The preacher shouted! The preacher roared! The preacher threatened! The preacher called them names!
You’re nothing but a bunch of poison snakes. Why even these rocks are better than you. You’re like rotted trees bearing spoiled fruit. Go to hell and burn.
That’s what the preacher said, isn’t it? That’s what I heard John the Baptist say to the crowds coming down the hill from Jerusalem. They came to hear the wild and crazy man rant down by the riverside. And rant he did.
At one point when he paused to catch his breath, someone shouted back: “So what do you want? What should we do?” (No one says what they were thinking he’d say, but I can imagine them thinking that he’d tell them to go to the temple, pay tithes, make sacrifices, go on retreat, enter a monastery—you get my drift: do something really religious.) But no, the preacher told them to do some things that aren’t often thought to be religious.
- If you have an extra coat, share it with someone who doesn’t have one.
- If you’ve got food, share it, too.
- If you collect taxes, don’t take any more than prescribed in order to pad your own pockets.
- Soldiers, don’t extort money by making false threats and accusations and then blackmail the accused. Just live off your pay.
Then the preacher connects this behavior with baptism. It’s really interesting how baptism is coupled with love, compassion, and honesty.
Baptism is what we call a sacrament. A sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. On the outside we see water placed on a person’s forehead with a sign of the cross. But inwardly is a dedication of the heart to God, to God’s Kingdom, God’s values. Another way to say that is that baptism is a pledge of allegiance to the Kingdom of God. For those baptized as infants, there’s a promise by the adults who to raise the child as honest and compassionate lovers of all God’s people.
For many folk the baptism ceremony is an end in itself—a one time event—a ceremonial requirement to be fulfilled in order to be a member of the church. And that may be true of the outward and visible sign with the water and the cross on the forehead. But the inward and spiritual grace part of baptism is a lifelong journey—walking with God, living with God, even wrestling and arguing with God.
People who know and watch me function as priest are clear about the fact that I’m not what we call a high churchman. I wouldn’t know what to do with an incense pot if one were thrust into my hands. I’m pretty sure that I don’t tie this rope belt around my waist in the proper churchly manner. There are all sorts of hand motions and bows that my high church, priest friends perform with which I’m not familiar.
So it came as a surprise to me and to some of you earlier this year when I started putting out the baptismal font with water near the door of the church. At first, some folk weren’t sure what it was. Several times I’ve found cash and envelopes floating in the water—left by folk who thought it was some new form of offering plate. Perhaps a way of cleansing the money—the term “money laundering” takes on a whole new meaning.
There’s nothing magical about the water. It’s simply tap water that I’ve said a short prayer over, asking God’s blessing on it that it might serve as a reminder to all of us of our allegiance and identity. As you walk past the water in the font, if you’re comfortable in doing so, simply dip your finger into it and then touch your forehead with the wet finger—an outward and visible sign—a reminder that I am/we are baptized.
It’s hard to be Christian, a person of faith. There are some places in the world where Christians are physically threatened—even killed. But here in this land the greatest threat to Christians and potential Christians is confusion. For in the name of Jesus some preachers with loud microphones say that we should hate our enemies, despise non-Christians, pack more heat, be fearful of the stranger. Others tell us that Christianity has to do with being anti-science, against birth-control, and free to discriminate against anyone for whom we don’t wish to bake a wedding cake. Still others tell us that Jesus’ greatest desire is that we all be prosperous.
And so it was about that time that I put out the water in the font. Because in the midst of all the clamor and competing claims about what it means to be Christian, it comes down to a bottom line—one made pretty clear by the ranting preacher—love, compassion, honesty. To say that “I am baptized” is to behave in the way laid out by John the Baptizer and his cousin, Jesus of Nazareth.
Love and compassion that lead to a more equitable distribution of food and clothing and the things we all need to be well–and an honesty that not only refuses to defraud, but to be forthright in a way that transcends willful ignorance, prejudice, and ideology. The goal of the Christian life is to let go of self and to benefit the common good.
Martin Luther, the father of the Reformation, was vilified and pursued by those who would take his life. He was often confused by the varying claims and arguments swirling about. Against his doubts and discouragement, Luther would remind himself, “I am baptized!” People in the castle where he was translating the Bible from Latin into German, would hear him shouting in the middle of the night, “I am baptized.” “I belong to Jesus and to his agenda: love, compassion, honesty.”
There water in the aisle isn’t there because I’m becoming a high churchman. It’s there because I’m Christian. And I want all of us to be reminded—week in and week out—that we are baptized. This is our primary identity. More important than class, race, nationality, political persuasion, gender, sexual identity, the kind of car you drive, or your favorite social media—you are baptized and you will strive with all your might to be loving, compassionate, and honest.
That’s what the preacher said when he responded to the one who shouted: “What shall we then do?”
Then the preacher went back to ranting about winnowing forks, separating wheat from chaff, unquenchable fires and burning in hell. I suppose some preachers have to do that to hold people’s attention.