Rev. Christina Kukuk: Baptized into Belonging (Jan 10, 2010)
January 10, 2021 // Epiphany II Year B // Rev. Christina G. Kukuk // Congregational United Church of Christ, Ashland, Oregon // “Baptized into Belonging”: Mark 1:1-11
Into what have you been baptized? Our first reading this morning prompted us to ask that question. After the week we’ve had in this country, we may feel we have been baptized by fire. Baptized in fear. Baptized in terror. Anger. Frustration. It might help to get out of our heads and into our bodies. I invite you to find that little bowl of water you’ve gathered near you. Dip a finger in. Mindfully – without rushing – trace a cross or circle on your forehead. [Pause to do this] Ask yourself again: Into what were you baptized?
It feels even more important to ask this week. Into what have we been baptized? Into nationalism? Into violence? Into justice? Into truth? Into love? Into what were you baptized? (Pause)
Followers of Jesus do not have the corner market on the sacredness of water. Many spiritual traditions seek the sacred in water and seal holy covenants with water. That was the case long before Jesus went down to the river with John the Baptizer and bowed beneath the waves. And… yet, this water matters a great deal to us who do follow Jesus. It is through water touching our bodies in the community of Christ that we join the family of Jesus. Now, our congregation is one of the rare congregations that does not require baptism for people to join the church. You can join this community and its mission without joining the worldwide body that calls itself Christian. So not everyone gathered here today has been or wants to be baptized. I want to recognize that and not make assumptions – and also give us the space to ask that question specifically and generally: Into what are we baptized? What does baptism mean to us? Baptism is the rite – R-I-T-E – the sacred action by which we join the faith and family of Jesus Christ. It is meant to be universal — to do the same thing whether we got dunked three times in a muddy pond after an altar call at summer camp at the age of 14 or whether we got held as an infant in a stone bowl of holy water while an Orthodox priest spoon fed us a tiny morsel of bread soaked in wine. Baptism – water on our skin, on our bodies – is how we join with Jesus – eternally – connected to him and his people with a bond that travels with us to whatever city, state, church, country, or planet we may find ourselves in. In our tradition, we believe you don’t have to do it more than once because it is God’s act and the Spirit does the work and gets it right the first time. The most ancient words used at baptism inducted people – all kinds of people – women, men, free, slave, citizens, and migrants, ALL – into an identity that surpassed party and even nationality. It was radical then. Made more radical by early Christian claims that Jesus Christ was their Lord and Savior, intentionally with their language displacing Caesar and his empire as their ultimate allegiance. Baptism was radical then. It’s still radical.
The story MaryAnne read this morning is one way to reflect on the power of this water, to ask ourselves what it is we are baptized into. These verses are Mark’s Christmas story, his story of the beginning – the beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Rather that starting with an inconvenient pregnancy or a migrant flight under threat of violence, Mark begins with another kind of new birth. John the Baptizer – an odd fellow by all accounts – has been baptizing people in the Jordan River, calling them to turn around, to turn back to God, to have their missteps corrected and forgiven. He understands himself to be preparing the way for someone greater. Jesus shows up one day to make this sign of repentance. And that’s the first radical thing about this baptism story: that One called King, a religious superhero, someone John does not feel worthy even to remove his dusty sandals, would voluntarily to bow down beneath another human’s prayers, would make a very public act of humility, turning to God. “What Ruler wades through murky streams?” indeed. Rulers don’t do this sort of thing. Jesus does. And as he is coming up out of the water, he hears this voice from heaven. “You are my Son, my Beloved. In you I delight.” Here’s the second radical thing: Jesus hasn’t done anything yet. He hasn’t healed a soul. He hasn’t given a single sermon. He hasn’t performed the smallest miracle of multiplication to feed the masses. He hasn’t done anything. Yet the voice from heaven says, “You are my Beloved. With you, I am well-pleased.” (Pause)
Baptism was radical then. It’s still radical. In part because baptism for us today, too, is a beginning. We don’t earn that belovedness. It is the beginning of a journey with the Spirit. The beginning of being connected with Jesus in his way of radical love. We don’t have to be doing great works to hear ourselves named “Beloved.” It is still radical to enact that humility that feels profoundly awkward to our chronic contemporary individuality. Baptism assumes that we need one another to stay connected to God and to Jesus. We don’t do baptism alone. Baptism is radical today, too, because just like with Jesus at the Jordan, with these waters we affirm that before any of us have done a single thing to “earn” God’s love or blessing or forgiveness, God calls us Beloved. We are, already, a human who brings God happiness. We are part of the new life God is bringing to the world.
Especially this week, as we think about who we are in this world, in this chaos, in this violence of this past week.
At baptism of an adult or child, we ask: Are you ready to follow in the way of Jesus?
We ask: Do you renounce the powers of evil and desire the freedom of new life in Christ?
We ask: Do you profess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior? – holding on to that ancient claim that no Emperor is our Lord, that our ultimate allegiance is to the God of Love.
And then we ask people to promise if, by the grace of God, they will keep following in this way, to resist oppression and evil, to show love and justice, to witness to the work and word of Jesus as best as they’re able.
That’s what we promise.
That is the baptism that we are baptized into with these waters here at this church.
Radical claims. A radical belonging. In Jesus’ name. (Pause)
I thought a lot about these promises this past week. With a lot of you, I had trouble concentrating on Wednesday. Though there were times when I was helpful and reassuring, there were also hours, especially on Thursday, the day after the U.S. Capitol invasion that I just crawled into bed. I couldn’t do anything. I was inspired, though, by the story of Rear Admiral Margaret Grun Kibben, who had only been on the job three days when a mob invaded the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday this past week. The first woman to serve as chaplain to the U.S. House of Representatives, Kibben is a Presbyterian minister who has served in the U.S. Navy. She spoke with a reporter from Religion News Service afterward about her experience that day and especially about how she prayed when she and others in the House chambers were first notified that some violent members of a pro-Trump rally crowd of had breached barriers and overrun Capitol police – that they were in the building and that people needed to shelter in place until they could be evacuated. Kibben prayed while staff and elected officials waited to be evacuated to a secure location. She prayed again once they’d reached that secure location and were waiting, in various states of distress, for safety and security to be restored. What she told that reporter made me think that Rear Admiral Kibben lives daily aware of her baptism – its power and its calling. “Our daily lives are not separate from God’s involvement in them,” Kibben told that reporter on Friday. “God is very much present and very much has come alongside each and every one of us as we labor in the vineyard. And if that labor is tedious, God understands the tedium. If the labor is under siege, God understands the crisis and walks beside us in still waters – as well as in the shadows of danger.” (Pause)
I invite us all to take that water we have near us this morning. Dip our fingers in. And once again, mindfully – without rushing – trace a cross or circle on your forehead. [do the action] Into what were you baptized? Into belonging. Into Belovedness. Into resisting the powers of evil, both within and without. After the harrowing experiences Wednesday at the U.S. Capitol, Rear Admiral Margaret Grun Kibben tells us, “Faith matters. It mattered on Wednesday, it matters today, and it’ll matter tomorrow.”
Beloved. In you, God is well-pleased. Already. Receive the power of that blessing through the Holy Spirit. Let’s go resist some evil together. Amen.
 Jack Jenkins, ibid.
 Jack Jenkins, “How House chaplain calmed tense hours in besieged Capitol with prayers for ‘God’s covering,’” Religion News Service, January 9, 2021, religionnews.com/2021/01/09/house-chaplain-siege