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Rev. Nancy S. Taylor
Jul 5 2009

This church, Old South Church, was born in a storm. It was born in a storm of dispute over water. It was born in a storm of controversy over baptism . . . the waters of baptism.

It is hard for us to imagine, but in New England in the 1600’s people argued about baptism. They argued about baptism over beers in the pubs, at supper in Colonial kitchens, in knots of people gathered for impassioned debate on street corners, while purchasing bolts of cloth at the mercantile. Baptism was the topic of the day … the topic over which our forebears were greatly exercised and sharply divided.

Old South’s first minister, Thomas Thatcher, had a hand in the storm-making, out of which this church was born. Thomas Thatcher and the other founders of this church, were of the opinion that the waters of baptism should be poured out generously – not recklessly, not indiscriminately – but generously, liberally to those who came seeking baptism for their children.

Their’s was a minority view. For holding it, they were named heretics and schismatics. Some of the Puritan clergy – including clergy from Boston’s First Church, from which our forebears broke away – went so far as to call our forebears, satanic.

What was so important about baptism? What was at stake in this baptism controversy? Why endure the condemnation of others over a few drops of water?

I will try to answer those questions, by telling you a story . . . a true story.

The year is 1921. George Washington Carver has been summed to Washington DC to appear before the House Ways and Means Committee to explain his work on the peanut … on its medicinal as well as its commercial potential.[1]

George Washington Carver: scientist, botanist, educator, inventor and – and here is what his enemies had failed to take into account – baptized Christian.

As the only African American called to testify, Carver is placed last of a long list of speakers.

In fact, he is made to wait three days for his turn to speak. Throughout those days he feels the hostility of others toward him. He feels by turns uneasy and terrified.

At last his turn comes. He is called forward. He rises and begins the long walk toward the front of the hall. As he walks down the aisle he is met with derisive and bigoted comments.

One of the committee members yells out a crude and cutting remark. It hurts, but Carver continues down the aisle.

Another committee member leans back in his chair, places his feet up on the table and puts his hat over his face as if to go to sleep. When the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee instructs the member to take off his hat, he responds with a loud, ugly racial slur.

At this point, Carver is ready to turn around and go home. He is afraid of the powerful men in the room. He is made uneasy by their hostility and hate. All his instincts urge him to flee the room, to flee to safety. But he doesn’t. Instead, he reminds himself of his baptism and of who he is. “Whatever they say of me … whatever they think of me …I know who I am. I know whose I am: I am a child of God.”

Baptism: it is an identity to give one courage.

Carver finally reaches the podium. He is told that he has twenty minutes to speak. He opens his display case and launches into his talk. Well, so engaging is his presentation that those twenty minutes fly by. The Chairman rises and asks for an extension of time. No one objects.

Carver is granted four additional extensions of time and, in the end, speaks for several hours to a rapt audience. At the conclusion of his presentation, the members of the House Ways and Means Committee stand and, to a man, they give George Washington Carver – scientist, inventor, professor, formerly enslaved – a long round of applause.

By our baptisms we know who we are and to whom we belong. It is an identity to give one courage.

This church was born in a storm. It was born in a storm over baptism. It was born in a storm of argument and disagreement over water. Because the waters of baptism are worth arguing over.

First Church of Boston – the church from which we broke away – was miserly about baptism. This was back in 1669. They baptized rarely and carefully. We, by contrast, we baptize more frequently and not nearly so carefully … for the water of baptism, like grace it self, is free, abundant … it is for all who wish it.

Writing to the Christians gathered in Galatia, St. Paul wrote that when we are baptized into Christ, we are clothed with Christ.[2]

Another might see us and fail to see our Christly clothing. They might look and hate us, or despise us, or dismiss us, underestimate us. They might see the color of our skin, or hear a strong accent in our speech, or notice that we are differently-abled, or judge us for who we love. They might dismiss us for being female or too young, or too old, for being too pretty or not pretty enough. But we who are baptized, who are clothed in Christ, we know who we are and to whom we belong. It is an identity to give one courage.

In his rendition of the Baptism of Jesus, El Greco – painter, sculptor, and architect of the Spanish Renaissance – sees and paints what we cannot see: that the sacrament of baptism is attended and cheered on by the hosts of heaven.

A few moments ago we baptized a child, an infant, into the Christian life. We baptized the descendant of our first minister … naming and claiming Thatcher for the Christian life.

And as we spilled water from a font onto Thatcher’s head, the hosts of heaven gathered round. Jesus was there and St. Paul and George Washington Carver and so was Thatcher’s great, great, great grandfather, our first minister … and so, too, were the 30 men who broke from the First Church in Boston to found this church in a storm … over water. The hosts of heaven were gathered … to witness Thatcher’s baptism and to cheer on this newest member of the Christian family.

This water is worth fighting over … for by our baptism, we know who we are and to whom we belong. It is an identity to give one courage.

[1] Bausch, William, More Compelling Stories, p. 55f

[2] At the Synod of 1662 which took up this matter of baptism, the statement which resulted from the Synod declared that we do not baptize “in a lax and licentious way as if to dress men in livery, without truly clothing them in Christ.” See Hamilton Hill’s two volume History of Old South Church, volume 1, page 9.