Normal Is Strange

Matthew 3:13-17  – The first Sunday after Epiphany – for Sunday, January 12, 2014

“And when Jesus had been baptized . . .” (Matthew 3:16)

the_baptism_of_the_christ_21When I served full-time in churches, my normal was always strange.

I recall one particular family, several months before I left my last church, that asked me to talk to them about baptism for themselves—the parents—and their two children. We negotiated calendar dates and, ta-da, I arrived at their home at the appointed time.

Talking about baptism was and is normal for me. It’s in my job description! I am ordained, according to the United Methodist Church, for “word, order, and sacrament.” Baptism (along with communion) falls into the third category: sacrament.

Most pastors, since the church became an institution, have a job description that includes baptism, communion, covenant ceremonies, preaching and supporting the living and honoring the dead during times of death. In the pastoring biz, we joke about hatching, matching and dispatching. Another version would be marryin’, buryin’, and baptizin’. We can make what we do sound humorous or serious, simple or complex.

And our normal is strange.

It’s strange to visit people in their homes. Who does that anymore?

It’s strange to talk about a ceremony that’s mostly a mystery.

It’s strange—in a world of Duck Dynasties, Dennis Rodman coaching basketball in North Korea, cute Hannah Montana becoming Miley Cyrus the wrecking ball and Lance Armstrong (and so many others before and certainly after him) confessing his selective sins to Oprah Winfrey—to spend time sharing about baptism’s meaning and value.

And yet I think, for pastors, it’s always been like that. The sacraments of the church have always been at odds with the odd world we live in.

Think about what is part of a typical day. Food on the table. Making sure the kids are safe. A little money in the bank. Mowing the lawn. Plopping down in front of the TV. Dreaming about the vacation. I suppose those are more parts of a typical day for middle-class America, but they still share common ground with nearly everyone anywhere: food, shelter, safety. Ancient, fundamental needs drive our decisions. Even in 21st Century America, we are not far removed from those living a hundred and a thousand years ago.

Baptism is at odds with that day-to-day world. Not surprisingly, there is bad news and good news about baptism’s odd role.

During the time I met with the family, one of the parents jokingly talked about a friend that mentioned a child might “go to hell” if the child wasn’t baptized. Ah, there’s some bad news! You see, the parent was joking, smirking a little, but I also sensed an edge of uncertainty. What would I, the pastor, say about this? Was baptism’s role like an insurance policy against the world’s evil and God’s punishment?

As an ordained pastor in a faith with a 2,000-year history, I know most of my long-ago “colleagues,” whether 19th Century Methodist preachers or medieval monks, would have answered a resounding “Yes!” to the baptism-preventing-divine-wrath question.

Get baptized. Get saved. Get on God’s good side. Or else . . .

I also suspect, on the night I had visited this family, that other ordained pastors here in Fresno or back east or down south or north of wherever, were also sharing about baptism with different families. Unlike me, those pastors may have been continuing the tradition of claiming baptism represented liquid insurance against holy nastiness.

One thing I said to this family was that baptism is interpreted differently, that no one has the answer. Frankly, none of us understands baptism in its fullness. It’s a mystery. A gift. The good news of baptism is that it’s a human ritual that declares how much God loves us. However (I believe) the one not baptized is not loved less by God. But the one who is baptized has a momentary party, an outpouring of water and words to help remember—and oh how we humans need to remember—a loving God created us. In the United Methodist Church ceremony, a phrase used for preparation is: “do you accept the freedom and power God gives you . . .”

Remember . . . your freedom, your power.

Down by the river...
Down by the river…

Baptism is strange. In all the stress, boredom and anxiety of our lives, its promise invites us to renew the beginnings of faith. Every Gospel views Jesus’ baptism differently. But every Gospel scene, as I read them, seems like a wondrous sharp intake of human and Holy breath. The world stops. Water, the very essence of life—from vast ocean to desert oasis—splashed on Jesus. The dove, literal or symbolic, hovered. Witnesses, one or a thousand, had hearts flutter with hope.

Matthew, the Gospel first out of the New Testament’s starting blocks, accompanied Jesus’ baptismal moment with a voice “from heaven” saying, “You are my Son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Do I think that God actually spoke those words in that Jordan moment?

I don’t know.

I don’t need to “know,” but I unabashedly believe that those words, wet and wondrous, are worth revering; are worth repeating.

Those words break into our lives, and break into our hard, hard hearts. How strange they are. How much we need them, every day, for ourselves. How much we need to share them, every day, to and for others.

Remember . . . your freedom, your power and that you are (indeed, everyone is) beloved.

 

(Painting from here; photo from here.)

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