A few weeks ago I preached a sermon on Baptism. It is one of my favorite sermons. Since I preach extemporaneously, I can be surprised by what happens when preaching. In this sermon I included part of a poem I had heard 12 years ago. I loved these words but I had never connected them to baptism before.
It was written by a classmate of mine. We were in our first week of classes of a three-year program we had just started. Our assignment was to re-contextualize an ancient text. We were to take the text and write something that would express the sentiment of the text so it made sense in our modern context. We were given several passages from which to choose. Martha Due (now Robertson) and I chose the same passage, Amos 5:18-24.
Here’s the second part of that passage:
21I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. 22Even though you offer me your burnt-offerings and grain-offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. 23Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. 24But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
Amos is writing against the Israelites who are looking for the “Day of the Lord” to deliver them from their enemies who are about to attack them. He says, Why are you looking for the Day of the Lord when it is you who will be judged. God is angry because the Israelites have not been caring for the poor and needy. He then launches into the passage quoted above.
The last verse became a popular refrain in the civil rights movement.
I don’t remember what I wrote. It wasn’t memorable. I do remember what Martha wrote. Or to be more precise, I remember the last few verses of what she wrote. Keep in mind the connection between “justice flowing down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream” and the civil rights movement.
Here’s my memory of how Martha’s ended her poem:
“Douse me with those waters forced through a fire hose to Birmingham pressure and give me companions with whom to rise from the pavement and build”
I remember when I heard those words read in class. We were all moved. It was a holy moment. We just sat in silence. I wish I had the entire poem.
My new realization is that in Baptism we are doused with those waters. We are knocked over by, and drenched with, the waters of God’s justice and compassion and we are given companions with whom to rise from the pavement and build God’s Kingdom.
Every few years I come to a new appreciation of baptism; I discover a new way this ritual shapes the spiritual life. Thank you Martha for this new understanding of baptism.
Photo of St. Paul's Memorial Church baptismal font by Bonny Bronson