Baptism: Gifted and Called to a New Year of Justing Love

Sermon by John Auer, San Rafael First United Methodist Church, San Rafael, California

January 10, 1999

See also: California Holy Union Home Page

Scriptures: Isaiah 42:1-9, Acts 10:34-43, Matthew 3:13-17

I would like to add the reading of one line from this statement, "Why We Are Officiating at a Service of Holy Union," being sent this week to every pastor serving a local church in our conference, -- "We are not responding to 'an issue' but rather are responding pastorally to those in our congregation who live in committed relationships of love and fidelity."

I suspect many of us who may well be risking our orders as deacons and elders in the church and as clergy members of this conference are remembering our baptisms, fondly, this morning! We may need them more than we know! ALL of us are gifted and called, beloved and commissioned, by our BAPTISMS (the sign of our place among the WHOLE PEOPLE, the LAOS, of God), long before we are ordained, set apart for special service within the church, -- as elders, for instance, to preach the WORD of God, administer the SACRAMENTS (for us, baptism and communion), and provide for the ORDER (the life and mission) of congregations.

And we never stop BEING baptized, thank God! I heard someone say this week, we clergy are like "player-coaches." We still belong out on the playing field, but our priority is the nurture and the support of those who may be much better "players" than we! I think Bill Stringfellow says, the clergy are to be servants of congregations, that congregations may become servants of the world. On this list to co-officiate are some retired clergy and some serving in appointments beyond the local church. But many are just plain, old, ordinary everyday pastors like me -- Some even younger than I, if you can imagine that, and therefore risking more of their future!

And everyone knows, clergy are basically those who cannot make it as lay people! What is it? Those who can, do; those who can't, preach! Baptized people, the WHOLE people of God (of ours and of all faith traditions) do the tough work of acting on faith every day of our lives -- at home, at work, in school, in community, -- wherever we find ourselves "sent" by our baptisms! We remember, Jesus is always the baptized, the whole people, not the baptizer, the clergy.

Baptism is the sign of that unconditional, outreaching, touching, embracing, restoring, empowering LOVE of the God whose spirit broods over the waters of baptism as they existed in the very beginning of all creation! As we sill feel specially reminded when we come to anoint ourselves fully and freely with these baptismal waters from the "fount of every blessing," (Do you believe it, these very waters before us were here in the beginning of creation? Recycled a few times, to be sure. But of the very same waters! Where else are those waters going to go, but somewhere else on this precious earth?!) --

Without water there is no life! Water covers four-fifths of the earth's surface. Water makes up four-fifths of our own bodies. Right? Ours is the only planet in the universe (and probably in the new universes even now being discovered! Amazing God!) on whom water is known to exist! So plentifully, so inexhaustibly, we presume, and taken so much for granted! Yet, like all of the gifts of creation, our water lives in trouble and in danger today.

In baptism, through the waters, God's love is felt by ALL our senses to be so real, so new, so fresh, so cleansing, so nourishing, so sustaining, as all the waters themselves. Just think of all the "waters" that make up our lives! Especially in Marin! So these are the same waters that flooded the earth but left the rainbow in the clouds -- the sign of God's covenant ALWAYS to be our God. This Sunday of baptismal renewal is also for us, as good Wesleyans, our Sunday of COVENANT renewal. We'll be installing our leadership, joining in Wesley's powerful covenant prayer, and, if we wish, writing or drawing on the back of this picture in our bulletins how we feel we are being "gifted and called" into this new year.

Both baptism AND communion are signs of God's covenant with us, -- a covenant both cosmic in creation and incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth as, to us, the Christ, the Messiah, the Promised One of God. Baptism is to communion, perhaps, as our gifts are to our callings to offer our gifts. As our identities are to our vocations. As the "sovereign son" Jesus hears himself to be in baptism is to the "suffering servant" Jesus becomes on the way to the cross. (This passage is the first of Isaiah's four "servant songs.")

Each one of us in our baptisms become BOTH the royal CHILD of God, completely BELOVED just as we are, AND the humble SERVANT of God COMMISSIONED to a life of love for all others and for the earth. We are endowed with the SPIRIT of God, says Isaiah, to bring justice to the nations! The non-violent but direct-activist justice of Gandhi (we will be hearing about next Sunday), of Dorothy Day, of Martin King, of Cesar Chavez, of Julia Butterfly!

Isaiah says it is a quiet, gentle, resilient and persistent justice, an "ever-justing love" (as we say each week in our Words of Welcome), that will not falter or be discouraged until it is established in All the peoples in ALL the nations in ALL the lands and in ALL the earth! THIS is what it means for apostle Peter here to discover our God is of ALL creation. God shows NONE of our favorite forms of "partiality," -- toward nation, gender, age, language, color, class, orientation or condition in life! Rather, God is accepting of ANY who are in awe of the goodness of God, and who respond to God by responding to others out of the very goodness God gives us! The "original blessing" we enjoy with all of creation!

Further, this is what it means, -- this combination of, baptism and communion! Giftedness and calling! Identity and vocation! Faith and works! What we call in this congregation, joy and justice! The Sabbath REST and the Jubilee RESISTANCE of our God! -- This is what it means, Peter puts it so plainly, to follow Jesus, who went about DOING GOOD AND HEALING! That's all! Doing good and healing. Would you think that should be so hard for us? Doing good and healing, all who are oppressed and exploited, rejected and excluded in ANY way.

Of course, it costs Jesus, what? Just his life, reminds Peter. Just got him hung from the nearest tree. And of course, it will cost us, what? OUR lives. That goes with the territory, with the uncharted waters of our baptisms! ONE WAY OR ANOTHER, we will lose EVERYTHING ELSE! "I guarantee it!" We will be reduced (or expanded, depending on our perspective: Is the glass half-empty or half-full? Is the heart breaking, or is it mending?) -- reduced to the pure love of God proclaimed by the Spirit of God (Sanctifier AND Sustainer of God! Joy AND justice, rest AND resistance of God!) in each and EVERY one of our baptisms:

This is my daughter! This is my son! This is my child! This is my Florence! This is my Cynthia! This is my Steve, my Gordon, my Mimi! My beloved! My beloved! MY BELOVED! With whom I am well-pleased! My chosen one in whom I DELIGHT! Sisters and brothers, especially in this Epiphany season, we are "de light" of "de world!" Boo! Get the hook!

So let me try briefly to come full spiral here, to touch back down where I began. If, in fact, we are putting our clergy orders on the line, we had better remember our baptisms! That is all there is to fall back on: Our place in the whole people of God. We might just have to go to work like everyone else! Perish the thought.

So I called my Mom and Dad yesterday (Thanking God they are still there to call!) for help to remember my baptism. It was in November of the year I was born in July, so my memory of it is foggy, at best. No godparents, no rituals for reminding us of our baptisms growing up. But it happens I was baptized together with an infant-friend named Brucie Shaw. Many, many, many years later, by a route only God could follow, Brucie and my sister got together and got married! Folks coming into the wedding were greeted by baptismal pictures of Brucie and me seated in the same chair, and by a sign posing the question, which is the minister, which is the groom?

We were baptized in the Community Congregational Church of Oberlin, Ohio, where my father taught at the college. The church and the college were founded by Congregationalists, so that pastors of the congregation, including abolitionist Charles Finney, once served as presidents of the college as well. In the 1830s the college took in students expelled from Lane Seminary in Cincinnati for their opposition to slavery. Thus the college became the first to serve both Black and white students AND first to serve both men and women.

A sister of my great-grandmother became an early graduate of the seminary, while still called a "special student" for being a woman. And I would like to claim as a symbol of my baptism this morning the metal sculpture on the lawn of the college to mark it as a stop on the Underground Railroad: tracks bursting forth from the earth! I expect to feel a strong sense of the presence of all of my family of origin standing with me on Saturday.

And an even stronger sense of the presence of my "family of choice!" Many of whom can be there in person -- Julie, who grew up the daughter of a Lutheran pastor eking out a living on the prairies of Kansas and Iowa, without guarantee of salary, much less of pension and benefits, so I deeply respect her willingness and desire to make this a family decision. Jeffery, who jokes he is sorry he is not ready to make his own "holy union" the first for me to officiate in disobediently. Jane and the children. Jacob, who has to work, in spirit!

I also remember my confirmation this morning, AFTER I started to seminary just over 30 years ago. The call to seminary, rising spontaneously out of the death of Dr. King, became my call to confession of Christ as my personal "Savior and Lord," who I also name today my "Liberator and Leader," as a 25 year-old Unitarian-Universalist seminary student, kneeling for confirmation on the hard wooden floor of a tiny urban church of mixed and joyful followers of Jesus, named, fittingly, "Parish of the Holy Covenant UMC," in Chicago.

That congregation practiced a range of carefully covenanted commitments in active, accountable, yet grace-filled membership, in that local church, in The United Methodist Church, in the whole Church of Jesus Christ, in all of the People of Faith in God, and in the Creation itself. From my current base as a clergy member of the California-Nevada Annual Conference, I freely and fully, gently but firmly, intend to honor those same commitments, all the days of my life. And that congregation took its role in setting aside candidates for ordination so seriously as to tempt me to take a full seven of the eight available years to complete the process! Finally, a counseling elder convinced me it would mean much more to me to hold orders and then to risk them for how I believed the Spirit was moving in my life and work than not to hold orders at all!

That elder, about to retire, himself the parent of a gay child, I sense will be present with me on Saturday, as will the pastor of that congregation, Jim Reed, baptist to our children, still serving a small inner-city church BEYOND his retirement age, and now struck with inoperable cancer, and his spouse, Patricia Devine-Reed, from whom I learned of the power of arts in community. Also with me in spirit from Northern Illinois will be Greg and Jade Dell. Greg himself faces trial for keeping a promise to bless the committed love of two men in his congregation, with whom he had been preparing long before the Judicial Council ruling. And Phyllis Athey.

I served on the district ordination committee for the candidacy of Phyllis Athey, whom I would have been delighted to call my pastor. A breach of confidentiality led to the reversal of our recommendation for her orders. In time, Phyllis took her own life. The prospect of this moment of witness and service to Ellie and Jeanne and to the church Phyllis Athey loved and longed to serve is helping me, still slowly, to heal. Our sister Judith Stone, my predecessor as pastor of this congregation, speaking to her congregation in Saratoga of her participation on Saturday, makes this connection -- "Ellie and Jeanne: Two Rosa Parks who won't sit at the back of the bus . . . and a community that is surrounding them, saying, you shouldn't have to . . . we join you in saying no . . . you are not alone." You are not alone.

When the Judicial Council decision came down, you who are First UMC San Rafael quickly reaffirmed your expectation that both your pastors and your facilities be at the witness and service of the full range of pastoral needs and desires presented us by our members and friends. I am humbled by the abiding sense of your love and support. I know, in effect, you all will be there on Saturday.

In her own inimitable way, Julie went out and bought the same stole we have bestowed upon Dorothy Hughes and Liz Throne, the stole of all the children of our world. I hear the voice of Jesus, going before us in Sacramento, Chicago, Omaha, and all the world -- Let the children come! Let ALL the children come, freely and fully, to me! For the littlest child shall lead us, as lambs and lions, oxen and bears, in all our God-given varieties, to lie down and live together, at last! Now and forever. Amen.

John Auer chairs the Cal-Nevada chapter of MFSA. He says, "I am married to Julie, a teacher. We are parents to three, grandparents to two. I am enrolled in the D. Min. program at Matthew Fox's University of Creation Spirituality, Oakland."

This sermon has been reproduced with the permission of John Auer. See also San Rafael First United Methodist Church's homepage.

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