Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Sermon: Watermarks

Baptism is so simple.  Find one of the most common things on earth, water.  Then get wet.  But it is so much more than that.  Bishop Judith Craig had an excellent visual example several years ago at Annual Conference.  She took a piece of paper, held it up to the light, and said yes there it is.  A watermark.

You can see them on stamps, checks, extra fine letterhead or typing paper.  All sorts of things have watermarks.  Usually the marks tell us who made it, and what grade of paper it is.  These marks are there to assure us of the document’s authenticity, they are also there to assure us of their quality. According to Wikipedia, watermarks were first introduced in 1282, in Italy!

The term is also used for those marks on online photos so you don’t use copyrighted materials. In a sense, these say, “These images belong to me and are not for use without permission.” Like watermarks on paper they are there to prove the authenticity of the final product.

Bishop Craig said that, those of us who are baptized have watermarks.  If you hold us up to the light of God you can see them. [grab eraser]  And once we are baptized no one else can erase it, though we ourselves might ignore it.  It is an indelible claim that God has made on our lives, which says you are special.  An authentic handmade creation of God’s, you are the highest quality.  God doesn’t want us to forget it.

A story is told of Martin Luther, the founder of the Lutheran church, who sparked the Protestant Reformation 500 years ago.

It is said that he would from time to time find himself in great anxiety, doubt, depression, and felt like he was being tempted and taunted by the devil. In those moments he would repeat to himself, “Baptizatus Sum” and no that is not some Harry Potter incantation. It means “I am baptized!” In those moments of despair he was remembering that he was watermarked by God, and that nothing could remove that. He was God’s and that gave him strength to go on.

Bishop Craig’s sermon stands as the best explanation of baptism I have ever heard. It takes what might seem like a weird ancient practice, and gives it meaning. If you have ever had a hard time expressing what baptism means to you, if you have ever been puzzled about how to explain why you would want a child baptized, here is a visual example! There is upon you a watermark a of God’s grace.  Not something that we earn, not something that we put there ourselves.  But a mark on our spirit left there by the touch of God’s finger, which expresses that we belong to God and it conveys God’s grace and love.

This is an act commanded by Christ, which bears years of tradition and speaks beyond what words can express.  “Over the centuries Christians have debated what baptism accomplishes, to whom it should be administered, and how much water should be used.”[1]

But let’s be honest that is like arguing about the best way to make a watermark. Should you use the Dandy roll process which uses a wet stamp or rollers to press an image into the paper making a thinner spot in the paper where the light comes through, or should you use the cylinder mold process which is much more complicated, requires rerolling the paper multiple times so that the thickness of the paper is the same throughout, but the paper is less dense in the area of the watermark and that lets the light through? This makes a clearer image and is what is usually used on money, passports, and so on.

What really matters is not the method, but what is happening in the process. As we are baptized we are immersed in the grace of God anew, and now we can shout, as Luther did, “I am baptized!”

Baptism, as the rite of initiation in Christ’s holy church, reminds us that we are forever ‘watermarked’ with God’s love.  So, even though baptism is a once in a lifetime event, we can remember our baptism as often as we like.  To remind ourselves that the mark is still there, it can’t be washed away.  Whether a person received this gift as an infant or an adult, God’s grace entered into that person’s life more fully.

Can those sitting around you see yours?  Can you see them on the people around you? Can they see that you are an authentic creation of God’s of the highest quality? Perhaps when the situation is just right, yes. But perhaps at other times the mark is invisible.

Phyllis Faaborg Wolk tells this story that helps explain that: Mrs. Detweiler worked at Murray Elementary as the special education teacher. It didn't take her students long to see her watermark which made them feel special and loved. Even though she was a special education teacher, the students of Murray Elementary considered it a privilege to be invited to Mrs. Detweiler's room. The walls of her small classroom were covered with stars made out of bright yellow construction paper. Neatly written in black permanent marker on the star at the top of each row was the name of one of her students. As soon as a student finished reading a book, the title of that book was placed on another star that soon appeared directly beneath the star bearing the student's name. The more books a person read, the more stars accumulated under the name. Whenever her students finished a book, Mrs. Detweiler made them feel like stars, themselves. Her ability to make her students feel special and important was the light of God shining through her.

But even as one created in the image of God, Mrs. Detweiler would be the first to say that she had her faults. There were times when she let her students down; times when she lost her patience; times when her mood affected her ability to respond to her students enthusiastically. Mrs. Detweiler wasn't perfect, there were times when the light did not shine through the watermark so clearly, and yet still she was claimed as God's child through her baptism and renewed each day with the gift of forgiveness. As she gave God what belonged to God by giving of herself to her students, Jesus worked through her. Through Mrs. Detweiler, God's love, acceptance and encouragement was shown to many students as they grew and matured into the people God had created them to be. As she gave God what belonged to God, God continued to give himself to her, revealing his love again and again through the sparkle in her students' eyes.[2]

So sometimes the watermark is easily visible, on our good days; and other times it is hard to see, on our bad days, but it is always there, whether people see it or not.

Baptism is so simple.  Find water.  Then get wet.  But it is so much more than that.  Because God willingly touches ordinary water and then willingly touches ordinary persons, watermarking them for life. 

In baptism, we are touching God and God is touching us.  God says you are mine, special to me, and I will never let my love for you be washed off.  When trouble comes, shout, “I am baptized!” In your daily lives, let my light shine through you, show that you are my authentic child.

[1] Christian Theology in Plain Language, p. 158.
[2] INVITATIONS TO THE LIGHT, by Phyllis Faaborg Wolk

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