Home by Another Way: Baptized

Proclaimer: Emily Hull McGee | Scripture: Matthew 3:1-17 | Sunday, January 8, 2023


If you’ve been following our worship themes this school year, you know
we’ve been exploring the language, “On the Way.” After a fall spent unpacking
the various parts of the journey, and Advent connecting where we’re going to
where we’ve been, this new year opens a new door for us to continue our
path. As we continue our year of “On the Way,” our January series will explore
the idea of traveling with Jesus “home by another way.” Richard Groves
started us off so well last week, and from now until Easter, we’ll walk with
Jesus through the Gospel of Matthew. Next Sunday, we’ll meet Jesus in the
wilderness and be tempted alongside him. Then we’ll step onto the beach
alongside the disciples and be called by him. Later we’ll follow him in ministry
to be sent from him. But today we plunge into the river to be baptized with


Baptism’s biblical history is a rich one. We look at the Old Testament,
and find narratives like the story of creation, Noah and the great flood, and
Moses and the Red Sea captured within the lens of baptism. We look at the
New Testament, at stories of baptism pouring through Acts – like the three
thousand baptized on the day of Pentecost and memorable individuals like
the Ethiopian eunuch and Lydia, jailers and haters, none more notable than
Paul himself.

But no story is more formative to the long-held practice of baptism
than that of Jesus’s. John the Baptizer comes first, Matthew tells us, that
wild-eyed prophet calling for baptism for the repentance of sins because
God’s kingdom has come near. No one was omitted from the call to the
waters – religious insiders and outsiders alike. Not even Jesus. For in the
Gospel of Matthew, before Jesus does anything at all, his very first act of
ministry was to enter in: to wade in the water with the very people he came
to liberate, as a friend of mine says, “to risk guilt by association with all the
sinners waiting in line.” That very point has confounded scholars and
confused the faithful and rankled the orthodox for generations. If baptism
was a practice held for those confessing their desire to turn away from sin,
then why did a sinless Jesus need to be baptized?

Yet Jesus, son of Joseph and Mary, begotten of Abraham and Isaac and
Jacob, took his place in the water that day. And there, first, foundationally,
before anything else, before the sick and the hurting came to him, before the
disciples followed him, before the religious leaders conspired against them,
before the crowds turned on him, before his friends left him alone, before the
cross held him, before the tomb released him, Jesus was baptized. The skies
opened, the dove descended, and God’s blessing of belovedness washed over him like a cool shower
on a warm day – the first word he’s told was a word of God’s delight:
“this is my Son, the beloved, in whom I am well pleased.”


It can’t help but to make me think of the words we’re told in this life –
the words that spill through our days and splinter our relationships and stir
our anxieties and summon our truth, words that convey the pains of the
human experience, and the ache of belonging.

But you don’t need those words. You don’t need me to tell you how
hard this life is. You don’t need me to tell you about money worries or relationship problems, wondering if your job will survive the layoffs or if your
kid will survive the teenage years. You don’t need me to tell you about the
perils of injustice or the stain of racism, the threats to democracy or the
dismantling of decency, the chasm between right and left, red and blue, or the tears in our common fabric. You don’t need me to tell you about our imperiled planet or our underfunded schools, diminishing human rights or debilitating costs for health care, the greed of a few at the expense of the many, the fear of violence and the violence of fear. You don’t need me to tell you about the crushing grip of addiction, the immovable weight of depression, the spare exile of isolation, the keeping-score of trauma. You don’t need me to tell you what it feels like to wake up and wonder, “does my life have meaning and purpose? Do the things I do every day matter in the grand scheme of things? Can I find it in me to forgive? Can I finally stop running and regretting and procrastinating and hiding and lying to myself? Have I done enough? Am I worthy of love?”

You don’t need me to tell you about these things. You know them. You
live them. You worry about them and read about them and talk about them
and wonder about them. I get it; I do too. These problems and pains are in the
water, aren’t they?

You don’t need me to tell you about these things. But perhaps you do
need me to tell you this: from the very beginning until the very end, you
belong to God. There is never a moment that God does not see you and know
you as their beloved child. Nothing you have done or left undone has or will
ever take that belovedness from you. Your belovedness: it’s in the water too.
For our baptism tells us so.


One of the most potent reminders of the power of words to convey
being seen came for me from a beloved friend with whom I was journeying
through the conclusion of one season and the beginning of another. For three
years, my friend Sarah and I had been inseparable in Chicago. It was an
expansive season for us both, one of following dreams and imagining big
possibilities as one often does in your early 20s. Together with a dozen of our
classmates, we had arrived from all over the world to pursue our careers in
voice performance – seeking the elusive goal of getting paid to sing opera,
imagine that! It was one of the most intense and transformative seasons of
my life.

Yet as grad school turned toward graduation and gainful employment,
as the cozy cocoon of the Northwestern University School of Music readied
us to launch, and as the realities of the business of singing began to cloud the
dream of making music, my friends and I faced a reckoning. Would we stay or
would we go? Not just in Chicago itself, but in the field. In the pursuit. In the
hustle. Would we fully inhabit the demands, the risk, the identity of a
professional singer, or would we slip back into who and where we were

In that dizzying time of discernment, Sarah and I had each heard a new
call announcing itself. Having witnessed some of the substantial injustices
one sees in a city of that size, she felt an invitation to take her whip-smart
mind and magnanimous heart back to her hometown of Denver and go to law
school, enabling her to pursue a life of justice and beauty for all people. And
having heard the equal parts pain and joy of so many of my artist friends
who’d been rejected from their churches as they came to themselves and
understood more fully who God had made them to be, I felt a call to seminary,to cross the country again and plant myself among the quirky yet
defiantly-hopeful pilgrims of Wake Forest University School of Divinity.

Once firmly rooted in our new paths, we’d later acknowledge to each
other the whiplash feel of this change. “Some days, our time in Chicago feels
like a dream,” we’d share with each other. “Like, did it actually happen?”

Yet as if she knew what such a distinct shift in identity would mean, as if
she understood what feelings would emerge as we both took a third way –
not the way forward as professional singers or the way back to what we’d
done before, but a new way, going home to ourselves by another way, as if she anticipated the nights we’d soon wonder, “did I make a mistake? Should I have stayed?Is this really what I’m supposed to be doing?Is this who I’m supposed to be?,” Sarah gave me a gift as we stood by our respective UHauls full of Ikea furniture and far too many boxes of books. It was a simple frame with a picture of the two of us inside, but just below it, a quote I’d never heard but that instantly nestled into my spirit: “a friend is someone who knows the song in your heart, and can sing it back to you when you’ve forgotten the words.”


As potent as a beautiful quote shared between friends can be, it is but a
glimpse of what sharing of beloved community among the baptized can be. At
her best, the church is the choir who knows the song of belovedness in each
of our hearts and sings it for each other when – inevitably, daily – one forgets
the words. We do this for each other, don’t we?I have the privilege of a front
row seat, but I can say with absolute certainty that you have done this for
Liam! You sing the song for him with every affirmation you offered him on
Tuesday night prayer call, every story you’ve taught him in Sunday School,
every interested question you’ve asked him after worship. We sing the song for each other with every casserole or Door Dash delivered, every care note
or text sent, every prayer offered and warm embrace extended. We sing the
song for each other every time we own up to our mistakes and ask for
forgiveness, every time we hear another’s story and share our own “me too,”
every time we take a risk for the sake of relationship and tend it with care.
Belovedness: it’sin the water too.

My former pastor Joe used to tell a story about a preacher friend of his.
In the great tradition of the Black church, this preacher knew nothing of a
crisp, three-point, 18 minute sermon favored by so many of his white
mainline Protestant friends (to say nothing of the 8-9 minute Catholic homily
on the way to communion!). His church looked with a knowing smile to their
majority-white neighbor churches who made it out the door in time to beat
the Methodists to the K & W. Joe asked him one time, “friend, why do you
preach so long? Why does your worship last for hours? My congregation
would revolt?”

“Oh no no no,” his friend responded. “You don’t understand. All week
long, this world tells my people who they are. This world tells them how
they’re not enough, and what limits are put on their dreams, and who they
can and cannot be, and where they can and cannot go. We worship longer,
because it takes a while to undo all that we’ve been told. We worship longer,
because it just takes that long to remember who and whose we are.”


Friends, baptism contains multitudes. It is the “outward sign of an
invisible grace,” as our friend Bill Leonard claims, the way we celebrate
together what God has done for one. Because baptism represents an individual decision between you and God, of course, but it’s inherently a
shared act. There’s a reason you can’t baptize yourselves, for baptism needs
the act of communal witness in order to make it whole. Baptism immerses us
with the cleansing grace of God, grace that is greater than all our sins.
Baptism binds us together as a body of Christ, uniting us, in the words of
Ephesians, as “one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one
hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of
all, who is above all and through all and in all.” As some traditions’ baptismal
liturgies say, baptism “buries us with Christ’s death and raises us to walk in
newness of life.” And as Jesus models, baptism locates us in the water
together, stirring up the mud right at the heart of God. In our baptism, we’ve
been through the water. Out of many, one. From ordinary water,

Yet what I want you to hear clearly today is that baptism fundamentally
orients us. It identifies us. It marks us. It claims us. It welcomes, as one writer
names, “a particular kind of identity and life that can flow out of the reality of
being baptized.”

Actually let me clarify – baptism doesn’t claim us, God does. Baptism
doesn’t identify us, Jesus does. Baptism doesn’t mark us, grace does. Yet it’s
through this ancient ritual that the song in our hearts can be heard. It’s
through the community of the baptized that such a song can be sung back to
us when we forget the words. Whatsong exactly?, you might wonder. Well you
know the one. The song that despite it all, refuses to be silenced. The song
that even Jesus needed to hear. The song sung by the voice that sounds like
home. “This is my child, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Amen.