So, early Monday morning I sat around Athletes Village in Hopkinton, Massachusetts waiting to head over to the start of the Boston Marathon. Putting on a marathon as large and as prestigious as the Boston Marathon is a logistical nightmare... so everyone has to arrive 3 hours or so before the race even starts. So, my running buddies and I laid down a tarp, kicked back and chatted. The energy level was high and the laughter was intoxicating.
As it got closer to start time, we began to take off our extra layers of clothing so we could get ready for the race. That’s when the sharpie markers come out.... If you haven’t run a race before, you may not know this, but racers mark their bodies up with their names, inspirational messages to themselves, and their desired race splits.
It’s part of what we do - mark ourselves. It’s bonding. It says we’re in this together. And it also names us - to unknown people out on the course who shout out our names as we pass by. We become a person - not just another runner.
So, as we did this, one of my guy friends (who I’ll just say is a little nuts) whips his shirt off and another friend draws a giant smiley face on his chest and belly. Use your imagination - I’m sure you can figure out the eye placement of the face...
Anyway... I shook my head, rolled my eyes, and laughed... And my friend sorta shook his chest at me and said, “Let’s see you turn this into a sermon...”. Well, I laughed and said, “Let me tell you - I can turn anything into a sermon..”
And then I remembered that this week’s reading was about baptism, about being marked, about bonding... And about Philip - who is a runner! The greek word for what Philip does alongside of the chariot actually says he’s running, so he’s often referred to as the ‘running prophet’. I like Philip. He and I could be best buds.
Anyway, I laughed harder and said, “Actually, I can make us all being ‘marked up’ as part of the sermon. That’s what baptism is all about...”.
I think that reference was lost on most people sitting there. But it wasn’t on me.
So much of what baptism symbolizes is bonding and naming us into a community, about us participating in what we profess to believe in. And so being marked by a sharpie said something about my being part of that running family, just as being marked by a cross says something about my being part of God’s family.
I don’t need the sharpie to tell me I’m a runner, but at mile 24, when I’m about to fall to the ground from exhaustion, I can look down at my hand and see my little inspirational message to myself:
I am a runner, named Christine, who is loved and supported by a whole team of people.... the mark reminds me of that.
And that truth is true whether or not I’m running a marathon, trudging through daily life, or skipping through joyous times. I’m loved, named, and claimed.
And so are you. That is, in essence, what baptism’s promise reminds us.
That truth is easy to embrace when baptism feels like water being poured over an infant’s head, looks like a warm loving family surrounding you, tastes like a white frosted cake.... I’ll embrace that type of love and family any day of the week.
So, on Monday morning it was easy for me embrace the oneness of being marked. On Monday morning it was easy for me to claim being a runner. On Monday morning it was easy to be a Boston marathoner. On Monday morning it was easy to be a child of God.
But, on Monday afternoon it was not easy.
It was painful. And scary. And tiring. And I didn’t want to be part of it.
But I was part of it. And so are you.
On Monday afternoon the story of Philip and the Ethiopian’s baptism cut much differently as I desperately searched for my friend on exhausted legs which would barely move and the sharpie marks were rubbing off from sweat, than it did in the morning as I lounged on a tarp in Athlete’s Village coloring myself.
The story of Philip and the Ethiopian isn’t just about two people who have this perfect ‘chance encounter desert baptism’ experience...
God’s baptismal story here - and in real life - is one which holds great dramatics between the outcast and the accepted; the followers and the seeker; the deformed and the healed; the broken and the whole...
God’s story says one thing:
It doesn’t matter at all who you are or what you’ve done...
In God’s baptism there is no separation, no rejection, no alienation...
See, it’s true that the Ethiopian may be the one who technically gets baptized, but the truth of the matter is they are both marked by the days events. Both fully immersed in a new reality that God loves and accepts everyone.
That realization that’ll change you. It’ll bother you actually. It will make you question God. At least it should....
Neither of them will ever be the same again...
By the encounter with one another...
By their encounter with baptism...
By their encounter with God...
So, what do a chariot, an Ethiopian, a follower of Jesus, and baptism have to do with a 26.2 race and a couple bombers?
Well... possibly nothing. Until you add in followers of Jesus and baptism. Then, they have everything to do with one another.
Because Monday afternoon we all became Boston Marathoners. We all became one with one another as our hearts ached, tears streamed, and stories flowed.
But there’s a really hard truth within that reality of being bound to one another.... it’s the baptism piece. The follower of Jesus piece.
None of us knew Monday morning that pain and forgiveness would be part of the how the post-race celebration needed to look. None of recognized Monday morning that we are as much bound to bombers as to victims.
Who thinks about these pieces of being marked when the day is to be of joy and celebration? Well.... nobody. We just don’t. Not on the day of being baptized. But those pieces of forgiving those we want to hate, about being joined to those we don’t even know, about being marked by pain are part of what it means to be marked by God.
On Monday afternoon, and in the days that followed, I struggled with that piece of baptism. My runner friends have been angry, and hurt, and sad. I’ve been scared and struggling to process it all. The news media and those hurt have lashed out calling for justice and vindication.
And while I don’t want to admit it, when a friend wrote on our runner facebook page a message of hatred towards the bombers, my gut reaction was in agreement.
And yet... hatred and vindication only breeds more hatred and anger. I know this. The mercy and grace of God tells me this.
Somehow, we must trust that part of what we pray for is that God will wash away those feelings which eat away at our hearts and that will will be able to pray for the criminals in this world as much as the innocent.
We profess, even though the thought of it makes us want to vomit, that those who have killed and maimed others are as much a part of God’s family as we are.
We enact, even though our own human hearts may tell us otherwise, acts of love and compassion for both the victims and victimizers.
I do believe that God is horrified with such actions, and know without question that God is ‘with’ all those impacted by horrific events such as these...sending angels in unexpected ways.
But, I also commit to you that God’s love is so profound and utterly perfect that God does not give up on anyone. Not even those responsible for acts of terrorism.
As Good Friday and Easter people we sometimes live from bleeding scars on our hearts rather than holy oiled crosses on our foreheads.
Thursday evening we left Boston, before the lockdown hit and on our drive home we stopped for gas...
I dashed into the convenience store to buy some sodas and the cashier was speaking to a few other costumers in another language. As I approached the register, he offered an explanation to me of what they were speaking of - the weather. Apparently in Connecticut they’ve had quite enough of winter and were so thankful the weather was slowly starting to warm up. Mind you - it still felt pretty chilly to me.
Anyway, as he spoke to me of their weather, he asked me where I was from.
I said, “Washington DC”. He said that the weather must be much better in DC than Connecticut. Then he asked where I was coming from. As I dug around in my purse for the remaining 10 cents I owed him, he asked me where I was coming from. I said, “Boston...”
And he held onto my hand. And didn’t let go and said, “Sorry...”. He said something about not worrying about the 10 cents and kept holding onto my hand - to the point that I became uncomfortable; to the point where I was pretty sure my friend sitting in the car was beginning to wonder where I was. And he just kept talking about children, about innocence, about fear. I really didn’t even know what to say.
It was clear that he was holding on to me as a piece of hope, as proof of life. And was trying to give me comfort and assurance.
He wasn’t even there. And yet he was marked...
Sort of a little angel along the way to say, ‘We’re all in this together. Bound. Marked. Baptized.’
You know what the best line in this whole text today is? Well, at least the one that seems to speak loudest after this past week?
When Philip says, “Do you understand what you’re reading?” Basically, do you have a clue what’s going on in the world?
Yeah....the answer to that would be, “No.”
No. I don’t understand how the love of God can be so vast to include everyone. No. I don’t understand how God forgives everyone. No. I don’t understand what just happened in the world. No. No. No.
That much love is pretty much beyond my comprehension.
You know, the symbol of the Boston marathon is a unicorn. A mythical creature. Symbolizing anything is possible.
Angels sometimes symbolize the same thing. But yet, in God’s world, angels aren’t mythical.
In God’s world angels are those which bring a message of hope and love and life into dark times. In God’s world angels might just be you or me. They might just be friends or family. They might just be emergency workers and taxi drivers. They might just be a gas station attendant....
The promise in the story is that when we are racing down confusing roads, unexpected strangers may very well be angels sent to guide us along to live from our ‘marks’. And we might very well be angels sent to those we want to meet and those we’d rather not.
At the close of the day, what makes God’s love different from any other type of love we could ever know is the vastness of forgiveness, mercy, and grace which it holds.
When we step away from the font, Baptism is quite scandalous. This is a scandalous God whom we worship. A scandalous God by whom we are claimed. One that runs whatever race is before us with us... no matter the course, no matter the person so that in the end... all might know the full grace of God - for this we truly pray. Amen.