What a joyous occasion we are a part of this weekend, the baptism of Beckett Clark. Even though some or most of you here tonight won’t be present tomorrow at the baptism, you are a part of the community of St. James, and tonight you will remember and renew your own baptismal vows and recommit to believing in Jesus Christ just as the rest of the community will do tomorrow. So though you may not be present in body tomorrow, you are most certainly present there in Spirit, even now.
But what exactly are we all here to be a part of? What does Beckett’s baptism, what do all our baptisms, mean? It’s not as easy or straightforward a question to answer as it might seem. We might have some misunderstandings or difficult tendencies to overcome when understanding this Sacrament, this work of God, and as we see in our texts today, we are most certainly not alone in our tendency to misunderstand.
In the Old Testament reading from The Second Book of Samuel this morning, we join King David as he has just sent Uriah, Bathsheba’s husband, to war in order to get him killed so he can take Bathsheba as his wife. Uriah is indeed killed, Bathsheba mourns, and David takes her into his household to be his wife. This does not please God, so God sends the Prophet Nathan to David, not with an immediate condemnation, but with a story, a parable. Nathan tells David of a rich man and poor man who live in a city. The rich man has many flocks and the poor man has one lamb that he has cherished like a daughter. A traveler comes to stay with the rich man, and rather than sacrificing one lamb of his large flock, the rich man takes the poor man’s one cherished lamb and kills it instead. Of course, David is angry at the rich man in the story, and rightly so. He rises up in righteous indignation against the rich man and says he should die or restore four-fold what he has taken from the poor man. Because of his own sin, David has misunderstood the meaning of this parable, and so Nathan, in response, clears up the misunderstanding with a famous phrase of condemnation. He says to King David, YOU ARE THE MAN. You are the rich man. You are the sinner, and you misunderstand the parable because of your unwillingness to see your own wrong, because of your own sin. David, eyes now opened by Nathan, cries out in recognition, and tradition tells us that his prayer for forgiveness is recorded in Psalm 51, which we read today, where he says, “Have mercy on me O God, according to your loving-kindness; in your great compassion blot out my offenses. Wash me through and through from my wickedness and cleanse me from my sin.” This is a Psalm we all join David in praying every Ash Wednesday, and we pray it here today again with him, as we walk with Beckett to the waters of Baptism for that same cleansing and washing.
The people in today’s reading from the Gospel of John have some misunderstandings to work through as well when they encounter the work of Jesus. Jesus has just miraculously fed five thousand people with five loaves and two fish. So they come looking for him, and he knows it’s because he has satisfied their hunger, and they want more. He tells them not to work for perishable food, but to work instead for the food of eternal life. This work, the work for the food of eternal life, is the work of believing in Jesus, and they ask for another sign, more bread, this time manna from heaven like the Israelites received in the wilderness, so that they can believe in him when they see it. Jesus tells them the bread of life is given by God from heaven, and they ask for him to give them this bread always. They are misunderstanding what Jesus’ work of signs and miracles is about, and in the absence of understanding, they fall back on what they know, the materialistic explanation of physical bread, because it’s an easier explanation. It fits the world they know, and how they’ve come to expect God to act. They misunderstand because they can’t see past their own physical needs and experiences into the mystical and spiritual reality of God’s Kingdom on earth. And how does Jesus respond to this misunderstanding? With TEACHING. Jesus teaches them how to understand in a long discourse about the bread of life, and we know, as Christians now, that he ultimately teaches them and the world with his life, death, and resurrection.
So, in response to the two misunderstandings of the stories and work of God we see this morning, of David failing to see that he’s at fault, and of the people in John failing to see past material reality into the reality of God’s Kingdom, God responds with forgiveness, with teaching, and with community. God is still responding to us in this way, because we will always be tempted to these misunderstandings of God’s work in the world, in the sacraments. When confronted with a really good story, we tend to see ourselves as the righteous characters, forgetting to search our own hearts first. And we so often forget the spiritual reality of God’s Kingdom because we’re so caught up in the materialistic one. God comes to us with compassion, with forgiveness, with teaching, and he does that all in a powerful way in the sacramental waters of baptism. Stormy waters remind us of death, and the rains of spring remind us of life, but the waters of baptism take these two and join them together, as it joins all of us together in one great story of love. In the waters of baptism we are formed into one Christian community that witnesses, as Beckett will to and with us, to a different way of being in this world, a way Paul describes in Ephesians today, a way of humility and gentleness, of patience, of bearing with one another in love, of maintaining unity in the bonds of peace. As I look around today, this is not the world I see fully realized.
But that’s our work, to join with God, and to join with and be an example to Beckett and to each other, in the work of witnessing to God’s world of eternal life and eternal love. May we help each other remember this work when we have a hard time seeing or understanding because of our sin, because we get so caught up with our daily, material lives that we forget. And may we walk with Beckett into the waters of baptism, into Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, and on the other side of that sea, may we show the world with our stories, our values, and our actions, as Beckett will, what it was, is, and one day will fully be: nothing less than the Kingdom of God. Amen.
Sunday, Aug. 1, 2021
The Rev. Dillon Green
St. James Episcopal Church, Wichita, KS