A Death in the Family: Baptism Sermon

Rach and I shared this rant at my son Peran’s Baptism three years ago. I mentioned it and its themes as part of the Prayer of Confession at Lowenna’s baptism today. This is in large part based on a Sermon by Stan Saunders of Open Door Community, Atlanta…

A Death in the Family
A reflection by Marcus Curnow and Rachael Scott on the occasion of Peran’s baptism, 8th February 2004 with acknowledgment to Stan Saunders, Open Door Community, Atlanta.
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Peter Chapman, the spiritual leader of Common Life (who unfortunately couldn’t be here today) commenced the wedding sermon of Matt and Suellen (who are here today) with the unforgettable (and now legendary) line, “Let us not pretend that today is a happy occasion.” Similarly today you may have come here thinking that this will be a pleasant experience, a chance to look at a cute, little baby – an image of sweetness and purity. Someone will splash a little water on him , at worst case he might cry a bit, and then– as if by magic he will be “Saved” – and we can all relax and enjoy a beer and some food.
You may have got this image from having seen kids get done before. A kindly looking, older, white haired man – takes the cute little baby in the pretty white gown, says a few words, sprinkles the water and holds the baby up while we all “ooooh” and “aaaaah” and smile and think it is the nicest thing.
One of this irony’s of today is that I work in a Baptist tradition who don’t baptise children because they criticise it for what it often is. A benign rite, a cheap, sugar coated salvation spectacle designed to make us feel warm and happy.
As we said in our invitation, when we baptise we are telling a story. The problem is the story that is often communicated at such events is that pastors are old, babies are cute- even cuter next to old pastors – and that something magical and nice happens when the two of them get together. Whilst some of this story is fine, and we admit we enjoy it too, something is often missing. Baptism is about the celebration of new life, but its new life that comes out of a death in the family. Our concern is that if we baptise Peran today without making the reality of his death painfully clear, we are telling a version of the gospel story that has no cross in it. And that just isn’t the gospel.
So just in case you were tempted to witness this today and merely smile we want to tell you what’s going on. In a moment we are going to put my son Peran to death, but soon after we hope to raise him again. In fact if all goes according to plan, these events will happen so quickly that you might think that the death didn’t really take place. But don’t be fooled. Peran William Scott Curnow is going to die today. Rachael and I have come to believe that this is necessary because we no longer trust our capacities, as people living in a broken world, to raise him up in a way that honours the dignity and beauty he possessed at the moment of his birth, and to preserve him from the powers of violence and death. We simply can’t do it, and are convinced that his participation in this world will only corrupt and finally destroy him. So we’ve decided to give him back to God.
The death we are talking about is not just a symbol or abstraction, it’s real. It is in us, in the people and relationships and the many current struggles of those gathered here today. We know there are some who could and should be here today who are not because this death is real.
The bible calls this death, sin, the Adam and Eve story, the whole fabric of life lived in denial of the reality of a loving and merciful God that disconnects us from God, other people and creatures. We all have our personal Adam & Eve story. Its what this world makes us, our culture, skin colour, family history, struggles, fears and ambitions, our shadow sides. The good news however according to Jesus is that we no longer have to live under the power of death or be defined by our old stories.
According to Paul, there is only one way out of the Adam and Eve story of sin and death. We have to learn how to die as Jesus did. Baptism is a training in dying- to sin and the old self so that new life can come into being. This is the hope that we have of what this death means. Peran will cease to exist under the powers of this world, and will be transformed to a completely new and different kind of existence, with different powers and possibilities for life, with new eyes to see the world, and most importantly, with a new family and a new Lord. To use Paul’s words, today Peran will be will be crucified with Christ so that the body of sin might be destroyed. And when he is raised up again today, his primary family will no longer be Rachael, Marcus and Ewen, or Scott or Curnow, or Yorkshire or Cornwall or Aussie. But now it will be all of those who live “ in Jesus Christ.”
Now you might say that Peran doesn’t have much of an Adam story yet, but the reality is that his stories of sin and death have been in the planning stage for some time now, just waiting to swing into place at the right moments. The powers of this world have been ready and waiting for Peran to come along, just as they were ready for all of us.
In our culture our humanity is often judged by standards of what is “normal.” When people look at Peran they are going to see a white Aussie male and in powerful ways this will determine who he is, how he will be treated, how he will relate to other people, our expectations of him and what his options are.
Today when Peran dies with Christ all of these pieces of his identity, all our worldly hopes and dreams for him, die also, for baptism means a new reality with new marks of identity. From this day forward his identity is in Christ and Christ alone. This is what it means to give up our lives in order to save them.
Like the gospel reading indicated, this dying, these baptisimal arts, if you will., involve dangers and difficulties that will make Peran a bit strange.
• We expect that this dying and rising with Christ will make him the butt of jokes and misunderstanding like the disciples and Christ himself
• He may struggle with playmates and peers because he’s developed a different language or codes of behaviour, or politics that he’s learnt from all you mob.
• He will have to struggle to find an identity and way of relating to others that isn’t just about being a normal Aussie bloke, making his relationships with men, women and people of other cultures more complex.
• He will need to learn how to work with others, and get out of trouble without domination or intimidation.
• We worry that this will make him vulnerable and we hope that he will not suffer because he has not learned to use violence to defend himself.
• Obviously if he grows up hanging out with most of the people here today he’s not going to make a lot of money. You will need to help him build alternatives of support, economic relationships based around sharing, gratitude and dependence on God, rather than exploitation and self interest.
• As a disciple of Jesus we know that he will sometimes have to struggle against his family and particularly Marcus and myself, because we are too often consumed by our own middle class anxieties and addictions. How do we teach him to trust in God when we struggle to trust God ourselves? It’s hard to give him up to death when we often fear death and its power ourselves.
Of course we wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for our own baptisms and the hope and hunger that God has nourished in us through the years for a new creation. And we wouldn’t be here today were it not for the hope that we see at work in all of you. In local food coops and the Common Lifers, in Urban Seed and Credo Community, at Ya Chasin in St Albans. Paul says that as many of us have been baptised into Christ “ There is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, for all of us are one in Christ Jesus.” Now its often hard to get a sense of this going to churches these days but we get a taste of it in you. We could easily translate “no longer corporate or radical, Eastside or Westside, social worker or street person, Aussie or Viet, Filo, Cambo….whatever. In so many ways it’s a reality in the people gathered here today.
We can only sustain this alternative in the midst of other people who have also died to this world and whose stories and practises reflect this new reality. You are here today because you are that reality for us. Today Peran will receive a new identity in God but it can only come to fullness in the context of a community that lives in Christ.
We could have done this in lots of different ways or places but we have chosen to baptise Peran in the backyard at Footscray today because we are intentionally committing him, as well as ourselves, to the peculiar ministry and disciplines of these communities. We believe there are some things Peran can only learn here in the midst of this chaotic, broken, grace filled family. So we are joining our family with yours and we are entrusting him to you. We trust you will love him, play with him and share your life with him as fully as you can.
• We also trust you will treat him as not as a person of privilege but as an equal brother of God
• We trust you will teach him how to negotiate the streets of the City and Footscray and St Albans with compassion and wisdom and faith.
• We want you to teach him the dignity of all people, including his own and how to suffer for the sake of others in the name of Jesus Christ.
• Please teach him the hope of God who is recreating a fallen the world
• Teach him how to devote the power of his hands and voice and body to the mass of humanity that has no voice or influence.
• Teach him the arts of hospitality, conviviality, mercy and forgiveness and how to hold onto hope in the midst of failure, suffering and adversity.
• Teach him all this but also don’t forget to learn from him, because the economy of God belongs to such as these.
There is a death in our family today. Thanks be to God who raises us up every day to live in Christ. Amen


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