Keawalaʻi Congregational Church
United Church of Christ (USA)
Fifth Sunday of Easter
Sunday, May 6, 2012
The Rev. Kealahou C. Alika
“Uncle wants to talk to you about being baptized,” she said.
“Okay,” I responded. “I’ll give him a call and see when we can get together.” The only thing she told me about him was that he was a Portuguese-Hawaiian man whom she had just visited at the hospital and that he was not doing well.
There was an urgency in her voice. They were not family by blood but by a relationship that spanned many years.
A few weeks went by and I was finally able to talk with him over the telephone. “Hello, Uncle, this is Kahu Alika. Auntie told me the other week that you want to be baptized.”
“Yeah, as what I like.”
“I know Auntie told you we have to sit down and talk story first, yeah?”
“Yeah,” he answered. With that we set a time and date to get together.
A few days later he stopped by our office to see me. We shook hands as he entered the room. His walk was measured, his breathing labored. The lines in his face ran deep and his skin was weathered and coarse.
“So, Auntie told me you want to be baptized,” I said as I held a marker in my hand and stood in front of a large pad of newsprint on an easel. My intention was to spend the time we had together to go over the meaning and significance of baptism in a personal rather than didactic way.
In other words I wanted to “talk story” with Uncle and not have him feel that I was the “teacher” and he was the “student.” “Yeah, as what I like,” he said once more but this time in a clear and determined voice.
I sat down. “So, why you like be baptized?” I asked. “No more right or wrong answer. The question is more about how you feel, inside,” I said tapping my hand over my heart.
He replied without hesitation, “I like get baptized cause my mother told me long time ago, small bebe time, I should get baptized.” I was prepared to write down his response but I wasn’t sure if he could read. I set the marker down.
In the hour that followed I learned that he did not finish high school; that he joined the U.S. Merchant Marines as a young man; that he taught himself to read and write; that he lived a good and honest life; and that he was aware his health was beginning to fail. “The doctors said no can do nothing now,” he said. “Maybe I no more much time left.”
It was then that it occurred to me that Uncle was preparing himself for his death; that he wanted to get things in order and that one of those things was to honor the instruction of his mother to be baptized. We talked more and I shared with him about what would happen on the day of his baptism; of how he would be called to come forward and stand before the congregation; that questions would be asked of him; and that the actual baptism would be by immersion in the ocean.
Every now and then he would nod. I wasn’t sure if he understood what I was saying or if he simply wanted to ignore what I thought were significant details and “just do it.”
When it seemed we were almost pau – or done – I said, “Oh, Uncle, one of the questions I have to ask you is ‘Do you profess Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior?’”
“Ah, no!” he declared emphatically. His response shocked me! Up until that point in our visit I thought we were doing well.
I remembered my eyes widening and then feeling my shoulders slump as I exhaled. Was I prepared to tell him that that was the question upon which the baptism was based?
“No!” he said again. “Maybe I not that ejacayted cause I nevah finish high school, but I been all ovah the world and I wen see uddah people in uddah places. I know people no all believe the same, but I believe Akua love everybody. I no like the kine where we think we the only ones get the right answer.”
What Uncle said made sense but I worried about what others would say. Would it even be possible for me to baptize Uncle even though he was clear he was not able to confess Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior? In some ways Uncle was a bit of an outcast having lived a good and honest but nevertheless “rough and tumbled” life.
Then I thought about what he said. “I like get baptized cause my mother told me.” I leaned back into my chair and realized that Uncle had come to his decision motivated by the memory of his mother and a desire to make all things right as he prepared for his death based on his belief that God is love.
In a way Uncle’s baptism bears witness to the Easter message of God’s universal and unconditional love. It is a lesson learned from our reading from The Book of Acts.
It was not a self-taught Portuguese-Hawaiian man who served in the U.S. Merchant Marines but an Ethiopian eunuch serving in the court of the queen of the Ethiopians who was wealthy enough to ride in a chariot, educated enough to read Greek, devout enough to study the prophet Isaiah and unabashed in not knowing enough to understand what he was reading without help that was baptized. (Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 2, Bartlett & Taylor, Westminster/John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky, 2008, page 457) Much may be said about the eunuch’s social status, national affiliation, ethnicity, gender and sexual condition, but Philip neither questions nor condemns him.
The baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch is a part of the larger story in Acts of the universal embrace of the good news of Jesus Christ, starting from Jerusalem and spreading to “all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8) It is the good news of the restoration of all peoples under God’s reign (Acts 1:6; 3:21).
As the good news moves into the world, it gathers under the wings of God’s mercy more and more of those who have been lost, pushed away and forgotten. The story of the Ethiopian eunuch is a very personal story of the recovery of one of these outcasts.
As different as they may seem having lived centuries apart from one another and in societies they would not have recognized as their own, they were similar in one way. The story of the Ethiopian eunuch as an outcast is also Uncle’s story. Philip does not tell the eunuch that if only he confesses Jesus Christ and receives baptism by water and prays hard that God will love him. Philip simply teaches that the prophecies of Isaiah have been revealed and fulfilled in Jesus. (Ibid., page 458)
Uncle may not have confessed Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, but he recalled what his mother taught him. “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”
As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said to Philip, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” He commanded the chariots to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down to the water, and Philip baptized him. (Acts 8:36)
“So what you think, Uncle?” I asked as our visit came to an end. “Hiki no? Can? You like be baptized?”
“Yeah,” he answered.
Uncle was baptized on October 28, 2007 here in Mākena. He was 76 years old. He died within the following year on September 17, 2008 in Wailuku.