May the grace, mercy and peace of God our Father be with us in the name of his son, our risen Lord and Savior Jesus Christ; Amen.
I just love good baptismal stories. Most of us don't have anything too exciting about our baptisms to share; since I imagine most of us here were raised Lutheran, chances are you probably don't even remember yours. You were too young since your parents, grandparents and godparents brought you to this font or one like it to have some water sprinkled over your heads in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
My own baptismal story isn't all that exciting, even though I do remember it. It was at Linden Lutheran church on a Sunday in early June of 1973 when I was 9 years old. My late brother, Russ, and I were the only two of the five Wolfe kids who had never been baptized as infants, as our births fell during the years that our parents were not active in a faith community. Interestingly enough, when my father started his own business, suddenly he took an interest in God, faith and prayer! Anyway, while I do not remember the details, I do remember the highlights – Russ and I were baptized, the entire family was received as church members, and we went to Cincinnati that afternoon to see our Reds play against the Pittsburgh Pirates! An all-around great day, and even though I didn't see the skies open and a dove descend nor did I hear a heavenly voice proclaim me God's beloved son, I have always considered that to be one of the most important days in my life, for it was a day when God acted to claim me as his own and begin to walk with me in a special, intimate way.
I have been in on some baptisms of people which have been much more dramatic – of children born far too premature to survive on their own who, because of modern technology are today healthy and happy; of older people who never had the opportunity to be baptized, and for whom it really made a difference.
I remember baptizing my own Aunt Betty when I was first ordained – she was suffering from congestive heart failure and had never been baptized, so my cousins, her children, called me into the hospital and we got some water and baptized this 70 year old woman in 1990. To our amazement, Betty made a full recovering from her illness and lived another 10 years, to be 80 and to enjoy her family and friends another decade. It was the evening following her funeral in 2000 when Lucy went into labor with our daughter Hannah. There are so many wonderful connections that come to mind when I think of Aunt Betty's baptism.
In about my second year as pastor here, one of the members of our congregation who doesn't get to worship anymore, Jim Carr, wanted to speak with me. His wife, Lena, passed away and he had searched everywhere and could not find proof that he himself had been baptized. I assured him that God certainly finds a way to work salvation for those who never get baptized, but he did not want to even think about eternal life without his beloved late wife; so, one weekday afternoon we poured some water into the font and I baptized him in an empty church – an act more of pastoral care and assurance than an act of welcome into God's family, but it was a sacramental sign of God's love nonetheless.
What is your story of baptism? Who are your godparents? Where did it happen? How old were you? Sometimes over the years the parents or grandparents, or even the congregation acted as godparents or sponsors for the newly baptized. Recently while looking up information for Frances Ohrstedt, I found out that on March 27, 1955, 17 people were baptized here at Clinton Heights Lutheran Church, including Frances Ohrstedt, her brother Chuck, and some other names, most of them not recognizable. The Ohrstedts don't seem to remember the details, and I haven't been able to get hold of any of the other recognizable names to ask either, but I would love to hear the story of that particular day 60 years ago.
What is your baptismal story? Were you baptized alone, or were there others with you? I recently read a story about two pastors who are also husband and wife. They preached a dialogue sermon together about baptism, one that was appropriate for teaching members of their congregation what Lutherans believe about Baptism. After the church service a long-time member of the congregation, 90 years old, came up to the pastors and asked, “Is it really true? God is the one who baptizes a person?” They soon learned that her older sister was born extremely ill, without much hope for her to be able to leave the house, let alone survive for long. As a result, the grandmother baptized the baby in their own home; when she died and her parents approached the pastor about the funeral, the pastor refused to perform the funeral in the sanctuary because he had not baptized the baby. The funeral for this 3 month old girl was held in the church basement and 90 years later her sister was still wondering about it. She asked, “So, my sister is ok?” I know with confidence that yes – your sister is with God because no matter who does the baptizing or where it happens, it is really God who is at work in and through the common earthly element of water, and the words of God spoken through human voices.
Jesus' story of baptism is our story, not because there may be similarities in them, but because God is at work in and through all of these actions that are visible words of grace and love. Instead of merely speaking words, Holy Baptism helps us to feel the water meet our skin, wash us clean of our sin, and bring us into a new relationship with God in a way that is not possible for us to accomplish on our own.
In your bulletins are inserts that merely say, “The story of my baptism” at the top. I encourage you to take some time during this service to put down what you remember about your baptism – either personally, or what you have been told about it. I have placed baskets in the front pew on either side of the aisle; place your paper in one of those baskets this morning, or somehow get them to me in the next couple of weeks. You don't have to sign them, it is purely anonymous. I am going to create a bulletin board and tack these half-sheets onto it because the story of Jesus' baptism is not only the story of your own baptism, but it is the story of the baptismal life of our congregation and of the Christian church in the world today.
God has welcomed all of us into his own family through this holy sacrament. God's work is never the same for all people, so we all have different stories of this holy event. May the God of new life continue to walk with you through all that you celebrate and suffer until you walk with God over the threshold and into the place of perfect healing and peace. And may this same God work through us to baptize and claim more and more people for God's family in the weeks and months to come, so that God's story of grace and welcome just keeps on growing in and through this wonderful family of faith! Thanks be to God; Amen.