January 7, 2024 Hamilton Coe Throckmorton
Mark 1:4-11 The Federated Church, UCC
The first churches I served were a yoked pair in a small town in Vermont. They were the only two churches in that town, and, in order to welcome as many people as possible, they were both affiliated not just with one denomination, but with four: they were American Baptist, United Methodist, Unitarian-Universalist, and United Church of Christ.
Since a sizable number of congregants in those churches were Baptists, baptisms in those families were done by immersion. Because we had no pool in either church, we would wait until the summer, and then have our Sunday worship at the home of someone who lived on a pond. And I would administer the sacrament by walking into the pond and dunking them in the water. It was an experience I won’t soon forget!
At first glance, it might seem a strange ritual, this whole matter of baptizing people to become part of the church. Either in a pond or here in the sanctuary, why in the world invite a family up front, ask them some questions, and then put some water on the person being baptized?
Over the centuries, baptism has symbolized a number of truths. For John the Baptizer, it represented “repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4). Elsewhere in the Bible and in history, the water itself has signified a cleansing that washes away our imperfections. For the apostle Paul, the immersion into the water meant a dying to an old life, and the emerging from the water indicated a rising to a new life in God.
Over the years of my ministry, I have regularly heard people say something to the effect that they needed to have their child baptized “just in case . . .” For them, baptism has been a kind of insurance policy. If something should go wrong—if, in the worst case, their baby should die—then, they think, they’ll be right with God. In some traditions of the Christian church, it has painfully been conveyed that dying without being baptized leaves a person on the outs with God. So, in their eyes, baptism insures that all will be right with the Holy One.
In our tradition, though, that couldn’t be further from the truth. For us in the United Church of Christ, and here at Federated, baptism is not in any way a test that you have to pass in order to be alright with God. Baptism is not an EZ Pass that allows us to ride the highway of life. It’s not a membership dues that admits us into God’s country club. It’s not a ticket that gets us into the big game. Baptism, for us, is light years from being a standard we are required to meet in order to enter the clubhouse of God.
No, for us, baptism is not, in the slightest, a metric that has to be achieved. Baptism is simply a marker of what is already true. It’s a symbol of a holy love which it is simply not possible for us to negate. Just as with the communion meal we will celebrate in a few moments, there is nothing we need to do to qualify for it. And it in no way makes a distant God suddenly love us, as if God has been waiting impatiently in the heavens to say finally, after we emerge from the baptismal waters, “OK, now I’ll love you.” The baptism we celebrate doesn’t buy us privilege or win us status. It is simply the living embodiment of the love that engulfs us always with the most ebullient embrace.
When I was a child, I thought if only I did all the right things, I would finally be worthy of the love that I craved. I was a good older child, and, with some notable exceptions, I obeyed the rules. I tried to be polite. I worked hard, with mediocre skills, hoping to be an accomplished athlete. I strove to get good grades in school. And the reality is that I have not been immune to that same striving in my adulthood. If I can just be the perfect husband, father, minister, then I will finally be alright. Say the right things, do the right things, pass all the tests, toe the line, follow the rules. And all that seeking of success and approval has been wildly off the mark. Because not only is it not possible to pass all those tests, even more fundamentally, that’s simply not the way it works in God’s world.
A few years ago, our son Alex studied for the ministry. And while he eventually decided not to become a pastor, he went through the standard psychological testing process that all ministers go through. And at one point, the woman administering the tests said to Alex, as a kind of alert to church reality if he were to become a pastor, “Somebody’s always going to be mad at Pastor Throckmorton.” And of course, have I found that to be true? Maybe! Which means that I have had to spend a lifetime trying to take in the totally countercultural truth of God, which is that I’m not my successes, I’m not my awards or achievements or triumphs. I’m not only as good as my last accomplishment. I’m not only as good as the maddest among you thinks I am. I am instead who God says I am, which is God’s beloved child, in whom, as my favorite translation of the baptism story puts it, God “takes delight” (cf. Joseph Fitzmyer’s translation of the parallel story in Luke’s gospel). This is who I am: the one in whom God rejoices.
This is true not just for me, of course, but it’s true for all of you, and for the whole world. God delights in all of us, and there’s nothing we need to do to earn that delight. In yesterday’s New York Times, Melissa Kirsch wrote that most New Year’s resolutions boil down to one thing. She quoted the writer David Sedaris as saying that every New Year’s Day, his mother would write furiously on a note card her resolution for the year. And every year it was the same thing: “Be good.”
The trouble with such New Year’s resolutions, says Kirsch, is that “Resolutions tend to be freighted with the implication that the way you are now is not good, or at least not good enough. My resolutions,” she says, “are typically of this variety: self-criticism disguised as self-improvement” (“The Morning,” Jan. 6, 2024).
Maybe our resolution this year and every year should be to be good—which is a wonderful thing—to be good to the earth, to be just toward those who have been treated as second-class, to be kind to the child who frustrates us, to be forgiving to the church member who annoys us, to be understanding of the person who ever-so-slowly and tediously bags the groceries or struggles with technology or impedes the roads. Baptism always brings with it God’s yearning for us to be good, to be part of making the world a better place.
We make such resolutions for goodness, though, not because we need to earn enough points, but simply because God has delighted in us, so what else is there for us to do but to delight in each other! It’s this delight in her that we most want little Delilah Rohs Novinc-Escott, whom we baptize today, to take in. Some of you may remember a song from some fifteen years ago, a song by the band Plain White T’s called “Hey there, Delilah.” The song is a declaration of love by the singer for a young woman he has just been smitten with in New York City, a woman whose name is Delilah. And while it’s written as a song of love for this woman, I want us to listen this morning to some of its words as though they are words from God to the precious baby we have baptized today, and to us:
Hey there, Delilah, what’s it like in New York City?
I’m a thousand miles away but, girl, tonight you look so pretty.
Yes, you do.
Times Square can’t shine as bright as you. I swear it’s true.
Right? This is the way God feels about our Delilah, and about us: “Times Square can’t shine as bright as you.”
And then God goes on in talking to our Delilah:
Hey there, Delilah. Don’t you worry about the distance.
I’m right there if you get lonely. Give this song another listen.
Close your eyes. Listen to my voice, it’s my disguise.
I’m by your side.
Oh, it’s what you do to me. Oh, it’s what you do to me.
This is the marvel of God’s love. It’s what God is singing to Delilah. It’s what God is singing to you and me. It’s what God is singing to the entire earth. It’s precisely this love that we revel in in our baptisms. It’s what we celebrate now in holy communion. May we never forget God’s adoration of us, an adoration that begs to be shared with the world.