A special thank you to the brave and wise Hannah Moore who allowed me to share her story this morning.
Words Whispered Over Water
In the United Church of Christ there is perhaps no greater day in worship than the Sundays in which we welcome those newest on the Christian journey through baptism. We welcome them when they are infants, or children, or adults. We welcome them by sprinking water from an ornate baptismal font, or pouring it from a pinky smooth shell, or even dunking in a river or lake. We UCC folk are not too particular about the details, we would rather dwell on the meaning. And the meaning is about new life being nurtured by God’s love. New life is about knowing that wherever you are in life, you are named as kin with Jesus. New life is believing that what was written is true, resurrection is possible, death does not have the final word. We baptize as a symbol of our belief in the power of resurrection. Just as John baptized Jesus in the river Jordan, we choose to be baptized as a sign of our connection to the one who was called God’s beloved. The words we whisper over the waters, the invocation of God’s blessing, and the act of baptism are some of the most profound words which can be uttered.
And so this morning, knowing that Matt and Marcy will be making covenantal vows about how Clara will be raised, we dare not forget that Matt and Marcy aren’t the only ones making promises, for we the living church, the church which loves and supports which weeps and holds which comforts and sustains will be making promises to them which are no less binding or powerful.
I love those moments of syncronicity in the lectionary when the verses which I am scheduled to preach on match perfectly with the world in which we are living in here at Peace United Church of Christ in little Fort Wayne, IN. I sort of feel as if it’s one of those serendipitious moments when God winks at us, as a way of saying, “Yep, I’m still watching…” For of all the texts that could have been assigned for this day, the text which we have been given is one from a letter to a group of people who were newly baptized.
This epistle, a fancy way for saying pastoral letter, was written by a leader of the church in Rome in or around the year 79. Some attribute the writings to Peter, but current Biblical scholarship suggests that Peter would have already have died years before. And so this unknown leader is writing in Peter’s name, sharing Peter’s thoughts, which was actually a quite common thing to do in the early church. This early follower of Christ was writing to a people in Asia Minor, people who had been raised in the Pagan ways, to worship the Pagan gods in the Pagan temples. Their fledgling devotion to Jesus and their new baptisms had not been well-received in their lands, and they had been mocked and slandered for their faith. At this point the taunting and discrimination had not become violent, the state had not taken a side on the issue, but there were fears about what proclaiming Jesus Christ meant.
The unknown author who is named as Peter reminds them that they are to crave the teachings and word of God just as a child craves milk from its mother’s breast. With the same intensity, and with the same fervor. And that the milk of that word is meant to sustain them, and strengthen them, and knit their spiritual bones together. But then our friend, also known as Peter, goes on to switch metaphors rapidly (its clear this writer was not an English major) and begins a lengthy treatise on the metaphor of stones, particularly living stones.
Living stones are not something that make much sense in our world. For us, with our tidy rational Western ways of thought, a stone is a stone. It is inanimate. It is hard. It is stable. And so there are times when the power of this metaphor has been lost on us. But, let me try to explain here…those who read this scripture were people who came from the tradition of the temple. The places where the worshipped were the most important thing. Pilgrimages were made to temples. Sacrifices were offered there. The temple in Jerusalem was destroyed only twenty to forty years before this letter, and the smoldering ruins must have been a memory that had been told. And so to utter the words to those new Christians, new Christians who were in a captivity of sorts, and living on the margins of society, to utter the words that they were to offer themselves as living stones was to alter their reality radically. The writer of the letter said to them, “No more are you people of the temple, but you yourselves are the temple. It is you, you who must become the church. There is no longer a place; instead there are a people.”
In January of 1998 I was called to pastor a church in North Manchester, Indiana. Fresh out of seminary, bright-eyed and hopeful, filled with new ideas and passion, I was called to pastor a historic old church well ensconced behind walnut trees in a small town. And a week before the call service, I received a call at 4:00 in the morning that the building was on fire, and would likely not be salvaged. I got in my car and drove the three hours there, and walked along the fire line barricades and wept with my future parishioners. I remember the audible gasp in that cold sleeting day when the last beam of the sanctuary fell, and then the cross behind it. And I confess that I began to ask the question, “How will we be the church now? Where will go know? Do I still have a people to pastor?” How naïve and unbelieving I was…for twelve hours later we stood on the front steps of the still smoking building, a sea of umbrellas and sang “Great is Thy Faithfulness” and recommitted ourselves to God and to this family of believers.
My hope is that none of you ever have to learn what it means when your own temple is destroyed to discover how to be living stones, that rather our discovery of that is born not out of crisis, but out of hope for new life.
This morning, as we baptize Clara Catherine Blundall, we must remember that we have become the living stones which are used by God to build her faith. We must allow the Holy Spirit to build us, to shape us, to create structures of haven and strength that we could never have imagined before. And we need to allow ourselves to be built not just for Clara, but for all our children, and our youth. We need to allow ourselves to be built because we have a purpose in this world, to feed the hungry, to support the homeless, to nurture the downtrodden. We need to allow ourselves to be built because we have been called by Jesus to bring about the kingdom of justice, to welcome the stranger, to offer grace. We must be the living stones which become the church, and today we start simply by being those living stones for Clara.
This week I heard a poignant story from some good friends of mine. It is the story of a fifth-grader here in Fort Wayne named Hannah. As can happen in any fifth-grade classroom, kids can be cruel, comments can be catty, people can be hurt or humiliated. Hannah was on the playground with her friends who, as her Dad pointed out, are all good kids, good students involved in lots of extra-curricular things at school—Math Bowl team, Spelling Bowl, Dance, band, art. These are girls who have been to one another’s homes to parties and for sleepovers. And on this particular day they were doing what they do on the playground—singing their favorite songs, telling jokes, talking fashion, and adding in the inevitable snark and gossip. And one of the girls in that close-knit circle began to speculate on the sexuality of a boy in their class, a young boy who was standing just out of earshot. Others playfully joined in commenting on his style of dress, how he talks, how he moves. And at first Hannah became quiet and sad as she listened. Aware of playground politics and the fast political and social rules of who is in and who is out it would have been easy for Hannah to have said nothing, to allow the rising tide of cascading laughter to roll over her, but she realized another emotion rising in her, that of righteous indignation and anger and she said later to her father, “It’s like I couldn’t control myself.” And she stood up and said loudly, to get everyone’s attention, “Hey! You guys are being mean. And ignorant. And he’s a person.” Her outburst was met with derisive laughter and then another girl said, “Well, I’m a Christian, and in my church I learned that being gay is a sin and you go to hell for it. So you must not be a Christian.” And Hannah paused, and thought about this, Hannah a child of Plymouth UCC where she was born and baptized and welcomed. And then she said with equal conviction, “In my church gay people are still people, and they’re great and kind, and we accept people for who they are, and I’m a Christian too.”
Hannah’s words of unequivocal love and welcome in the face of adversity speak of this call to allow ourselves to be built as living stones, but more than that, the thing which made my voice catch in my throat as I heard her story was the other piece. Because Hannah had been nurtured in a church, because she had seen the power of those living stones who have sheltered her, and taught her, and shaped her, she was empowered to follow the call of Jesus to give voice to those who are voiceless.
This morning we baptize a tiny infant. If we can become the living stones which create a solid church for her than we can give her the wings she needs to fly into this world. By rooting ourselves in the solid ground of God’s mercy and grace, By tending to the soil of peace and justice, and laying our foundations deep and strong and true, we have the power to be the living stones which continue to create the kingdom of Christ. The words we whisper over the water today radically alter our worlds. May it be so. For Clara and for us all.