Dorothy Churn LaPenta
First and Franklin Presbyterian Church – January 10, 2021
Mark 1: 4-11
There was a difference between John’s baptism and Jesus’ baptism. John’s baptism required confession from the people gathered and once they repented, they were able to be washed
in the waters of baptism and given a new beginning.
Jesus’ baptism was different because all Jesus had to do was to come to the water and ask to be baptized. In Jesus’ Baptism, although the water is important, the Holy Spirit has the central role. It is the Spirit rather than the washing that affects the transformation and claims Jesus as God’s beloved Son. Jesus is given identity, belonging and a faithful mission
to be carried out in his life and ministry, his death and resurrection.
As Christians and specifically Presbyterians, we come to the water as well, the baptismal font. We are asked to renounce evil and the power it has in the world to defy God’s righteousness and love. Jesus did this following his baptism. In the wilderness, he rejected
the power that sought to control him and turn him against God.
At our baptism, we are also asked if we accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior trusting in his grace and love and will we follow him? Because that it the faith we are given as Christians.
It is Christ’s faith that manifests God’s good intention in the world that is given to us at baptism. The presence of this faith in the world is the church and the mission of the church. Our presence and our work in the world as a faith community is important.
Parents bring children to the baptismal font and answer the questions on their behalf because we believe that God is the active agent in Baptism and we are embraced in God’s grace and love even before we can understand it.
As with Jesus baptism, we are sealed with the Holy Spirit so that our hearts, our minds and our lives can become instruments for bringing unity, justice and peace to the world. Baptism brings us together wanting to continue Jesus’ ministry to care for the world and to love our neighbors as ourselves.
But, let me be very clear about what Baptism is not. Baptism does not mean that God loves us better than God’s other children. This sacrament does not give us preferential seating at the heavenly banquet. We do not become God’s favorite child. It does not mean that we have all the answers and a special “in” on God’s thinking. It does not negate nor disparage
siblings of other faith traditions. Baptism is not a club membership. In our Reformed tradition, we do not believe it is the means of salvation. (That would be the cross.)
In no way is the Sacrament of Baptism intended to send us into our exclusive little corners. Baptism is not a haven or a refuge from the peris of the world. It calls us to the perils of the world. Baptism should not make our minds smaller, but much larger, anticipating all that
God is capable of doing in the world, much of it quite beyond our understanding at the time.
Baptism is not exclusionary because the God reveled to us in the pages of scripture is a welcoming and inclusive God who directs us to love one another and to remove the
barriers that keep us from that love.
Interestingly though the Rev. Eugene Peterson in his devotion, “No Outsiders” says that our human tendency is not for inclusion. We have a leaning to do more excluding than including because our experience in the world has often been one of not fitting in. We look around and others seem so confident, so sure of themselves, like secure insiders who know the ropes. So, one of the ways we have of responding to this is to form our own club where we are “in” and others are “out.” The clubs may be political, social, cultural or economical, but what they have in common is the principle of exclusion. Identity or worth is achieved
by excluding all but the chosen.
And Peterson boldly states that, unfortunately, religion has a long history of doing just this, reducing the mysteries and workings of God to the respectability of club rules, of shrinking the vast human community into membership and non-membership. And then Peterson writes that the terrible price we pay for keeping others out so that we can savor the sweetness of being insiders is a reduction of reality, the shrinkage of life because with God,
there are no outsiders. Everything belongs. Everything fits in. Really?? Do you believe that?
As 2021 began, I decided to re-read Richard Rohr’s book, “Everything Belongs.” It’s so interesting to go back to a book you have read several times and see what was underlined and wonder about what you were thinking as phrases, words and sentences were highlighted.
It’s a book largely about contemplative prayer, but the basic theme is “In God, everything belongs.”
Well, this past week, specifically on Wednesday afternoon in front of my TV, I don’t know how you reacted, but I found myself kicking back and angrily resisting this very thought, “No, no, no! Everything does not belong: hatred, injustice, violence, the images I was seeing on the television. The fact that a white man could enter the senate chamber and sit in the vice president’s chair does not belong especially knowing that if he had been a person of color, he would have been shot. Delusional thinking, white supremacy- no, no, no! Everything does not belong. And Wednesday was just the culmination of so much behavior that, in my opinion, does NOT belong in God’s purview. “Go home and take your small
minds, your bigotry and hatred with you because you do not fit in to my God’s intentions. You do not belong!”
I set the book aside only to realize that my thoughts were preoccupied with this statement that “In God, everything belongs’’ and how Richard Rohr reconciles this with the pain and the suffering that comes from such deep divisions among people, how those divisions get stoked and the horrific actions that can result. Richard Rohr is one of my spiritual mentors. Even though I had read this book before, this time around and after the week’s events, I
was not getting what he was trying to convey. “In God, everything belongs? No!” So, I started thinking about what it means to us to “fit in, to belong.”
Let’s face it! “Fitting in” matters to us. It is one of the most constitutive elements of our identity. We are created for connection. We seek friendship circles, community organizations, faith communities, family and work environments where we “fit in,” where we feel like we belong. Our life stories are very much about places, people and experiences
where we have “fit in.”
There is an exhibit that has caught my interest at New York’s New Museum called: Grief and Grievance: Art and Mourning in America. It features X ray pictures of funerial jugs. This was a tradition brought over by enslaved people from the Bakongo culture in central Africa, and it became a tradition among some African Americans in the south. These jugs would be buried with people filled with items that told their individual story. Terry Adkins who took the photographs for this exhibit writes that most of the time the story of African Americans and their forebears are distilled into a sweeping narrative of questing for dignity and citizenship, figuring where they belong and fit-in beyond the dictates of where society has placed them. And these narratives are important. But he says that what is so often overlooked are the individual stories of where these people felt a sense of belonging and these funerial jugs tell the story; a hobby horse toy, a pewter spoon, a mother of pearl hair comb, a pocket watch, buttons, a calico dress. These X ray pictures transform the jugs into heavenly bodies encouraging contemplation and telling a story of “these items
represent where I fit into this world.”
We seek to have a place, to fit in where we are nurtured, supported, accepted for who we are; a safe space where we can trust, grow, discover and even take good risks that stretch us to a potential where we can become our best selves. We seek this, we need this.
It’s part of our life story.
But, it’s fragile because our circumstances change, we change, friends and relationships change, awarenesses surface. The church where you felt so at home as a child growing up may have made you squirm as teenager when you became aware of something true about you that would never fit in to the community’s way of thinking. Perhaps, you were this dynamo in your career, people sought your wisdom, sat at your feet waiting for your every word, respected your knowledge and the way you mentored. But then one day, things
changed; technology came on board, new leadership emerged, new models for doing things and you no longer fit-in.
Fitting in with people and places that lift us up and edify us is what we seek. But it’s fragile and tenuous and changeable.
Then, fitting-in is not always good. Richard Rohr writes that those who rely solely on “fitting in” to define their identity before discovering their own essence often end up with hardened and overly defended views and practices. They easily trade one identity for another when one lets them down. They live only in reaction to things, being over and against something all the time. They give up boundaries before they have them, seeking identity and worth only in a group, an experience, a possession, a person, an ideology, a false history that makes them feel strong and powerful over others and becomes a
substitute for the hard work of growing up. Fitting in part of life. It can be good…….. or not.
Fitting in with God is different. It moves beyond the tenuous, the fragile, the changeable, the uncertain. Because in God, there is always a place for us.
As Jennifer Kantrowitz writes in her book, The Long Night “God is with us, walking next to us for however long it takes. God does not offer a short-term grace until God gets tired and decides that grace isn’t working and it’s time for another approach. God is with us for the long haul. We will always fit in because in God, everything belongs. There are no outsiders.
There is always a place for us.
That does not mean that there is a place for hatred, injustice, bigotry, exploitation and evil. But God doesn’t shy away from these perils, but takes them onto God’s own shoulders, carries the yoke and the weight that these horrors bring to the world and defeats and transforms them. This is what Richard Rohr means when he writes that In God, everything belongs. God’s very self takes on the suffering and horrors of the world in order to redeem
This is the hope into which we can live. This is the faith we have been given. This is the message we can carry into the world.
In my railing against the images, the people, the faces I saw on the television and the righteous anger I felt in my bones, in my quest to push these people off the island, I knew
that coming face to face, God’s words to me would be:
“Hey, I am not only your God. I am their God as well.” How, I don’t want to hear that at times. Why does my Bible always fall open to “Love your neighbor,” not to mention the times it falls open to “Love your enemies. Figure it out”?
In no way does that mean that certain behaviors, actions and powers that own our hearts are acceptable. Truth and confrontation are part of the everything that belongs to God
where redemption and a new way are always on the table.
I am too small a thinker at times to be able to even process the capaciousness of God, but I do understand how often we try to make God look like us when the work to which we are called is to go into the world and look like God. You are the faith community of First and Franklin Presbyterian Church. You are already doing this in many ways. Celebrate the ministry that takes place at the corner of Madison and Park and be committed to every aspect of this place, even the hard parts like caring for buildings. Continue to look like God.
Figure it out.
As a Christian community, baptized into the church of Jesus Christ, sealed by the Holy Spirit, we must understand that our baptism moves us beyond small thinking. It gives us an invitation to listen to a voice beyond our own with an expansive view of all that is
possible in a God who welcomes and desires for everything and everyone to belong. As Brian McLaren has written
“The universe is God’s creative project filled with beauty, opportunity, challenge and meaning. It runs on the meaning or pattern we see embodied in the life of Jesus. Newness multiplies. Freedom grows. Meaning expands. Wisdom flows Healing happens. Goodness runs wild. “
Even with the bumps and the curves and the detours along the way, as people of faith may we join the journey of the road marked God’s creative project as we fit into God’s plan and God’s grace and invite others along the way.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen!
Kantrowitz, Jessica. The Long Night: Readings and Stories to Help You Through Depression. Fortress Press, Minneapolis: 2020.
McFadden, Syreeta. “How to Remember A Life” in The Atlantic. Vol. 327 #1, January- February 2021, pp 26-27.
McLaren, Brian. Quote.
Perkins, Pheme. The Gospel of Mark in New Interpreter’s Bible. Abingdon Press, Nashville: 1995, pp. 534-537.
Peterson, Eugene. “No Outsiders” in Living The Message. Harper, San Francisco:1996, pp. 251-252.
Rigby, Cynthia. Holding Faith: A Practical Introduction to Christian Doctrine. Abingdon Press, Nashville: 2018,
Rohr, Richard. Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer. Crossroad Publishing, New York: 1999.
Stookey, Laurence Hill. Baptism: Christ’s Act in the Church. Abingdon Press; Nashville: 1982.
Wall, Robert. The Acts of the Apostles in New Interpreter’s Bible. Abingdon Press, Nashville: 1995, pp. 262-263.