Oh Lord, uphold Thou me, that I may uplift Thee. Amen.
Some years ago, the Bishop of Georgia told me about an encounter he had while attending the Lambeth Conference in England. The Lambeth Conference takes place every 10 years and bishops from the 37 provinces of the Anglican Communion (more than 750 of them) gather for several weeks to study, pray and work together. During the conference the bishops are divided into small working groups where they met every day to discuss various issues. These working groups are designed to be quite diverse composed of English, European, American, African and Asian bishops.
Over the course of the conference, the bishops frequently engaged in theological and ethical debates. One morning one of the small groups was sitting around discussing issues such as human sexuality and whether or not there is a need for a new prayer book. The conversation was quite heated but there was one African bishop who remained very quiet. Finally, after about an hour he was asked for his opinion. Quietly and in broken English, the bishop explained that while these subjects were very interesting such debates were a luxury for him that he could not afford. He had other issues on his mind. When he was asked to elaborate, he said that as a Christian bishop in a small but very fundamentalist Muslim nation he had to decide whether or not he could condemn his people to death. Many of the local people, he explained, were coming to him wanting to be baptized, peasants and poor people living in rural villages. They brought their entire families, proclaimed their faith in Jesus Christ and asked the bishop to baptize them. However, the bishop knew that to do so might seal their fate. In his country, it was illegal to become a Christian. If someone was caught converting, they were often put to death for blaspheming Allah. To baptize an entire family might lead to all of them dying for the faith and this bishop explained he was not sure he was prepared to create martyrs. His people knew the risk of what they were asking for, they were not stupid, but they came anyway. They knew the cost of that water sprinkled on their heads and they wanted it anyway.
I think that is an amazing story, so foreign to all of us in the Western world. We baptize babies by the dozens and the most stressful things we have to deal with are – will the baby cry, can I get the baptismal brunch organized, can we find a date that suits the entire family. For most of us baptism is this lovely and sweet ritual. We take it for granted. If you are a Christian, baptizing your baby is just something you do. All of us remember when we graduated from high school and college. All of us remember our wedding anniversaries, or at least our wives do, but how many of us know when we were baptized? Have you ever seen your baptismal certificate? If you have, is it framed and hanging on your wall like your college diploma? Do you even know who it was who performed the ceremony? Do you understand yourself as fundamentally different because of your baptism? Baptism is just so easy, it comes without risk and it seems to have such little cost and therefore it sometimes seems to have little meaning.
What we do today and forty to fifty times in this church every year has immense implications. Whether we know it or not, whether we claim it or not, our baptisms signify that fence sitting has ended. The freedom of uncommitment is over. Wondering where you stand in life, confusion about who you are and who directs your life are no longer ambiguities. When we are baptised our allegiance is made public, and our solidarity with others who profess Jesus Christ is made manifest. It is when we are literally marked as Christ’s own forever. Our baptism is our epiphany, our showing forth, in response to God’s showing forth in Christ. It means we belong to something bigger than family or even national alliances. We have been claimed as Christ’s own and given an invitation to new life.
There is a folk tale from India about a good king who ruled wisely and well. One day the king called his three daughters together and told them he was leaving on a long journey. “I wish to learn about God, so I will need to go away and spend a long time in prayer. In my absence I will leave the three of you in charge. Before I leave I would like to leave each of you with a gift; a gift I pray will help you learn how to wisely use your power to rule.” Then he placed in each of their hands a single grain of rice.
The first daughter tied a long golden thread around her grain of rice and placed it in a beautiful crystal box. Every day she looked at it and the golden grain reminded her of her beloved father. The second daughter took one look at the common grain of rice, and threw it away, thinking it unimportant. The third daughter just looked at her grain of rice for a long, long time – until she finally understood what to do with it. She went outside and planted it in the ground and eventually she turned that one grain into vast fields of rice for her people, fields of hope and nourishment for others.
When the father returned years later, he asked his three daughters what they had done with their rice. Though he was polite to his first two daughters, he did not respond to their explanations with much enthusiasm. It was only after the king saw the fields of grain resulting from his third daughter’s wisdom that he responded with delight. Taking the crown off his head, he placed it on hers, saying, “Beloved, you alone have learned the meaning of the power that I gave you.” From that day forward, the youngest daughter ruled the kingdom. She ruled long, and she ruled wisely, and she ruled well.
Baptism is a precious gift given to us by our Lord. However, some people pay little attention to what they have been given. Like the daughter who locked her grain of rice in a crystal box, they simply put their baptisms away, reducing them to a memento, a certificate pasted into a baby book or shoved into the back of the family Bible. Some people disregaard their baptisms all together, casting them aside as meaningless trivialities, just like the second sister. But some people discover what to do with this amazing gift. They allow Christ’s gift to be planted inside them. They allow the Spirit to cause them to grow as disciples of Christ. They allow themselves to be planted by Christ into the hurting world where they work and sow and produce for the sake of the Kingdom.
Those who are baptized in Jesus do not need to strive after a new life. They have already attained new life through dying with Christ. But they do need to nurture that new life so it can grow and mature. That’s what church is for. That’s what Bible study is for. That’s what prayer is for. It is like the Parable of the Sower. Many of those seeds sprouted up, but only a few grew into maturity. The rest withered and died. Be careful not to overlook that gift that lies in front of you. Be careful not to take for granted the power and importance of your baptism. Sometimes the greatest gifts are free and much grander then we ever imagined possible. Atheists would say we leave this world much the same way we come into it – alone and anonymous. The gift of baptism says otherwise. Baptism says we are named and known by God, loved and empowered to live life as a disciple of Christ and promised that in the end not even death can separate us from the God of love. Amen.
Oh Lord, uphold Thou me, that I may uplift Thee. Amen.