Katharine Jefferts Schori

The 26th Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church

Baptismal Waters

January 28, 2009
Katharine Jefferts Schori

My husband and I have had a little cabin up in the mountains of Oregon for nearly 20 years. It sits on a creek that becomes a small river in the snow melt of summer. We see lots of wildlife, and in some years the local beaver population explodes. We've lost a lot of trees to those beavers. They eat the bark and chew through the trunks in order to drag the trees into the river. Often they girdle the tree but leave it standing, which kills the tree anyway. Sometimes they chew through trees that are too big for them to move.

When we first started having trouble I began to wrack my brain over how to get them to move on ' downstream or up, just anywhere else. I began to wonder if marking the territory in some way might not discourage them from chewing on our trees. We never found an effective marker, but wolf scent or something similar would probably work. It's the same principle that you see in dogs, who mark the bounds of their range even when they're taken out for a walk on a leash. Lots of animals mark their territory in similar ways to warn off enemies or competitors.

Human beings do it, too, though not so often with pheromones, (or at least our brains are seldom conscious of being able to smell those markers). Our Hebrew ancestors who entered the promised land marked the territory with stones, gathered into simple or complex altars, and sometimes also marked those altars with odorous concoctions of blood, tar, or plant resins. Our reformation ancestors had great arguments about similar issues, and built fences around the holy table. We still do it today ' have you ever watched a presider mark off the territory around the altar with incense?

Believe it or not, we're here to talk about territory. Ezekiel insists that Israel will be called together out of all those other lands, and brought into a holy land and purified. The prophet's concern is very much with who is in the community and who stands outside it ' in an unholy place. The Psalm insists that the safe place is within the boundaries marked by God: 'the boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places¦. I shall not be moved¦ my body rests secure. The version found in The Message, is quite graphic:

My choice is you, God, first and only.
And now I find I'm your choice!
You set me up with a house and yard.
And then you made me your heir!

Romans insists that the domain of life, the house and the yard, is to be found in Jesus, particularly in his death and resurrection. James and John are pretty explicit about trying to stake out their territory ' they want to pre-empt the competition and get the choice seats, front and center. Jesus reminds them that his territory is marked by baptism and service. Despite appearances in these stories, marking territory is not just a guy thing ' it is a part of creation, identifying our place of comfort, the place called home, the locus of all that is most significant in life.

Baptism is about marking territory. The sacramental marker is water and sweet-smelling oil, the holy pheromone we call chrism. We are pretty explicit about it ' we say 'you are marked as Christ's own forever, and we insist that baptism brings us into the body of Christ, journeying onward to the territory of abundant life.

It's a chosen territory, though not necessarily by the one being baptized. The reformation argument about whether infant or believer's baptism was more appropriate led to divisions that continue. Our current conversations about whether baptism should precede eucharist or follow it, and whether baptism is sufficient preparation to eat together at the holy table with any other (of the baptized), are similar indications of how deeply visceral this marking is. And it is about viscera, for when we are marked as Christ's own, it includes our whole being.

A good friend pointed out to me many years ago that all of us are breathing the same air that Jesus breathed, two millennia ago. That air contains atoms of oxygen and hydrogen, and molecules of carbon dioxide and water that were part of his physical being. It may not be true of every atom or molecule in each breath, but those bits of created, life-sustaining reality flow into and out of each of us, and they continue to float around this planet ' a few of them even leak out into space. The territory called humanity was made holy by God's presence in a tent of our common flesh. If we're thoughtful, we soon realize that God's holy-making or holy-marking in Jesus must also extend in some way to the rest of creation. We acknowledge as much in the eucharistic prayer when we say, 'To fulfill your purpose he gave himself up to death; and, rising from the grave, destroyed death, and made the whole creation new. Why else would we be so compulsive about the crumbs around this table?

Baptism must have the same kind of extensiveness. When we baptize, we are more or less conscious and explicit about marking this person as Christ's territory. We are baptizing into the baptism Jesus received, and I most firmly believe that the newly baptized is invited and encouraged to hear what Jesus heard at his baptism, 'you are my beloved, and in you I am well pleased. The blessing of water, chrism, and hands in community is meant to convey a sense of that belovedness. Our task as community is to help that belovedness grow and flourish in a way that extends the blessing. It is the root of our baptismal vocation ' to bless the world as we are blessed.

Jesus' baptism in the river Jordan is sign and symbol of that extensive work. The water we use to baptize has a part in the water that flowed over him. That river of life flows out into the world, and it flows through the veins of every living creature. It is the vocation of the conscious ' the baptized who have claimed the mark of Jesus ' to help the blessing of that lively water become evident everywhere it flows. The territory marked by Jesus must keep expanding, not in colonial ways that stake claims or insist this land is only for those of our mind, but in ways that keep reaching out to acknowledge and recognize the hand of God already at work.

Baptism is about death to old identities and solidarities, and rebirth into a land of hope and promise and abundant life for all. It is a washing away of old markers and a putting on of the odor of righteousness, a marker that is not limited to one small place, but is meant to waft through the world like the wind of the spirit. Baptism is meant to bless the world through the marked, as each one serves the hungry, sick, and frightened. This water is meant to roll on like a river of blessing, bringing peace to the warring and healing to the nations. That blessing is not meant to stop at any boundary, but to continue to pour over the dikes and levees that some would build to keep God's work within bounds. For the Lord of all will continue to seek the blessing of all ' even those who despair at the destruction wrought by beavers and their kin. Baptism means blessing those we might prefer to find outside holy territory, for there is no part of creation beyond the reach of those pleasant boundaries, those lands in which God delights, and those beloved of God.

The blessing of baptism is born of water ' and of blood (the very word blessing has its roots in blut, blood) ' and of sweet-smelling territory markers. But the blessing becomes effective in the daily ministry of the blessers, the baptized, who help to make this world whole and healed and holy.

Go, and mark this world for God, as holy territory.


Bishop Jefferts Schori


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