Are you able, asked Jesus, to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?
What was so important about baptism? What was at stake in these few drops of water? Why all this fuss over Elliot and Tyler, Alexia and Stella on the day of their baptism?
I will answer those questions, by telling you a story . . . a true story.
The year is 1921. George Washington Carver has been summoned to Washington D.C. 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, not least—baptized Christian.
Due to segregation, it was highly unusual for an African American to appear before Congress as an expert witness … let alone to do so representing European-American agriculture. Some Southern congressmen, shocked and outraged at Carver’s presence, make his stay in D.C. as humiliating and as painful as they knew how.
As the only African American called to testify, Carver is placed last, dead 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. The contempt of some members of Congress is palpable. He feels by turns uneasy and terrified.
Finally, after three long anxious days, he is the very last and only person still waiting. His named is called. 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 … and hate-filled stares.
One of the committee members yells out a crude and cutting remark. Carver winces inwardly, but 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 and 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 turn and flee the room, to escape 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” he says to himself, “I know who I am. I know whose I am: I am a child of God.”
What is it about Christian baptism? This: 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. 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.
A few moments ago we baptized into the Christian life four children: Elliot, Tyler, Alexia and Stella. We baptized these children to help prepare them for a perilous world. To prepare them in the face of meanness or cruelty … To prepare them in the face of life: its inevitable disappointments and unfairness, its times of misery and despair.
I know, Doannie and Holly, Tony and Laura, that this is the last thing you want to think about on this shining day: but you also know that as much as you try—and I know how very hard you will try—you will not, cannot protect these beautiful children from life: its hardships and vicissitudes, from suffering or death.
You cannot protect them. You can prepare them.
Today is a part of that preparation: clothing these children in Christ2, wrapping them in the mantle of eternity, welcoming them into the family of faith.
If we do it right—you and their Godparents and this church—if we do it right, Elliot and Tyler, Alexia and Stella will live lives of courage and kindness … of grace and grit, because they will always know who they are: children of God, beloved and precious.
They will not be immune to the bigotry or stupidity of others. But if we do it right—their families and friends, this church—if we fulfill the vows we made today, these children will have what they need, everything they need, to live with courage.
What is it about baptism? Only this: 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.