React in Fear or Respond in Love
She was a mere nine years old but inside a deep desire was brewing. She longed to be baptized. Her parents were in no hurry and failed to see the urgency. But the girl persisted and eventually the parents consented.
So, on a warm June morning the girl prepared for her baptism. Her denomination baptized everyone, from all the local churches, in the same baptismal font located in a special building in the center of town. Every baptism was by full immersion, a complete dunking into the water.
That morning the girl arrived for her baptism, was assigned a special changing room and given the white gown she would be baptized in. When she was ready she walked out into the baptismal chamber and waited her turn in line. Finally she climbed up the steps to the pool and waited on the side as the person before her was baptized. Next her uncle, who would baptize her, stepped into the pool and motioned to her to come in.
At that moment she froze. Looking at her uncle, and looking at the water, filled her with fear. She thought about running out the door, but there was a line of people behind her, waiting their turn. Trembling she slowly stepped down into the pool. The water was nearly up to her shoulders. She walked slowly toward her uncle, in the center. Her mind raced, panic set in. In the baptism her uncle would clasp his hand over her nose and the other hand behind her back. He would dip her backward into the water three times. What if, she thought, he drops me? What if he drops me and in my panic I drown? She knew she couldn’t swim. She knew she was afraid of water. It was possible that she might die in this baptism. Or so she thought in that anxiety- filled moment…
Then, suddenly her uncle placed his hand firmly on her back while his other hand clasped her nose and he proceeded to tip her backward and fully under the water three times: In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Suddenly her baptism was over, she was up, standing on her two feet, dripping wet, and fully alive.
That day, that baptism, still stands as a powerful, profound, and defining moment in her life. Now grown the woman understands that defining as it was, her faith journey did not begin with that baptism nor was it the end of her journey. However baptism shaped her faith journey in particular ways.
Baptism is the defining ritual that marks human beings as Christian. The ritual itself describes baptism as a process in which we die to one way of life and are born into another. Images of death and birth are significant. Water holds the ability to give life and the ability to take life.
Baptism is the moment in which we enter into a particular kind of relationship with God and Christ. But entering into a relationship with God and Christ is not the same thing as living into that relationship through a life-long faith journey.
Sometimes we think that because we are living a life of faith that our lives will be simple, that all will be well, and that we will not face any obstacles. Sadly this is simply not true. People of faith face many issues, just like everyone else, but hopefully, because of our faith we have a different way of moving though those obstacles. Grounded in an experience of the love of God we are called to approach our challenges with love, with grace and integrity and compassion. But just like the people in our reading from Exodus, we too can get distracted, filled with fear, and anxious.
These Israelite people, after waiting a long while for Moses to return, could no longer contain their anxiety. They began to grumble and complain. They gossiped among themselves and said mean things about Moses and about each other. Soon their anxiety began to affect Aaron, who was left in charge when his brother Moses wandered off to the mountain. Before long the anxiety was palpable. Something had to be done. They could have done something constructive – they could have prayed and they could have reminded themselves and each other to trust in God. Instead the people began to build an icon to their former Egyptian pagan god, a golden calf. The frenzy of gathering, melting, and sculpting, focused their anxiety, even as it also misdirected it.
We all do this, don’t we? Something happens that causes our anxiety to rise. Fear and worry take over, and soon every little thing begins to feel insurmountable. When this happens we lash out and do anything we can to ease the anxiety and help us feel ok again. Sometimes in the process we say mean things. We accuse people of things that feel true but may not be accurate. Often in this anxious state, the things we do and say may be wrong; at the very least they are often hurtful.
When the Israelites built that Golden calf our scripture tells us that God was hurt. Their actions hurt God, broke God’s trust in God’s people. And then the scripture tells us that just like the people reacted in fear and anxiety and anger, God too was about to react.
And here in lies the critical piece when we face our anxiety. Are we going to react? Or are we going to take some time, think it through, and respond? Reacting is always emotional, responding is always thoughtful. Moses chooses not to react to all the emotion shown by the people nor does he react to the emotion shown by God. Instead Moses chooses to respond. He talks to God, he offers real, thoughtful responses. And, by responding he is able to calm the situation down instead of igniting it further.
Our Gospel reading directs us similarly. What happens when things don’t turn out as we anticipate? When people fail us in our expectations? Or when someone’s behavior hurts our feelings? Are we to be reactive like this King? Are we going to get riled up and angry and react from our emotions?
What if that girl, as she stood on the side of the pool, had given into her emotions? What if she had turned around and instead of being baptized, ran out of that room? Thankfully she didn’t do that. She didn’t give into her emotions but instead walked right into her anxiety, allowing it to literally wash over her and then wash away.
There is a lot of emotional reactivity happening in our world right now. And for good reason. But the point remains the same. We need to be careful. Being reactive, letting fear or anger guide us, can cause us to misstep or hurt others or cause bigger problems. When we are able to set our initial emotional reactivity aside and give something some time and thoughtfulness and prayer, another way appears. God models this for us, in this story from Exodus God does not destroy the Israelites. God responds….God forgives them.
And in our reading from Philippians Paul points us in this same direction: “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known…and the God of peace will be with you.
Our faith journey with God is no guarantee that life will be easy. The waters of baptism do indeed show us both death and life. In these days when everything feels scary, when any little shift in the familiar seems to be the very hole that will sink the ship, when panic rules, and anxiety prevails, it is even more important that what dies is our reactivity and what ceases is our panic. Then, what lives will be our ability to respond, grounded in God, with hope for a new day. What lives will be our ability to respond with trust in the ultimate goodness of others. What lives will be our ability to respond with love.
In a moment we will baptize B R and welcome her into this Christian family. On this day, when we all share the same surname, Christian, we are the Body of Christ. And as the Body we are called by God to be the hands and heart of Christ in the world – not by hurting others, but by embracing them with love and compassion. In just a moment we will renew this very promise to God – a promise to be different…instead of reacting to each other and the world in fear and anxiety, we will promise respond with love – to love God, love self, and love neighbor. And we will do it all, with God’s help.