Timothy C. Ahrens
The First Congregational Church
United Church of Christ
Acts 8: 14-17; Luke 3:15-17,21-22
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each one of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our salvation. Amen.
It was a chilly Tuesday in January 1929 when the first son of Rev. Martin Luther King and Alberta Williams King was born. The child's name was erroneously recorded - Michael Luther King, Jr., son of Michael Luther King, Sr. - an error not rectified until 28 years later when Martin, Jr. applied for a passport. Young Martin did not arrive easily: his birth came at the end of a very difficult pregnancy and long, agonizing hours of labor. When Alberta's baby arrived at high noon on January 15, he was so quiet that visitors feared a stillbirth, and the doctor slapped him several times to bring his first squall to life. Later his mother would laugh and say, "Martin, was praying silently when he came to life!"
And so it was 72 years ago tomorrow - a prophet, a preacher, a Nobel Peace Prize Winner, and a tactical genius in the cause of human rights and civil rights was born in Atlanta, Georgia. His ministry began when he was 25 and lasted 13 ½ years. But in that time, this oldest son of a successful, middle-class African-American preacher and his dynamic wife from Georgia did more to right the history of wrong in this country than any single man has before or since.
Let the record show that Martin Luther King, Jr. fulfilled the baptismal vows he made as youth, "to renounce the powers of evil, accept and follow Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior, to be Christ's disciple, resisting oppression and evil, showing love and justice, and witnessing to the work and word of Jesus Christ" as best as he was able! In fact, I would say that he extended himself beyond mere words and lived a life worthy to be called "Christian." For, in the words of the founder of our faith Jesus Christ, "no greater love hath anyone than to lay down his (or her) life for another." By 38 years old, the man who I believe to be the one of the greatest American heroes of the 20th Century, was murdered defending the rights of garbage collectors in their battle to become full and equal citizens of this nation - a nation too often divided against itself on the issues of civil rights and racial equality.
So what does the life, martyrdom, and living Spirit of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. have to do with us today? On this day in which we baptize Emma Ruth? On this day in which we renew our own baptismal vows? Why begin my sermon focused on him?
I believe it has everything to do with us because today, we have witnessed and renewed our promises to live certain kinds of lives in Christ Jesus. You and I have promised in the water of baptism and under the reign of the Holy Spirit to renounce evil, follow Christ as his disciples, resist evil and oppression, work and witness to the love and justice of Christ as best as we are able. These promises call us to activate as well as advocate on behalf of others who have been and are being treated unjustly.
Just a few minutes ago we witnessed one of the beautiful truths of our Christian faith - Christians are not born, we are made. Made by God in the image of the divine, "yes!" But, moreover, we are made - one by one - by our promises to live differently, as a result of being named and claimed by God in Jesus Christ.
In Luke 3:15-17, 21-22, I am struck by the absolute ludicrousness of this tale. John the Baptist is down in the waters of the Jordan River baptizing sinners. The folks who have found their way out of the city into the river are faulty, sorry, guilty, human beings - who hope against hope that John can clean them up and turn their lives around. We read about such sinners in our daily news, their crimes range from assault, to petty larceny, to writing bad checks, to drunk driving. Some have committed sins of the heart which only they know about. To a person, not one of these folks had any illusions of their own innocence. They had come to be cleaned by John and they knew they needed to be cleaned.
Enter Jesus of Nazareth. He gets in line with them. He takes his place in line and waits his turn for cleansing. But, when the skies open and a voice from heaven makes it clear who he is, the line stops moving and all the sinners take notice. Who is he and why is he acting like one of the sinners? What did he have to be sorry about? Why was he submitting himself to John's baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins?
We in the Church have never been comfortable with the baptism of Jesus by John in the Jordan. Compare the four accounts in the Gospels. Mark opens his Gospel with the story and keeps it simple. Matthew adds to Mark's gospel the piece about John trying to talk Jesus out of the baptism. Luke won't even come out and say that John did the baptism. The fourth Gospel is the oddest of all. John's Gospel won't even come out and say that John did it. We just have a dove descending like the Spirit upon Jesus.
If Jesus had public relations handlers, they never would have allowed his baptism to happen. In a well-spun version of the story, he could have come down to the river to encourage the truly sinful people to get clean. He could helped the sorry lot out of the river as they came soaking wet from the river's edge. But, to get in the water and go through what they went through would do nothing but soil, even soak his reputation.
Do you see the problem? We talk in the Christian church about God's love for sinners, but we sure do go to a lot of trouble not to be mistaken as one of them. In fact, through almost 43 years, I have seen most often that when people are in trouble, when they have committed real sins, when they have fallen real far, when they are hurting from real broken-ness, they stay away from church because they feel so unclean - and for the most part we encourage them by our silence to do just that. When they need us, they need God, they need forgiveness, they need healing, through our silence we encourage them to stay away and by doing this you and I are breaking our own baptismal vows! We replace them with the vows of judgment and silence.
I once heard Aretha Franklin tell her story. Daughter of a Baptist preacher, the young Aretha got pregnant as a teenager. When the word got out that Rev. Franklin's daughter was pregnant, the whole church was abuzz with gossip. That next Sunday, her daddy stood in the pulpit and started, "My daughter Aretha is pregnant. I love her. God loves her. And we will love her child! Like her daddy, Aretha is a sinner. But, like her Father in Heaven, I forgive her. Now, any one of you who is without sin, you cast the first stone against her." And Rev. Franklin placed a rock on the pulpit and the room fell silent. Years later she recalled of that moment: "I was never so proud or so in love with my father as I was that day. He stood by me when I was the lowest and he never faltered from that stand. Although people left the church over it, he never wavered."
When Jesus stepped into line for baptism with the sinners, and as he went down into the waters of the Jordan to be baptized, he had the sins of the world in mind. Quite frankly, He had me in mind. He had you in mind. For through baptism, we have become one with him in the body of Christ. And our baptism into Christ changes everything about our relationships to - not only the Body of Christ, but daily living! Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes in The Cost of Discipleship:
It is their baptism into the body of Christ which assures all Christians of their share in the life of Christ and the Church . . . baptism confers the privilege of participation in all the activities of the Body of Christ in every department of life. To allow a baptized brother to take part in the worship of the Church, but to refuse to have anything to do with him in everyday life is subject him to abuse and contempt . . . And if we grant a baptized (sister) the rights to the gifts of salvation, but refuse (her) the gifts necessary to earthly life or knowingly leave (her) in material need and distress, we are holding up the gifts of salvation to ridicule and behaving as liars . . . When a person is baptized into the Body of Christ, not only is his (or her) personal status as regards salvation changed, but also the relationship to daily life. (D. Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, New York: MacMillan Publishing, Co., Inc. 1963, pp.286-287).
Our God works our salvation on the margins with those who have most often been marginalized - whether on the river banks of Jordan in First Century Palestine in the hands of John the Baptizer, or through the presence of a 25 year old preacher in his first (and only church) standing on the steps of the Alabama statehouse where 90 years after Jefferson Davis was sworn in as President of the Confederacy, he calls his nation to end its civil war on black and minority Americans. You see, God has and always will works through prophets, teachers, preachers, and common people to change hearts and minds, nations and the world.
In our times, God may be finding God's way to our hearts and minds through homeless children, or refugees, or people battling for fair housing in a city that can and must afford it. And we must find our way to the lines forming in our time, where sinners and Saviors stand waiting for justice to be brought to the land.
Our words are still echoing through this place, God's Cathedral of Grace. Can you hear them? "We have put on Christ this day, sing alleluia and rejoice. We have been baptized in Christ, sing alleluia and rejoice." Now, the challenge is to live our baptismal promises, made before Emma Ruth and our children, made before God and before one another - may God help us remember our baptism and keep it holy, this day and forever more. Alleluia! Amen.
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