By Bill Wylie-Kellermann, January 25, 2020
This was the closing sermon to the United Methodist Global Water Summit at Cass United Methodist Church in Detroit. His opening sermon was posted on February 12.
In the summer of 2013 as the Water shut-offs spiked under Emergency Management, St Peter’s Episcopal became the first water distribution station of We the People of Detroit. The first contribution was a truckload borne across the Ambassador Bridge by the Council of Canadians. It didn’t have all the necessary paperwork, so the Border Feds had to decide whether to halt it and cause an international press incident or just allow I through irregularly. The latter wisdom prevailed. We received it at St Peter’s with a small ceremony, carried it in brigade-style and stored it along the outside isles of the sanctuary. But mostly we grouped the bulk of it around the baptismal font which is the first thing you see as you enter. At one point we had 1500 gallons of water there. We hung a banner behind the font which said St. Peter’s Water Station, making the very same connection as this summit.
Yesterday morning I urged us to understand that being baptized into the death of Jesus meant we were so being baptized into his cry of “I thirst!
As we conclude this remarkable time and conversation, it’s right to remember, with St. Paul, that we are likewise and thereby baptized into the resurrection of Christ. God who raised Christ Jesus from the dead quickens our mortal bodies also. And so our communities, our lives and our imaginations.
We live now in the freedom of the resurrection.
We are no longer ruled by the power of death. Or live in its fear.
We have died out from under, we have slipped the grip, of the principalities and powers. If called, there is nowhere we can’t freely go; nothing we can’t freely do (and we have glimpsed that, here or there, in one another this weekend).
It’s sometimes said that baptism both unifies and divides. It names the unity of the church, but also the boundaries of the body. One of my mentors in baptism and theology, William Sringfellow, said not so.
“Baptism” he wrote “is the assurance – accepted, enacted, verified, and represented by Christians – of the unity of all humanity in Christ… and indeed, all creation in the life of God.” Should I read that again?
The Church, the baptized society, is asked to be the image, example, and guarantee of the reconciliation of humanity and creation in the intimate community of God.
I am not unmindful of the ways we fail as Methodists to represent that unity. Yet I do believe that the unity of human life and creation has been witnessed in our time together. For that we give thanks to both sister water and the Holy Spirit.
And for that reason we undertake together in this closing hour the renewal of our baptismal vows.
During our break, my grandsons Cedar and Isaac went with me to draw some living water from the Detroit River. It’s in the bowls on the altar. We’ve noted that one fifth of the fresh surface water in the world flows by our city. It goes down through Lake Erie, over Niagara Falls and then by way of Lake Ontario to the Seaway and out to the oceans of the planet, which surround us all, kissing the coasts of Latin American and Mother Africa. Moreover, it touches the deltas and basins, connecting upstream all the rivers, great and small, to their headwaters and sources. It evaporates and falls upon the earth as snow and rain. The water of the world is truly one, and so is the fitting sacramental for the unity of humanity and all creation.
Yesterday I told the story of the women water protectors walking the 400 mile length of the Potomoc River carrying water from its source and pouring it into its basin, “So that the river might remember how it tasted when it began.” That’s not a bad image for the renewal of baptism. Remembering how it tasted when we began.
Let’s take a bit of silence to remember our baptisms, whether it was as a infant surrounded by grace which says you are loved by God and this community and there’s nothing you can do about it. It just is. It may be a moment of confirmation or even adult baptism where you understood the discipleship risks you were committing to. In any case, there’s a good bit of water under the bridge since then. The promises we made, or were made on our behalf, may now be filled with new content and context. What today does it mean to you to, “accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?” What are those forms?
[Silence is kept]
I want to return to the notion that in this world, for Christians, baptism is the basis for ministry and movement.
Monica Lewis-Patrick, can, as we’ve heard, turn social analysis into a stemwinding sermon, bringing the heat. For a secular audience, she often concludes by calling on those present to “deputize themselves” to take up this work; to claim the authority. My point is similar: But we don’t need no deputizing, because we’ve been baptized! We claim the authority of resurrection!
Methodists usually keep the baptismal font handy, up front in the chancel. Well and good. But there’s something I like about a more liturgical and high church architecture. They put the font back by the front door. On the one hand it says, baptism is the way in to this beloved community. The rite of entrance. But even more to the point, it is the way out. The sacred waters of baptism are the authorization for our work, our ministry, our movement struggle in this world. Claim it.
By that Water and that Spirit, may we be blessed. Amen.