This Lent, Mother Sarah and I are trying something a little different with our sermons, and offering a series that follows Rowan Williams’ book Being Christian. which we’re inviting everyone to read along with us. The book explores four basic Christian practices: baptism, Bible, Eucharist, and prayer. Each of our sermons during Lent will reflect a little more deeply on one of those practices, and more importantly, what difference they might make in our lives.
I re-read the chapter in the book about baptism this week, and spent a lot of time ruminating about which angle to take on baptism. On Friday night, I still hadn’t landed on anything (which is rare for me). Melissa and I attended Opera Omaha’s production of Puccini’s The Girl of the Golden West, and I was handed a brilliant, three-hour meditation on baptism.
The opera is set in a mining camp in California during the 19th-century gold rush. The heroine of the story is a woman named Minnie, who acts as a mother, sister, teacher, pastor, and love interest to the hard living miners in the camp. The man she actually falls for turns out to be the incognito leader of a local band of outlaws. In the climactic scene, the miners are moments away from killing him after they’ve discovered his true identity. An impassioned Minnie reminds the men of what she has previously taught them: that with God, no one is beyond redemption, anyone can be saved. She reminds them of the kindnesses they’ve all shared together. She reminds them that she loves the man, and that they love her, and ultimately convinces them to let him go.
The story of the opera is basically a dramatic rendering of how Bishop Williams approaches baptism in his book. The word in Greek basically means “to be dipped.” When we are baptized, we are dipped (so to speak) in water, but we are also dipped into the death and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus himself represents how God was dipped, baptized, into the human family, the way God comes to be immersed in the fullness of our experience.
Williams reminds us of how God, in Jesus, is baptized into the full chaos and brokenness, and suffering of our world in order to pull us out of it, and restore us to the love and peace we were originally created for. To be a baptized person in the world, then, means to be committed to diving into the suffering of the world in order to join Jesus in buoying it up with love and hope.
That’s exactly what Minnie does in Puccini’s opera. The miners live hard lives. The work is endless, the fortunes uncertain, the law is fickle and chaotic, the weather always threatening, and the violence quick to break out. Minnie immerses herself in all of it. She can play cards and drink whiskey with the best of them, she cares for them, nurtures them, teaches them, and tries to nudge them in the right direction. She reminds them at every turn that nothing is too broken to be fixed. No one is too far gone to be saved. No one is too rough to be loved.
That’s what Jesus has done and continues to do for us, and it’s what we commit our lives to doing when we are baptized. The purpose of our lives is to join Jesus in the brokenness and suffering and chaos of the world, and proclaim over and over and over that nothing is too broken to be fixed, no one is too far gone to be saved, no one is too rough to be loved.
That’s why we do so much outreach to the poor, the needy, and the vulnerable here at Trinity. We don’t care for refugees, feed the hungry, and offer support to victims of sexual violence just because we’re nice people. We do it because Jesus is always in the business of drawing closest to the people who are most neglected and abused and forgotten by our broken world. We go there because Jesus goes there.
We do this in here, not just because our liturgy is nice and beautiful and fulfilling or even because it’s interesting. Jesus doesn’t ask the church to be a club that exists for its own members. Jesus asks the church, and the baptized people who are its living stones, to plunge themselves over and over and over into the deepest suffering and heartache and pain in our world, and remind that world over and over that nothing is too broken to be fixed, no one is too far gone to be saved, no one is too rough to be loved.
You’ll hear me say this again at Easter, but resurrection doesn’t mean anything if it doesn’t account for the fact that death is real. Resurrection as an idea, or a metaphor, is nice, but it doesn’t mean anything when the world is so full of pain and death that we all know are all too real.
Baptism doesn’t save us from death or suffering. In doesn’t mean we get to avoid spending time in the miner’s camp. Baptism means we join Jesus in the daily, head first dive into the stormy waters of our lives. While we’re out there, while we’re down there, our job is to remind everyone who is swirling in the chaos that no one is beyond the reach of God’s love. You can think about that every time you walk by that font back there. You have been baptized so that you can dive with Jesus into the deepest waters, and lend an extra set of hands to his work of drawing all those who are drowning in loneliness and fear and suffering into the freedom and love and peace they were made for. Amen.