Baptism of our Lord 2019
Everyone always talks about water in a positive way: our bodies are 55-60% water, water is a life necessity, looking at the water— a river, a stream, a beach— is awe-inspiring. We fill our baptismals with water and we use water to remind ourselves that we follow a life giving God. We seal ourselves at baptism and we talk about how water makes clean.
But water is much more than that. Water is a raging, uncontrollable river. Water is the vast ocean—where right now, crab fisherman are dealing with record waves and tides coming in and out of port. Water kills people. Water is a tsunami too: that dread of all of us that live within reach of an uncontrollable ocean. Water is the constant rain of this climate and water creates the mud and mess and muck and misery of homeless camps around the world.
I remember hearing a lecture on baptism once and the speaker kept talking about the beauty and purity of water. He seemed to imagine that baptism was all about quiet pools and rambling streams. But the images that flashed through my mind were very different.
I remembered all the times I’ve knelt in the mud with dying men, in homeless camps, asking if they had enough blankets.
I remembered the memorial done in Westport every year for the men and women lost at sea, lost to capricious tides and powerful waves.
I remembered that water is also power. Water is uncontrollable.
In our text in Luke this morning, John the baptizer does not think of water or baptism as tidy or simply life giving. He says that one is coming who will “baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” He sees baptism as an initiation into life with a powerful God, life giving yes, but also uncontrollable. Our text in Isaiah sees water as test, a challenge:
“When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;”
When I think of our baptism, I think of how, in my work and life, it represents two things:
It represents our faith that God will see us through the hardest and ugliest parts of our lives, even when we are overwhelmed
It represents our initiation into a life of spirit and power, a life that will often call us to the hardest things, a life that will not turn back from the truth of the world or the struggle we are called to
The ugly parts of our life
“When you pass through the waters, I will be with you,” says the God of the prophet Isaiah to a people in exile.
It sometimes hits me, when I am talking with other priests, that I often see a side of the world that many people avoid. Water does not always have the best connotations for me.
The last time I preached a sermon on water, it was brutally hot and people out camping along the Chehalis had no access to clean water. I remember the church next door donated a truckload of bottled water the following day.
I remember when the apartments behind St Andrews in Aberdeen had their water shut off for weeks before people were evicted and we bussed water across town and hauled it up stairs in five gallon buckets to people’s apartments. Everything was filthy and a lot of buildings in the area had turned off their outside water, so people had a hard time getting it.
Every winter, I am reminded of the downside of our rainy climate. While it makes the land beautiful, it also makes life a living hell for people living outside. This year has been a year of huge storms. We have had several people die at sea. We have been open for cold weather shelter nearly half the winter days due to the storms blowing in and hitting the coast and people come in so wet and cold. We get a lot of locals who have trailers or homes, but either no electricity or not enough money for heat, who come in to warm up.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you. And God comes to us in each other, with warm clothes and people to watch our shelter and warm food. God comes to us and walks through the storms with us in the love we show each other.
We’ve had a few storms this year.
Perhaps the largest storm has been filing a lawsuit against the city of Aberdeen for denying me access to visit my people at the river. It wasn’t a decision I made lightly. I applied for a permit, even though I felt like the permit system was turning this homeless camp into more of a concentration camp. Then the city denied the permit. I kept going down to visit, but I knew I was running the risk of getting arrested. When a legal team offered to take the case to federal court pro bono, I said yes. And then: we won! We argued that our constitutional right of freedom of religion and freedom of speech was being infringed and the judge agreed. Through this whole rollercoaster, I feel like I have felt the presence of God with us. God with us through the solidarity and love we have for each other. God with us through the random community members who have come forward to support. God with us through the people around me, my amazing and growing staff, who have stood with me and have told our story. God with us in challenging the city to recognize the human rights of people who are suffering.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you. John says to look for a baptism of spirit and fire and we have definitely had that over the five years we have been doing ministry.
Initiation into a life of spirit and power
Which brings me to the second point, the second thing that baptism is: an initiation into a life of spirit and power. John the baptizer imagined baptism as one of spirit and fire. He saw the coming kingdom of God as a kingdom of power, a kingdom great enough and powerful enough to destroy the empires of the world, empires like Rome who oppressed his people. He saw baptism as a symbol of joining that kingdom.
The call to follow our baptism and the call to follow Jesus is not easy in any time. In Jesus’ time, it led him to the cross. You remember that song we sing every once in awhile:
Will you come and follow me
if I but call your name?
Will you go where you don’t know
and never be the same?
Our baptism calls us to look around us and see the truth of things as they are. To see oppression and suffering in the world. To see what needs to change. To see and vision a better world and then to live into it.
Our baptism into the water of life demands that we see and join the struggle for life. Join our brothers and sisters who struggle for life and for abundant life.
When I first walked into this church ten years ago, I never imagined what my baptism might call me to. I was looking for somewhere to belong and you all welcomed me.
My first years of ministry have been a baptism of fire for sure. I have been in conflict with mayors and police chiefs. I have witnessed more deaths than I can count. I just went to a funeral yesterday, for a young man who died at 24. And I am planning another for this coming week. I have seen so much suffering, as people struggle to survive. I have been heartbroken by how members of our community turn a blind eye to the suffering around them, or openly wish that people who struggle with homelessness and addiction would just die.
It has also been a baptism of fiery joy and spirit. Entering into the heartbreak of a community means you also enter into its joy. And, against impossible odds, people still survive and struggle for a better world. I started this ministry with a backpack and a tiny grant and no salary to speak of. Mostly alone, except for you brave people taking a chance on an impossible dream. Now, we have a staff of 12 or so people. We have a woman on our staff that started training and learning to run shelters while she was living in a tent and who now runs our cold weather shelter and is doing a fantastic job at it. We have senior staff members who started as apprentices, just getting out of homelessness, and are now training to be peer support. We have had amazing apprentices, who have found the courage to beat addiction and to beat the odds of the streets, and who show up faithfully to work and are building a farm to feed the community. If I have seen heartbreak in all the visits to jail, all the knife wounds, all the cold and hunger, I have seen pure joy in watching young people rise above that and struggle to build a better world for those around them.
God has truly been with us through the waters. And our baptism of fire and spirit has been an amazing journey of joy and calling. Thank you all for your part in joining with us in that great work.