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How many of you know what this is? Where I come from it is often referred to as a dog-collar and the folks who wear them are called God-Bothers. Back when I first started seminary, I resolved that I wouldn’t wear a clerical shirt and collar. I didn’t like the idea of being set apart from others. I really didn’t want to be seen as one of those holier-than-thou types, who took themselves so seriously. Learning the history of clerical garb didn’t help me to warm up to the idea of wearing them. Apparently, back in the middle ages fashion dictated that educated professionals wear black. Also, during the middle ages, long before shirts had collars it was all the rage to let your white undergarments show around your neck. This was the precursor to shirt-collars. Apparently during the reformation, this trend fell out of fashion but clergy, who couldn’t afford to keep up with fashion continued to wear black shirts with their white under-garment showing.
Over time, the church does what the church often does and applied a liturgical meaning to explain what is already happening. So, the church began to explain clerical attire theologically. If you google it, you will discover that, pastors are just like everyone else, they are in bondage to sin and cannot free themselves. So, they wear a black shirt to signify their sinfulness, but they wear a white collar to signify that the words they speak are not their own, but God’s words, because you see the collar covers the pastors voice-box to signify that we speak the Word of God. Now the presumption that I or anyone else speaks on behalf of God is rather daunting to say the least and did nothing to encourage me to wear a clerical collar, nor did the obscure explanation of the tab collar, which insists that this little white notch is placed strategically over the Adam’s apple to cover over the reminder of Adam’s sin. Not having an Adam’s apple, myself, I wasn’t much taken with the idea of wearing special clothing to set me apart. But when I first became a pastor, I was insecure and believe it or not I didn’t want to rock the boat. So, I ever so hesitatingly began wearing a clerical collar. I was uncomfortable wearing the collar, so I decided that I would only wear it on Sundays, or to protest marches, and sometimes when I was visiting people in the hospital, because in hospitals, wearing a collar makes it easier to gain access to patients.
Well one day, I needed some candles and so I dashed into the Zellers over the road to quickly grab a couple. I was having difficulty finding just the right candles when a store clerk came up to me and asked me if I would come with her. I figured that I’d been lingering over the candles for so long that she must have mistaken me for a shoplifter, but as we hurried along, she explained to me that there was a man in housewares who was abusing his wife and child. I’d forgotten that I was wearing a collar, but the reality of what this clerk was asking me to do choked me into realizing that the collar had led her to believe that I could actually do something. Not knowing what she expected me to do, I told her to call 911. She assured me that they had already called, but that in the meantime perhaps I could help. We stopped just before the aisle where the abuse was taking place. The store clerk whispered that, “they are just over there.” As she pointed, I realized that she wanted me to go on alone. So, not knowing what to expect, I took a deep breath and walked in on a scene that was way beyond my abilities. A big burly guy was twisting the arm of a woman while a little girl of about 4 or 5 stood crying. The man was yelling obscenities when I interrupted him. When he looked at me, I saw the fear in his eyes as he immediately let go of the woman who fell to the floor. The little girl ran to her mother. I expected the man to turn on me, but instead he just stared at me, as he began to cry, “I’m sorry pastor, forgive me.” It wasn’t I who stood before him, but the church, his church, the church that had taught him right from wrong. The collar I wore made the church visible to him and made it impossible for him to forget who he was. As a child of God, he couldn’t continue what he was doing. As a child of God, he knew in his bones that he was wrong. He wept until the police arrived. From that day on, I’ve known the power of the collar to make the church visible in the world and so I wear it a lot more often than I’d ever expected I would.
Unlike some of my priestly forbearers, I do not wear a collar because I am set apart to speak the Word of God. I believe that each and every one of us speaks the Word of God when we speak out for justice and love in the world, or when we bring a word of love and tenderness to those in need. I wear this collar to remind myself who I am so that mindful of the LOVE of God I can do my part to make that LOVE visible in the world.
So, what does any of this have to do with the baptism of Jesus. Today, is the day that the church celebrates the baptism of Jesus it is customary for all those who have been baptized to affirm their baptism. So, in a few moments, we are all going to get wet. But as our understanding of who we are and who God is has changed over the years, so too has our thinking about baptism. We were taught that baptism is a sacrament that welcomes us into the family of God. In the Lutheran church sacraments are said to be visible means of God’s grace. In the Lutheran church, we have two sacraments: baptism and communion. You need two things for a sacrament first of all you need ordinary visible tangible stuff together with commandment from Jesus to do that. So, in baptism we have water and the Word, in the gospels, Jesus says, “Go therefore and baptize in the name of the father and of the son and of the holy spirit. And in communion we have bread and wine and Jesus command to “do this in remembrance of me.” The sacraments are visible tangible means of God’s grace. In the sacraments, we can see what we say is happening.
Now, a lot of water has flowed under the bridge since we first learned about sacraments. New Testament scholarship has questioned whether or not Jesus actually said, go baptize. As for communion well, we’ve come a long way from the old arguments about bread and wine being physically transformed into the body and blood of Jesus. The Lutheran reformers argued that Christ is present in, with, through, and under the bread and the wine, and so it isn’t much of a leap for us to look to those with whom we share the meal to see the presence of Christ in, with, through, and beyond us. But as for the sacrament of baptism, most of us struggle with theological definitions of baptism as a ritual dying to sin and a rebirth into a new life in Christ. I’ve baptized a lot of babies over the years and I can tell you that those babies are not born of sin, nor are they full of sin, nor do I care to drown their sinful self in order that they might be born a new in Christ. So, how might we understand baptism?
One of the things in life that we all share in common is water. Water is a precious gift of the earth. Without water, we cannot live. In the waters of our mother’s womb each of us grew and developed into the creatures that we are. Our birth into the world was announced by the breaking of those waters. Water nourishes and sustains life. Water refreshes, sooths, cleanses us. Water is a precious gift that we all share in common. Water is the ordinary stuff that connects us all. We are intimately related by our relationship to the waters. When we were baptized the water was used to symbolize our entry into community with one another; a community that seeks to follow the path that Jesus embodied, a community that works for justice in the world, a community that strives to be LOVE in the world so that the LOVE that is God is made visible. In the waters of baptism, we are embraced into relationship. For those of us who understand sin to be that which separates us one from another, or that which separates us from the One in whom we live and move and have our being, the waters of baptism provide a promise that there is nothing that can separate us from the LOVE that is God. In the waters of baptism, we are called, ordained, recognized as children of God. In the waters of baptism, we celebrate our common humanity.
There’s a story about Martin Luther that I have always loved. It is said that every morning, Luther would splash water on his face three times, while speaking the words that were said at his baptism: “In the name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. The feeling of the cold cleansing water reminded Luther of who he was. The water was a visible means of Luther’s identity as a child of God. There have been so many times in my life when I have splashed water on my face and repeated the words said at my baptism. I do so to remember who I am and whose I am. The water reminds me of the humanity I share with others. The water reminds me that for whatever reason, my family chose to identify me with those who seek to live in communion with one another. The water reminds me that I am compelled by the LOVE that I call God, to be LOVE in and amongst those with whom I share this life. The water reminds me of my call to be LOVE in the world.
Today as we feel the water that connects us to all life, I hope that you will remember who you are and whose you are: blessed, beautiful, loving, humans, intimately connected to one another by all that we share in common, and intimately connected to creation by the water that nourishes, refreshes and cleanses us all.
We are a community of baptized and not yet baptized, striving to follow the path that Jesus taught his followers to walk; a way of being in the world that puts us in solidarity with the poor, the oppressed and the marginalized, a way of being in the world that works for peace through justice, rejecting violence, revenge, and hatred, a way of being in the world that strives to embody the LOVE that we call God; a way of being in the world that embodies LOVE so that the LOVE that we call God might be made visible to those who hunger for that LOVE.
We humans tend to need visible signs. Signs to remind us of who we are. Signs to remind us to look beyond ourselves. Signs to guide us so that we might be LOVE in the world. Signs to help us feel like the beloved creatures in whom our God who is LOVE, is well pleased. Wear your baptism, so that in you the LOVE that is God may become visible in the world. Let the water remind you that you are LOVE. Let the water refresh your efforts to be LOVE. Let the water nourish you to be LOVE in the world.