A sermon[i] preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, January 12, 2014, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Matthew 3:13-17
Copyright © 2014 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

For context, you might find it helpful to read my Christmas Eve sermon available here.

It’s been a quiet week in Mount William, New Hampshire, my hometown.  Most of the chatter at the Chowder House was about the weather.  The temperature’s been bouncing all over the place.  Days of frigid cold.  Snow enough to close the schools.  A few days warm enough that the snow doesn’t bother melting; it just goes right to vapor.  “Subliming” I remember my high school chemistry science teacher calling.  Is there something sublime about the snow disappearing without leaving a puddle?  I don’t know.

There is something sublime about water, especially when it’s used in church.  This morning, Jessica Wilson-Russell was baptized.  Now you probably don’t know who Jessica Wilson-Russell is.  That’s not too surprising.  She’s a brilliant, beautiful five-year-old who is still pretty new to Mount William.  But you may know one of her fathers.  And I think you know that father’s mother and father.

Andy and Pamela Wilson are the couple who moved to Mount William from Ohio after their farm went bust a few decades ago.  They came seeking a new start.  The start they got didn’t go exactly to plan.  Andy had that job as a night watchman at the Jordan Marsh in Manchester when he worked the 15-hour shift on Christmas Eve and came home with a baby boy that someone had abandoned on the loading dock.

A Christmas miracle, he was sure, and it only took a few moments for Pamela to fall in love with the baby.  Her heart was nearly breaking when she called the Manchester police to report what had happened.  She would have called the Mount William police department, but he was home with him family celebrating Christmas Day and she didn’t want to disturb him.

“My husband found an abandoned baby on the loading dock at the Jordan Marsh early this morning,” she explained to the police sergeant.  “We’re taking care of him just fine, but thought we should make an official report.”

All the detectives were off duty, so the sergeant said that someone would come out the next day.  The detective came and took their statements and the box that Andy had found the baby in.  By the time the social worker from the Department of Children, Youth, and Families showed up, Andy and Pam had started calling the baby ‘Joshua.’  They wanted a name associated with Christmas, but ‘Jesus’ seemed a bit presumptuous to them.  ‘Joseph’ wasn’t right; that was Andy’s job.  They imagined the teasing the poor tyke would get if they picked ‘Melchior,’ ‘Gaspar,’ or ‘Balthazar.’  ‘Joshua,’ they thought, was somehow related to the name ‘Jesus,’ so they tried it out and it stuck.

Regulations weren’t as tight then as they are now.  The Social Worker was able to name the Wilsons as temporary emergency foster parents, so Joshua stayed with the Wilsons while the investigations took place.  The police had to do their investigation to try to figure out who had abandoned the baby at the Jordan Marsh.  The Department of Children, Youth, and Families had to investigate the Wilsons to see if they could be permanent foster parents to the child.  Pam and Andy decided they wouldn’t talk about adoption to anyone official at that point, but the next Sunday the three of them were in church and before they knew what had happened, the Women’s Fellowship had a baby shower arranged.  Before the week was over, there wasn’t a baby item the Wilsons needed to buy.  And by the end of January, the congregation was praying regularly that the Wilsons would be allowed to adopt Joshua as their own.

“He’s not ours,” Andy said to Pam one night.

“I know he’s not,” she said.  “But if they don’t find the mother –“

“No, that’s not what I mean.  I mean he’s not only ours.  The whole church seems to be adopting him, too.”

That’s how it was that whole year.  The congregation was there for the Wilsons that first week, and all year long it seemed Joshua had 29 grandparents.  They would drop by with a new onesie or a case of formula – at least that was the official reason.  Pamela was pretty sure they really came by to pinch Joshua’s cheeks.  When the doctor said there was a mole on Joshua’s shoulder that would become cancerous if it wasn’t removed, the church rallied ’round the Wilsons.  It wasn’t a simple nip, tuck procedure.  A skin graft was involved.  And this young couple who didn’t have any family around had a huge family around them.

Andy and Pam were named permanent foster parents in just a few months, but it wasn’t until November that the search for the baby’s birth parents was abandoned and Joshua was declared eligible for adoption.  The Wilsons immediately started the adoption process, and once they started hearing noises that the judge would probably rule in their favor, Pam said they could talk to Rev. Friend about the baptism.

Pamela had grown up in a Disciples of Christ church and wasn’t baptized herself until she was 12.  But there wasn’t a Disciples congregation anywhere near Mount William, so they went to the Mount William Congregational Church, and at the Congregational Church, they baptized babies.

Pam had insisted that they not baptize Joshua until they were at least made permanent foster parents and were on the road toward adoption.  She really wanted to hold out until the adoption was final, but Andy pressured her.  “He’s not only ours.”  So they spoke with Rev. Friend who was only a year into his call at the Mount William Congregational Church.  They picked the first Sunday after Epiphany, the day the baptism of Jesus was celebrated, as the day for Joshua to be baptized.

Rev. Friend got through most of the baptismal liturgy pretty well.  But when he saw this little baby in his father’s arms and he came to the words about being adopted into the family of God – he was done with words.  No one offered to take over for him, so the congregation just worshiped a while with tears as silent prayers of gratitude.  And then Rev. Friend poured the water of holy covenant across Joshua’s head.  Everyone was a mess.

In Matthew’s gospel, we don’t hear Jesus speak until his baptism.  And he doesn’t speak to the crowds.  John is used to speaking to the crowds, but here it’s just Jesus and John talking to each other.  Oh, and then there’s one more voice:  the first person of the Trinity, claiming Jesus as beloved child.

Don’t know if the sky opened and Joshua saw God descending like a dove, but the congregation heard God’s voice loud and clear speaking within themselves, “This is my beloved son.”

I don’t know if it was the voice or if it was that in the Wilsons the whole congregation could see the pathos of the world – or perhaps it was because they all knew that they all had issues and that somehow in that water they saw God’s love flowing out over them as well.  What ever it was, just about everybody’s baptism was reaffirmed with the waters of their own tear ducts.

In the legal adoption, Joshua was being made an heir of his parents.  No one in the congregation missed the metaphor.  Perhaps that is why they went to pieces when they saw the water poured out and splash across Joshua’s head and into the baptismal font.

Joshua didn’t ask to be adopted.  He didn’t earn it or deserve it.  He didn’t know enough to want it or to object.  It just came as a grace that changed him from an orphan to a son.  That’s the way grace works – it’s free, unmerited, and unexpected.  But then it expects a lot from us.  We don’t make changes in our lives to get adopted; we make changes because we have been adopted.

That’s how it is in church.  Every time we baptize a baby or a believer, we are launching that child of God on this journey through the issues of faith and life.  We receive the grace of God, but we then spend the rest of our lives learning how to respond to it.  And maybe that’s why we have churches:  to give us the language of faith, to teach us faith’s great traditions, to inspire us with holy missions for our lives, to constantly point us back to the gospel for our healing, to help us learn how to respond to the grace of God.

Joshua Wilson is married now and he and his husband Ken Russell have been going through the adoption process.  Jessica came into their lives this past spring and the adoption was final on December 23rd.  They live in Mount William, not far from Pam and Andy.  Joshua is a firefighter in Concord; Ken is taking a leave of absence from his teaching job in the next school district.

And today, the first Sunday after Epiphany, when the baptism of Jesus is celebrated, Jessica Wilson-Russell was baptized.  Rev. Friend, who is still at the Mount William Congregational Church, did the honors.  And this year, when he got to the part in the baptismal liturgy when he talks about being adopted into the family of God, everyone was smiling.

Pamela still thinks her son and son-in-law should have waited until Jessica was old enough to decide for herself to be baptized.  She reminds me of the old joke about the Baptist and the Episcopalian who were discussing religion.  The Baptist asked, “Do you mean to tell me you really believe in infant baptism?”  “Believe in it?” the Episcopalian replied.  “Why I’ve seen it!”[iii]

Once again, the congregation watched God’s grace poured out on a little child and on themselves.  And during the sermon this morning, Rev. Friend told the story of the Christmas miracle that brought Joshua into the Wilson home and into the home of the Congregational Church, and of the first baptism he performed there.

During the sermon, Missy Albertson leaned over to her husband.  “Steve, I love you, but you bring home a Christmas miracle like that and I’ll shoot you.”  The Albertsons are still negotiating with Missy’s parents on a date for the baptism of their triplets.

That’s the news from Mount William, where all the women are strong, the men are good looking, and all the children go to Sunday School every week.


[i] This sermon was inspired by, and I paraphrase from, M. Craig Barnes, “Faith Matters: After adoption,” Christian Century, 25 July 2013 edition, p. 33.

[iii] Bruce Trammell, “Pretty Good Jokes,” A Prairie Home Companion, http://www.publicradio.org/applications/formbuilder/projects/joke_machine/joke_page.php?car_id=1015126 (11 January 2014).