sermon preached at Church of the Good Shepherd, Federal Way, WA www.goodshepherdfw.org
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Rector
The First Sunday after the Epiphany: The Baptism of Our Lord, January 9, 2022
Isaiah 43:1-7; Psalm 29; Acts 8:14-17; Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
Baptism is a symbolic drowning from which we emerge miraculously alive. Whether we are baptized in a huge body of water or simply have a few drops sprinkled on us, the point is the same. Baptism is a sign of Christ’s salvation of us from what was so overwhelming it felt like we would be destroyed. And sometimes, that overwhelming thing is simply day-to-day life.
Ten days ago, we welcomed a new Christian into the world: Daniel Chukwuemeka Nnamdi, son of Ike and Angelica Onyeneho. Daniel was baptized back in his family’s home country of Nigeria, and alas, the internet connection wasn’t reliable enough for us to be able to be there with them online. But Daniel’s baptism did happen, and I was certainly with the family in my prayers.
We hear Isaiah sing to Daniel today his prophetic words in God’s voice: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.”
Some people take exception to the idea that an infant might need “redeeming.” My gosh, what wrong could a not-quite-one-year-old have done? But redemption isn’t only about our sins. It’s about our lives being worthwhile, having a meaning far beyond the little space between our birth and our death. God’s redemption is the assurance that it’s not up to us to make our lives worthwhile.
The claim of faith is that we are eternal beings. We enter the world, we grow and change and interact with each other, and it is impossible for us to live lives of perfection. The longer Daniel lives, the more he will have his own experiences of overwhelming loneliness, alienation, frustration, anger, grief, and yes, personal sin. This is guaranteed to happen, no matter how much peace, love, and satisfaction he also enjoys. We know this from our own life experiences.
But Isaiah tells us that the clutter and mess of our lives pose no obstacle to God. The prophet sings to baby Daniel and to all of us:
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you.
When I was the associate priest at St. Paul’s in Bellingham, every year we would order a Vacation Bible School curriculum from one of the several companies that produce such things. The package always included a CD of original songs written for that year’s theme, and we would take it out of the box and immediately throw it in the garbage (because it was, inevitably, theologically shallow garbage not worthy of our children). Then we’d get to work on choosing and writing our own music.
Well, one year our Vacation Bible School theme was “Rolling River Rampage.” As I thought of the Christian life through the metaphor of whitewater rafting, this passage from Isaiah came to me, and I wrote a song called, simply, “The River Song.” I wanted the kids to hear, loudly and clearly, that God is with them no matter what else may happen in their lives. “Do not fear, I am with you,” God whispers into their souls and ours. “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you.”
Furthermore, I wanted the children to hear that no adult, no experience, no force in their lives would be able to keep God away from them. God is bringing us all back together, and nobody will stop them—or any of us—from becoming a part of that eternal joy.
When the song was finished, I got a group of kids together and we recorded it. Then we sang it all week long at Vacation Bible School, repeating the message: “There are many raging waters, but they cannot quench love, so … let the rivers clap, let the rivers clap, let the rivers clap their hands!”
I’ve been reading a lot of articles about the plight of our nation’s children during the pandemic. For so many of them, it has been an experience of being overwhelmed, as if the rapids were overtaking their boats and sinking them. They are stressed, anxious, feeling unworthy, unloved, unattended to. If you thought you were having a hard time with the pandemic, imagine being a child with a child’s more limited capacity for long-term perspective.
There was no way the pandemic could be made easy for our kids. The solution could never have been as simple as opening all the schools wide despite the pandemic. Nor could it ever have been as simple as teaching all kids how to thrive in an online learning environment. I hear from teachers that in the past two years, children have lost far more than two years of social development. They have so much ground to make up now. And children are resilient, but childhood is also very brief. Some of this damage is permanent and will forever stand as a mark on their generation. My prayer is that the sheer commonality of the damage will lead this generation to grow together in creative, new, loving ways.
Recently my 13-year-old goddaughter drove home for me the briefness of childhood. I asked her, “Do you still listen to BTS?” (That’s the ultra-popular pop music group from South Korea.) She replied, “Oh no, I don’t listen to them anymore. That was so long ago! Like, early in the pandemic.”
Hear this and learn, my fellow adults: this pandemic is a gigantic chunk of our kids’ lives, and many kids feel like they are drowning. It’s not enough just to wait it out. We have to support children through it, being present to them, being trusted friends and elders who can help them float and cling to their overturned boat in the rapids.
This is especially true for the children we baptize, because it’s what we promised we would do. Baptism is a symbolic drowning from which we emerge miraculously alive. It is a sign of Christ’s salvation of us from what was so overwhelming it felt like we would be destroyed. We need to keep holding that sign out to the kids in our care.
We haven’t baptized anyone in our own congregation in nearly three years because of the pandemic—not since Daniel’s brother David and three other kids at Easter in 2019. But now Daniel is here, newly baptized. We weren’t in Nigeria over New Year’s. But when asked whether we will help raise Daniel in the Christian faith and life, we can still join in saying, “WE WILL!”
In a few moments, we will all renew our own baptismal covenant, as we do several times a year, on occasions especially suited for it. And then [at the 10:30 service] we’ll do something else as well: we’ll welcome six already-baptized adults to begin The Way, Good Shepherd’s process for revisiting our baptism with fresh eyes.
The Way is a long-term, disciplined process undertaken as a group. These six will join with a cadre of sponsors and catechists every Wednesday evening from now until June. Together we will share the stories of our lives, read books about the Episcopal Church, and explore whether this might be a place to find God’s call in our lives—a place to thrive and to live in love.
The group will occasionally come before you at pivot points in the process, to ask for your prayers and support. They’ll be with us on Ash Wednesday and during the liturgies of Holy Week. And on May 7th, we’ll all go to St. Mark’s Cathedral in Seattle—all of you are invited as well. Those who so choose will come before Bishop Greg so he can lay hands on them and pray over them, confirming them in their faith or receiving them formally into the Episcopal Church, this particular expression of the Body of Christ in the world.
As I ask you to pray for Baby Daniel and to support him as he grows, I also ask you today to pray for Jennie, Jim, Ashlee, Jess, Sharon, and Burkley as they explore Christ’s call to them here at Good Shepherd. And I ask you to pray for their sponsors: Billie Stockton, Linda Butcher, Christy Hosler, Janelle Coy, and KJ Byford. The dozen of us will get to know each other well in the coming months. The expectation is that we will also deepen our presence among all of you at Good Shepherd, even if a significant chunk of that time must be spent only online.
“I have called you by name,” God cries out to us through the prophet, “you are mine!” We belong to God simply because we exist. None of us is a mere accident, just another product of human genetics, disposable and forgettable. Every one of us matters to God eternally. Baptism is a sign of God’s adoption of each unique individual. And in our baptism, we make promises to stay connected with God and with one another as we walk the Way of Love. We live out this understanding that while the waters may wash over us, no matter what happens, we will all be drawn alive again from the water.
On this day in other congregations, baptisms are happening right now, this morning. We are spiritually present with them, too. And so, now, let us join with those around the world who are committing themselves to Christ through Holy Baptism and renew our own baptismal covenant.