Keeping promises

[Most of] this morning’s sermon at the Church of the Epiphany, on the festival of the Baptism of Jesus

Many years ago – more than three decades ago now – I found myself in the middle of summer, in the middle of Galilee, in the middle of a river (I think it was the River Dan), caught in a strong current that threatened, in that moment, to drown me.

Rarely, maybe never before or since, have I needed more that promise which God offers via Isaiah:

When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;

nor, as my lungs burned with the effort of resisting the river, the second part of that promise:

when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.

Nevertheless, if my fellow travelers had stayed on the bank where they had safely come to rest, and tried to buoy me up with those promises, words of comfort and peace, I would almost certainly have drowned, aged nineteen, and a long way from home.

Instead, realizing my predicament, a couple of them came back into the river and held me up, supporting me against the current while I freed my foot from the tangle of tree roots that had trapped me in place, even catching my shoe when it popped like a cork to the foaming surface, helping me back to dry land to catch my breath.

I have no doubt that God was with me in that river, whose banks Jesus knew, whose rapids perhaps he had played in. I have no doubt that God would have stayed with me, whether I lived or died that day. But in order to remain alive, in that moment, I also needed my people, the little community of foreigners with whom I had set out that morning in a black tyre inner tube to float down the river towards the Sea of Galilee.

And I was grateful to them, particularly because I had made a promise of my own, when leaving home. We had visited my mother in the hospital, and I knew that my father found it hard to put me on the train alone to a destination he had barely imagined, and of which he was, frankly, afraid. So when he said, “Just come home safely,” I promised him, “I will.” I didn’t say, “with God’s help,” but it was to God that I prayed in that moment underwater when I realized, “A person could drown this way.” I prayed that God would help me to keep my promise to my father. And to do that, to keep my promise, I needed more than a promise of God’s presence. I needed the literal and physical support of God’s people.

There is a moment in the baptism of any infant or adult who comes to the font for that sacrament when the people of God, the people in the pews, are invited to affirm their involvement and support for the promises that are made to grow in faith, to live in Christ, to love God and neighbour as no one else can. The bishop or priest asks the congregation, “Will you who witness these vows [these promises] do all in your power to support these persons in their life in Christ?” And the people answer together, as a body, “We will.”

Not, as elsewhere, “I will, with God’s help,” but, “We will.”

The promise of baptism, as profound as it is, is not only the reassurance that even when the waters of chaos overwhelm us, even when we enter the arms of death, even when we are gasping for breath underwater God is with us.

It is not only, as astonishing as it is, the symbol of a resurrected life, a life in Christ that cannot be destroyed even by death, a life with God that is unbreakable.

It is not only, as comforting as it is, the contract of adoption in which God tells each of us, “You are my child, my beloved. You are mine.”

The promise of baptism is all of these things and more, and it is the promise that there is a community of the people of God who have promised, faithfully, to do all in their power to support and sustain a person’s life and salvation. It is the promise of lifesavers. Baptism is not an individual act. No one can baptize themselves. Even Jesus did not baptize himself. Each person needs the witness, the prayers, the water, the wave of community to buoy them up and bring them ashore.

Even the promises that we make using “I” statements during our baptismal covenant, if we look at them closely, can’t possibly be kept without the company of a community.

How will we continue in the footsteps of the apostles, in their fellowship, in the breaking of bread and in their prayers without the gathering of a community of Holy Communion?

To whom will we confess, who will assure us of our safe return when we repent of the evil that we fall into time and again; and who will help us resist the current of casual corruption and systems of sin; who will call us to account if not those closest to us?

To whom will we proclaim the word and example of the gospel, if we are determined to go it alone?

How will we seek and serve all persons unless we are in relationship with them?

How will we respect the dignity of all people unless we are prepared to witness the indignities other people suffer, or strive for justice unless we know, unless we see, unless we are prepared to enter the places and spaces where injustice is visited upon our neighbours, where they are in danger of drowning; unless we are willing to risk getting wet with the same water that threatens to overwhelm them?

We cannot keep these promises on our own. “I will, with God’s help,” we promise, “I will;” but we need one another to make it true. The promise of God to be with us whether we live or whether we die, to be with us through hell and high water, that is the ultimate promise of our salvation; but in this life, along the way, if we are to keep our own promises, if we are to fulfill the promise of the life that God has given us, then we need one another. …

… So I encourage you to be brave, even reckless, and risk entering the waters of another person’s baptism, knowing that God is with you, come hell or high water, and that the promises of God to you, God’s beloved child, endure forever.

This is not the river from thirty years ago, but one of its neighbours, last October

About Rosalind C Hughes

Rosalind C Hughes is a priest and author living near the shores of Lake Erie. After growing up in England and Wales, and living briefly in Singapore, she is now settled in Ohio. She serves an Episcopal church just outside Cleveland. Rosalind is the author of A Family Like Mine: Biblical Stories of Love, Loss, and Longing , and Whom Shall I Fear? Urgent Questions for Christians in an Age of Violence, both from Upper Room Books. She loves the lake, misses the ocean, and is finally coming to terms with snow.
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