Seems like all we talked about in December through Christmas was light–now it’s water, another universal symbol. I.
John August Swanson’s composition on the cover of this morning’s bulletin is called “The River.” His river follows the many uses that any river has for people. He shows the essential roles a river plays in society, health, and culture. The painting culminates, at the bottom, in Christ’s baptism in that river with the Holy Spirit of God adding a blessing. The river Swanson depicted has no particular identity, although it could be the River Jordan.
What matters are all the activities, human and natural, that take place because of it–irrigating, bathing, playing, watering stock, dying clothes (?) and–the act of consecrating Jesus. Water itself blesses human life, as much in its ordinary uses as in sacred ones. Water gives life in every dimension.
During the four years I lived in Los Angeles, I was acquainted with John Swanson [see Appendix]. I admired his work and I admired him, so I was very sad to learn of his death last September. His art often depicts an idealized world, not to prettify reality, but to proclaim what it should be and to reveal what it is at its core. John Swanson’s art declares that God means for us to survive the trials of life and to triumph over them. God sets a baseline, a norm, upon which to judge ourselves.
Our scripture passage from Isaiah this morning declares, Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.
How can this be, or is it all just wishful thinking? No, it’s not wishful thinking, unless you read Isaiah to mean that God steps between us and nature, which is not Isaiah’s belief. He is simply saying that injury and harm are not in the divine program, except when we default.
In the case of “The River,” and in Swanson’s art generally, the artist shames today’s America by contrast with the divine program depicted there. America, where we fight over the precious, depleted waters of the Colorado River. America, where we allow Detroit children to be poisoned by lead in their water. Where the corporations despoil our rivers with their pollutants. America, where water drowns cities without proper hurricane protection. Where we have not responded adequately to the rising sea levels due to climate change.
Default need not be our fate, so declares John August Swanson. This need not be our fate, so declares the prophet Isaiah. This need not be our fate, so thunders God in our ears. It only lacks for there to be a people, any people, who will consecrate themselves to God’s promise, as Jesus did. This need not be our fate.
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. You are mine.
II. Jesus stepped forward when he heard John preaching at the River Jordan. John was calling for people to depart from business as usual and embrace another life-style. John warned, “The ax is ready for trees that don’t bear spiritual fruit.”
Whatever spiritual maturation Jesus had been going through in his 20s, he heard his call to action at the River Jordan. Only, this was happening at the time of more civil unrest in Israel. Bands of zealots were raiding and marauding Roman installations. Executions were common.
John the Baptist was thought to be among the insurrectionists, but Jesus saw that John had more profound, spiritual ideas, and in the midst of dangerous turmoil Jesus stepped forward risking being mistaken for insurrectionists. They both were, and both were killed. So, the decisive moment was Jesus’ baptism.
Baptism is a ritual borrowed from ancient practices of ablution performed in many different cultures and religions. For followers of Christ, it isn’t about getting clean, like, “I want to wash that man right out of my hair,” or as when the impurities of living can be dissolved in water to be drained down the bathtub drain.
Unless you mean “cleaning up your act.” Getting right with God is the point.
How is that possible in standard Christian practice today? The act of baptism is supposed to be public and voluntary, as it was in the first three centuries. It took great preparation to be admitted for baptism, which took place at the Easter Vigil. Catechumens went through a long preparation for this event.
However, as later theologians focused on the state of the soul, it was imagined that performing this act was a minimum requirement for salvation. So, it was deemed necessary to baptize infants, lest they should die without benefit of grace. This magical thinking borders on superstition, of which there is a lot in Christianity.
Nevertheless: it is good that someone has said these words over a newborn’s head:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; You are mine.
But infant baptism cheated us out of the decision that Jesus himself made–a public and voluntary commitment to God. Today few of us remember our baptisms. Confirmation is supposed to enlist our assent to what baptism did for us, except it turns out in many denominations to be just an academic exercise serving as induction to the church community. It is in some denominations a condition of receiving communion.
Christian life lacks the public opportunity Jesus had to align himself actively with God’s will. Baptism should express our wish, or decision to live a godly life in a ritual that galvanizes the will.
Is there anything else comparable that accomplishes the same thing? The altar call? The renewal of one’s marriage vows? There are not many rites of passage left in secular society like baptism. What can we do to duplicate it? How are we to respond to John’s admonition: The ax is ready for trees that don’t bear spiritual fruit.
What would you do if you needed to reinforce your commitment to, say, democracy? A vigil, a demonstration, like last Thursday night? The peaceful demonstration may be the modern sacrament. Think of the march on Selma, or the 1963 March on Washington.
By the same token, what would you do if you needed to reinforce your commitment to Eliot Church? Do we have a ritual that projects publicly our commitments and values? Is there anything on our front lawn, in front of the imposing Greek Revival pillars and Christopher Wren steeple? Or are we mute?
Where do we proclaim for all to hear and see, Water blesses us, as it blessed Jesus. Do we bless water with every swallow, and with every decision we make?