June 9, 2024- sermon- Hamilton Throckmorton

Sermon Text...


June 9, 2024                                                  Hamilton Coe Throckmorton

II Corinthians 4:13-5:1                                  The Federated Church, UCC


     Unsurprisingly, I have celebrated, and you have likely witnessed, many baptisms over the years. While I don’t remember my own baptism as an infant, I’m told I spit up on my grandfather’s robe as he was baptizing me. I have baptized a number of people by immersion, dunking them completely under the water in ponds. I have baptized tiny infants and an 89-year-old woman who was coming to the end of her life. And I’ve had the great privilege of baptizing Federated’s Bill Mason in the Jordan River on a Federated pilgrimage to the Holy Land.


     What a strange ritual is that sacrament. Why in the world would you take a handful of water three times and put it on someone’s head, or immerse their whole body in water? In a world oriented to words and ideas, such a head-scratching ritual doesn’t seem to make any sense.


     People are often not too sure what to make of baptism and wonder about its necessity. I regularly hear from people that their family expects a child to be baptized, with the often-unspoken assumption that there is something incomplete, even worrisome, if a child is not baptized. The fear, at best, is that, without baptism, the baby’s life is somehow lacking, and, at worst, that, should the baby die without having been baptized, they will, in some sense, be damned—a fate, given the wonders of the God we know, that is frankly unimaginable to me.


     Eternal damnation is not the only fear that people have about baptism, though. The more commonly expressed concern is the fear that being baptized means you have to believe certain tenets of faith. If I or my baby is baptized, people often think, it means I’ll have to say I believe things that I don’t really believe. Do I have to believe literally everything the Bible says? Do I have to believe that the world was created in six 24-hour days? Do I have to believe in a savior born to an actual virgin? Do I have to believe that Jesus walked on water or stopped a storm from brewing on the sea? Do I have to believe in a male God? Do I have to believe in a God who rules you out if you’ve been cruel or you’re too heavy or you’re significantly tattooed or jeweled or you’re too rich or too poor or you’re attracted to people of the same sex or you know yourself to have been born in a body that doesn’t reflect your sense of gender identity? Who would want to be  baptized if that’s what you have to believe?


     The words “I believe” have been an ever-present part of Christian life for centuries. Many here have grown up reciting one of the church’s creeds, the Nicene Creed—“We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is seen and unseen . . .”—or the Apostle’s Creed—“I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth. . .” And we may have wondered if we have to agree to every word of those creeds in order to be Christian.


     The truth, though, is that a dynamic faith has never been about rational propositions assented to by the mind. A lively faith is not about what we think. It’s about where our hearts lie, where our passions lie. It’s about whatever it is that captures and expresses our deepest identity and loyalty.


     Maybe a marriage analogy will help. What makes my marriage to Mary rich isn’t that the two of us agree on all the same subjects. It’s not that we both declare the same propositions. It’s not that we share the same principles or affirm the same logical outline of our values.


     No, what makes our marriage rich is that something larger than the two of us has claimed us, and it’s vital to us that we give our lives to that life-transforming relationship. I don’t love Mary because she’s an idea that I can get behind. I love Mary because something in her being, and in the relationship we share, has filled me in a radiant, life-transforming way. Mary is not a concept that sounds right. She’s a source of light and love that I could never, in my wildest imagination, have produced on my own. In her presence, I am something new.


     And what is unalterably true is that God is that, only even more so. You may know that the root meaning of the word “creed,” or “credo,” is not “I believe,” as in, “I assent with my mind to,” but something much more earthy and embodied. Creed or credo means, “I give my heart to.” We’re baptized not because we believe in God in the same way that we believe that 2+2=4. We’re baptized because we know ourselves to have been claimed by, and we seek to give our hearts to, One whose very self is an exuberant expression of love.


     When I meet with individuals or families before their baptisms, I almost always tell them one simple thing about that sacrament: this is a sign that God loves you. It doesn’t make God love you, as though God didn’t love you before. It only recognizes what is already and always true—that you and I are cherished by the One who has given us life, and that there is nothing in all the world that can alter that reality.


     So nothing is asked of the person being baptized. Nothing. They don’t have to assent to some doctrine. They don’t have to agree to some dogma. They don’t have to claim some systematic understanding of God and Christ and faith. All that’s asked of them is this: that they be open to receiving the love of the One who has given them life and who gazes at them the way a lover looks at their beloved, with an adoring gaze.


     The singular task of the one who’s baptized is to absorb this gaze. In Nan Merrill’s wonderful paraphrase of the psalms, Psalms for Praying, she renders a verse of Psalm 119 this way: “Abandon yourself to the Beloved, draw closer and closer to Love,” or God (p. 254). That’s it. That’s all we ask of Ollie and Clark today and in the days and months and years to come. “Abandon yourself to the Beloved, draw closer and closer to Love.”


     And this may sound easy. And at some level, of course, it is. But at another level, it’s wildly difficult. Because we live in a world, don’t we, in which anything but love dominates our days. It’s not just the overt conflict and violence of our world that undermines love, either. It’s that most of us operate, for example, in a work world that rewards us for our labor; we get raises and bonuses based on how well we perform. The approval we get at work is almost entirely conditional: good things come to you in your job as long as you achieve. In a world of conditional approval, it takes an act of sustained attention to “Abandon yourself to the Beloved, [and] draw closer and closer to Love.” That’s what we’re invited to in baptism.


     Or think about the families from which many of us have come. Maybe you’ve come from a family where meanness or drunken rages or violence held sway. Or, less dramatically, perhaps the affection of your parents was conditioned on your doing your chores and getting superior grades and being admitted to a “good” college. Or maybe the same is true with what you think of as your friends: they like you when you’re doing well, and they get scarce when things go south. I heard Bob Myers, an NBA general manager, say the other night that when his teams won the championship, he would get 300 texts, and when they lost, he would get two. When affection and approval are contingent upon success and victory, what’s a baptized person to do? “Abandon yourself to the Beloved, [and] draw closer and closer to Love.” That’s what we’re invited to in baptism.


     In his second letter to the church in Corinth, the apostle Paul urges the Corinthians to “look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen, for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal” (4:18). Paul is reminding this divided and misguided church that what matters most cannot be seen. Nor can it be systematized. Nor, in a way, can it even really be understood. What matters most is deeper than our senses, more profound than our intellectual categories, more richly affecting than any theological construct could possibly convey. We’re to “look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen,” because that’s where what matters most lies. And it’s what we’re invited to in baptism.


     A colleague and mentor of mine quotes the scientist/mystic Ilia Delio as saying, “Heaven is this world clearly seen.” To see this world clearly, and to enter this richly-hued and always available heaven, is to fully take in God’s sacred gaze that is always adoring us. To see this world clearly is to “Abandon yourself to the Beloved, [and] draw closer and closer to Love.” That’s what we’re invited to in baptism.


     One way to say this is to use the word Paul uses in this passage, and to say that baptism is all about grace (4:15). No matter how the world may treat us, no matter how inconsequential or worthless we may feel at the moment, the heart of the matter is that we are treasured by God, that “our cup runneth over” (Psalm 23:5), that we dwell always in “the heart of the Eternal,” which, as the hymn says, “is most wonderfully kind” (“There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy,” v. 3).


     Over the years, I have discovered that certain expressions of this sublime faith have spoken their wisdom to me in ways that are indelibly imprinted on my heart. One of those expressions of faith that has been such an anchor to me is a passage I’ve quoted before. As with any true wisdom, though, I am convinced it bears repeating. These are words spoken by the German-American theologian Paul Tillich some 70 or 80 years ago. I’m going to quote his words at some length. In a sermon he preached, this is what he said: “Do we know what it means to be struck by grace? It does not mean that we suddenly believe that God exists, or that Jesus is the Savior, or that the Bible contains the truth. To believe that something is, is almost contrary to the meaning of grace. . .. It would be better to refuse God and the Christ and the Bible than to accept them without grace . . .. We cannot transform our lives, unless we allow them to be transformed by that stroke of grace. . ..


     “Grace strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness. It strikes us when we walk through the dark valley of a meaningless and empty life. It strikes us when we feel that our separation is deeper than usual, because we have violated another life, a life which we loved, or from which we were estranged. It strikes us when our disgust for our own being, our indifference, our weakness, our hostility, and our lack of direction and composure have become intolerable to us. It strikes us when, year after year, the longed-for perfection of life does not appear, when the old compulsions reign within us as they have for decades, when despair destroys all joy and courage.


     “Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying: ‘You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know. Do not ask for the name now; perhaps you will find it later. Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted.’ If that happens to us, we experience grace. After such an experience we may not be better than before, and we may not believe more than before. But everything is transformed . . .. And nothing is demanded of this experience, no religious or moral or intellectual presupposition, nothing but acceptance” (quoted at southfellowship.org).


     This is the heart of faith. It is the sublime richness into which Ollie and Clark are baptized today. It is this grace, above all, that God longs for us to be immersed in, this grace that holds us close, this grace that makes us new. And it’s what we’re invited to receive in baptism.


     Assent with your mind, or not. That’s up to you. But may your reason for being be to lose yourself, and to find yourself, in that grace. May we look not at what can be seen, but at what cannot be seen. May we live in the heaven that manifests itself when we see the world clearly as we abandon ourselves to the Beloved and draw closer and closer to Love. May we live in grace that yields the deepest peace. And may we finally be agents of that grace and peace and love to all whom we meet. That’s what we’re invited to in baptism.