Today we formally welcome Jackson Thomas Grieco into the created life we all share. We affirm that he, like everyone, has an essential role to play in God’s ongoing creation, even though we may never know what that role will be. We affirm that without him acting authentically in his God-given role, our own lives and all of creation would be essentially diminished. And we make a sacred commitment to shape our relationship with him and with each other accordingly. For all of us, it’s a day of great celebration, full of warm welcome, high expectation, and unimaginable promise.
It may seem out of place that today, as we welcome Jackson to this life and to these relationships in the name of Christ, we should hear Jesus say he has come to divide parents and children against one another (Luke 12:49-53). But it’s part of the “fine print” in our covenant with God. Division in the human family over notions of God and of how we relate to God and to each other – these divisions are as old as the human story, as old as the story of the brothers Cain and Abel (Gen. 4:1-15).
Why God’s creation, with its essential integrity and universal goodness, should be divided is a mystery to me. The good news is that in Christ God was reconciling everyone without exception into a unified and unifying relationship with God. Why this good news should divide even the most basic unit of the human family is something I cannot explain. But while I know nothing of God’s purpose for creation, I’ve come to suspect a few things that are relevant today. Here’s what I suspect about the conundrum of reconciliation and division on this baptism Sunday. And here’s what I suspect this day means for Jackson and for all of us.
At the heart of every division we have in the human family is a theological problem, a problem of how we reason and talk about God. We have differing and often opposing ideas about God; about God’s nature; about what God requires of us; about the restrictions and permissions God uses to limit or expand our lives; about our notions of what is ultimately right or wrong, good or evil, holy or profane; and about the particular values that will shape our lives, our personal relationships, and our communities.
Mark Twain said that what distinguishes us from other animals is that we are a religious animal, the only religious animal, the only animal that has true religion – several of them. We’re the only animal, he said, that loves our neighbor as ourselves and cuts his throat if his theology isn’t right. We’ve made a graveyard of the globe, Twain said, in trying to smooth our neighbor’s path to happiness and heaven.
Twain was right. What divides us and sets us against one another is our faith, even what we take to be our Christian faith, a faith that at its heart is about reconciliation, the faith into which we have been baptized, the faith into which we baptize Jackson today. So let’s try to get something clear.
Jackson’s baptism is not his initiation into a set of orthodox understandings of God and of our relationship with God. It’s not starting him off on a particular “right path” in life – the one that may be right for us but probably won’t be for him. It’s not a commitment we make to indoctrinate Jackson into certain rules and practices that make a healing, lifegiving relationship with God possible. And baptism is not his entry into a special relationship with God which makes God’s grace uniquely available to him.
Baptism is a sign of our recognition that the new relationship God promised to make with all people is now a reality. Jeremiah understood that in this new relationship, the basic principles of life would no longer be external, codified as immutable law and written on tablets of stone; they would be internal, written on the human heart, where they would evolve, develop, unfold – a relationship in which we no longer teach one another to know God but one in which we all know God in our own authentic ways (Jer. 31:31-34). It would be a relationship in which each succeeding generation would enjoy an original relationship with God, not a relationship like previous generations had but one that is fresh and uniquely their own (see the last paragraph of Emerson’s introduction to his essay “Nature”).
So, what does baptism mean for Jackson? And what role are we taking on as parents, sponsors, and members of the congregation? I’m going to call on Fred Rogers here, because I think what Mister Rogers saw as the role of parents is exactly our role as members of the congregation.
Mister Rogers offered lots of advice to parents about how to be parents, and the heart of his wisdom was not about rules to follow; it was about what it means to nurture a young life in a complicated world. “If the day ever came,” he wrote, “when we were able to accept ourselves and our children exactly as we and they are, then I believe we would have come very close to an ultimate understanding of what ‘good’ parenting means” (from Mister Rogers Talks with Parents). “He didn’t tell you how to parent,” one critic wrote. “He just treated children as worthy of your full attention.”
In baptizing Jackson, we affirm that God is acting in him in an extraordinary, unique way that has the power to bring all of us closer to “more and better life than [we] ever dreamed of” (John 10:10 The Message). We owe it to Jackson, to ourselves, and to all of creation, to celebrate what God is doing in him; to encourage him to grow into the fullness of his own unique self; and to act as if he is worthy of our full attention. Because he is.