Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
In her book Traveling Mercies, Anne Lamott has a chapter entitled “Why I Make Sam Go to Church.” It didn’t always happen without debate or complaint, but as he was growing up she brought her son with her every Sunday, and this was her reasoning: “I want[ed] to give him what I found in this world, which is to say a path, and a little light to see by.”
She then goes on to talk about the community that helped her find that path, and that light, the community that welcomed and helped nurture her son. The picture she paints of that community never fails to come to mind when we celebrate a baptism in the church –
“I first brought Sam to church when he was five days old,” Lamott says. “The women there very politely pretended to care how I was doing but were mostly killing time until it was their turn to hold Sam again. They called him “our baby” or sometimes “my baby.” “Bring me my baby!” they’d insist. “Bring me that baby now!” “Hey, you’re hogging that baby.” I believe they came to see me as Sam’s driver, hired to bring him and his gear back to them every Sunday.”
I don’t know if Katie and Sean, or other young parents in our church, can relate to this experience; though I hope we’re all a bit more polite before we steal your little ones away for their weekly round of hugs at coffee hour. It’s a dynamic I have witnessed in other ways around this congregation too. Adults unrelated to a particular child by any other family ties, showing that child that he or she is your kid. Whether with a well-timed snack or a welcoming smile, a commitment to teaching Sunday School, or serving as a mentor for Confirmation, or simply by offering your rapt attention at coffee hour as the child shares an exciting story from their week at school. Time and again I have witnessed adults showing the children and youth of this congregation that they are your kids. And, I might add, it’s equally evident around here in the opposite direction. What a beautiful thing it is to watch kids of all ages – from 2 year olds to teens – so confident in the knowledge that you are their grown ups.
So much of what we’re doing when we baptize a child is about this dynamic precisely – welcoming a new daughter or son into our family of faith. The parents must promise to nurture their child in faith at home too, not leaving it up to the church to do alone. But all of us in the church need to do our part. We made promises this morning too, every one of us, promises that Sean and Katie and Maddie can recall for years to come, reminding them that they have a church family around to help them grow as disciples of Jesus. Now admittedly the dynamic is a little different this time, as we’ll soon be passing off the baton to another congregation to take over for awhile, when they move to New Jersey. But as sad as we’ll be not to have them with us each Sunday, we also know the Church into which Maddie has been baptized this morning is far bigger than this one congregation. So we can trust they’ll be in good hands, as another church family comes alongside them to help them raise their sweet daughter in the Christian faith.
And of course what’s true for little Maddie is also true for each one of us. Our faith may be personal, but it’s not private. As William Willimon puts it, “one cannot claim to be ‘in Christ’ without being in the ‘body of Christ.’ There is no solitary Christian, no way of doing the faith by home correspondence course in salvation.” Christian community is not optional, for any of us; it’s essential. We can’t, then, “baptize people into isolation. The church’s presence and full participation in the rite are not just a nice thing to do. They are the whole point.” So even as we remind this beautiful little girl and her parents today that they can’t go it alone in their lives of faith, we’re reminding ourselves as well.
The other important element of baptism of course is that we are all of us adopted not only into this particular local church family, but into the family of God. We’ve just enacted, in a beautifully visual way what that verse from I John 3 is talking about when it says “see what love [God] has given us, that we should be called children of God, and so we are.”
Now I’d be the first to insist we are already God’s children from the moment we’re born. Being baptized doesn’t make me a child of God, for surely God’s children are everywhere, baptized or not. What we are doing in baptism is claiming the promises of God. Laying hold of God’s love and grace that have been ours from the start. Saying yes to God: yes, I want this life for myself, for my child.
And why children? Why do we baptize little ones? So many of us came to the Presbyterian Church from other traditions that I’m sure we’re all over the map when it comes to our understandings of baptism. For some of us infant or child baptism was a given. For others of us, it may still seem a little strange. Particularly if we were taught that one had to make a conscious, mature decision for Christ in order to be baptized.
In the Presbyterian Church, we recognize both adult and infant baptisms. We believe Baptism is “one and the same sacrament” whether it’s “administered to those who profess their faith or to those who are presented for Baptism as children.” The timing of each has its own beauty, its own symbolism. For the Baptism of those who profess their faith “witnesses to the truth that God’s … grace calls for … a response of faithfulness.” And “the Baptism of children witnesses to the truth that God’s love claims people [long] before they are able to respond in faith.”
In other words, the whole point of baptizing tiny children is the child’s inability to make a bold decision, to do a great deed of faith. Again quoting Willimon: “Obviously, a baby is not good at doing the right action, … believing the right belief… But [if] salvation is viewed primarily as a gift, then . . . the only requirement to receive a gift is to be receptive. The only requirement to be helped is to be helpless. And what [could be] more receptive, helpless, dependent… than a baby? Precisely! …We baptize babies not because they are better than the rest of us. The only advantage babies have over us adults is that babies may be less confused than we are about the limits of their ability to save themselves.”
My guess is it comes as no surprise that the littlest ones among us would be claimed as children of God. The bigger surprise may be that the rest of us – weak as we are, dependent as we are on God, and yet so often unaware of that weakness and dependence—perhaps the bigger surprise is that we, too, should be called God’s children. But “every time the church baptizes a baby, we are saying this child at [8 weeks old] looks just like you or I look at [eighteen, or forty eight, or eighty eight years] so far as [our] relationship to God is concerned. [We] never cease being dependent upon God and God’s church to do for [us] what [we] cannot do for [ourselves]. . . . [We] never get so old, so mature, so strong, so self-sufficient, so adept at love that [we] will not be dependent upon God to love [us], adopt [us], choose [us], bring [us] home.”
Granted, “we are free not to be who we are created to be.” Willimon suggests: “I may answer to some alien name, live under some foreign sign, wander, like the prodigal son, into some ‘far country’, where I attempt to live on my own rather than by God’s grace. [But] while this is a real possibility, baptism represents the greater possibility that God’s grace, God’s ceaseless striving, God’s [endless] urging will finally bring me home.”
That’s where this morning’s text from Hosea comes in. Hosea’s an unusual book, to be sure – I’ve often said it should come with a warning label, because of some of its stranger parts. But it’s easy enough to catch the gist of what’s going on in this beautiful passage from chapter 11.
This is the story of a parent who loves a child deeply, completely, unconditionally. The parent has not only fed and clothed the child, but hugged and kissed and held chubby fingers as the child learned to walk, and tenderly applied band-aids to skinned knees. Has the child done things that have caused the parent grief? Certainly. And he may very well continue to. But is there anything that child could do that would make that parent stop loving him? Could the child ever run far enough away that the parent would give him up? Of course not.
That’s the love God has for us. When I John 3 says we are children of God, it calls to mind all those things that parents and children can be for one another. It reminds us that in our relationship with our heavenly parent there just might crop up on our part the occasional tantrum, cold shoulder, or outright rebellion, along with our more, tender loving moments of snuggling in our parent’s lap… But God loves us at a level greater than any human parent’s love, greater than any love we could imagine. “In life and in death we belong to [this] God.” A God who will hold us close wherever we may wander, our whole lives long and even beyond.
Ultimately, “to ask whether infants and children may be baptized is to ask whether God’s grace and salvation are free enough, undeserved enough, and great enough to include even children [like Madeleine; even children like us]. Every time we baptize a [child], we proclaim to all the world that God’s grace is sufficient. And it is given freely to all.”
To that, all God’s children can say: “Amen!” Thanks be to God!
 Ann Lamott, Traveling Mercies, pp. 101-102.
 Willimon, Remember Who You Are, p. 63.
 Willimon, p. 69.
 Book of Order, W-2.3008
 Book of Order, W-2.3008b,c
 Willimon, p. 65.
 Willimon, p. 65
 Willimon, p. 66.
 Opening line of “A Brief Statement of Faith” (1991)
 Willimon, p. 66.