A Sermon for Sunday, February 16, 2020. Emory Presbyterian Church. Sixth Sunday After Epiphany. (Celebration of Infant Baptism) 1 Corinthians 3:1-9.
In the last six weeks, I’ve had the privilege to officiate two weddings for good friends at Shades Valley Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, Alabama where I grew up. Never did I expect that, on both occasions, I would be reminded of how the promises others made during my baptism has greatly impacted my life these 44 years.
I was simply browsing the shelves of Shades Valley’s library, more than a half hour before the wedding of the Rev. Lindsey Wade who I’ve known since 3rd grade, when I noticed a book that seemed oddly familiar. Adorning the cover was an illustration of two men looking quizzically at an extremely cross elephant who was refusing to strut around like elephants often do for the merriment of visitors. Intuition told me it was a book I read as a child, but I couldn’t recall a single detail of the story, known as The Day the Animals Went on Strike.
Opening the book, I was startled and elated to see a bookplate on the inside cover that read: “In honor of Michael Andrew Acton, son of Michael F. and Sharon Daughtry Acton. March 7, 1976.” Three months after I was born into the Acton family, I was baptized in front of a congregation who promised to raise me as a member of God’s family and nurture my faith.
They more than kept their baptismal vows. The lessons I learned early on from Shades Valley Presbyterian about the triune God have shaped me in profound ways. I carry forever the memories of the adults who first affirmed I was a child of God and taught me about God’s love from infancy to young adulthood and through good times and bad.
Last weekend, I had the fortune of seeing some of those folks who made those promises to me and my family so many years ago. We had come together to celebrate the marriage of Tricia Harkins who was a member of the youth group of which I served as an adviser in the late 90s. At the reception following the ceremony, I sat down at a table with Gail, Jane, June, Anne, Augusta and Bill where we enjoyed plates of food, a couple of cocktails and told stories and laughed. Although I hadn’t seen many of them since I got married and ordained more than a decade ago, we picked up exactly where we left off. Through the wonders of social media, they’ve been able to keep up with me, my family and ministry for several years.
They have been and will always be in my heart—these men and women who raised me in the faith. I’ve seen reflections of their personalities, character and gifts in the previous two churches I’ve served, and I see them reflected in you now. And thus, it is a great comfort to know that through miles and years we are all bound by the baptismal waters and connected in the story of God and humanity.
While it’s true that nothing magical happens when we’re baptized there is something mighty powerful that occurs. When a group of people, mostly strangers to you as a baby, agree to love and nurture you—promising to show you how to follow the One who fed the poor, tended the sick, welcomed the stranger and dined with outcasts—that is nothing but the holy transformative work of God.
Our Reformed tradition teaches us that in baptism (our own and the ones we witness), we are called to share in Jesus’ ministry, to be the body of Christ in the world. We are called to help build the beloved community of God, recognizing that every life is precious and sacred—especially those who are constantly marginalized and told they are worthless or “less than.” Just as God proudly claims us all in Christ’s baptism, we are to affirm the spark or Spirit of love that resides in another human being and makes them a unique and wondrous creation.
The Corinthian community, which the apostle Paul founded, had lost sight of that truth (as have many modern Christians) by engaging in arguments over which religious teachers were the most superior in their wisdom of God. Paul responds by saying no single human being can attain all the knowledge of God, regardless of how well they’ve studied philosophy and theology, and that only the Holy Spirit can equip or inspire humanity to know God. Paul insists that people who are truly in touch with God’s wisdom are recognized, as one biblical scholar explains:
“not by their philosophical sophistication or impressive speeches, but by signs of the Spirit’s presence with them. What kinds of signs indicate the presence of the Holy Spirit? The Spirit, of course, is none other than the Spirit of Christ. …So, in general terms, acting, thinking, and loving like Jesus are signs that a person is one in whom the Spirit is active, and thus one who is capable of properly understanding the gospel. …
This is a startling teaching for modern Christians, because we, like the Corinthians, place high value on technical skill in our preachers and teachers. We look for knowledge of Hebrew and Greek, facility with exegetical technique, historical and theological expertise, and above all an engaging speaking style! As useful as such skills are, Paul insists that the primary qualification for knowing God and understanding the gospel rightly is to be a certain kind of Spirit-formed person, living a life that looks like Jesus.”
The elders of Emory Presbyterian drew a similar conclusion after studying this passage as part of a Session retreat held at the beginning of the month in Fellowship Hall. They noted that God calls a variety of people in the community’s history to lead the church and teach about God (pastors, elders and lay people); and that we have different skills and different experiences and all of them are needed for ministry. The elders also shared that Christ is the foundation of we do and God holds us accountable when we don’t act Christ-like. And they concluded that leaders seeking to follow Christ must maintain humility, never be too sure of themselves, and respect and employ the gifts of others. “There is going to be quarreling about perspectives,” said one elder. “When it happens, the objective is not to get people to have the same perspective. We are not going to be acknowledged as ‘right’ all the time and we won’t get our way all the time. We mustn’t lose sight of the real objective which is spiritual growth in God.”
In a commentary on this passage, a retired Presbyterian pastor expands on the insights of Emory’s elders further, saying:
By learning to live in Christ we grow into the discovery that we are loved. The image Paul uses for growth is a horticultural one. … I recently came upon another image that extends Paul’s: the notion of “ecotone,” meaning a special meeting ground between two different ecological communities, for example, a forest and a meadow. Ecologists tell us that there is an “edge effect” between these two ecological communities that is particularly fertile and life giving. Indeed, they speak of the “pregnancy of edges.”
This notion of the “edge effect” is particularly apt for describing the experience of the community of the wounded who encounter the living God in Christ, in whom we are healed. Indeed, the sacrament of baptism is a powerfully fertile place where we encounter the edge effect. Baptism reminds us of the story of God’s love that comes to us amid our woundedness to give us healing and life. … Baptism, in other words, is symbolic of the fertile place for life—the edge effect—when the community of the wounded encounters God in Christ, who heals our wounds.
The late Wangari Muta Maathai—raised Catholic by her parents who were members of the Kikuyu tribe in Kenya—took this concept of baptism quite seriously and literally in her incredible life. The first woman to hold the job of Minister of the Environment in Kenya and the first African woman to receive a Nobel Peace Prize, Wangari believed strongly that there could be a peaceful coexistence of people and nature, and in 1976, she created the Green Belt Movement, a national grassroots organization to combat deforestation in Kenya.
She bravely led the fight against political and economic powers that stood to gain financially from cutting down trees and destroying the livelihood of indigenous farmers. Wangari’s work often landed her in prison where she was beaten and called names and yet, she persisted. Collectively, Wangari and the all those who joined the movement, have now planted more than 51 million trees in Kenya and many other countries. Wangari, who died from cancer in 2011, wrote in a book on her experience:
“I’m very conscious of the fact that you can’t do it alone. It’s teamwork. When you do it alone you run the risk that when you are no longer there nobody else will do it.”
Echoing in Wangari’s words and her ministry of planting seeds is Paul’s message to the Corinthians:
God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each. For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.
We are God’s servants. We work together so that God may plant seeds of love in our hearts; shower us with the waters of baptism that remind us who we are and to whom we belong; and who grow in the Spirit of Christ by nurturing other human beings, particularly the suffering and broken.
May this always be our calling and aspiration—even our desire, as the brilliant novelist and poet Alice Walker expresses in one of her poems:
is always the same; wherever Life
I want to stick my toe
& soon my whole body
into the water.
I want to shake out a fat broom
& sweep dried leaves
I want to grow
It seems impossible that desire
can sometimes transform into devotion;
but this has happened.
And that is how I’ve survived:
how the hole
I carefully tended
in the garden of my heart
grew a heart
to fill it.
We are God’s servants. We are God’s garden which we and God both tend, so our hearts may grow and be filled.
 P. Mark Achtemeier. Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration (Feasting on the Word: Year A volume) . Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.
 Roger J. Gench. Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration (Feasting on the Word: Year A volume) . Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.
 Holy Troublemakers and Unconventional Saints by Daneen Akers, 2019. Watchfire Media.
Mama Miti by Donna Jo Napoli and Kadir Nelson, 2010. Simon & Schuster.
 The Green Belt Movement: Sharing the Approach and the Experience by Wangari Maathai, 2003. Lantern Books.
 The World Will Follow: Turning Madness into Flowers by Alice Walker, 2013. The New Press