Rev. Timothy B. Tutt, Senior Minister
Westmoreland Congregational United Church of Christ
Sunday, January 11, 2015
aptism of Jesus Sunday
“Scrub Behind Your Ears - Baptism and Charlie Hebdo”
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. – John 1:9
“Don’t forget to scrub behind your ears,” my parents would say to me when I was a small child taking a bath.
“But why,” I would ask.
And sometimes the answer would be a joke: “Because if you don’t, dirt will pile up there and tree might start to grow on the side of your head.”
Sometimes that happens to the world: We fail to tend to the dirty parts of life and trees grow there, sometimes dangerous trees with strange and poisonous fruit. The strange and deadly fruits of violence and fear and racism and poverty and aimlessness.
So it was this week when gunmen attacked the offices of the French satire magazine, Charlie Hebdo, leaving twelve people dead, and others attacked a kosher market in France.
And so it has been far too often in human history: In 1096 when Christian crusaders violently slaughtered Jews in Germany.
So it was in June of last year when a raging mob of violent Buddhists killed four Muslim people in Sri Lanka.
So it was 30 years ago when Hindu thugs killed 8,000 Sikhs in India.
We may identify the religious condiments we put on this strange fruit, but you see that violence, terrorism, killing are not Muslim problems, not Christian problems, not Hindu or Jewish or Buddhist problems. These are human problems
The secular government of Communist China killed tens of millions of people when they came to power in 1949; that was not religious. In November, a gang in Mexico killed 43 students; there was no religious purpose to that. A hundred and five homicides took place in DC last year; those were driven not by religion, but by a host of complicated factors.
Today on the church calendar is Baptism of Jesus Sunday. We don’t sing baptismal carols, we don’t decorate baptismal trees, we don’t take a day off work. But on this Baptism of Jesus Sunday we are invited to hear again the story of Jesus’ baptism: “John the Baptizer appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of life-change that leads to forgiveness of sins,” as Eugene Peterson describes it. “People crowded around John. They came from Judea and Jerusalem. They confessed their sins, they admitted their mistakes. And John baptized them to welcome them into a changed life. In the middle of all of that, came Jesus came from Nazareth. John baptized him too. And the people who were gathered around said that the moment Jesus came up out of the water, they saw clouds roll back and God’s spirit come down on him, like a dove gliding in the air. And they said they heard a voice say, “You are my Child, my beloved one, you are the apple of my eye, the joy of my life, with you I am well-pleased.”
On this baptism of Jesus Sunday – even as we ponder the killings at Charlie Hebdo and at the market and the other tragedies of life, we hear that baptismal story. And we wonder: What does it mean to confess our human sins? What does it mean to live as beloved children of God?.
On this Baptism of Jesus Sunday we are also invited to remember our own baptismal covenant.
Most of you, I imagine, have been baptized. Some of you were baptized as babies or as infants. Your parents or godparents or grandparents carried you in to church and dedicated you to God with words and water. Others of you were baptized as teenagers or adults. Some of us, for various reasons, have never been baptized. For some of it, a bit of water was used, sprinkled on your head. For others, water was poured on your head. You may remember it running down into your eyes. Some of you were baptized by immersion, entered fully into a pool of water.
No matter how much or how little water was used, you were baptized – not just by the transparent, but visible element that is two part hydrogen and one part oxygen – but you were also baptized by the invisible, ineffable grace of God: a grace, not made present but baptism, but acknowledged by baptism, a grace that runs down over your head and washes behind your ears and fills your hearts and mind and fires your compassion and tickles your toes.
A grace that our world needs to water its untended corners.
The United Church of Christ offers a great deal of freedom, both freedom of thought and freedom for action and freedom for the liturgy. So very rarely are any two baptisms the same in the United Church of Christ. However, our Book of Worship does include words for baptism. And most of our baptismal services include some variation of these words. If a child is being baptized, we ask a series of questions of the parent or parents. If a teenager or adult is being baptized, we ask the questions of the person being baptized.
We ask if the person wants to be baptized into the family of Christ.
We ask if the person will resist evil, will follow in the ways of Christ, will show love and justice in the world, will strive to love their neighbors and even their enemies, and will witness to the work and ways of Jesus in the world.
Those are not easy words.
We’ve baptized a half dozen babies here at Westmoreland in the past two years. (By the way, we have four families who are expecting children in the coming months so please remember those families in your prayers and please join me in anticipating more baptisms.) Perhaps you’ve witnessed so many baptisms over the years that the words have become rote or routine. But they are not easy words. Will you show love and justice in the world? Will you love your neighbors? Will you love even your enemies? Will you follow in the ways of Jesus?
If we take those words seriously, to be baptized is serious business. If we mean those words, then being a Christian is hard work. And the world needs our hard work.
Charlie Hebdo needs our hard work. The Nigerian girls abducted by Boko Haram and still missing need us to live out our baptismal covenant. The streets of Ferguson, Missouri, and the streets of Washington DC need us to walk them with justice and with love.
We grieve the lives lost in Paris. Just as we grieved the lives lost on September 11, 2001. And just as certainly as Jews grieved in the Rhineland in 1096. And Muslims grieved in Sri Lanka and Sikhs grieved in India. And Mexicans grieved in November. I believe that those words from the baptismal story are universal: We are all children of God, loved and pleasing. We should grieve when any life is cut short.
We remember the privilege and responsibility of free speech, in part because our Constitution has partnered it with freedom of religion.
We should not rush to explain the murderers with easy caricatures.
We need to know more and more about Islam and Buddhism and Hinduism and all the world’s religions. And we need to do a better job of expressing our hopes for Christianity as well.
We need to understand the shadowy corners of the world. “Scrub behind your ears,” my parents said, “That’s were trees will grow.” We need to know about the fertile soil that breeds discontent and hopelessness.
And we need to respond with love. In 1958, Dr. Martin Luther King, whose birthday we will celebrate next Sunday said, “Hate begets hate; violence begets violence; toughness begets a greater toughness. We must meet the forces of hate with the power of love.”
Again, that is not easy. And that is not dreamy, pie-in-pie-the-sky, theological gobbledygook. That is hard work. Love requires your time, your energy, your thoughts and even your money.
For several years, the United Church of Christ had a missionary in Paris. Tim Rose was his name. I have a friend who works for Global Ministries, our overseas agency, and I would joke that, “If the UCC ever needs another missionary in Paris, sign me up. It’s a tough job, but someone needs to do it.” The work that Tim did was not really that easy. He actually didn’t live and work in Paris. He worked as missionary in Aubervilliers, a suburb of Paris. Aubervilliers is a city of 70,000, just north of Pairs. When the UCC sent Tim there as a missionary, 80 percent of the people lived in subsidized, low income housing. More than half the population was made up of immigrants, mostly of African and Arab descent. So we the UCC had a missionary working with Arabic-speaking, Muslim immigrants in a suburb of Paris. Tim’s job – in good UCC, open-minded fashion -- was not to convert people. Rather, he worked in prisons and on the streets and with refugees. He helped people deal with work permits and drug addictions and divided families. He worked in a community very much like the one where these two Charlie Hebdo killers lived. He worked with people who seem very much like these two young men. His challenging, difficult work was to live out this baptismal covenant in a place where hope and justice seemed far away.
And your money and my money made that possible as we supported Our Church’s Wider Mission. Our baptismal covenant asks us to witness to the work and ways of Jesus in the world. And we did with the poor, Muslim, immigrant community in suburban Paris by supporting Tim Rose and his work with Global Ministries.
In the past few years Tim has moved to Guadeloupe, one of the poorest places in the world. I’m not sure what has become of his work with Muslims in France. Over the past several years Global Ministries has had to cut back on mission work around the world as we church members have decided to not to give as much money to support that work.
Yet the mission is there. The need is clear. The world calls us to tend to its dirtiest corners.
And our plan is in place, our baptismal covenant. To follow Jesus into the waters of life and into a world of need, to love our neighbors, to love our enemies, to live with justice and with love, to bear witness to the good news of God.
We do not have to reinvent the wheel. We just have to take our turn at it.
For 2000 years Christians have been following Jesus into the baptismal life. Some have failed miserably, fallen flat in the mud; others have soared like doves in the sky. Now it is our turn. This new year, this day, this moment.
May God be with us.