By faith did we baptize Samuel James Houghton Wetherald this morning. By faith did we baptize him into the family of Jesus Christ. By faith did we mark him for God, for good and for love. By faith did we become his brothers and sisters, family to Samuel. The Christian family expands every time there is a baptism. For Christians, water is thicker than blood.
Old South Church has been and continues to be blessed with a great many great Samuels who, by baptism, are our kith and kin. Allow me to introduce a few of them to you.
May I introduce your brother, the Rev. Samuel Willard, the second minister of this church? This Samuel ministered during the dark days of the so-called witch trials. With the cries of terrified mothers and young girls ringing in his ears, he resisted the mindless mob mentality. Instead, your brother, Samuel Willard, studied the matter. He investigated the accusations and the behaviors and he found the evidence for witchcraft wanting.
By faith did your brother Samuel Willard then place his body and his reputation between accuser and accused. By faith did he risk being called a witch himself. By faith did he harangue the governor and authorities urging and pleading that that they forgo the madness, admit to an egregious error and dismantle the wretched court of Oyer and Terminer to end the witch hunts. By faith did Samuel Willard risk life and limb for hapless girls, innocent women and ill-fated men. By faith, did he stand his lonely ground, finally bringing this colony and its leaders back to their senses.
Some of you already know your brother Justice Samuel Sewell. This Samuel was a prominent citizen and a cherished member during Samuel Willard’s pastorate. Sewell served as one of the judges who condemned the so-called witches and had them executed. A few years later he realized the trials had been a catastrophic mistake. He was the only one of the witch trial justices to publicly repent his part in that fiasco. By faith did he voluntarily stand up in church—before his colleagues and friends, his family and children—and hang his head in shame and remorse and repent, publically repent of his wrongdoing. By faith, did old Justice Sewell later befriend Phillis Wheatley, a young enslaved girl, take the time to get to know her and then go on to write the first anti-slavery tract on this soil.
Another Samuel of this church was Samuel Adams. As a brewer, businessman and as a provider for his family he was hopeless. But as a patriot, oh my Lord, did he excel! By faith did Samuel Adams work late into the night, night after night after night penning documents, letters, statements and speeches. By faith did he forge and polish his words to a high rhetorical shine. By faith did he organize meetings, challenge tyranny, risk imprisonment and risk death. By faith did Samuel Adams win the hearts of the people and inspire their own courage and determination. By faith did he turn Boston Harbor into a teapot, spark a revolution and birth a nation.
May I introduce you to your brother, the Rev. Samuel Blair, the seventh minister of this church? By faith did this Samuel study both the ways of God and the ways of humanity. Here is what we know about him through his sermons. That it was by faith that he cared more about mercy than sacrifice. By faith he worried over the well-being of others’ souls more than his own salvation. By faith he counted the communion of saints, our unity as family, of much greater importance than any differences that divide us. By the faith did he for two years pray the US congress into session and counsel lawmakers to count God’s favor more eagerly than they counted votes.
Then there is the Rev. Samuel Horatio Sterns. Although sickly from childhood, by faith did he answer a call to ministry from the age of fourteen. By faith did he devote his entire energies to the study of scripture and theology ... to the ways and words of God ... to the mysteries of divine love.
By faith did he attend Phillips Academy, then Harvard and finally Andover Seminary. By faith did he do this, though constantly falling ill, withdrawing from school to struggle to regain his health. Over and over he would have to withdraw ... falling further and further behind his original classmates. He would regain his strength and throw himself back into his studies with the most devoted intentions. By faith did he so earn the admiration of his peers and professors—and gain such scholarly heights—that he was called upon to perform his master’s valedictory in Latin.
By faith did he summon the strength of body, soul and mind to preach so powerfully and persuasively that, despite his frailty, Samuel Horatio Sterns was called to Old South Church as our thirteenth Pastor and Teacher. By faith did he mount the pulpit and preach his heart out. Alas, his strength lasted only so long. Samuel Horatio Sterns preached just three Sabbaths as this church’s Pastor and Teacher before again falling ill and so failing in strength and health that he never preached again.
Then there is Samuel Johnson, a businessman. Oh, Samuel! I am in awe of this Samuel. Samuel Johnson wrested this church’s future from the iron grip of its glorious past. By faith did he argue that remaining on Milk Street in downtown Boston in the old Meetinghouse would sound our death knell and that the future was in here in this residential area, among the people. By faith did he survive ten years of lawsuits over this matter: ten years of depositions, testimony and cross-examination, of ridicule and scrutiny for this church’s future ... for its ministries. By faith did he bet his whole self (his time, fortune and reputation) on this church’s future ... on us.
Here was his bet: that as great as is our past, our future is yet brighter. He placed his reputation and his money on the likes of you and me and young Samuel Wetherald. It is not without significance that the room in which are hung the portraits of the ministers of this church, is named for a layman, for Samuel Johnson, whose portrait has pride of place above the mantel. May we not disappoint the hopes of this, our brother Samuel.
And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell, not only of the Samuels (and there are more) but also of the Georges, Guses and Geralds; the Elizabeths, Erics and Eunices; the, Annes and Anthonys; the Tonys, Thomases and Teresas. Time would fail me to tell of the Benjamins, Bettinas and Brigittes; the Pamelas, Phillips and Phillises, Marys, Marks, and Marthas, Jims, Johns and Johannas, the Sarahs and Stephens ... Lindas, Lucys and Luies. Time would fail me to tell of the Deborahs, Davids, and Daniels, the Candicaces and Kates, and Karens; the Rorys, Russells, Reids and Ruths, Harriets, Hannahs, Horatios, the Vards, Vickis, Vassilikis, Williams and Willemenias, and Waynes .... Time would fail me to tell of these, your own kin, your sisters and brothers in Christ who by faith, submitted to Christian baptism, became marked persons and thusly marked, wrested democracy from tyrants, won freedom for the enslaved, built a nation on ideals, suffered imprisonment, placed life and reputation between accused and accuser, defended the rule of law, repented of wrong-doing, swallowed pride for the sake of the common good, stuck out necks for the poor and needy, the wretched and worn, sat at the besides of the ill and dying. Time would fail me to tell of these, your own Christian kith and kin who marched in the streets of our cities peacefully demanding justice, dreamed of equality and then worked for it, helped to banish segregation, loved and ministered to persons with HIV/AIDS, wrested city land for affordable housing, built homes for the homeless in New Orleans, worked to usher in equal marriage, became mighty in peace, won strength out of weakness, and put the devil to flight.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also run with perseverance the race that is set before us. We can do this. We can run our race. For this cloud of witnesses—these Samuels and Cynthias, these Abigails and Abidiahs—are cheering us on from heaven. They are in heaven’s grandstands pulling and rooting for us. They are praying down courage and strength upon you and me. They are cheering on our weary legs … praying that we do not tire in doing good. Praying that in Christ’s name we care for the least and the lost. Praying that we endeavor to love the loveless and the unlovely, forgive our enemies … and refuse to hate … refuse to hate.
That’s the thing about baptism: it makes us family. It makes us God’s family and it makes us strong.