Knots After the Water

April 24, 2016

by Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper
Senior Minister


Today I come to you as diluter in chief, ready to make a case for original sin. I will base my case in Michelle Alexander’s theology and that of St. Paul. St. Paul argues that all, as in everyone, as in you and me and them, that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. No one can become new until they realize how distant we are from glory. Michelle Alexander, brilliant author of the New Jim Crow, argues that we Americans need to get in touch with our inner criminality. She borrows heavily from the theology of James Baldwin, who tells us that he has only one accusation for his country. Get over your innocence. Baldwin and Alexander argue that our innocence, our refusal to be wrong about anything, turns us into people who wrong. We let white students do crack at parties and imprison black people for drugs. Neither goes all the way back to original sin but both head there.

As diluter in chief, as someone who respects orthodox Christianity and knows most people don’t and can’t, I want to tell you how my syncretism works. And how it works all the way back to St. Paul.

The Knot of Our Baptism is that we are both saints and sinners, created to head straight for glory but all fallen. I was baptized on the 7th day of my life. I found out later why. My tribe actually believed that if I died before I baptized I would go to hell. Yes, I find that more than a little extreme. I have lost respect for that version of hell, the kind that condemns unbaptized children to eternal suffering. Simultaneously, I have gained respect for hell. And for what baptism prevents.

Let’s start with baptism, the subject about which Christians love to fuss more than any others. The very fuss dilutes the meaning of baptism but I am less interested in that today. I am interested in what baptism really means. I am interested in the more interesting dilutions, the ones that mix us up and spit us out into the great unnavigable sea of life.

Baptism means that even innocent children can be sinners and will be sinners. Baptism announces where that beautiful baby is going. She is going to join the human race and she will become part of the great unwashed. The water of baptism is a sign of the glory of God and how we an return again and again to glory. A sacrament is an outward sign of an inner grace. In baptism we wash the child before he has had much chance to sin. Or, if you are another kind of baptizer, we ask the child to embrace the grace of God when he or she comes to age. Or, if you are Jewish, like Eleanor Harrison, a former Community Minister puts it in her newsletter this week, come to the baby naming at the synagogue today and we are all invited to her baptism tomorrow at Advent Lutheran Church. I have three children who were named and baptized and I had Passover with all three of them yesterday. I have three grandchildren, none of whom were baptized. Yes, we had a unique Seder.

In my denomination, the UCC today, we have a great debate going on about Baptism. We have the low bar baptism people, like me, where if somebody calls up and asks to have the baby done, we do the baby. We dilute baptism in order to make it accessible for people like me, who are multiple and multiplying in our sense of God. We also have the high baptism bar people where the parents have to join the church, pay the dues and not just promise to raise the children in Christianity but sign the Sunday school roster for a dozen years. These are the baptismal concentrators and intensifiers. They have a good argument.

In sum they argue that Christianity is a big thing and that it takes a lifetime to learn. I agree with them here. As Lauren Mead, founder of the Alban Institute puts it in his great Southern Drawl; “you can’t take a 20 dollar plant and put it in a one dollar hole. It won’t grow and it won’t thrive.” He is right. The gardener in me knows how important it is to dig a good hole if you want to plant something that flourishes. The high bar baptismal people have a great argument. It is just not accessible to most people today. They don’t have time to join a church, probably won’t live in the same community for very long and know that the F and Q train rarely work efficiently on weekends.

At my congregation in Miami we had intense struggles on this matter, mostly because the gay friendly Cubans in Miami, all 600 of them, who had left the well dug hole of the Roman Catholic Church and wanted to raise their children in the UCC or one of its greatly diluted clones, would come to us in droves asking us to baptize their babies. They had no intention of hanging around but they did want to dress the baby up and do it early and invite all their relatives to a something that looked like the old world. Baptisms were mostly done for the abuelas.

We developed a well-diluted compromise. We charged the families 80 dollars for the baptism. That meant it is was about as good as child care or soccer. They had to attend two sessions with one of the ministers and become a group and talk about their hopes for their children. They all came. They all made friends with each other because they were all spiritually stuck in the same boat. Because they were able to find a friend, who also had a newborn, many of them stuck to the Coral Gables congregational Church. The baptism was relatively inconsequential. We started them at 1 in the four corners of the building and went till about 3, often doing 12 – 16 baby waterings per Sunday. Call us the diluters in chief. We made a little opening in a closed door. We dug a little bit of the hole to make people understand that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. The Glory was the point, not the sin. But we weren’t ignoring the sin either.

I heard Rev. Barber of Moral Mondays speak again this week. He said a couple of morally intense things. One was he said he didn’t want a leader who said he could fix things or make all things new. He said he was looking for a well-cultivated leader; one who knew how deep the trouble was and was willing to embrace the difficulties of leadership. He was looking for a leader who knew how to say, “I don’t know how but, with you, I will try.” Another was a savvy point about Trump. Trump, said he, ain’t the problem. He’s just a face for the actual policies of the Republican party. He said “Well-baptized people know a sinner when they see him. Well-baptized people know how to think and see what is really going on, including what is really going on inside themselves.”

As diluter in chief, I’d like to head for the meaning and not just the face of the meaning. Quickie baptisms, like we did in Florida, are just the face of the meaning of baptism. Its meaning is that we all will sin and fall short of the glory of God. Its meaning is that even if we become President of the United States, we will still be shackled in what we can do to make a difference. Rev. Barber said he wanted a leader who knew how to repent and who knew how to be born again an again.

I have often joked that my diluted theology came actually from my being a born again pagan. I’m not kidding. I follow a convicted felon and join the people who baptize in his name. Rev. Barber also made the strongest case I have heard yet for transgender rights. “Whenever they want to confuse you, they stir up sexual and racial fears.” Isn’t it odd that people think sin in North Carolina and beyond is about bathrooms? When clearly it is about dehumanizing the people you like to call sinners because you imagine you are Christian? I may be sinning right now, in my protest against a certain kind of Christians. I may not know how to help it.

Michelle Alexander also notes the sins that abound in we diluters and born again pagans. She says in a way that chills me to my core that the most violence happens in the most diverse nations. By that she surely means my nation. We are much more tribal than we admit. We are much more sinful than we dare to admit.

So in the few minutes we have left, can we talk about sin? Sin is falling short of the glory of God. The glory. The place where we are bound. You can emphasize either of Paul’s lines. You can walk around yelling all have sinned or whisper about the glory of God. Lots of people do both weakly. I’d like to do both nimbly. Self-flagellation is our favorite game. Republicans are especially interested in the sins of sex. Democrats are especially interested in the sins committed on the way to democratic pluralism. Neither of us are getting very far. Maybe we need to be baptized again and again as well as born again and again. Or abolish the words ought and should or must or at least put ourselves on a diet of five should a day. I did that once, as a writer, with exclamation points. The diet really helped. Examples: We must get rid of racism or racist attitudes. We must set a high bar for baptism in order to create better Christians. We should not be so racist. We should raise our children well and dig deep holes for them in which to thrive. We should not let children use tablets. By the way at our Seder yesterday my six-year-old grandson and four year old granddaughter got three dollars each for finding the hidden Afikomen. It is part of the ritual of the Seder, to hide it and for the grandfather to give a prize. First, showing their glory, they pooled their money, deciding they would share it. Secondly, showing their perfidy, they whispered to me, that they were saving for an IPAD. Quoting Caleb, “Every Jewish kid I now has an IPAD.” Should they have their own IPAD? Perhaps at infant baptism, we should register the kids for an email account and get them a cell phone? We Should? We should not? Neither. What about more focus on what we may do and might do? Like head straight for the glory of God.

You know the Passover story is a kind of baptism story. Yes it is Passover weekend and yes I m a synchretist. The slave has to give up her child. She puts him in the water. She actually gives him up to the water. In baptism we give our children up to the water, the great water of life. We let them go. We let them go to God. We let them go to Pharaoh’s daughter and Pharaoh’s IPADs, which could also be Miriam’s eye pad. Isn’t it interesting that Moses, the great leader of the Hebrew People, was both a child of privilege and a child of slavery? Aren’t we all? Even if we are born in utter poverty, are we not still a child of the glory of God, a privilege if there ever was one? Anyway, an unlikely savior picks Moses and out of the water, only for him to go on and drown Pharaoh’s army. Isn’t it interesting that the baby is put in the water by an “innocent” slave and pulled out by an un guilty member of Pharoah’s army, you know the one that got drowned in the river, chasing the slaves?

Heading towards conclusion, you know you have a problem when you don’t have any solutions that you like. Keeping a high bar for baptism – parents must join the church, child must attend Sunday School and Confirmation Class, the promise to raise the child in Christ, -- means that people will probably say yes and act no. There is this thing called a time famine. Keeping a low bar for baptism is like throwing your child into the water and hoping somebody somewhere somehow will pick her up and give her a chance. Baptism may look all frilly and innocent. It is not.

Speaking as the Diluter in chief, I’d like to put in a good word for the concentrated blessing of the holy water, the water we blessed earlier in this service, giving it spirit. Speaking as the low bar type of Christian, permit me to acknowledge my sin and to place it where it belongs. It belongs in the ways we head for glory. The Knot and nub of our Baptism is that we are both saints and sinners, created to head straight for glory but all fallen. The water embraces both of these. And we can all do the little thing that Pharaoh’s daughter did. We can pick each other up out of the water and give each other another chance. We can refuse to be innocent about the glory of God. We can become ready for its startle and its marvel.

Or if you want to be really chilled, consider this. What if we were wrong about religion and baptism and god and sin all along? What if all this time trying to do good and not do wrong, we were doing wrong while trying to be good? What if the way through sin is to understand that we are godly but not Gods, headed in God’s direction but not in order to dethrone God? What if we were wrong all along, while thinking we were right? Before that chill comes, I say we sit in the glory, the glory of not knowing, the glory of not always having to be right, the glory beyond doing and being good, the glory for which we were intended from the start. It sure beats innocence.

55 Washington Square South New York, NY 10012 | phone: 212-477-0351 | fax: 212-995-0844