By Cynde | Wednesday, December 7, 2016 | 5:24 PM
First Presbyterian Church, Huntsville, AL
December 4, 2016, Cary Speaker, Interim Pastor
"A Baby" (The sermon today is a part of the “Sing Noel! A Carol Service,” by Hal Hopson)
This sermon began on April 9,1978. It was when I celebrated my first infant baptism.
My first baptism was for a baby girl, named Laura, the daughter of a young woman named Penny for whom I celebrated her life in a memorial service in 2004. That baby girl I baptized so long ago was only 26 years old when we buried her mother. Being a single parent is perhaps one of the most difficult tasks anyone can do. Penny’s life was probably like most single moms you have known. There was hardly ever enough money. There were various illnesses and relocations. Of course Laura did grow up and along the way did not always do what was best for her.
Penny had married into the church. Laura’s had grown up in the church and his parents were active members. Laura was born just as I began my ministry at that church. I can no longer remember if the mother and father were still married at that time, but I know the father was not there for the baptism.
It seems that I had only been at the church for a very short time when, on one particular Sunday, a young mother hung back from the crowd as the congregation exited the sanctuary. I did not know her. My memory was much sharper then and I think I would have remembered seeing this young woman if she had been in church, and I did not remember ever before seeing her. That day, after everyone else had spoken to me and moved on, Penny introduced herself and asked if I would baptize her baby.
As a young, inexperienced, new pastor, I immediately said, “Yes.” I was caught up in the moment, already imagining my first baptism. Then it hit me. I do not know anything about this woman. What does the Book of Order require of the parents of a baby to be baptized? Then I realized, “I will have to take this request to the Session.” The fog of being enamored with my own self-importance began to lift and I realized, “I do not know how to do this.” I quickly regained my false sense of calm, hoping that I conveyed a sense of assurance. I said, “Let’s schedule a time when I can get together with you and your husband to talk about baptism.” That is when I discovered the father was not present. But we agreed to meet early that week. Since she was a single mom, so she would come to the church for the meeting.
I emphasize the fact that the in-laws, or grandparents, were in this church because that means that the Session knew about baby Laura long before I did. They knew the story about baby Laura. Of course what they knew was, at best, only part of the story; at worst, it was a mixture of truth, elaboration and some stories were out right fabrication. I say all of that because when I brought up the baptism to the Session, all of this stuff poured out. There were rumors of drug use; one version painted Penny as using the pregnancy as the means by which she could trick Laura’s father into marriage. This is the south. There were stories about Penny’s family being “white trash.” There were the expected unkind remarks like, “What do you expect from a family like that?” And, “Of course she got pregnant. She’s that kind of girl.”
I was young, inexperienced and naive. I knew nothing of this. I did not expect to hear anything like this when I brought up the baptism to the Session. Besides, I had spent time with Laura and Penny, and those mean spirited things did not seem to fit that young single mother. I hate to say this about myself, but I probably said some rather preachy things to the Session. I probably said something about baptism being the outward sign of an inward grace. I may have even been able to say something about God loving us no matter what our parents have done. Ultimately I said that we are all God’s children.
Of course the session agreed to the baptism. How could they not? I asked for a volunteer to stand with baby Laura. Looking back, I guess I was angry, because I remember not looking up to see who volunteered. I heard a low mumbled grunt that I interpreted as, “I will. But I do not really want to.”
On the appointed Sunday, at the appointed time in the service, I called for Laura to be presented. Penny began the slow walk down the aisle to the chancel, carrying baby Laura. As Penny processed, Laura’s grandfather stood and fell into place beside her and together they walked to the chancel. When the two adults and one baby stood before me and the congregation, I bowed my head and began to read the baptismal liturgy. I could hear movement in the congregation. I did not dare to look up. I was afraid that some members were offended by what was taking place in their church. I was afraid that people were walking out in protest.
When it came time for me to ask the questions, I cautiously peered over the end of my book. There beside Laura stood her grandfather and grandmother. Beside them stood the rest of the Session and behind them stood Sunday school teachers, choir members and others. It looked to me like the entire congregation had gathered around Laura. I do not want you to think that I am exaggerating. There were some people still sitting in the pews. It turns out, I later discovered, that they were all visitors that day.
At Christmas, when I think about baby Jesus and then about all of the other babies -- I also think about Jesus’ mother. I wonder how she felt. I wonder if she was worried that her family, her village, would be ashamed of her.
When I baptize another baby girl on Dec. 18, instead of all of you coming forward, I will present the baby to you. When I carry the baby down the aisle, I am aware of feeling that some of you would also like to hold that baby. In fact, I am certain that while on my walk, if I offered the baby to you, you would not hesitate to take her.
If Mary, the mother of Jesus, came to this church and wanted her baby baptized and I asked “Who will stand with this baby?” I have no hesitation as to what the answer would be. I know how you would respond. I have seen you respond. Now go out into the world and share that same compassion, that same caring and that same love. Go in the name of the Christ who comes to us as a baby.