things. We can deny the power sin, or the reality of brokenness. Or we can acknowledge the truth that apart from God’s grace, we are dead in the water. Literally. There is nothing we can do to make ourselves whole.
Sheesh, Dave…can you lighten up? We brought friends here today for crying out loud. I bet at this point they are totally glad they came.
I hope so. Because as we acknowledge our need for a savior, we stand before One who is able to save. As we confess that we are as good as dead, he says, “Dead, you say? Great! Let me tell you about resurrection. Because the way it works is, you have to be dead in order to get in on that action.”
Listen: what we are doing today marks our participation in an invitation – a covenant – that God initiated thousands of years ago. We read all about it Deuteronomy 29.
I bet that you remember the story: God called the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt and led them to the Promised Land. God sent Moses to Pharaoh and said “Let my people go!” You know what happened next – the plagues, the Passover, the desert, the wandering for 40 years, and then, finally, they are ready to go in. As Moses invites them to enter the promises of God, he asks them to reaffirm the covenant.
Who does he ask to reaffirm the covenant?
Everyone. He calls the leaders and “chief men”, the elders and officials…check.
The other men of Israel, and the women? Check.
The children and the foreigners who are living among them? Check.
And did you catch that last, really, really, cool group of people with whom Moses reaffirmed the covenant? “those who are not here today”. I think that means us. Moses knew that the covenant that God establishes is not limited to the people who happened to be standing in the room when Moses ran it past the folks. It’s bigger than that. Much bigger than that.
So they reaffirm the covenant. And what, essentially is the covenant? That God is God. That I am not God.
And when they reaffirm that, they cross over into the Promised Land. And how do we do that? By going through the river. At the end of the day, we are still the same people – but we are on the other side of the water. We are in a different relationship with the one who calls us. We are in a different relationship with each other – because we have been through the water, and because we have affirmed the covenant.
One of the cool things about the way that it happens in Deuteronomy is that there is no need to pretend that it wasn’t messy. Everyone was there. We all know that we all fall short and we all pledge to extend grace and forgiveness to each other – and to hold each other to account when our own sinfulness affects the relationship.
So today, I’d like to invite you to remember your baptism. Maybe you were too young when the old guy in the white robe with coffee on his breath and caulk under his fingernails held you over the bowl while someone welcomed you into the club. Use your imagination to feel the water running down your neck today…feel it dampening your clothes. Look at your feet, and think of them as being muddy with river sand and grime as you reaffirm the covenant and pass through the water.
In baptism, we acknowledge and accept the fact that we are not getting anywhere on our own. But the flip side of that is the good news that if we are already as good as dead, then we can look forward to resurrection. There is nothing worth fearing any more, because God in Christ has met us where we are and promised to sustain us and to bring us through.
So beloved, claim your baptism today, even as we rejoice in Shayden’s. You’re in the club – the schnooks club. But you are invited to participate in the covenant and all of its promises. Know that these promises are for you not because of how great you are, but because of how faithful God is. And live this week in the awareness of the fact that God is at work throughout this world – in the men and women that we know; in the children and strangers that we meet, and even in the lives of those who are not here now. And because God is at work there, we can join in with faith and with hope. Thanks be to God! Amen.