Water Changes Everything
Psalm 69:1-5, 13-15, Acts 8:26-39, June 28, 2014
I’m going to tell a few stories about water this morning--its power and its potential.
First, some words from a blog by a Presbyterian minister named Debra Avery. We were in the news week before last when General Assembly met. Two people passed on an article that connected the denomination’s decision to divest, gradually, from three companies who profit from doing business with Israel—with the numerical decline of our denomination. I found reason for hope, and for hope of renewal in Pastor Avery’s remarks:
From my perspective, the rumors of our denominational death are not only exaggerated, but they are just wrong. What is happening across this denomination is quite simple. Change. While change is certainly not new (clearly we are not stuck in 16th c. Reformation mode), what is new is that the church is paying attention to and connecting the Good News with the world around it in more immediate and increasingly more relevant ways. We are changing at the micro and macro levels. And we are changing so fast it makes us dizzy.
And THAT is what makes it feel like we are dying. We even sing of this feeling… “time like an ever-flowing stream soon bears us all away…” Our worry is that as these relentless changes flow over us, we, like Isaac Watts’ lyrical dream, will be forgotten, too. I know it’s a tricky metaphor, but I like thinking about change as a flowing river. Rivers ebb and flow. Their currents swirl and bring life. But sometimes overflowing waters wipe out homes and livelihoods. Sometimes, in seasons of drought the water dries up to almost nothing. Sometimes water goes underground for a few miles and then emerges again outside city limits. Sometimes a fallen tree, a landslide, some excited beavers or some silly humans change the course of the stream. But river water always finds its way.
That’s what I think the Spirit does in the church – what I think the Spirit is doing in the PCUSA. We’ve seen the ebb and flow of energy; the emergence of what look like new streams of vitality; the swirling floodwaters of economic and demographic changes which threaten and frequently wipe out congregations; and too many of us are in situations where time, talents and treasure have virtually dried up. Some of us, like busy beavers, have tried to change the course of the church, too. And the water of the Spirit still manages to find a way – a way through schisms major and minor, a way through struggles theological and strategic. I believe the blessed, cleansing, healing water will always find its way.
And isn’t that what baptism is all about anyway?
Second story—we’re going back in time this morning--Almost 20 years ago I had the pleasure of baptizing my first nephew at the church where I grew up. The timing worked out perfectly and the pastor invited me to do this. After the service, Ben’s grandfather, my brother’s father-in-law, said to you, “I thought you were going to drown that kid!” and I said, “Good. I’m glad you thought that.” The grandfather looked puzzled at my response.
This fact was drilled into my head in seminary: The Book of Order says that water used in baptism “should be visible and generous.” Visible and generous. I was baptized when I was 15 years old, the day I was confirmed, at the same church where I baptized my nephew. But the pastor who baptized me had taken “Baptism and Eucharist” from a different professor than I did. The pastor who baptized me got his hand damp in the water and placed it on my head three times. There was nothing visible or generous about when I was baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection. It should be a moment of drama, a memorable moment for the whole community. And Professor Burkhart made it clear to me and every one of his students, that there should be enough water to recall the peril of drowning. Sort of like what Psalm 69 says, “Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck…I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me.”
So Lily, Izzy & Abby, you’re going to remember your baptisms this morning. We’ll all remember your baptisms this morning—though, as I said before, I will not carry you through the sanctuary. But wouldn’t that be memorable?
The other part of my baptism that I remember is that I was baptized into “the holy, catholic church,” and I’d been going to a Presbyterian church all my life. Had I suddenly become Catholic? This is a common misconception which the pastor explained easily. “Catholic” with a small “c” means universal. So baptism isn’t in a particular denomination, but into the universal, global Church of Jesus Christ. Often people say “I was baptized Methodist” or “Lutheran,” what they mean is they were baptized in the building of a particular Christian tradition, baptism, as Presbyterians understand it, is one’s initiation into the global, universal church and we’re just one franchise location of the Body of Christ here at corner of Church and Division in downtown Oshkosh. One thing we do whenever we baptize someone is remember our own baptisms, or we remember that someone who cared for us when we were too little to know what was going on—when about the only thing we could do was trust that we were secure in someone’s arms, loved us enough to bring us to church and invite the community to help us to learn to follow Jesus.
That last bit about the importance of community is what I want you to hear in the lesson that Greg read from Acts. This story came at a time when the Christian church was in its infancy. And people other than Jews were hearing about and wanting to follow Jesus. But you can’t follow Jesus alone. You need other people. You need other people.
The Ethiopian official was an example of how the gospel of Christ was spreading. And he was reading words from the book of the prophet Isaiah, words that had been first written centuries before, words that had been copied by other people. He was reading, but not understanding. Philip--led by the Spirit—came and talked to him and explained what he was reading, how these ancient words pointed to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And with an enthusiasm and spontaneity that is quite un-Presbyterian, he asked to be baptized as soon as he saw water!
Water is essential for baptism, but also remember that we need words of scripture, and we really, really need other people. In a few minutes you’ll be asked whether you will help to teach these three young ladies to know and follow Jesus. That’s a really, really important promise. Perhaps the most important promise you will be asked to make this year. And it comes in this place, in this community. We desperately need Sunday school teachers for the coming school year. Teachers and helpers. That’s one way you can keep this promise. There are others.
We need a lot of things to grow the body of Christ: Water, the Holy Spirit and words, certainly. But most importantly, we need one another. We need each other. Amen.