On Preaching – 56.2
Colleen Cook is the pastor of New Hope Presbyterian Church in Columbus, Georgia.
Kaela’s parents and the congregation made promises to guide and nurture her; yet Kaela was also nurturing us.
In keeping with the Directory for Worship, Kaela (not her real name) was presented for baptism with neither undue haste nor undue delay. She was thirteen years old, wearing her backpack and clinging to a stuffed animal as she walked to the baptismal font. Her mothers had been Presbyterian for a little over a year—they joined soon after visiting our church’s booth at the downtown Pride festival the year before. Kaela had lots to say about Dora the Explorer and Vampirina. She enjoyed playing with the play food and the baby dolls in the nursery, where she had spent the first part of the service. She sometimes found it hard to sit still through a church service, though she did occasionally, scribbling with crayons in a coloring book.
Shell, ink on paper, Jennifer Bunge
Her Sunday school teacher stood close by with one hand on her arm. Her sponsoring elder and her mothers took their places around the font. Kaela’s mothers had renounced evil, affirmed their belief in Christ as Lord and Savior, and made public their intentions to teach Kaela the Christian faith. I held the seashell Kaela had chosen for me to dip into the water. The prayer of Thanksgiving over the Water was printed in the binder I held in my other hand. As I began my rehearsed, formal words, she began to show signs of agitation. I gave up on the lengthy prayer from the Book of Common Worship, closed the binder, and said, “Kaela, this water is just like the water from creation and Noah’s flood and the water that baptized Jesus. Now we’re going to baptize you.” She slipped her hand into the font.
As we had practiced in the sanctuary the week before, I dipped the shell into the font and sent a little trickle of water down Kaela’s forehead three times, baptizing her in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. I handed her the seashell to keep as a momento and declared her a member of the household of God, welcoming her into the body of Christ. By this time, Kaela was making noises of distress, as many children do at this point in the liturgy. But unlike many children, Kaela was in distress in part because of her different abilities, since she had an intellectual disability and autism. Though she needed time back in the nursery after the baptism, when the service concluded she agreed to come back for a picture with her moms and me. The photo shows Kaela with her hand in the font and her head thrown back laughing.
It was neither an infant baptism nor an adult one. Kaela’s parents and the congregation made promises to guide and nurture her; yet Kaela was also nurturing us. In some contexts, she could easily have been labeled someone who “couldn’t understand” enough to be baptized, yet it was clear that she understood God better than any of us. The vocation she received at baptism was as profound, unique, and necessary as any of ours, yet I was aware that some churches would have placed several boundaries in her way, since she was the daughter of lesbians and a person with an intellectual disability.
For the sermon I preached from Acts 8, the story about the Ethiopian eunuch who said, “Look, there is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” What a loaded question. What is there to prevent me? Status? Socioeconomic background? Age? Sexuality? Denominational background? Gender? Intellect? Disability? Health? Doctrine? Doubt? Like the eunuch we may have been taught that there are certain boundaries that dictate who is in and who is out. Who can be denied the sacrament of baptism? Who can be denied full entry into God’s family? What is to prevent me from being baptized?
As Presbyterians, we have inherited the tradition of infant baptism as well as baptism on profession of faith. Our embrace of infant baptism makes the beautiful statement that God claims people in love even before they are able to respond in faith. It was with that claim that Kaela’s parents brought her to be baptized that day. The sacraments are the sign and seal of God’s reconciling work. They are not intellectual propositions to be parsed out and understood; they are sensory experiences, real connection to God through physical, earthly elements: bread, wine, water. We encounter truth beyond anyone’s ability to understand. We all experience the water of our baptism in just the way that Kaela did, as a gift, a surprise, a shock, a blessing, and not as a theological treatise.
Baptism, even with adults, is always more about God choosing us than about us choosing God. Baptism is a strong claim of the identity bestowed upon us by God: child of God. When we recognize this identity as primary, we are able to put our other identities and categories of belonging in perspective. Rather than deriving identity first and foremost from being white or a person of color, being male or female, being rich or poor, educated or uneducated, straight or gay, cisgender or gender nonconforming, neurodivergent or neurotypical, we are able to see ourselves realistically. In Christ it all falls away and our belovedness is obvious. Baptism is a sign of the coming realm of God, where those distinctions will never divide us again and we will see each other as beloved siblings of the same parent.
Imagine the joy of the Ethiopian as his chariot approaches water. “Look! Here is water! Here, within my reach, are the promises of God.” There before him is entry into the community of faith and participation in the death and resurrection of the Jesus about whom Philip had been telling him. “Look! Here is water! What is to prevent me, even me, from God’s grace and all that promises?”
What is to prevent you from living out your vocation, from participating in the faith to which you have been brought or freely come? Look! Here is water—water of renewal, of grace and surprise and promise! Let’s celebrate the bounty of God! What is to prevent us? Nothing, beloved ones, nothing.