By Rev. Joan Kessler
Our gospel reading this morning is about relationship. This is how I have come to understand and celebrate the sacrament of baptism. The sprinkling of water that holds the prayers and blessings of a congregation and then lovingly poured on the head of an infant, a child, an adult and the sharing of promises to love and nurture and care for this person. I want to affirm that Baptism does not make one better than anyone else. It doesn’t come with any special privileges like a Nexus card. Baptism doesn’t move one to the front of any line or enroll you in a membership reward program. Baptism, like sharing in Holy Communion, is our “Yes” to what God is always sharing with us, among us and through us and that is the gift of Love and Grace.
Baptism is rarely celebrated in our churches today. I believe the last baptism celebrated here in Winfield may have been Freya’s some nearly 10 years ago. I recalled this past week the baptisms of my own daughters some two decades ago. My oldest daughter Olivia was baptized the day before she underwent a surgery. I remember the specialness and the importance of this event and that her baptism take place ahead of her time in hospital. I didn’t then nor do I now believe that baptism had any magical power, but it was an act of trust for her family. It was saying before God and the congregation we attended and to the wider world that “This is Olivia”, and two years later on Mother’s Day, “This is Sarah”, and “these lives are precious to us and we will love with intention”…that we become part of a community and make promises to one another before Spirit that we would enter into relationship and support and nurture their spiritual development.
I believe baptism is an extension of sacred Friendship, of philia which is the opposite I learned this week to phobia. Friend as opposed to fear. Who knew!? One of you dear ones shared with me a Diana Butler Bass commentary this past week about the epidemic of loneliness we are currently experiencing in the wake of COVID. The past three years have altered the friendship-making landscape. We have been at home more and we have lost touch with the social graces and nuances of being in real time, face-to-face encounters. We have learned to be lonely. And this breaks my heart.
But I believe there is hope for a cure might be right here among us. We as a community of faith have the very unique opportunity and privilege of addressing this concern. We have already begun to in my humble opinion. Following last winter’s AGM, we took the remainder of the year to begin putting into play some of the recommendations that came out the Visioning Team’s work together over 2020 through early 2022. At our event this weekend with Kathy Davies, we revisited those recommendations and discovered we have already begun to implement them: we continue to work on Zoom services to enable folks to be part of community from their homes or hotel rooms or buses and airports they find themselves in. We are beginning to consider how we can make our church more visible from the Rail Trail and passersby through improving our signage and exploring the in-house resources we have to share: a drop-in Community Coffee initiative on Tuesdays to attract Thrift Store shoppers and droppers to our community; increasing our church rentals; and attracting those with spiritual practices and this is already happening with Monday morning Chi Kung, the Aramaic Prayer group, a Reiki practitioner who hosts workshops; and the potential remains for other conversations to take place. We also have the Community Fridge that says we care and would like to get to know you better. All these undertakings are seeing us address social isolation. And we do this work with the understanding that we must be inclusive and welcoming and invest something of ourselves in order to get to know another, because it has come to my attention that even though we are not a big gathering on Sunday mornings, you all don’t know one another and this is something we are going to work on this winter. Because to be truly and fully welcoming we must know who it is we are bringing into our place of belonging.
To summarize our very wonderful and productive weekend retreat, we are coming to the place of identifying our ministry priorities and the resources we will need and align these things with our capacity, our strengths and our challenges. We did not discuss the future of our church property. We did not discuss financial constraints or budgets. We talked to one another and we listened to the things that we grieve and still need healing. We talked about what we are good at and could potentially do more of. One thread that presented itself was that of addressing social isolation and developing sacred friendships; things that I see already beginning and taking shape. I hope is that this priority will be at the forefront of our activities and our gatherings and our life together.
Baptism may be a sacrament that is fading from our post-modern world. But I don’t think we should disregard this sacred practice just yet. We need to question our identity, our longings and our purpose. We still need practices that have no logical explanation and simply live into the mystery and the unknowns that it presents. Baptism is a marking, it is a claiming, a very open and explicit YES to what the Holy Spirit is already doing. And we take this blessing outside of these church walls and into a community that is lonely and hungry for connection, and we begin to meet a need, one cup of coffee at a time, one smile at a time, one pat on the back at a time. This, dear friends, is the visible sign of this blessing, of this beloved-ness that we all must claim.
You are my beloved. How does one say this without your heart doing a flip-flop and a smile spreading across one’s face? It can’t be done! If we said these words to one another, there wouldn’t be misunderstandings and conflict. In our living and in our dying we would know we are not alone. Jesus couldn’t begin his public ministry without first getting in line for the baptism that was his birthright, just like everyone else who was in line with him that day. And in that event, in the coming up out of the water, he had an experience; he knew the Spirit of God was upon him.
Jesus never saw himself as better than anyone else. Love was the foundation of Jesus’ identity and relationship with God. Knowing that he was valued and cherished and deeply loved enabled him to pursue a life of loving and serving others. May we as Winfield United live into our Beloved-ness so that we might not only welcome strangers that come to our door but create opportunities for them to belong and to shape us and change us.
May it be so and Amen.