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Packs of runners in their spandex pants and balaclavas moving like a day-glow amoeba as they
pound out the miles of their training regime. On the run, conversations go to intimate places,
especially on those long three-hour tromps all over town: training tips, what to eat before a run,
what to eat so you don’t get the runs while on a run, best flavours of Gatorade, how annoying a
spouse was, trouble at the office, the fourteen year old daughter who came home drunk.We had a
saying: What gets said on the run, stays on the run. A variation of: What happens in Vegas, stays in
But baptism is a different kettle of fish. What happens at baptism does NOT stay at baptism. It’s
not a private tète-a-tète with God, or simply a sweet sacrament for the extended family.
When Jesus is baptized, the heavens are torn
apart, torn open
– and so it is with us. The heavens
are torn open
– heaven is available to you.
When Jesus is baptized, the Spirit descends – and so it is with us. God’s Spirit is in you.
When Jesus is baptized, God speaks: “You are my beloved.” And so it is with us – you mean
What happens at baptism, though, doesn’t stay at baptism. What happens at baptism is that God
places a song in our hearts, a song that we as a community of believers keep singing. Keep singing.
The story of Jesus’ baptism reminds me of a line from Zorba the Greek. Someone asks Zorba if
he is married, and he replies, “Am I not a man? I am a man! So I married. Wife, children, house,
everything: the full catastrophe!” And so it is with baptism: the full catastrophe. So it is with
the water of the Jordan River (large in the religious imagination, for this is the river that was crossed
by our ancestors to get to the Promised Land);
the community (people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were
going to John to be baptized, and Jesus was among them);
the words of love from God (“You are my beloved) – so, the water, the community, the love.The
Spirit descends like a dove, but suddenly turns into a harpy with talons,
driving Jesus from the water to the desert,
from unconditional love to wild beasts who don’t care who your daddy is.
Have you been to that wilderness? i know i have.
Does what happen at baptism stay at baptism? Is what happens at baptism only for that cosy
moment of ecstasy? Do we shed that song of faith like a bad investment when we’re thrust into
another world, a world where wild beasts prowl, terrifying in their fierce hunger. When we are
shoved out into the desert, into the real world of the sagging stock market, the incessant bleeping of
the BlackBerry, the unpaid bills and unwashed dishes, the insatiable gods of advertising seducing us
into buying more stuff we don’t need that will be obsolete by next Wednesday, the real world of
global terrorism and speeding tickets, and refugees and cyber bullying, and Prozac and drug wars,
and corporate ladders and Ponzi schemes.isn’t it tempting, in that wild desert we call the real
world, to let what happens at baptism stay at baptism? To run the church like a business, to run our
lives to make the largest profit margin we can, to invest where there is a good return instead of
investing ethically, to buy what is cheapest instead of what has been fairly traded.to let what
happens at baptism stay
There is a reason the story of Jesus’ baptism is the kick-off every year for the season of Lent;
Lent, that desert journey of forty days we make each year, staggering thirsty behind Jesus on the
desert road to the show down in Jerusalem. We need that baptism story, we need to remember our
own baptisms, we need to remember that the heavens were torn open and heaven is available to us.
We need to remember that the Spirit descended like a dove, that God’s Spirit is in us. We need to
remember that God said, “You are my beloved,” we need to remember that we mean everything to
God. We need to remember that at our baptism, God placed a song in our hearts.
When the desert wind, that bullying sirocco, kicks sand in our face, blurs our vision, fills our ears
with grit, even as the wild beasts pad just there in the shadows where the light from our little
campfire won’t reach – when we are in the wilderness of Lent or the wilderness of our lives, we
need that song, the song that was placed in our hearts at baptism. We need that song.
Bernice Johnson Reagon knows that song. She has spent her life singing that song. As a teen,
her singing brought courage to the American civil rights workers in peaceful demonstrations, at
attempts to register to vote and attempts to integrate the Woolworths lunch counter, in classrooms
and in prison cells. The song gave the people heart. Bernice Johnson Reagon says, "I was born
among singing. I don't know of breathing or eating, without singing. I don't mean from the radio (a
wonderful invention) or from the iPod (another wonderful invention). I mean [singing] like walking
and talking, like the air you breathe, so you didn't define it in any particular way, because it was
woven inside the you you came to know, the house you grew up in, the yard you played in, the
school you went to, the church you went to. It was singing by the people around you."
This is the
song that God placed in our hearts at baptism. And when we’re in the wilderness, if i forget that song, if i
dance to the tune called by the one who has paid off the piper, if i am straying too far from the harmony – i
count on you to remind me. i count on you to sing me the song. Bernice Reagon Johnson says that the proof
she had religion was whether she knew how to sing the song. i know you got religion. i know you know how
to sing the song, for you have sung it to me, and for that i am deeply, deeply grateful.
And so, in the year of our Lord 2012, we step into the wilderness these forty days of Lent. We step into a
parched place, where water is scarce and sun is unrelenting, where scorpions sting and wild beasts track us.
But we step into the wilderness in this good company, in a rag-tag choir that learned God’s song at baptism,
and sings it to us. Don’t know what’s comin’ tomorrow, maybe it’s trouble and sorrow, but we’ll travel the
road, sharing the load. We ain’t got a barrel of money, maybe we’re ragged and funny, but we travel along,
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