Last Monday I saw an incredible new movie. I’m not much of a movie goer, but I had heard amazing things about “Hidden Figures”, a true story about three African-American women who worked for NASA in 1961 in Hampton, Virginia.
All three were absolutely brilliant, and they were what NASA at the time called “computers”. We hear that word and think of laptops or the like, but for them it literally meant that they were doing the math, the computing, necessary for the Mercury Seven astronauts to launch and return to earth successfully.
And yet, they were living in a time and a place where even their brilliance could not give them equality. While they crunched numbers for NASA all day, they did so in a separate office reserved for “Colored Computers”. And when they had to use the restroom, they went to one with the word “Colored” written on the door.
I really believe everyone should see this movie, and so I’m not going to ruin it and tell you more than that, but I will tell you that all week I have been thinking about this story. I’ve been thinking of it in light of the Civil Rights Movement, and of Martin Luther King Day, which we celebrate tomorrow. But I’ve also been thinking of it in light of something else. I’ve been thinking about baptism, and about how we live our life.
Today we are observing Dr. King’s birthday, but we are also observing a holy day in the life of the church. On the Sunday after Epiphany, which we celebrated last week, we remember Jesus’ own baptism.
John the Baptist, who we heard about throughout Advent, had gone out into the wilderness and people had started to come to him to be baptized. And this isn’t the kind of baptism that you and I know about today, but was instead an adaptation of a Jewish custom where you would immerse yourself and wash yourself clean in anticipation of a new beginning.
Jesus ended up being one of those people who came to John, and when John saw him coming he said, “Wait, Jesus…I shouldn’t baptize you…you should baptize me!” But Jesus told John to baptize him anyway, and when John did Jesus came up from under the water, and Scripture tells us that you could see the Spirit of God resting on Jesus like a dove, and that a voice said “this is my son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
As Protestants we celebrate two sacraments, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. And we say that we do these two things because Jesus “instituted” them. That doesn’t mean that people weren’t already being immersed in water or eating bread and wine. But that does mean that Jesus himself participated in these things, and made them holy, and told us to do the same. And so today, you and I do these things because we follow him.
Jesus, being Jesus, understood baptism a little better than we do. He knew that he was about to embark on a journey, a new thing, and like the people of his place and time, he went to John to mark it and to prepare. And when he was baptized, Jesus was publicly marked as God’s own.
What was true for Jesus is also true for us. Whether we are baptized as infants, and we can’t remember a thing about it, or whether we are baptized as adults and can remember everything, the real work of baptism is not done by us. In baptism God does the heavy lifting, claiming us as God’s own and strengthening and sealing us for life.
What happens on the day we are baptized is not the end of our baptism. It’s just the beginning of a whole new journey. Because while God claims us in baptism, once we are baptized our job is to claim God’s plan for us in all of our lives.
Our job as Christians is to live the life that God intends for us. I don’t mean that in the sense that some preachers you see on TV do. This is not about being “blessed” by big houses and bank accounts, or about claiming your “best life now”. Instead this is about figuring out what gifts God has given you, and using them not for yourself but to help others. This is about finding your purpose and living out your baptism every day.
Watching “Hidden Figures” I thought about these three women who had been given profound gifts by God. They were amazing mathematicians. And yet, every step of the way they were confronted by barriers, both because they were women, and because they were African-American.
The work load for every employee of NASA was backbreaking, but can you imagine what it was like to have to carry the additional burden of breaking two barriers at the same time? To work the same long hours computing figures that could literally save or take a man’s life, and then to have to drink from a separate coffee pot? To have to claim your place not just by being the best, but by not being silent and by standing up for yourself and for others at every turn?
Last week “Hidden Figures” was the number one move in the country. It even beat the new Star Wars. Can you imagine that? A movie about three African-American women doing math beat a perennial office blockbuster.
I asked myself why that happened, and I think the answer is this. I think we need stories like this right now. We need reassurance that when the world tries its best to hold people down, when it overlooks the gifts that God has given because of the ones who bear them, that does not have to be the end of the story.
The three woman at the heart of the movie were women of faith. Presbyterians, as I understand it. And they understood that they were baptized. And so, that’s why I believe that this was a baptism story. This was the story of three women who knew that they were God’s beloved, and who knew that in them God was well pleased. And they refused to let the world treat them as anything less.
On Dr. King day we remember a man who lived into his baptism by doing the same. It was Dr. King’s faith that fueled his work for equality. He was first and foremost a preacher, who believed in the Gospel, and believed that each of God’s children deserved dignity because of that. He believed this enough that he could not be silent, even though he well knew that it would likely cost him his life.
That is incredible. And yet, it is nothing less than what God asks of us. That is what our baptism means.
When we baptize someone in this church it is a joyous occasion. Particularly when we bring a child to the font, there is this light and joy. They come dressed in white, with their smiling parents and siblings. We take pictures. We eat cake. We walk the cute baby through the aisles and we smile.
But there’s a part in the baptismal service that reminds us that baptism is the start of something incredibly risky. Whether we make the vows for ourselves as adults, or we make them on behalf of a child, we are committing to a life of resisting the worst in this world.
The baptism vows include this question: “Will you (or will you encourage this child to) renounce the powers of evil and receive the freedom of new life in Christ?”
And a few minutes later: “Do you promise to be Christ’s disciple, to follow in the way of our savior, to resist oppression and evil, to show love and justice, and to witness to the work and word of Jesus Christ as best you are able?”
Those are the words that the UCC uses, but every Christian liturgy I know has some form of the same questions. The implication is clear: if you want to be a Christian, if you want to follow Christ, if you want to teach a child to be a Christian, you can’t do it by sitting down or staying silent in the face of evil or injustice. You have to rise up.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was martyred by the Nazis, once wrote that when Christ calls a
person to follow him, he “bid him come and die”. That sounds harsh. And yet, it’s true. People like Bonhoeffer and Dr. King knew that literally.
But in our baptism we too are called to die. Maybe not literally, but certainly in a real way. Because if we are really going to follow Jesus, then we must be willing to let our hopes of always being comfortable die. We must be willing to let our self-protecting silence die. We must be willing to let our neutrality in the face of injustice die.
We must do these things because in the end, it is the only way that we, and the world, may truly live. Amen?
And so, on this Baptism of the Lord Sunday, for those who are baptized, I invite you to join me in reaffirming your baptism. For those who are not baptized, I invite you to reflect on these words and see whether God might be inviting you into baptism. Let us use the words of the baptismal liturgy…