Grace Cathedral in San Francisco
Garrison Keillor, patron saint of Lutheranism, talks about baptism this way as he recounts a trip to the Episcopal Cathedral in San Francisco: “I went to church in San Francisco on Sunday, the big stone church on Nob Hill… there with considerable pomp we baptized a dozen infants into the fellowship of faith and we renounced the evil powers of this world, which all in all is a good day’s work. . . .
And here, this morning, in a city famous for eccentricity, we strangers in a cathedral embrace other people’s children and promise to fight the good fight in their behalf, a ceremony that never fails to bring tears to my eyes. We renounce evil powers. I renounce isolation and separation and the splendid anonymity of the Internet and the doink-doink-doink of the clicker propelling me through six Web sites in five minutes. I vow to put my feet on the ground and walk through town and make small talk with clerks and call my [friends] on the phone and put money in the busker’s hat. We welcome the infants into our herd and though some of them sob bitter tears at the prospect, they are now in our hearts and in our prayers and we will not easily let them go.”
“…they are now in our hearts and in our prayers and we will not easily let them go.”
If you’re a lifelong Lutheran, you were probably baptized as a baby. If you’re like me and were raised evangelical, you probably weren’t, but it’s likely that you were baptized as a kid. If you weren’t raised Christian, you might’ve been baptized as an adult. As for me, I was baptized as a precocious and overactive ten year old, exactly twenty years ago this past July. This may come as a shock, but I never quite fit in with the Southern Baptists. In addition to the obvious problems, among them being called to ministry while also being an obvious girl, I had too many questions and loved the smells and bells of liturgy too much. But being born and first claimed by God there has also served me: I have unending compassion to this day for fundamentalist evangelicals and a deep knowledge of the content of the Bible.
No matter when baptism happens — whether it happens when you’re an infant or a two year old or a thirty-five year old, whether in happens in the denomination you end up in for life or not — it always means the same thing to us Lutherans. You were named and claimed by God that day. It is the day the Church universal, of which we are a part, told you that you were named and claimed, that you are now in our hearts and our prayers and that we will not easily let you go.
There’s a reason some people still refer to a baptism as a “christening” when it happens to an infant: it used to be where babies were officially named as well as baptized. And today, it is where we are given identities as Christians: where God and the Church make the claim that we will not easily be let go. I dare say that it’s where God makes the claim that we will not be let go at all.
If you’ve ever left home for awhile, you know something about this. Parker, for example, was down South for ten years and out of her hometown for even longer. Her parents stayed and were pillars of their little joint Presbyterian-UCC congregation. In addition, she also chose to begin going by her middle name in that time, furthering the confusion of those who stayed behind in Saratoga Springs. Still, when she would return to that little church on break, she had only to mention her last name to be welcomed back to that little church as family. “Oh! You’re one of the Diggory children! We love your parents. Welcome home.”
As a new pastor, I haven’t yet met everyone’s entire family, but I know that if anyone shows up with the last name of Terkelsen or Steininger or Person or Pueschel or Wells or any number of other last names, they are to be let into the building and welcomed post-haste. “Oh, yes — I know that name! You’re one of ours! Welcome home!”
It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been away or whether anyone recognizes you: if you’ve been named as a community’s own, they know you, even if it’s just by name. Once you’ve been named and claimed, you will not easily be let go.
One of my favorite stories about baptism comes from rapper Dave Scherer’s presentation at the ELCA worship jubilee one year. He talked about how we are named and baptized as kids, but as we grow up, people give us other, much less kind names. He talked about how remembering your baptism is remembering what God says about you: that you are beloved and claimed and one of God’s own. In baptism, every false word that will ever be said about us is washed away, and God’s word alone stands. Dave said that he puts his son to bed every night with these words: “I love you, your mom loves you, and God loves you, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”
You are named and claimed. You will not be let go.
I saw a cartoon this week by the Wesley Brothers, a Methodist cartoon that occasionally follows the liturgical calendar. It featured Martin Luther, so it caught my attention. It’s called, “Martin Luther Belittles a Protestant”:
I love Luther. Anyhow. Point is: God loves you and there’s nothing you can do about it. Love is stronger than death, stronger than physical or mental illness, stronger than sin, stronger than addiction, stronger than us. You are named and claimed, and you will always be welcomed home.
In a world that wants to claim us for so much else: are you liberal or conservative? Democrat or Republican? Are you for the Patriots or some other team? In this world that longs to label and dismiss us, we make the outrageous claim that God has named and claimed us for life. Because of Jesus, we continually welcome each other home in spite of any other labels that have been given to us: names like addict. Alcoholic. Homeless. Crazy. Unemployed. Too old. Too young. Too liberal. Too conservative. Neurotic.
Failure. Flop. Flaky.
While the world would rather label and dismiss, we have the audacity to claim that it’s God who names us first, and that God’s word about us alone stands forever. That God loves us, and that we love each other, and there’s nothing we can do about it. That we have been named and claimed and will not be let go. That, my friends, is good news not only for us, but for the world. When we say “Go in peace, tell the good news” at the end of the service, this is what we mean: that in Christ we are named and claimed, and in baptism every other word that is said about us is washed away so that God’s word alone stands. We are beloved. We are family. We belong to God and to the Church, and we will not be let go.
And, considering how many words will be said about all of us in our lifetimes, that is good news indeed. So let us, as Black folk sometimes say in the South, run and tell that. Thanks be to God. Amen.