This weekend many churches, including the one I attend, did not gather for worship in an effort to lower the incidence curve of Covid-19 in our communities. Although some people view the national request to restrict personal liberty as more of an imposition than a necessity, I see it as a sacred duty to follow the guidance of health professionals during the pandemic. As a Christian, I take seriously Jesus’ teaching “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” (Matthew 25:40) These words reinforce in me the need to choose my actions out of concern for those most vulnerable who are at risk of severe complications and even death from the virus.
As a New Yorker who served twenty years as a Navy chaplain, six of which was with the Marine Corps, three with an office next door to the Sergeant Major with a very thin wall separating us, I often find myself channeling my inner Gunny. Here is the translation:
“Unless you want to shoot Grandma outright, wash your filthy paws, quit picking your nose, keep your butt in the house, shut up and color… Belay my last. Go find something to clean.”
Taking that advice, I was writing (rather than cleaning) when a comment arrived from a former parishioner named Donna.
“Tell people about your pickle recipe and the sermon you gave about it.”
I admit including a recipe as a bulletin insert was unusual, and yes, I preached about pickles, but unlike some sermons which folks may claim are pointless, this time there really was one. Not only am I going to explain, since Donna asked me to do it, but if you stick with me to the end, there might even be help for that hand-washing problem we’ve been hearing about in the news for weeks-the problem being that so few of us do it properly, if at all. Yuk…
So here goes: (Don’t worry. It’s just a few comments, not a sermon)
For most Christians, baptism is a sacrament. It is also a topic for debate. Should we dip, sprinkle or fully immerse? Should there be Baby Dedication followed by Believer’s Baptism or Infant Baptism followed by confirmation? Since my faith group is of the latter persuasion, is it proper to baptize infants who may sleep or poop their way through the event, or as it happened to me, grab the pastor’s shiny, dangling earring causing a yowl from said pastor that was definitely NOT part of the liturgy? Since baptizing infants requires their parents to promise to raise them in faith until they are old enough to confirm for themselves the vow made on their behalf, what do you do about parents you know are lying? Many times parents would tell me they wanted to “get their kid done” to get the grandparents off their case. I didn’t know whether I should be checking the child’s diaper for that thing that pops up out of a turkey to let you know it’s ready or advertising baptism as an equivalent to the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.
Despite all the tradition and lack thereof about the practice of baptism, a few things are essential. Repentance, the turning away from sin and all that separates us from God; water, used to wash away all unrighteousness and as a sign of commitment to that new life; and the invocation of the Holy Spirit, to guide the newly baptized in a way that leads to eternal life in Christ. Which means that baptism is about getting one begun, not done. It is a commencement, at any age, not a “Thank God that’s over” occasion.
So, what does this have to do with pickles?
Having studied Koine Greek, the language of the New Testament, I often feel compelled to peruse the Greek text before I preach. Why waste 3 ½ torturous years learning a language which nobody alive speaks? Besides, the nuanced word usages and meanings are interesting and increase my understanding of the text.
On the day which Donna remembers as Pickle Sunday, the Gospel lesson was Luke 12:49-56, a passage in which Jesus tells his hearers he has come not to bring peace to the earth, but division. This will occur because those who follow his teachings will find their priorities and values reordered in ways that will put them at odds with cultural norms. In verse 50, Jesus speaks of the trials he, too, will undergo in his clash with the establishment. He says, “But I have a baptism to undergo, and what constraint I am under until it is completed!”
In my study of this passage, I spent some time looking over the word translated here as “baptism.” That word is baptizo, which means to cleanse by dipping or submerging, to wash or overwhelm. But later in the same gospel the root of this word is used for merely dipping one’s finger in water. “And he (the rich man) cried and said, Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus (a beggar), that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame.” (Luke 16:24) The Greek word used here is bapto, which means to dip or dye. So, what is really meant by baptism? Is it a simple dip in some water that gets one wet, or if color is added merely changes one’s outward appearance? Or does baptism mean something more?
A statement written by James Montgomery Boice, published in the May 1989 edition of Bible Study Magazine, and quoted in many Bible commentaries, provides an easy-to-understand description of the difference. On Pickle Sunday I read it to my congregation:
“The clearest example that shows the meaning of baptizo is a text from the Greek poet and physician Nicander, who lived about 200 B.C. It is a recipe for making pickles and is helpful because it uses both words. Nicander says that in order to make a pickle, the vegetable should first be ‘dipped’ (bapto) into boiling water and then ‘baptised’ (baptizo) in the vinegar solution. Both verbs concern the immersing of vegetables in a solution. But the first is temporary. The second, the act of baptizing the vegetable, produces a permanent change.”
To get back to our current situation, that of trying to reduce the incidence of Covid-19 by voluntarily curtailing some of our personal liberties and being vigilant about hygiene, it is time for those of us who have been baptized into Christ to take that transforming commitment seriously. We must be at the forefront of care in our communities in whatever capacity we are called. If that means in the trenches, then please take all precautions and practice self-care so you do not wear out from its lack. If that means spending quality time with family in quarantine, be on your best behavior. No one wants to be stuck inside with a self-absorbed _____ (sorry, channeling my inner Gunny again).
Far too many “Christians” have treated their baptisms like they do their hand-washing practices – a dip in the water that changes nothing. Today, as you soap up for a 20 second scrub, may your hands be transformed from potential lethal weapons into agents of care that make your commitment to Christ obvious to all–from at least 10 feet away, of course.
Oops, this may have turned into a sermon… 😊
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