Princeton University Religious Life

Messing People Up

The Rev. Dr. Alison L. Boden
Princeton University Chapel
January 11, 2009
Mark 1: 4-11, Isaiah 42: 1-4

Some years ago, I heard a colleague tell the story of a phone call that came in to the then Dean of the Chapel at a sister university. It was a father on the other end of the line – the father of a young lady who was an undergraduate at the school. “You’re messing her up,” the father said to the Dean. “What do you mean?” asked the good Reverend Dr. Dean. “You’re messing her up,” said the dad. “She has all these ideas. She has all these questions. We sent her to your university with a solid foundation, raised in the church, knowing right from wrong, a good girl. But you’re messing her up! She’s gone on your mission trips, attended your services and Bible studies. She’s got different ideas!”  The Dean was a patient man and good at hearing people out. He listened to all that the dad had to say and then asked, “Sir, did you have your daughter baptized?” “Of course!” said the father. “Her mother and I brought her to the font for baptism when she was an infant and have seen to her religious education ever since.” “Well,” said the Dean, “I’d say it was you and your wife who messed her up.” “What?!” blustered the dad. “What do you mean?” “I mean,” said the Dean, “It was you and your wife who had her baptized, who had her inducted into the body of Christ, who taught her to worship him, and to strive always to follow his way; and to see all things through the light of the gospel. I believe it was you who messed her up. My colleagues and I only try to build on that.” The dad required some talking to, but he got it. He understood that in baptism the heart, mind, body and soul of a person are redirected on paths that may seem nonsensical to others – absolutely messed up. But it is the path that we Christians understand to be the walking, to the best of our human ability, in the footsteps of Christ.

Today is the day known in the church calendar as Baptism of Christ Sunday. We remember the immersion of Christ by John in the waters of the Jordan. It is one day on which the church has traditionally administered the sacrament of baptism to young and old. As babies, my own two children were baptized on this very Sunday in years past. How blessed are we to celebrate here this morning the baptism of Elliot Block, so soon to turn two.

As he and others are baptized around the world today, we in the churches understand ourselves to be doing many things. We are welcoming Elliot into the community of faith, certainly. Baptism is the rite of Christian initiation. Today, we also commit Elliot’s parents and god-parents and hopefully the extended network of families around him to special attention to his spiritual growth. What a gift to Elliot! Most families are attentive to their children’s intellectual and social growth and stability, but Elliot also will be nurtured in his spiritual life. We will also commit this community of faith to the same intentional spiritual nurture of this little boy, and to the building of a world where, with all his gifts, he may blossom and flourish.

Over two millennia, many have understood baptism as a crucial factor in being spared the torments of hell. As we think of the beautiful children in our lives, their possible consignment to hell is not at the top of our daily thoughts. But I’ve talked with so many new parents who do want to make sure to baptize their children immediately, lest anything go wrong. We can’t imagine that the soul of an infant really would roast eternally in hell, but why not take all precautions? Those who serve as hospital chaplains are sometimes called to the delivery room to baptize the crowning heads of babies already diagnosed as having congenital issues that mean they may live only a few minutes, if that. I’ve read that, in the Middle Ages, the mothers of stillborn children would hold their babies’ bodies up before the statues of saints, imploring them to revive the little things for just a few seconds so they could be baptized, and spared the torments of hell. Heartbreaking, to me.

And then there is the correlation between baptism and sinfulness. The Emperor Constantine, who some 1,700 years ago made Christianity the state religion of his vast empire, refused to be baptized until he knew he was on his death bed. It was the firm teaching of his day that those who were baptized may never sin hence-forth. As he lay dying, many years since his actual conversion, Constantine consented to be baptized, figuring that he had no chances left to sin and could die in the state of grace befitting the kind of Christian outfitted for a life in heaven (in the close company of God and Christ) all pillaging and plundering now over. Unless he had some particularly salacious or vengeful thoughts on that deathbed, I imagine he did die, post-baptism, without having committed any egregious wrongs. Will Elliot sin after he is baptized today? Absolutely – I imagine he’ll sin boldly, not because he is bad, but because he is human, like the rest of us.  Will God still welcome Elliott into a realm of goodness, mercy, and peace? I have no doubt, if we will teach him what is sin and what is righteousness, how to know the good and despise the evil, if we can shape his values around that difference, he will be welcomed indeed, even if (like the rest of us) he is far from perfect. No, Elliott need not be perfect, as human perfection isn’t achievable anyway. We shall teach him to worship Christ, not to pretend that he is his equal.

So let us not baptize Elliot today to prevent him from sinning, which is impossible but to introduce him to a new consequence of our sinning, which is forgiveness from God. Let us also not baptize him out of fear. Religious participation as eternal health insurance is simply not faith; it’s hedging your bets. Instead, let us baptize Elliot remembering what we read in Mark’s gospel – that as Jesus emerges from the waters of the Jordan God’s voice booms from heaven, “This is My Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.”  Then the Holy Spirit descends on him. Elliot and all people are created by God and loved by God, but those who are baptized are sealed with the Holy Spirit and claimed as Christ’s own forever, and there is our summons to baptize him today.

In the liturgy of the Great Vigil of Easter worshipers are flecked with water – water that flies from branches (asperges) that are dipped in baptismal water.    As the minister flicks water at people she or he says “remember your baptism.” Elliott won’t. Neither can I remember mine; I was 8 months old at the time. But remembering our baptism isn’t about recalling the literal sensation of cool water on forehead, it will be about what we can convey to this little boy – what we can teach him to cherish about the covenant we make on his behalf this morning, the extent to which we teach him that he is the beloved of God. Won’t that make a cardinal difference throughout his life? When he remembers his baptism – not just at the suggestion of a branch-waving liturgist but walking down the street as a teenager, as a young man, as an old man – when he remembers his baptism it will be about a flood of spiritual understanding that he is the beloved of God, precious, infinitely valuable, of inestimable promise not just as a member of the human community but of the global community of Christian seekers as well. As we baptize him, let us give him something to remember!


And let us baptize Elliott in order to mess him up – mess him up good. Let this be his starting date and time on the road to understanding that the last are first and the first are last, that those who lose their lives will save them, that it is in giving that we receive, and that despite all the evidence around us, God is at work through Christ in building an eternal realm of justice and of peace. He will be one messed up kid alright if we teach him to be unable to make his peace with injustice, and if we teach him to see Jesus Christ in every human being. The world will think him messed up indeed to have such upside-down thoughts about what and who really matters, and why.

Three hundred and sixteen years ago John Dryden wrote,

“Creator Spirit . . . come from on high.

Rich in thy sevenfold energy;

Make us eternal truth receive,

And practice all that we believe.”


May the Holy Spirit come indeed from on high to fill the heart of Elliot. May he receive God’s truth, and as he grows may he practice all that he comes to believe. Let us all do the same, we mess-ups, in lives of servant faithfulness. Let us mirror back the bottomless beauty of the holiness in whose image we are all made.     Amen.

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