I have to admit that when Pat & Anna asked if we could celebrate Eleanor’s baptism this weekend I was skeptical. Labor Day weekend, the first Sunday in September, the 14th Sunday in Pentecost, is not one of those Sundays that the Lutheran church recommends as especially appropriate for baptisms. Sundays that celebrate the baptism of Jesus, or John the Baptist, and especially, Easter—these traditionally have been the Sundays to celebrate baptisms.
But when I looked up the readings for today I said, “Yeah, we can work with this!”
In today’s reading, Jesus lays into the Pharisees for practicing empty traditions. You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition, he said. In other words, traditions are good—but only if their purpose first and foremost is to give glory to God.
The tradition that the Pharisees were criticizing Jesus’ disciples for had to do with washing, (and this is why today is a good day to remember baptism!) Now, on the one hand, I find Jesus’ criticism of the Pharisees amazing! The Pharisees practiced ritual washing of food. This was long before science taught us about germs and bacteria. It was a ritual, and yet it seems to be a ritual far ahead of its time for its practical value! Here was a ritual that made sense.
And yet, over time it had become little more than an empty ritual, a rule to be followed only because “we’ve always done it that way before.”
This morning we celebrate the baptism of Eleanor Louise Holen. This also is about ritual washing. And, it could end up being an empty ritual.
Her baptism could be like the ritual washing of food. We’ve always done it that way before. It’s what our family does. It’s what Lutherans do. Her baptism could be treated like a spiritual life insurance policy for the afterlife. And all of these things may satisfy human needs. But they don’t really answer the question, How does baptism give glory to God?
Baptism has power and meaning to the extent that it lays down a pattern for a person and a community to follow for a lifetime. Baptism is powerful not as ritual or as a tradition or as an exercise in self-interest. Whether the one who is baptized lives only a short time or many decades, baptism says, “We are in relation to God, as we are in relation to one another.”
This ritual washing symbolizes an attitude and a world-view. It says, Just as ritual washing reminds us that our bodies are daily in need of being cleansed, so also our hearts, minds, and attitudes are daily in need of being cleansed.
But baptism is not just about cleansing. It’s about dying. We use the language of drowning to describe how baptism begins a life-long habit of dying to ideas, habits and traditions that have become more about us than about God.
The beauty of our Lutheran tradition is that, in baptizing infants and children we say, “The earlier we start unlearning habits of the heart and mind the better!” Because right now young Eleanor believes herself to be the center of the universe. We don’t blame her for that; all of us are born with that self-understanding. But that belief in the course of a lifetime never completely disappears; we constantly are in need of cleansing, constantly in need of dying to ourselves.
For Eleanor, and any who are baptized, this new pattern of living is not likely to happen if left up to her alone. And so, in a few minutes we affirm the importance of a community: of family, yes, but also of sponsors and of a faith community. The language we use will sounds like what we’re used to hearing at weddings! Parents, and sponsors, and congregation all will be asked to promise to support and pray for young Eleanor as she grows in years. And your response is, “I do!” In the church we take these promises as seriously as we do wedding vows. So if you do not intend to pray for and support young Eleanor, don’t say, “I do”!
Baptism begins a pattern for a lifetime. Eleanor is just beginning the journey. One of the great joys for me this day is to affirm baptism as a lifetime commitment, and recommitment. Today we welcome Rev. Rick Pribbernow as an associate member of this congregation. We welcome him into our community of faith not through baptism, but through the Affirmation of Baptism. In him the Holy Spirit continues its work of cleansing, and renewing, and equipping him to die, in order to be re-born each day.
That same Holy Spirit desires nothing less each day for all of us! AMEN