Baptism of Christ Sunday After the Riots

I lit a candle this afternoon when I didn’t know what else to do. A colleague and friend texted moments before to tell me that the prayers I had curated for the sermon series she had hoped to begin this Sunday may have to wait.

Like the rest of the nation, I nervously refreshed my feed. Hoping. Praying. Disbelieving. Cursing. I was in awe of the brilliant artists that offered words where I could not find any. Maren Tirabassi wrote this Poem for Epiphany Evening as the sun set. Joanna Harader shared this keen insight on Storming the Capital on Epiphany and while these might help in the moment when it is Epiphany, I know that many of you, dear pastors, are wondering how to speak to this on Sunday. You may have planned to record tomorrow or Thursday so that now you are left staring at a blinking cursor.

Somewhere in the midst of my confusion and fury this afternoon, I got to thinking about a story that was shared in worship weeks ago in the days before the election. It is an old story that does not exist anywhere on the internet though it appeared in a 1978 issue of Reformed Journal which appears to now exist as a blog. Then, it was in print. I emailed my pastor, Anna Kreisle Humble, for a copy of the article. I wish I could also figure out how to share the video she created for worship that Sunday using this story but I cannot. Instead, I share with you a snippet of this essay that might speak to your preaching for this Sunday. Before he muses that some Christians will wonder if the church should be engaged in politics, like race relations, “as if these are still options for the Christian community,” Robert Mouw shares in his essay Baptismal Politics this story about Darryl.

Darryl was brought by his mother to the front of the church to be baptized.. At a certain point in the ceremony, the minister asked these questions of the congregation: “Do you, the people of the Lord, promise to receive this child in love, pray for him, help care for his instruction in the faith, and encourage and sustain him in the fellowship of believers?” And we all answered: “We do, God helping us.”

Darryl is black. And so the congregation’s response had significant and far-reaching implications. For a predominately white congregation to promise to receive Darryl in love, to pray for him, to watch over his instruction in the faith, to sustain him in Christian fellowship, was a profound commitment on his behalf— with important implications not only for this congregation, but also for the traditionally Dutch-ethnic denomination of which it is a part, and for the entire church of Jesus Christ.

To love Darryl will require that we try to look at the world from his point of view, to make his hopes and fears our very own. To assume an obligation for his Christian instruction and nurture is to commit ourselves to attempting to understand what the gospel means for him, with his tradition and history. It means that from here on in we will have to keep Darryl in mind when we plan our sermons, write our liturgies, plot out our educational programs. All of this will involve us in change, in patterns of “contextualization” that are different from those which have characterized our lives in the past.

We are also going to have to pay close attention to what others are saying to and about Darryl. If American society tries to treat him like a second-class citizen, we will have to protest on his behalf, since he is our brother in a holy nation of kings and priests. If he is ever the object of a cruel joke or a vicious slur, we will have to consider this to be an affront to the very Body of Christ. If someone ever complains that he is not “one of our own kind,” we will have to respond with the insistence that, through the blood of Jesus, we are Darryl’s “kind.”

While it might not be worth leading the Pandemic Prayers for Baptism of Christ after the riots today, I think it is worth remembering those questions that we ask of candidates for baptism. It is not just the question that is asked of the congregation to offer support that matters but the witness that we must each wrestle with every day as people of faith.

While our denominations all phrase these questions differently, it is our collective call to resist the powers of evil. It is our job to discern what evil looks like right here and right now and we must decide if we truly believe that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior or if we will choose to put our faith in some other god. The rioters chose one way. I hope and pray that our baptismal faith leads us another way.

May you find such courage, dear pastor. May the Spirit move you with the power of words for the living of these days. I will be praying for you.

To Be Regular in Worship (Or Not)

In the middle of Advent, I joined a church.

It was important to me. I wanted to do it. I’m already a member of another church where I never get to attend worship, but I read their newsletter and pray for their ministry. We’ve moved too faraway for regular worship to be possible and I’ve wanted to find someplace to be known. I’ve wanted some place close by to belong. And so, I met with the pastor of my local United Church of Christ and expressed my desire to join this small tribe and waited until this day when it could finally happen. Even so, it felt strange.

It felt odd to stand in front of this lovely group of people and makes these promises I’ve so often asked others to make. Repeating baptismal vows should be so shaky. Not just for those who stand before the congregation to say they will, but for those seated and listening, it’s another chance as the church calendar changes and the birth of Christ comes to wonder if we’ve really done these things or if we need to promise to start anew.

To say again that I’m ready “to resist oppression and evil, to show love and justice, and witness to the work and word of Jesus Christ as best I am able.” It comes as a question. Or a series of questions to which I can’t help but stand a little taller each time I say “I will, with the help of God.”

Yes, I want to grow in this faith. Please help me grow. It’s why I’m doing this thing. It’s why I’m joining another church because I want to grow. Ore than that, I want my little girl to grow into this faith. It’s why I’m repeating these words. I want to be changed by this group of people in this place where we try together to celebrate Christ’s presence.

I want this. I’m ready for this. It’s why I pushed the pastor for a day to join but it feels a bit different the moment I stand there before all those people with my baby strapped to my stomach snoring soundly. It’s different and I’m not sure why.

I still get excited. I feel my chest soar and my back arch as I repeat these questions I’ve asked so many times of others. I remember all of them in that moment — every fourteen year old kid who sat in my office weeks before their Confirmation while we tried to figure out what these questions meant not just in the liturgy but for them at this moment, every one of the kids that couldn’t get onboard with these questions and refused to be confirmed much to dismay of their parents, every soul that came looking to serve and every broken heart that needed community. I knew every one of their stories when they answered those questions. I knew what had brought them to make these promises and why it was a big deal.

I also knew what scared them. I knew how many of them hadn’t been around church for awhile. They’d been hurt by the church somehow and they wanted to be sure that this congregation wasn’t going to repeat those wrongs. Maybe it was that that felt odd for me. Maybe I felt in that moment the weight of all of those worries add concerns. Maybe. But it seems it hit me most when that last question was posed. The one that asks if we will be regular in worship which I cannot quote correctly because I can’t even find my Book of Worship anywhere, yet I heard this question and I gulped. I wondered if I could answer it or if I should just sit back down in the back row.

It’s this question that has tripped up nearly everyone of whom I’ve helped to make these promises. It’s this question that I’ve interpreted again and again in each and every new member class. To every group of people at every church I’ve been careful with these words because I know that attendance in worship is changing. Though I would be there every Sunday as their pastor, I might only see these faithful people once or twice a week and that would still be considered regular. I never bemoaned them this, it’s just that I never imagined that I’d become one of them.

It hit me then. It has been more than a year since I’ve been anyone’s pastor. I’ve missed Sundays. I’ve slept in. I went to brunch before I’d had this baby in my arms. Now it was the question of whether or not I’d slept that night that decided my Sunday plans if I could even remember what day of the week it was. I wasn’t going to be a weekly worshipper. I was going to choose family time over church sometimes. Or I might simply choose not to drive the 40 minutes and go someplace closer. All of that interpreting I’d done for others on recognizing their own rhythms and staying attune to what their family needed to know the love of God was about me and my family.

It felt strange. Maybe it should always feel a little odd to make these promises, but it’d never felt this strange. All of the many times I’ve answered these questions before it felt radical. It felt like something was changing. Something g was shifting and that somehow, together, we were going to change things and it would be good. I’ve felt that each time I’ve stood beside others as they’ve made these promises with the waters of baptism glistening on their foreheads.

I’ve even felt it as I’ve flung water from evergreen sprigs into the pews full of bewildered people. The questions always seemed important. It felt like it was important to weigh each word and understand each enormous promise we were making. But, on that Sunday In Advent with my baby cuddled close to my heart, it didn’t feel like the questions mattered as much as my answers. All I know now is that it will be different. It will be different than it ever was before.