Text: Luke 3:15-22 (Jesus is baptized) * Video of complete service
Does anyone here remember their baptism? I was baptized in the spring of 1957 a few months after my birth in Kingston Ontario. But I am unsure who performed the baptism. My older sister and brother had been baptized in Cookstown, just north of Toronto, in 1953 and 1955, by my uncle, the Rev. Frank Whiteley, who like my father was a United Church of Canada minister. I think I might have been baptized by my great uncle, the Rev. Archie Peebles, who was also a United Church minister. But I imagine that no one alive today remembers.
I have been told that I was healthy and happy during my infancy and toddlerhood. This contrasts with my older sister and brother, both of whom lived with a variety of health issues in their first months, which stressed my parents.
I was the easy one, capably cared for by my parents, who by the time I arrived were experienced. At the same time, I’m sad there are few pictures of my early years. By the time I showed up, my parents seemed too busy to take photos.
Family photos sprouted again when my twin brother and sister, Andrew and Catherine, were born in January 1961 in Cornwall Ontario when I was almost four years old. This happened even as my parents struggled to be the caregivers of five children under the age of eight.
My family seemed to go off the rails in a variety of ways during the 1960s. With five children, with an inadequate minister’s salary, and with all the social upheaval that marked the 1960s, including in the church, which began a still-unending period of decline in 1965, my parents struggled. My father had two nervous breakdowns during the decade — one in 1962, which only ended when my older brother suffered a concussion, and one in 1969, when my father’s tongue became swollen from stress and which prevented him from speaking over two Sundays.
This may explain why my development beyond the stage of toddlerhood, which in the Catholic sacraments are represented by confirmation, communion, and marriage, was a lot rockier than my baptismal beginning.
Baptism is a stage where we are welcomed into family, church, and world, and in which the central task is to move from mistrust to trust, or from fear to faith.
Having been born, one struggles to trust one’s body, one’s parents, and the neighbourhood and communities in which one finds oneself. Every human life is a mixture of fragility and strength, and of wounds and blessings. Baptism is a ritual in which we pledge to help a family welcome an infant into world and in which we give thanks for the blessings of life despite its many challenges.
I like the African phrase “it takes a village to raise a child,” which Hillary Clinton popularized in the 1990s. But it is clear to me in a new way with the birth of our grandson Ethan last year that very few of us live in a village.
Nevertheless, I thrived in infancy and toddlerhood. Then, as the difficulties faced by my family grew in the 1960s, I had trouble dealing with later developmental stages, and this may explain the abstract focus I adopt when we remember baptism, as we do today when the church directs us to reflect on the baptism of Jesus.
For example, when I think of baptism, I dwell on broad indices of the world society into which we are born. Take population. When I was born in 1957, the world had about 2.8 billion people. This is an enormously large number when compared to the size of the world’s population when Jesus was baptized, which was about 150 million people, but it is miniscule when compared to today’s total, which is just shy of 8 billion.
I became obsessed with world population around the time of the first Earth Day in 1970, when there were 3.7 billion people. And although population growth has slowed from 2% per year to 1% per year since then, there are nearly three times as many people alive today as when I was born.
Despite the vast implications of population explosion, few people seem to dwell on it the way I do. Something similar has been the case with other social problems, from nuclear weapons to climate change, which is why I appreciate the huge success of a recent Netflix movie, “Don’t Look Up.”
Kim and I watched this satirical movie over the Christmas holidays, and I found it to be both funny and dispiriting. It uses a fictional story of the discovery of a comet by a PhD student of astronomy to satirize cultural and political inaction in the face of climate disaster. The comet is on a direct collision course with the earth and threatens to end civilization. But despite the stark implications of this coming event, it becomes difficult, if not impossible, for the PhD student, played by Jennifer Lawrence, and her supervisor, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, to get governments to pay attention to this crisis and to try and destroy the comet.
In becoming a success, “Don’t Look Up” is contributing to the seemingly impossible task of forcing governments and communities focus on the need to end fossil fuel use in short order.
This topic is controversial in Alberta because so much of this province’s wealth is said to be based on fossil fuel production. But I am sure the controversy is not well thought out. If Alberta moved to end fossil fuels, it could be just as prosperous as it is today and more stimulating culturally by focusing on a radical increase in urban density and instituting a life marked by walking and transit instead of driving. This would mean the end of Costco, multi-lane highways, and residential suburbs, but it would also mean a more convivial and sustainable life, I believe.
However, I’m not holding my breath for this transition to occur; and until and unless it happens, Kim and I will continue to maintain our vehicles, shop at Costco, and fly on airplanes to enjoy vacations (assuming the pandemic ever ends, of course) Climate solutions, as in so many other issues, are communal and not personal.
The need to end fossil fuel production has been widely known for at least 40 years, and yet their production and use has continued to accelerate.
In December, Kim and I watched the Christmas episode of Saturday Night Live, which was broadcast on December 18th and which was filmed in an empty studio. The decision to have no studio audience was made that morning due to the explosion of COVID-19 in New York City. Some of the skits filmed earlier in the week were aired. But much of the episode shifted to past clips from SNL Christmas episodes. One of them was from 30 years ago, in December 1991, when Tom Hanks starred as Dean Martin in a fake TV show called The Global Warming Christmas Special. The special was hosted by physicist Carl Sagan played by then-SNL cast member Mike Myers; and I was struck and unnerved to see such a clear, and clearly ignored, warning of climate disaster from 30 years ago.
I am pleased to have been born in 1957 in a stable and prosperous country like Canada. It feels like a privileged place and time in which to try to unspool a life of faith instead of fear, of humility instead of shame, of charity instead of egotism, of love as well as grief, of honesty instead of lies, of reality instead of illusion, and of union with God instead of attachment to earthly desires. Better to be born when the world had under three billion people than just under eight billion today. Better to have been born when only about 50 billion barrels of oil had been burned than today when the figure is around 400 billion. And so on.
And yet, we continue to be thrilled by the birth of new babies and to baptize any whom their parents want to welcome in this way in church.
I have struggled for the past 65 years to stay on the path of faith presented to me by my parents because the world has much that seems frightening. But I continue to try; and sometimes, with Grace, I succeed.
With the difficulties our governments face in bringing a pandemic like COVID-19 under control, let alone vastly more difficult problems like the rise of fascism, the erosion of human autonomy in the face of ever-growing electronic networks of distraction and disinformation, and climate disaster, I might wonder how to give thanks for the birth of a baby today. And who knows what the world might look like in five years let alone 65 years from now. But we keep on trying.
In the movie “Don’t Look Up,” the fictional President of the United States, played by Meryl Streep, says “you cannot go around saying to people that there’s a 100% chance that they’re going to die. That would just be nuts.” Except, this is what we do say in church. There is a 100% surety that all of us will soon be dead — if not in six months, then at the latest in 100 years. We also focus on the Good News contained in that reality – that our egotistical fears and desires will dissolve with our individual deaths, and that with Grace, we sometimes can let go of the concerns of our egos before individual death.
I will say more about our egos and their gracious dissolution in the weeks ahead. For now, I finish with two thoughts. First, remember your baptism even if it happened when you were an infant. You will be glad you did for baptism helps reveal the secret of dying with Christ and rising to a new life closer to the heart of the Source of Love we call God.
Second, please do look up no matter what corrupt political leaders say; for if you do, you might see the skies open, the Holy Spirit descend upon you in visible form like a dove, and hear a voice from heaven say, “You are my own, my beloved. On you my favor rests.”
May it be so. Amen.