Isaiah 43:1-7; Matthew 3:13-17
For 20-some years Westminster has had a partnership with a Cuban congregation in the town of Matanzas on that island. We haven’t been able to travel there for two years now, but when we do visit, we always travel in an old American school bus, donated by a U.S. group called Pastors for Peace. Because we often adjust our plans on the fly when we are visiting Cuba, we like to say as we start each day, “Let’s get on the bus and see what happens.”
Several years ago, a Westminster group was on the bus, driving through a rural part of the island, hours from any large city. Something went wrong with the bus’s motor, and we coasted to a stop in a little hamlet of a few houses. You may have heard me tell this story before. The driver got out and checked under the hood. A belt had broken. With no gas station or auto-parts store or roadside assistance, not even a telephone, we all got off the bus and wondered what in the world we would do.
A few people came over, greeted us warmly, and asked about the bus. The driver held up the broken belt. An older man smiled and beckoned a few of us to follow. The rest stayed behind and visited with the locals.
The gentleman took us to a ramshackle little shed nearby and invited us inside. We were amazed to see a wall full of dozens of old, used belts for virtually any vehicle. The driver held up the broken belt while our host measured it against a few hanging there. He found one that looked close to the right size. Belt in hand, we all trooped back, and they went to work. In no time at all they had the bus running.
A member in our group tried to pay the gentleman for the belt and his work on the bus, but he waved us off.
“No es necesario,” he said. “Estamos juntos en esto.” Not necessary. We’re in this together.
Cubans call it solidaridad: solidarity. In South Africa and Zimbabwe, Uganda and Tanzania, they call it ubuntu: ¬I am because we are. Those cultures know the power of recognizing that we do not move through this world as isolated beings. We belong to one another.
Last September, as we began this year of worship at Westminster, we launched into an exploration of the theme of belonging. We started by looking back to the 16th century, to the Heidelberg Catechism, a set of questions and answers designed to teach the faith.
Do you remember that first 500-year-old question: What is your only comfort in life and in death?
The response was simple: That I belong, body and soul, in life and in death, not to myself, but to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.
They were conveying the essence of Christian faith in only a few words, addressing the anxiety of their time, and of every age, including our own: What is our only comfort in life and in death?
That we belong – which means we are not adrift. We are not alone. We are not left to our own devices. Solidaridad.
We do not have to depend solely on ourselves. We have a community to care for us and for whom we care. Ubuntu.
We have a companion who will not leave our side. “When you pass through the waters,” God says in the voice of the prophet,
“I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you…Do not fear, for I am with you.” (Isaiah 43: 2, 5a)
Belonging frames our faith. It defines the way we approach life as followers of Jesus. We belong to one another, even to the strangers among us. Even to those we might count as enemies. No one is outside the circle of God’s love. That’s the bottom line of our faith. It insists we enter human community every day with the assumption that we are in this together, that we belong to one another.
That approach to life runs counter to the myth of the self-made individual – a fiercely independent soul who makes it on their own, the hard worker who pulls themselves up by their bootstraps. In our nation, that illusion still has traction, but in reality, there is no such person. Without belonging to one another, there is no human community, and without human community the world would be a lonely, dysfunctional, and frightening place – and we might still be stuck in that little Cuban village.
As Christians, belonging is where we begin, and baptism is the sacrament of belonging. Everything else in our faith flows from the font. It starts in the water, it starts at the river, and it ends there, as well.
In memorial services the pastoral prayer often includes this line:
“O God, before whom generations rise and pass away, we praise you for all your servants who, having lived this life in faith, now live eternally with you. Especially we thank you for your servant – and then we name the deceased – whose baptism is now complete in death.”
Our distant relatives back in Heidelberg were concerned not only with life on this earth, but also about life beyond life. They portrayed eternal life as a belonging that never ends. In life and in death we belong to God.
Everybody needs to belong somewhere.
When I arrived at Westminster 22 years ago, I was introduced to Camp Ajawah, the church’s camp in Wyoming, Minnesota, not by church members or staff, but by the wider community. At various events to which I was invited, older men would come up to me and say they had gone to Camp Ajawah 60, 70, or 80 years ago, and they remembered it like yesterday. They got a faraway, wistful look in their eyes and used words like formative, bonding, close-knit. Maybe you had a camping experience like that. They were remembering when they first discovered that they belonged. Community begins with belonging.
It happened again yesterday. After a memorial service an older gentleman well into 80s came up to me to talk about Troop 33 and Camp Ajawah. Those years were so important for him – and his father before him. He described his dad as a 15-year-old in 1924 heading out from the Westminster parking lot on his way with the troop to national parks in the west.
Everybody needs to belong somewhere – even Jesus. That’s why he shows up that day down at the river. He doesn’t need to be baptized. John tries to tell him that as Jesus comes slipping down the muddy bank into the Jordan.
What are you doing here? You don’t need this? You should be baptizing me – and all the rest of us!
Jesus insists, because he wants to belong, as well. And when he rises from the water a voice declares him to be the beloved child. The same voice that declares each one of us a beloved child of God, who belongs to God. That is the belonging moment. When we reaffirm the baptismal covenant, we remember that our name was called, that we, too, had our belonging moment at the water. Baptism signals the love of God at the start. Belonging is where we begin.
I’m always surprised how this service of baptismal reaffirmation affects people. When we go out to sprinkle the water on you, some of you will lean eagerly toward us to be sure you’re close enough to get wet. When the water splashes on us, it connects us to the font where we went earlier in our lives – most of us as babies, but some as adults. I recently heard from a woman I baptized long ago. She took October 13 off from work. It was thirty years ago to that day that she had gone to the font as a young adult. She wanted to remember and be grateful, which is what we’re going to do today.
No matter how we got there, someone brought us to the river. We were not alone at the start.
The water today also connects us to that time when we will go to the river at the end of life. We will not be alone then, either.
I will be with you, God says through the prophet. The waters will not overwhelm you. The fire will not consume you.
The response to that first question of the Heidelberg Catechism concludes like this:
“Because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.”
When we go to the font, or when the font comes to us, as it will shortly, we discover that we belong to a love larger than any of us, and that changes us, if we let it. We can leave behind old ways. We can live wholeheartedly into a new future made possible by the cleansing of those waters.
From an old school bus in rural Cuba, now to one in the heart of New York City. Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love, tells of being on a crowded city bus in Manhattan several years ago, at the end of a long day. The bus was barely moving through traffic, and it was cold and rainy outside so no one wanted to get off and walk, which would have got them home more quickly.
Everyone on the bus seemed depressed and in a foul mood. No one was talking to or even looking at anyone else – just staying in their miserable little bubbles, “hating their life that day,” as Gilbert describes it.
“When the bus reached 10th Ave.,” Gilbert says,
“The bus driver made a surprising announcement. ‘Ladies and gentlemen, we are now nearing the Hudson River. I’m going to ask you to do me a favor. When you get off the bus, I’m going to hold out my hand. As you walk past me, I want you to drop your troubles into the palm of my hand. I’ll take your troubles for you, and when I drive past the river, I’ll throw them in.’”
Gilbert says people started looking at one another for the first time, tentatively smiling and shaking their heads at his humor.
“The reason I want to do this,” the driver continued,
“Is because you all seem like you’ve had a bad day, and I don’t want you taking all your worries and sorrows home to your friends and families, because they deserve better than that, don’t they? So you just leave your troubles here with me to dispose of, and you all go have a wonderful night, OK?”
By that point people were beginning to be amused at the idea.
“The whole bus — the whole grumpy lot of us,” Gilbert says, “Broke into laughter. (Some of us, myself included, might have even shed a tear or two.) And one by one, as we filed off the bus, we dropped our troubles into the palm of this good man’s hand, and we stepped off the bus with smiles on our faces.”
And when the bus got to the Hudson, the driver pulled over, leaned out the window, stretched out his hand, and let it all drop into the water.
By the time they got to the river, to the water, that bus had become a rolling community, no longer strangers, but companions on the journey.
Solidaridad. Ubuntu. I am because we are.
Going to the water together, to be given the grace of a new start, they had discovered – as have we – that they belonged to one another, and to a love that bound them as one and held them all close.
What is our only comfort, in life and in death? That we belong to God and to one another.
Belonging is where we begin.
Thanks be to God.