Picking Up the Mantle

First Presbyterian – Lafayette, Louisiana
February 19, 2012 – Transfiguration (B)
Baptism of Hayden Elizabeth Albarado

2 Kings 2:1-14
1 Peter 3:18-22
Mark 9:10-20

Today is an amazing day! It is a day of celebrating covenants - a day celebrating new beginnings and restoration. Today we have baptized one of God’s beloved daughters! Today we have blown the dust off of the baptismal font, poured sacred water, and spoken words of hope in a world of doubt. Today, we have made a bold statement that shines like light in a darkened room.

Now some have asked why we baptize infants, and why we don’t immerse. I have actually done a baptism by immersion, so it is not as if we don’t allow it. We just don’t require it.

Some time ago, I remember hearing a comedy routine from the Rev. Grady Nutt about an old country baptism in a stream. There was a young preacher who accidentally immersed someone downstream. That man got a chunk of moss up his nose and commenced to form a new church that would baptize by sprinkling, and if you look up Presbyterian in the Greek it means “Old Moss Up His Nose.” Of course you and I know that Presbyterian means “elder” or “representative” as we tend to interpret it.

And baptism - especially infant baptism - is not only a sign and a seal signifying entrance into the Christian community. It is also the bold and ridiculous claim that God has decided to love us before we even know of our need of God. The thing I think is so inspired about baptism in our tradition - infant or other - is that we baptize on behalf of the whole church - not just the PC(USA) - and we have our own vows renewed every time we do it. Baptism is a once and for all reality that happens again and again, and it does not happen because of my choice or yours but because of God’s! And when we realize that God has made that choice to seek us out - even in the unredeemable places we can go to in our hearts, minds, and communities - we seek a community where we can respond to the choice that God has made on our behalf. That’s why we are here.

Some say that you can judge the health of a congregation by the number of baptisms they perform. Some even go so far as to say that the number of adult baptism performed is the true indicator of how faithful a congregation is. While I agree that the font should be used regularly in a healthy congregation, I don’t think we need to beat ourselves up over quotas.

In the good old PC(USA), we often associate baptism with babies - and for good reason - yet it is as much about death as it is about new life. I like to remind people at funerals of Paul’s words from Roman’s 6:5, “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”

Peter also reminds us today that the water of baptism is not meant to clean off dirt - it is meant to remind us of the appeal Christ makes for us in the midst of our decisions and even our indecision. Baptism is meant to demonstrate that Jesus - even more so after his crucifixion - went to those who could not come to God, offering life where it had not been.

God seems to have a habit of doing that - offering life and hope where it had not been. Yet it isn’t all flowers and sunshine. Just ask Elisha. Verse 12 is one we often overlook. Elisha has just been on an amazing farewell tour with his mentor - hitting several spots of significant history between the Jews and God. He knows his master will leave him soon and he has asked for a “double share” of Elijah’s spirit. Elisha is not being greedy, he is begging to be claimed as a spiritual ancestor - something that just wasn’t done among prophets. And Elisha gets his wish, but not before he realizes his anguish in loosing his teacher - whom he called, “Father.” Elisha tears his clothes in two - the ultimate act of mourning. His clothes will never be the same. He will never be the same.

Then he picks up the cloak - the mantel of Elijah - and cries out for God to prove God’s self. And when God does, doubt and pain crash headlong into providence and mercy! That is the life God has blessed Hayden with today, and it is the life that each of us who are baptized have received.

Of course God does not need baptism to dispense grace, mercy, and providence - but we do. And God chooses us to help. God calls us through our persistence, like Elisha who would not let Elijah go without seeing him get taken up. God calls us through the concerned voices of people who will tell us the truth even when we do not want to hear it. God calls us through covenant and ritual and opportunities to be alone with God.

Sometimes God calls us through all of these ways at once, and sometimes we can only see it by looking back on our lives. One of my earliest experiences of God’s peaceful presence and urgent calling did not really seem like it at the time, but I remember it well. I was 14. My parents were separated, my brother was away at school, my sister was working, and I had some time to myself. One of my favorite things to do was to lay on the bottom of our pool by blowing all of the air out that I could, and see how long I could stay down there.

One day I was meditating at the bottom of the pool while no one else was home - a cardinal sin to be sure - and suddenly I heard a splash! I jumped up to see my mother in the pool in a sundress. She had come home to check on me - and found me in the pool, motionless. I think that was one of the many times she called me, through clenched teeth, “Zachary Scott Sasser, Child Of The Covenant!”

That’s real funny now, but at the time there were several things going on that I don’t want us to loose sight of - things like the anxiety of a parent, the struggle between peace and the need for air, and the knowledge that I was so beloved that the rage I deserved was be held back by a promise to be loving.

The tension I experienced was felt physically and emotionally more than it was understood logically. I think the point it was the most acute, the most basic, the most physically present on a cellular level was in the ache I felt fighting for the surface after suddenly realizing that I needed to be up there. Have you ever experienced such a feeling? Most divers have at least some time or another. Sometimes our physical senses are all that we have use of in the face of great anxiety. Sometimes a mammalian, visceral, fight or flight reaction is the best we can come up with.

That is the tension we find in scripture today. Elisha tears his clothes and screams for God to be known. Peter tries to build a booth to contain the uncontainable, and James and John with him seem unwilling to hear and understand what Jesus has told them about his death and resurrection. And in his letter, Peter consoles his followers to remind them of the promise that has come through the death and resurrection of Jesus that calls them children of the covenant.

Now, I have to say that it is a lot easier to think of the deserved wrath of my mother in that situation than the deserved wrath of God. Perhaps that is because I know that my mother is limited by the same emotions and fears that I am limited by. God is not limited by anything. And so, I can see my mother being held back from her own anger by a covenant as a shadow of my understanding of God. I can see her loving embrace and chiding instruction as a tributary in the river of God’s love, and I am reminded by her restraint that I do not deserve God’s restraint either.

Yet God offers restraint, because God is not some far off power waiting to catch us unawares. God is present and active - and when we realize that, we realize that God is waiting patiently for each of us to pick up the mantel that is before us. God is not expecting us to divide rivers and seas; God just wants us to listen to Jesus, to make an impact where we can, and to tell the story a love that is stronger than even death itself!

That is the life that little Hayden has before her now. That is the life that each of us begins anew every day. Thanks be to God that we might be called Children of the Covenant and swept up into God’s embrace even here, even now, even in the life that is to come - and to God be the glory, both now and always. Amen!
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