Father in heaven, who at the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan proclaimed him your beloved Son and anointed him with the Holy Spirit: Grant that all who are baptized into his Name may keep the covenant they have made, and boldly confess him as Lord and Savior; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.
I have been baptized three times, first in October 1945, when I was still just 8 years old. I came forward at a revival at Parker Memorial Church in Anniston, Alabama. The church was undergoing renovation at the time, and you had to prepare in the basement and go outside to get into the sanctuary and up to the pool, in the center and above the choir. The pulpit is at a lower level between the choir and the congregation.
You had to make the same trek back after your total immersion. It was unseasonably very cold that night. I caught the flu from the exposure.
A few years later I was in the youth choir seated on the back row. During his baptism, a large man slipped when the minister was saying, “I baptize you Cliff Worsham in the name of the father, the son, and the Holy Ghost.” A glass panel allowed the congregation to see the water level and confirmed that the minister did indeed fully immerse the baptized as these words were said.
When Mr. Worsham slipped, the water splashed those of us on the back row, so at least as Methodists and Episcopalians would have it, we all got a new baptismal name, albeit accidentally.
As freshmen at Baylor in 1954, three of us who were studying to be ministers in the Baptist Church wanted to be sure that our baptism had really “taken,” so on a cold winter night (well not so very cold, as it was Texas, after all) we trekked to Lake Waco and each paired off to baptize the third until all three of us were again baptized.
I gave the three dates to Father Russell Daniel, rector of St. Peter’s Church in Rome [Georgia!] when he was preparing me for confirmation on October 29, 1961. He used only the date of the first baptism, as Episcopalians consider re-baptism redundant.
Another former Baptist turned Episcopalian, Very Rev. Paul Clasper, was dean of St. John's Cathedral in Hong Kong when I taught at Chinese University, 1984-1987. He reported that an elder member of the congregation had seen him in the park outside the cathedral and below the governor’s mansion.
“I need to bring my grandson by some time soon so that you can ‘do’ him,” the congregant had said.
“Baptism for some,” Dean Clasper explained, “is like a vaccination: you get a little dose of Christianity so that you don’t have to be bothered with the real thing.”
Today’s Epistle and Gospel both raise a similar concern.
Some of the Samaritan converts “had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus” and the ‘vaccination’ had not ‘taken'; they had not received the Holy Spirit. That happened only when Peter and John laid their hands on them.
Did my baptism ‘take’ only when classmates Jim Pippen and Bob Thweat laid hands on me in the cold waters of Lake Waco in 1954? or only when water splashed over the glass panel on the night Cliff Worsham was baptized (circa 1950)? or only the night I caught the flu from being dunked in October 1945?….
David Virtue sometimes refers to me as "the chief sodomite emeritus of the Anglican Communion.” Those who agree with him might be asking whether any of my baptisms ‘took.’ "How," they might ask, "can an out gay person be marked as God’s own forever?"
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
No heavenly dove showed up at any of my three baptisms, nor have I seen a dove at any of the more than 300 baptisms which I have witnessed, except occasionally in a stained glass window. Nevertheless I continue to renew my baptismal vows whole-heartedly.
In the depth of depression and threatening doubt, Martin Luther would reassure himself by saying again and again to himself, “But I have been baptized! I have been baptized.”
Through the years of my ministry as an out gay male Christian, I too have found re-assurance by saying, “But I have been baptized! I have been baptized,” especially when teenagers have hurled rocks at our apartment shouting “Faggot, N* lover!….”
In 1975, when a vestry in Georgia asked me to “find some other place to worship more in sympathy with your concern for gay people" (see the whole story) and in 1981 when a vestry in Wisconsin seriously considered my possible excommunication, I rejoiced knowing in my heart, “I have been baptized! I have been baptized.”
Note, I did not say, “Let me in!” That would be spiritually unhealthy. For mysterious reasons too great for me to imagine, the Lord of the universe has already welcomed me to the heavenly banquet, and if I don’t ‘get in,’ those locked in their exclusionary rhetoric may not get to hear from me how utterly amazing Grace still is.
Even Isaiah misses the point of God’s inclusion. Today he vaunts God for giving welcome primarily to Israel. He, like many writers of the Hebrew scriptures, proclaims God’s special favor to Israel, even when it costs others their lives.
I give people in return for you,
nations in exchange for your life.
That fervor, that same mind-set today confiscates Palestinian property to build new Jewish apartment buildings -- with the strong support of many Christian fundamentalists, who believe that these conflicts will hasten the day of God’s reappearing and speed up their own entrance to heaven.
Such concepts are enough to tempt one to meditate only on the psalm of today -- to listen to God through thunder, to hear God split trees in the forest, to watch God bring forth skipping calves and young wild oxen. The marvelously animated universe of Psalm 29 avoids human bloodshed, and God “shall give his people peace.” Whew! We need that bad, God. Even so come, Lord Jesus.
A few weeks ago a high school classmate contacted me. She had found my website, she said, and wanted me to know that she had always loved and admired me. We had had no contact for about 55 years.
It was delightful to re-connect. When I was in prep school, she was my date for the sweetheart ball. Her boyfriend back home was my close friend and was glad for her to experience the pomp and pageantry of a military school dance. As a closeted gay male, I was delighted to have the most beautiful girl of all for my date on this occasion. More important, she was a kind friend.
‘Many years ago my husband and I left the Episcopal Church to return to Parker Memorial,’ she said.
I assured her that I rejoiced in her happiness in finding a spiritual home in the place where I had been baptized. I remembered my joy when I took Ernest to see the spot several years ago. No one his color would have been welcome there when I was baptized. I doubt that he and I would be welcomed as a couple there even now. But maybe I am wreong about that. I remembered my joy when Ernest took me to the small church near Warner Robbins, Georgia where he had been baptized.
“Louie, you are still a Christian, I hope?” my friend said, turning the statement into a tentative question. She quickly added, “I don’t mean to be offensive, I assure you.”
“No offense,” I said. “Yes, I am a Christian, and I am glad that you care. I rejoice that you are a Christian too.”
She and I understand that baptism is not a vaccination, that baptism of the spirit is real and vital. Even the flu can’t erase it or augment it, nor can the overflow of someone else’s baptism, nor can fervent plunges into Lake Waco in the winter.
“I have been baptized! I have been baptized!”
Thanks be to God.