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What has NOT been awful is the gratifying outpouring of assistance from around the world. Presbyterian Disaster Assistance has already sent $320,000 from One Great Hour of Sharing funds to provide emergency relief -- food, potable water, temporary shelter, blankets, and medicine. PDA's goal is $2.5 million. Church World Service, the global humanitarian arm of the National Council of Churches' 36 member communions, has dispatched $1 million in immediate aid to the region, and has set a goal of $5 million to be raised to support its recovery work in partnership with councils of churches and other ecumenical agencies on the scene in especially hard-hit areas. Former U.S. presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton are leading a nationwide fund-raising campaign, channeling the donations through established relief agencies.
Last Sunday, one of my colleagues reported that, on the way out of church, one of the worshipers handed him a check with the "pay to the order of" line blank and asked him to fill in the appropriate destination. It was for $10,000. Good sermon. Sally Hayes saw the leaflet in last week's bulletin about ways to help, noticed the need for personal sanitation supplies, and now has her fifth-graders at Beatty making Health Kits. Others of you are doing similar things. Good.
Who could have imagined that WATER could be so powerful? Well, truth be told, that is a trick question because the Christian Church has always known it. This second Sunday of January every year is the day we remember the Baptism of the Lord. The scene down by the river. A throng of people from all walks of life are there. They have made a mini-pilgrimage into the countryside, come to see an itinerant preacher who is more than passing strange: a coarse camel's hair tunic with a leather belt around his waist, the uniform of a prophet since the days of Elijah.(1) They had come because there was a sense that something was missing in their walk with God, so they were ready to listen to a new voice. And this was a powerful voice.
Then one day it happened...Jesus. The request for baptism. John's initial reluctance, then acquiescence. Finally, the dramatic climax. As our lesson has it, "As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, "This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased."
THIS CHANGED EVERYTHING! Jesus' baptism ushered in a new baptism. Christian baptism became not just a washing away of sin, as John's baptism was, but the baptism that brings the power of the Holy Spirit and a special relationship with God.(2) Why? For no reason other than God chooses to do it.
Part of the message of Jesus' baptism and our own is that we are loved. Most folks understand that, and that is why they get all warm and fuzzy when it comes to presenting their little ones for the sacrament. But there is more: WE HAVE WORK TO DO. Remember, this happened at the START of Jesus' work. This was his commissioning service. Now, almost 20 centuries later, when someone is baptized in the church, whether infants or adults, it is no different. We still have work. We are receiving our commission.
If that scares you a bit, there is one more piece of good news I have for you about your baptism. Remember that picture at the Jordan - there is the crowd, John, Jesus...and the dove. The Holy Spirit. Do not forget the dove. Clearly, scripture wants us to understand that from this moment on, Jesus and his ministry are EMPOWERED by the living presence of the Holy Spirit.
If you were here on Christmas Eve, you witnessed the baptism of young Mitchell Hallgren. Mitch is not as young as many of the children I baptize - he is almost ten years old. At the conclusion of the ceremony, I told him that this would be a day he would always remember, and that he and his pastor would have one special memory in common because it was on Christmas Eve 60 years ago that I was baptized. My emotions welled up as I told him that and the words almost choked on the way out, something that happens to me regularly when I perform a baptism. Not because of some warm-fuzzy-isn't-this-a-nice-family picture kind of feeling, but because this is when the church gets dangerous. This sets someone on a journey that has the potential to change the world. And maybe because it is so dangerous, so threatening, so radical, that people either flee the church as they get older, or they weep when we have the opportunity to reaffirm our baptismal vows.
Yes, there IS something powerful in baptism. The story is told of a pastor's words to a baby shortly after he had baptized her. No doubt, the minister was speaking as much to the congregation as to the infant. "Little sister, by this act of baptism, we welcome you to a journey that will take your whole life. This isn't the end. It's the beginning of God's experiment with your life. What God will make of you, we know not. Where God will take you, surprise you, we cannot say. This we do know and this we say -- God is with you."(3)
Our friend Fred Craddock tells of a little community in southwest Oklahoma where the Native American Black Kettle and most of the women and children of his little tribe were massacred by General Custer as he and his troops swept down in the early morning hours. The community is named for the general, Custer City. Fred ministered there for about three years. The population was around 450. There were four churches: a Methodist church, a Baptist church, a Nazarene church, and a Christian church. Each had its share of the population on Wednesday night, Sunday morning, and Sunday evening. Each had a small collection of young people, and the attendance rose and fell according to the weather and whether it was time to harvest the wheat and all of that.
But the most consistent attendance in town was at the little cafe where all the pickup trucks were parked, and all the men were inside discussing the weather, and the cattle, and the wheat bugs, and the hail, and the wind, and are we going to have a crop. All their wives and sons and daughters were in one of those four churches. The churches had good attendance and poor attendance, but the cafe had consistently good attendance, better attendance than some of the churches. They were always there. Once in a while they would lose a member there at the cafe, because their wives finally got to them or their kids, and you'd see them go sheepishly off to one of the churches. But the men at the cafe still felt strong. "We are still the best, biggest, and strongest group in town." And so they met on Wednesdays and Sundays and every other day, discussing weather and crops - not bad men, but good men, family men, hardworking men.
The patron saint of the group that met at the cafe was named Frank. Frank was seventy-seven when Fred first met him. He was a good, strong man; a pioneer, a rancher and farmer, and a prospering cattle man too. He was born in a sad house; he had his credentials, and all the men there at the cafe considered him their patron saint. "Ha! Ol' Frank will never go to church." Fred met Frank on the street one time. He says, "[Frank] knew I was a preacher, but it has never been my custom to accost people in the name of Jesus, so I just was shaking hands and visiting with him, but he took the offensive. He was not offensive, but he took the offensive. He said, 'I work hard, I take care of my family, and I mind my own business. Far as I'm concerned, everything else is fluff.' You see what he told me? 'Leave me alone, I'm not a prospect.' I didn't bother Frank.
"That's why I, the entire church, and the whole town were surprised, and the men at the cafe church were absolutely bumfuzzled when old Frank, seventy-seven years old, presented himself before me one Sunday morning for baptism. I baptized Frank. Some of the talk in the community was, 'Frank must be sick. Guess he's scared to meet his maker. They say he's got heart trouble. Going up there and being baptized, well, I never thought Ol' Frank would do that, but I guess when you get scared…' All kinds of stories.
But this is the way that Frank told it to the preacher. They were talking the next day after his baptism, and Fred said, "Uh, Frank, you remember that little saying you used to give me so much: 'I work hard, I take care of my family, and I mind my own business'?"
He said, "Yeah, I remember. I said that a lot."
Fred asked, "You still say that?"
He said, "Yeah."
Fred said, "Then what's the difference?"
Frank responded, "I didn't know then what my business was." He discovered what his business was - to serve human need.
And so Fred baptized Frank. He raised his hand and said, "In the presence of those who gather, upon your confession of faith in Jesus Christ, and in obedience to his command, I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit. Amen."(4)
When church gets dangerous. In a moment, you will reaffirm your baptism, the beginning of God's experiment with your life. What God will make of you, we do not know. God is not done with you yet. As has been said, life should NOT be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in an attractive and well preserved body, but rather to skid in sideways, book of memories in one hand, Bible in the other, body thoroughly used up, totally worn out and shouting "Hallelujah! What a Ride!" Where God will take you, surprise you, we cannot say. This we do know and this we preach -- God is with you, now and always.
1. 2 Kings 1:8
2. Brian Stoffregen, via Ecunet, "Gospel Notes for Next Sunday," #2764, 1/5/97
3. William H. Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas, Resident Aliens, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1989), pp. 52-53
4. Mike Graves & Richard Ward, eds., Craddock Stories, (St. Louis : Chalice Press, 2001), pp. 67-69