Preached by Rev. Todd Weir
Scripture: Mark 1:4-11
(This post includes the guided meditation we did together in the worship service, so you can try it yourself if you were not here Sunday.)
Somehow the practice of rituals got a bad name. Here are some examples I have heard:
“I don’t go to church because it is just a bunch of rituals, you know, communion and baptisms and giving up stuff for Lent, saying the Lord’s Prayer over and over again. What’s the point? It does change anything or mean anything. Its boring. Or this: why are gays and lesbians focused on marriage equality? Weddings are just stupid rituals anyway. If you love each other, why do you need a wedding?”
The Webster’s definition of ritual reinforces this sense of boring repetition:
Ritual: a formal ceremony or series of acts that is always performed in the same way
: an act or series of acts done in a particular situation and in the same way each time
Reformed Protestantism has echoed this anti-ritualism for five centuries. Religious ritual had become too magical, turning wine into the blood of Jesus, bread into his flesh, a baby unbaptized would go to Hell. Say five Hail Mary’s and it will be OK. All of this became irrelevant as a scientific viewpoint took hold and the magical incantations of religious rituals lost their power.
So I was surprised that on Christmas Eve, the opinion section of the New York Times had two articles by atheists longing for meaningful rituals. One article entitled “Religion Without God” had a modern rendition of DaVinci’s “Last Supper” with people posed in modern dress talking around the table, with no Jesus sitting in the middle as a focal point. The article noted atheists have started to form Sunday Assemblies, in order to sing great songs together, hear inspiring talks and have rituals to mark great occasions like birth, marriage and death. Apparently, rituals are boring, stupid and meaningless…until you don’t have any.
The author of this article, a Unitarian anthropologist, claims that religious rituals are important because they help us move beyond life as it is, to help envision life as it should be, and remind us to live into our deepest values. It is one of the most compelling cases I have heard for having a weekly church meeting, and to enact rituals around important life events. She goes on to note that psychological research shows that rituals help us to make changes in our lives. If you write down your gratitudes daily, you actually become more grateful. If you practice saying “thank you” to people, it creates that attitude. Like our Protestant forebearers, she says lose the magical view of ritual, we are not changing blood into wine, she is just going one more step and saying we can recover the ritual, but have a religion without God.
To me that is like drinking non-alcoholic beer, or eating Chips Ahoy instead of homemade chocolate chip cookies. It just isn’t the same, and why eat such unrewarding calories? Now certainly the world would be a better place if more people gathered weekly to explore and share about their best values and worked to improve themselves, and developed meaningful rituals to support their progress. Recovery groups, weight watchers, pilates, mother’s groups, knitters, are all great experiences. But I still need a religion with a God, a Jesus in the middle of the picture. If I am going on a quest, self-improvement or finding my best self and clarifying my goals and values, it is not enough. It is not enough because I am not that interesting on my own. Finding myself in God-little me connected to the Great Source of being–that is a quest worth my life.
I think it is important to listen and learn from what is happening among non-theistic groups who are working to create community and rituals that make sense of life. Christianity lost the franchise, because we forgot how to do this well. There are some important points in our texts today about baptism that can help.
John’s baptism was a powerful ritual that opened people to renewal and transformation. In his context, this is a radical act. Washing yourself as a ritual symbolizing personal cleansing was a major part of temple worship practice in Jerusalem. …
But to John this was not nearly enough. John was out in the wilderness at the Jordan River. You had to make a commitment to be baptized by John. Now let’s think for a moment about the meaning of this location for ritual baptism. Where else does wilderness enter the biblical story? Wilderness is where Moses and the people first encounter God together and become a people. This is where they receive the 10 commandments, manna and all the foundational traditions of Judaism. And where will Jesus go after his baptism? Out in the wilderness.
Places we call wilderness, literally the wild places, are essential to spiritual renewal. We have a need to withdraw from society where human custom has total control, and connect more deeply with elemental life. Part of spirituality is to walk in the woods, climb mountains and look at vast canyons, and our tiny little towns. Kayaking on the rapids, floating on a lake, playing in ocean waves, testing ourselves by biking, climbing, skiing… connects us to the source of being. That is why Theodore Roosevelt created the national park system. He knew from his own experience of healing in the Dakota wilderness areas that we need these places to stay wild.
So John is out there in the wilderness, and guess where the Hebrew freed slaves entered into Israel, the promised land? They crossed the Jordan River. And that is where John was baptizing, there at the symbolic gateway of returning from wilderness. So he is enacting a ritual of renewal, calling people out of the too civilized Temple baths, away from the focus on wealth and power and empire in Jerusalem, to meet God in a more elemental way, to recover the story of Exodus and remember that God carries us through the wilderness challenges of life.
It must have been very moving.. Jesus is drawn to be baptized, and as he comes up out of the water, he has an experience of God, he experiences being a beloved child of God, that God takes delight and joy in him. God doesn’t tell Jesus to do anything, it is enough to just commune with a greater presence than ourselves. Perhaps Jesus needs 40 days in the wilderness just to figure out what to do with this experience of God at baptism.
It is a lot to expect to recreate something of such power in our own ceremonies and baptismal fonts. I turn to the Lutherans for help, because they have a very robust theology of baptism. While we are only baptized once, Lutherans make it a practice to regularly reaffirm baptism and the regenerative power of faith in God in our daily lives. Luther urged people to remember their baptism every day when they washed their face. Start each day by repeating the words Jesus heard at baptism, hearing God say to us, “You are my beloved, and with you I am well pleased.” That is a power ritual. Write down those words on a piece of paper and tape them to your bathroom mirror. (Have people say this to themselves.)
To close our service, I’m going to take us through a brief meditation where you can work on your own ritual of how you might connect through God through water and baptism, and then we will close with a baptismal renewal ritual to end our service.
Take a moment and remember experiences with water. If you swim, whereyou’re your best swim…remember your highest dive…if you like waves, remember body surfing…or remember an experience on a boat-sailing, paddling, drifting…if you have scary memories of water, feel free to imagine sitting on the shore, listening to a babbling brook or the sound of the waves. Let all these experiences wash over you for a minute…
Let your mind focus on one of these experiences that seems most compelling…don’t worry about which to pick…any one will work…just pick one place where you are engaging the water…focus on your senses for a moment…look at the water in your place…what do you notice…what do you hear, splashing water, bubbling or waves…what do you smell…decide how you want to interact with the water-are you diving, swimming floating or just watching and listening…spend a few moments enjoying this body of water with your body.
Imagine the water as the presence of God. Paul said we live and move and have our being in God. Imagine yourself in the water immersed in God presence and God’s being.
Remember that you are part of the baptized, immersed in the waters of God. Here the words of baptism again – You are my beloved and in you I am well pleased. Remember this place the next time you wash your face or shower. Remember that just as you move in water, we live and move and have our being in God.