Sunday 30 • 23 Oct 2016

Joel 2:23-32
2 Timothy 4:6-8,16-18
Luke 18:9-14

Rev. Chris Udy

Last Sunday morning
Steve and Erin gave me
a five-minute lesson on rowing.
They said you’re safe
until you think you know what you’re doing –
and that’s when you tip in.
They spoke about the discipline you need to row –
how one hand does the pulling
and the other hand the turning,
and you start with the legs
and continue with your back
and by the time the arms get a look in
you’re accelerating and you don’t really need them –
and as we finished talking
I was pretty sure I had it all worked out –
and that, of course, is when you tip in.

It struck me that rowing
seems a lot like baptism.
It’s the water that makes it work,
because the water holds you up –
until it doesn’t, and then you tip in.
It works because water’s flat –
until it isn’t, and then you tip in –
and it’s harder
when the wind blows from the wrong direction,
or when there’s a current,
or someone else in the crew starts thinking
that they know what they’re doing –
because that’s when it all goes wrong
and you tip in.

So rowing also seems a very good way
to learn how to swim –
and that’s like baptism also.
In baptism, as in rowing,
you have to trust yourself to the water,
and you find
that water is both necessary –
you can’t row or live without it –
and also scary.
Water can take your breath away - literally;
it’s unpredictable and slippery;
it seems to hide things that are fearful,
even when it’s absolutely clear.
So when we trust ourselves to the water
we take a risk –
we put life itself in peril –
but if we avoid the water we can’t live.

We celebrate baptism
because of what happened on the day
when Jesus trusted himself to the water,
and tipped in.
As he was rising from the water
he saw a light, and heard a voice
that the words he heard were,
‘You are my son, my beloved,
and I am delighted with you’.
That affirmation – that declaration of love –
was so significant to Jesus
that he wanted everyone
to hear it for themselves –
and that’s why, this morning,
Steve and Erin trusted Jack to the water,
and heard God’s affirmation of love for him:
Jack is a child of God, one of God’s beloved,
and God is delighted with him.

Baptism reminds us
that life is a lot like swimming, or rowing.
We have to trust –
trust ourselves to life in the water,
even though life in the water
can be chaotic and scary,
because water is absolutely vital to life.
So when we celebrate baptism
we begin with water:
water as a symbol of life,
and of Spirit, and of God -
and we remember
that the day when Jesus trusted himself to the water
was just at the beginning of his story.
Just as Jesus wanted everyone
to hear God’s declaration of love for them –
he also wanted his life
to be a story they could hear and respond to –
a discipline they could learn,
a pattern they could return to –
so in the baptism service we say the creed
as a summary for that story of his life.
In rowing, as Erin and Steve explained it to me,
you practice and repeat the movements and actions –
you build strength,
you do things over and over again
until they’ve transformed you;
something that is difficult
and strange when you begin
becomes normal, and easy –
and then you get over-confident,
and then …

In the baptism liturgy
Erin and Steve said they would offer Jack
an example of Christian life and faith,
and that they would pray
for Jack to learn the way of Christ.
The way of Christ is the Jesus story,
his discipline, his pattern for life,
and we learn it more from each other
and in community,
than we can from a book.
Baptism is like rowing
in that, while we can do it on our own,
we have to learn it from others,
and it’s much more fun – and faster,
and, I imagine, quite a bit safer –
when we do it with a crew.
Erin and Steve also promised
that they would encourage Jack to grow
within the fellowship of the Church,
so that he can learn,
and be given reminders that he’s loved,
not only from his parents,
but from all of us.

Baptism isn’t complete with just the water,
or with only the story,
it also needs the fellowship of the Church,
the community of faith,
the body of Christ –
to sing God’s blessing for us,
and to tell us the stories of faith in ways
that are both faithful to our tradition
and creatively fresh and new.

Today we read three stories of the faith,
and while we’d normally concentrate on just one,
today all three have something to say
in our celebration of Jack’s baptism.

The first reading came
from the book of the prophet Joel,
and it includes some verses
that many people find inspirational.
It’s built on a water image:
a promise of rain to a desert nation,
and because of the rain,
a harvest of grain and wine and oil
that will overflow their storage.
Along with that deluge, the promise says,
God will also pour out his Spirit,
so that everyone –
not just priests and not just prophets –
everyone: women and men,
young and old, slave and free –
everyone will receive the gift
and contribute to the harvest of the Spirit:
young folk will have visions
and old folk will dream dreams,
and when days of trouble and darkness come –
as they always do –
when the wind blows and the waves rise
and you tip in –
when the dark days come, the promise says,
everyone who calls on the name of the Lord
will find their salvation.

In the baptism liturgy
there’s a part called ‘the Ephphatha’,
where we touch Jack’s ear and mouth
and say ‘May the Lord open
your ears to hear his Word,
and your mouth to proclaim his praise’.
Jack has been included
in that deluge of God’s Spirit –
and our hope for him – and for us –
is that he will hear the stories of the faith,
and catch from them God’s vision and dream
of a world renewed and redeemed.
Our hope is that he’ll find new ways
to share that vision of peace
and that dream of justice –
because, it’s very clear,
dark days will come,
and the world needs people of compassion
to steer us through them.

The second passage we read today
is also a favourite for many.
It comes as a reflection on life from Paul –
and it includes another water image.
‘I am already being poured out’ he says,
‘as a libation’ –
an offering of water or wine –
a drink poured out for God.
‘The time of my departure has come.’ He says.
‘I have fought the good fight,
I have finished the race,
I have kept the faith.’

I know I’m pushing this rowing thing
a bit too far,
but hang in here with me just a little longer.
Rowing is good exercise;
it makes you healthy and strong,
but I would imagine
rowing is also meant to something more.
All that discipline and practice
leads to a race – a contest,
and the purpose of all that practice
is to enter the race, and hopefully to win.
Paul understood his whole life
as a race, a contest,
not so much a fight against other people,
but a struggle with himself,
to be the best he could be,
and a battle against what he called cosmic powers:
the fear and greed and hatred
he saw in the world.
For Paul, baptism was much more
than a family tradition or a community custom.
For Paul it was the beginning of that race,
that internal struggle,
to keep the faith and complete the course
and see God’s peace and justice,
not only in the world, but in himself –
and that is also true for Jack,
and for all of us.
Being baptised,
or belonging to the community of faith,
is more than a ritual of blessing and welcome.
In baptism we become part of the crew,
and we have a purpose,
both individually and all together,
to turn from the darkness of evil,
as the baptism liturgy says –
to challenge the world’s fear and greed and hatred,
and to carry the light.

At the end of today’s service
we’ll light a candle and give it to Jack –
or maybe, more safely, to Erin or Steve –
so Jack can carry it with him out into the world.
It’s a symbol
of what we’re all commissioned to do -
to bring light:
to work for the world’s peace,
to bring hope, and courage, and grace
to our families and neighbours and work-places.

That’s what we’re all commissioned to do –
and it’s a commission we all fail –
because we get over-confident,
we think we know what we’re doing,
we stop watching the rest of the crew,
and the wind and the waves come up
and we tip in.
And that’s pretty much
what our third reading,
our Gospel passage, tells us too.
It’s when we’re like the Pharisee in the story,
when we’re arrogant and prideful,
when we look down on other people
or consider that what we think or believe or do
is better than someone else -
it’s then, in faith, and in life, as it is in rowing,
that everything falls apart,
and we tip in.
And it’s then that the water of God’s grace
washes us clean, and reminds us,
not only that every one of us
is a much-loved child of God,
but also that, as Jesus said,
all who exalt themselves –
all those who think they know what they’re doing –
all who exalt themselves will be humbled,
but all who humble themselves –
all those who trust themselves to the water –
they’re the ones
who’ll be exalted.