Rev. Danielle K Bartz January 15, 2023
Matthew 3:13-17 “On Rivers and Dew”
Jerry Locula, licensed minister for racial justice at Peace UCC in Rochester, who has preached here on several occasions, is working towards his ordination. In his ordination paper he wrote about an event in his life that I had never heard him speak about before. And, with his permission, I want to share it with you now.
Jerry grew up in a farming community in Liberia. His elementary school was a missionary school run by the United Methodists and the principle was a Methodist minister, who, upon the completion of the school year, invited the entire school to attend his church on a Sunday morning. Jerry, already deeply spiritual, had a growing interest in Christianity, so he was excited to go. At around 10 years old, he was one of the first to arrive to church that Sunday morning. The minister that day was not the school’s principle, but a Methodist bishop who traveled to the church to lead worship. It was the first Sunday of the month, the day that church, like ours, participated in the sacrament of Communion. The bishop first invited the adults to come forward to receive the elements and Jerry, for whom this was a new experience, watched closely as the people knelt at the rail, crossed themselves, and received communion. After the adults, the bishop invited the children to come forward. Jerry excitedly went forward and did what he had seen the adults do – he knelt at the rail, crossed himself, and received Communion for the first time. Jerry wrote that it was a deeply spiritual and powerful experience for him.
But, as he went back to his seat, the school’s principle, another Methodist minister, came up to Jerry and asked him to confirm that he had received communion. Jerry, who was used to praise from his teachers, proudly said that he had. The principle then bent down, put his hands on either of Jerry’s arms and said, “You took communion without being baptized! You will die!” Jerry was shocked and terrified. A young boy, he took the minister’s words as truth. So when the bishop, who was still leading worship, asked if anyone had a prayer request for the day, Jerry ran to the front of the sanctuary, crying out, “Please pray for me, I am going to die!” The bishop, after having Jerry explain to him what he meant, quietly explained that Jerry would not die. Still rattled, Jerry did eventually calm down. However, the scandal of what he had done was just heating up.
As Jerry explains, it was considered deeply problematic for children in his community to act out like that. Both the audacity of Jerry going forward to receive communion and then running and yelling in church for prayers, was considered unruly. The people in town were talking. Some of the children mocked him, and many of the adults said that he had been cursed because of the pronouncement of the principle that his actions would result in death. Several people from the town went to Jerry’s parents and told them that something needed to be done. Their suggestion was for Jerry to receive what was called a ‘holy bath,’ a cleansing that would be done by the medicine men of the community. This ‘holy bath’ would wash off the bad luck or the curse that had marred Jerry. Jerry’s mother, however, did not believe that Jerry had done anything wrong, nor that he needed to be cleansed of a curse. But she also believed that Jerry needed to be reminded of God’s protection in his life, no matter what others had said.
So, the next morning, very early before most of the community was up, she took Jerry on a walk along a path through the bush to the family farm. This path was through dense vegetation, which in the early morning, was covered in dew. Having Jerry walk in front of her, she said to him, “God will protect you,” and walking through the dew-laden vegetation, Jerry received a baptism, a holy bath, a cleansing of any fear or trouble that was given to him by God without the interference of human hands. It was a sacrament, that while initiated by his mother, was done by God and God alone.
Jerry went on to be baptized in the church, and I believe he will soon be ordained into ministry in the United Church of Christ, but it was the story of that early morning walk through the dew that Jerry describes as his true baptism. A baptism that was a holy mess, not one that had been sanitized by human interference, but rather one that used the waters of the earth – the waters of the earth that create and sustain life. A baptism that hearkened back to the moment of creation when God looked at the formless void, called forth life, and named it good. A baptism that reminds us of its true purpose – to, as Jerry’s mother prophesied, to be a reminder that in and through all things, God will protect.
Often, too often, in Christianity, the sacraments are used as a way to contain the blessings of God. Rules are placed around them that declare who is worthy and who is not. They become formulaic, doctrinal, and, in word a used before, sanitized. But, that is not how they began. Jesus’ baptism was anything but sanitized or formulaic. He, along with a large crowd of people compelled by the words of John, went to the river Jordan in an act of piety and hope. They waded into the murky waters of the Jordan, and if you don’t know the Jordan did not then and does not now have crystal clear water. It was mixed with silt, used for washing, humans and animals frequented the water. There was nothing clean about it, but the people still waded into the water to be washed clean. Washed clean of all that was holding them back from what God hoped for them. Washed clean of the assumptions of unworthiness. Washed clean of apathy. Washed clean of all that was keeping them separated from God.
And Jesus, in the midst of this mass of human messiness, wades in as well. John at first argues with him, saying that Jesus does not need to baptized, indeed Jesus needed to be the one doing the baptizing. But Jesus disagrees. He steps into the murky waters of the Jordan along with his neighbors and emerges drenched in the reminder of God’s creation, and in so doing is reminded of God’s name for humanity – My Beloved.
And I can’t help but wonder, if the prophecy of Jerry’s mother, “God will protect you,” was in fact an echo of that moment. A reminder to Jerry of the name God had for him in the moment of creation – My Beloved. And it is a reminder to all of us, that as we move through this world we can do so certain of that name for ourselves – Beloved. And we can do so certain of God’s protection.
Some of us remember our baptisms, others of us do not. Some of us can claim the name Beloved, and others of us cannot yet. Some of us are certain of God’s protection, and others of us remain skeptical. But the great extraordinary gift of God is that it is not entirely on us. We have been marked, not just because of our baptisms, but because of our creation, as one of God’s own, and God therefore goes with us whether we are aware of it or not. God was there in the murky waters of the Jordan. God was there in the dew-covered brush of Jerry’s childhood. God was there in our neat and tidy church baptisms, and God is there in all those moments when we have and when we will be reminded that nothing can separate us from the love of God. Sometimes those moments come unexpectedly, when we are least prepared. And other times they come with our intention.
I invite you to that intention this week. I invite you to seek a moment to remember your name, Beloved, to remember your baptism, and to remember God’s protective presence in your life. Whether it be here at our baptismal font by dipping your hand into the water, or along one of the many rivers of our region, or with just a moment of sacred pause – lifting a word of thanks and awe. I invited you to remember who and whose you are. Amen.
God of creation, you looked upon a formless void and called forth life and named it good. You created each of us in the waters of this world and named us Beloved. For this creation, we give you great thanks and it is in this gratitude that we come before you in prayer.
God, we know that you walk with us and all of humanity through all the turmoil of this world, but there are times when we cannot remember that. Help us, when we are uncertain of your protective presence, to be assured of it again. Help us to notice that you are always reaching out, and give us the strength to reach back.
As we pray for this strength for ourselves, we also pray for it for all of this world. We pray for our neighbors and strangers, those who are certain of your love and those who are not. In these moments of silence, we lift our many prayers to you, certain that you hear…
God who stirred the waters of creation, we thank you for all that you have done and continue to do for this world. We pray all of this in the name of Jesus Christ, your Beloved Son, our friend and savior, who taught us to pray together…Our Father…