Friday, January 9, 2015

The Undertoad



Genesis 1:1-5, Mark 1:4-11
January 11, 2015
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
Christina Berry

Our first reading this week takes us back to the beginning again. Last week we reflected on that beginning; we recognized that Christ was present from the beginning as light and Word. Now, we hear once again how a creating God spoke a word over the primordial waters. This is not the glassy sea of Revelation, silent and calm. This is turbulent chaos, swirling and dangerous waters. The Spirit of God hovers over the water, the voice of God thundered over the water, and when God spoke, the first day came into being. Listen for God’s word in

Genesis 1:1-5
In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, 2 the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. 3 Then God said, "Let there be light"; and there was light. 4 And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. 5 God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

Our gospel reading for today invokes another beginning, the start of Jesus’ public ministry. As you have observed, Mark’s gospel does not bother with birth or childhood stories. Instead, it wades into the River Jordan, pulling us along into the water as Jesus is baptized. His baptism, like ours, marks the beginning of a life of obedient ministry, sharing the good news of God’s love for all people. Listen, as God’s beloved sons and daughters, to God’s word for you in

Mark 1:4-11
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6 Now John was clothed with camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 He proclaimed, "The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit." 9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11 And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."

One of the best novels of the 20th century, in my opinion
was John Irving’s “The World According to Garp.”
There was a movie, too, starring Robin Williams, and it was good,
but like most good books, the book was better.

Garp, the main character of the novel, has two sons, Duncan and Walt.
There is a lot to the story, but this little piece has stayed in my memory:
“When Walt was old enough to venture near the water,
Duncan said to him – as Helen and Garp had, for years, said to Duncan –
‘Watch out for the undertow.’
Walt retreated, respectfully.
And for three summers Walt was warned about the undertow. …
‘The undertow is bad today.’
‘The undertow is strong today.’
‘The undertow is wicked today.’
…And for years Walt reached out for it.
From the first, when he asked what it could do to you,
he had only been told that it could pull you out to sea.
It could suck you under and drown you and drag you away.
It was Walt’s fourth summer at Dog’s Head Harbor, …
when Garp and Helen and Duncan observed Walt watching the sea.
He stood ankle-deep in the foam from the surf and peered into the waves,
without taking a step, for the longest time.
The family went down to the water’s edge to have a word with him.
‘What are you doing, Walt?’ Helen asked.
‘What are you looking for, dummy?’ Duncan asked him.
‘I’m trying to see the Under Toad,’ Walt said.
‘The what?’ said Garp.
‘The Under Toad,’ Walt said. ‘I’m trying to see it. How big is it?
And Garp and Helen and Duncan held their breath;
they realized that all these years Walt had been dreading a giant toad,
lurking offshore, waiting to suck him under and drag him out to sea.
The terrible Under Toad.”

When I told the worship team my sermon title for today, they just stared at me.
And not politely!
No really, they asked me what on earth this story has to do with baptism.
Or with Jesus.
Or with ordination and installation of officers, which we are doing today after the sermon.
Samantha sent an email to double check – “Undertoad? The sermon title?”
After all, what has the undertoad, or the undertow got to do with baptism?

Every baptism I’ve been a part of, including my own, has been in a church. My own baptism took place when I was twelve.Wearing a heavy white robe, I walked down steps into a font the size of a stock tank, behind the choir loft,with a landscape of the River Jordan behind it. I told the congregation that I had decided to follow Jesus.The preacher dunked me all the way down under the water, three times.I emerged soaking wet. There was no question that I had been baptized. But once I got dried off, I am not sure there was any sure way to tell that I was a baptized Christian.

Most Presbyterian baptism ceremonies are at a font, like ours, with a relatively small amount of water. It is nice clean water, usually kind of warm,so as not to startle the baby too much.
There is no current in there, no waves, no gravel or sand, no tide.
No undertoad.
Nothing unsafe.

At least not literally.
A lot of people would tell you that at their baptism, nothing really happened.
It’s just symbolic, baptism is. Isn’t it?

When Jesus was baptized, the heavens were torn apart,and the Spirit descended like a dove. And God’s voice was heard, saying “This is my beloved.”

When we are baptized, we generally don’t experience anything quite like that.
It is just a little clean water, on our heads, at the font.
We’re not being pulled in by the undertoad!
We are strong, we stand firm, we hold our ground.
We can’t go swimming around in the ocean, can’t let ourselves be pulled unresisting into all that. Because we are busy – we have lives to live, families, jobs, vacations, calendars.
You can’t just go off willy nilly wherever the current of a river takes you.
Usually, we won’t let the undertow take us.

When the moment of decision comes, whether it is a conversation at work or a phone call from the nominating committee, or a quiet little tug at our hearts in the worship service, we don’t give ourselves over to it. We’re not religious fanatics, after all.

Like little Walt, we stay in the shallow water, ever watchful of the undertoad.
Staying on shore is actually safer, but if we must be baptized, 
we’ll settle for that little bowl over there.

But these are dangerous waters, the waters of baptism.
The undertow is there, even in that bowl.
The current of the waters of baptism is there, and it is strong,
and it will pull us out into the sea if we will let it.
If you’ve ever actually experienced it,
you know that the undertoad can be subtle, even sneaky.

When you wade in a little bit, maybe come to Bible Study, or offer to serve on a committee, or attend the Lenten programs on Wednesday night,you wade in just a little bit,and the next thing you know, you’re engaging a friend in a lively discussion of faith, or even inviting that friend to come to church,

The waves lap at your ankles,and you think, 
“Well, this is kind of nice. Refreshing!
I might walk in a little deeper.”
And then you are saying yes to the nominating committee
when they call and ask you to serve on Session or the Board of Deacons.
Maybe then, the undertoad grabs you, and before you know it, 
you are in what my mother calls “the arena of public Christianity.”

Presbyterians believe that in our baptism,
every single one of us is called into Christian service.
That takes different shapes at different stages of our lives.

Very small children may serve God simply with their joyful presence.
If you have ever had the pleasure of seeing their little faces
when they are fully engaged in worship or prayer or singing,
you know what I mean.
Older children serve God
in their daily lives with kindness and caring,
by helping in the home and in the church.
Their eagerness to light the candles or take up the offering,
to greet and welcome others,
and to participate in the life of the church
is a model for all of us.
Our youth are active participants in the life of the congregation too –
serving in so many ways that we don’t even realize.
We’ve sent them on mission trips and out to do service,
and they are busy in this building on Sunday,
and the rest of the week they are great representatives of our church.

And you know, because you are here,
that there are so many adults who are serving in so many various ways.
We have a visible demonstration of that service today
as we ordain and install our officers,
but these are just the visible baptized Christians –
they are not the ONLY ones called and ordained to service.

When we gathered this morning,
our call to worship and prayer of confession
reminded us of our baptism.
We brought the glass stones to the font as an expression of our faith.
When we leave here today, we march back out into that cold winter,
and into the sometimes messy, chaotic swirl of modern life.
But the undertoad is there, too,
that inexorable pull to follow Jesus,
to draw near to God’s heart,
to swim in the waters of grace.
The current is strong, and it will pull us out into the sea,
but it will not drown us!
Instead we will be drenched in joy,
showered with blessings, splashed with delight,
and washed in the refreshing, eternal waters of renewal.
Let the waters of your baptism flow over you
as a daily reminder that you are God’s beloved and precious child.
You belong to God.
Don’t worry about the undertoad.

Amen.

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