Baptism Isn’t A Choice

Matthew 5.14-16

You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under a bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. 

Dear Lucia,

You’re not going to remember today. 

In the church we call what we do to you today a sacrament, an outward sign of an invisible grace. It is a way in which God communicates something to us about us. And, you’re too young to have any idea what any of this means.

So I’m writing you a letter.

Hopefully one day your parents will sit you down and explain what happened to you, perhaps they will even apologize for the unenviable course this set you on (at least according to the world), and if you’re really lucky they’ll let you in on the secret of all secrets: It’s not just you who can’t understand what happened, none of us really do.

Baptism, at its best, is a people called church fumbling around in the darkness hoping God can make something of our nothing.

And, to make matters even stranger, getting baptized is a whole lot like getting married: A bunch of people gather together to hear promises exchanged knowing full and well that, as humans, breaking promises is precisely our cup of tea.

No matter how good we are or how bad we are, we never quite live up to the expectations we place on ourselves.

And yet God remains steadfast to us precisely when we don’t return the favor.

But, I’m getting ahead of myself.

Today we baptize you into the Good News of Jesus Christ which, upon first glance, might actually seem like bad news. You know, the whole turn the other cheek and love your neighbors as yourself stuff. I promise you will discover moments when turning the cheek seems like the worst possible decision and I guarantee you’re going to find a neighbor with whom love appears impossible. And, contrary to how you will probably see baptisms in your own future, whether in the church in some movie, it’s not a picture perfect rainbows in the sky moment of bliss.

You are baptized into the death of Jesus so that you, to use the language of Paul, might become the gospel.

It’s actually quite strange.

Lucia, decades ago, when your great-grandparents and even grandparents were baptized into the faith, it was done so under the cloud of what we call Christendom – a time in which Christians thought they knew how to identify the difference it meant to be Christian. Those differences were often defined by what the church said you could or couldn’t do. But those differences were relatively indistinguishable from what the country or community thought would be best anyway.

It was a time when it was assumed that just about everyone went to church on Sunday morning, that to be a good person was synonymous with being Christian, and that so long as you said your prayers and put the right amount of money in the offering plate and made sure you did more good things than bad things everything would work out in the end.

That time is long gone and its not coming back.

And that, my dear niece, is truly Good News. What makes it Good News is the fact that you are being baptized into a radically different time for God’s church, a time of rediscovery for how unusual it is for us to be the church in the world. 

It is not an overstatement to say that what happens to you in baptism makes you different from other people. What I hope you come to know and see and believe is that the difference has little to do with you and everything to do with Jesus who is the difference who makes all the difference. 

In time you will come to discover that we who call ourselves Christians are a weird bunch – After all, we worship a God who became one of us, a Lord both fully human and divine, who rather than beating the world into moralistic submission, died on the cross and was resurrected three days later. 

Even your baptism, this solitary moment in the life of faith, is a pretty bizarre endeavor. Should someone have walked by when I held you in my arms dumping water on your head they might’ve thought, “Is he trying to drown her?” And the truth is, yes, in a sense. Baptism is about drowning you in the Holy Spirit that you might arise different, because of Jesus.

Lucia, according to the strange new world of the Bible, Jesus says you are the light of the world. If that’s true it is only and forever because Jesus is the light of the world first. He shines in the darkness, he is the Good News in a world drowning in bad news, he is the divine Word dwelling among us.

The best we can hope to do is reflect that light.

For, the more we think we’re the light of the world, the more we screw everything up. That I used “we” in that sentence is indicative of your baptism incorporating you into the church, a church that will forever be fallibly messing up the words from the Word. 

And we’ve certainly messed this one up from Matthew’s gospel.

For years, centuries even, this little bit of the story has been used to defend the example that Christians are supposed to make for the world to follow. Which is to say, you shine as a light for others to see the errors of their ways. 

Just as a city on a hill can be seen by all, so too will your faith shine gloriously in order to transform the world.

But that’s a little backwards. For one thing, as I already noted, Jesus is the light of the world, not us. And secondly, the proclamation of the Lord here actually calls into question the very habits and practices that have so hindered the faith.

Let me put it this way: You are like a city on a hill, like a lamp in full view. The desire to appear perfect as an example for others is all good and fine, but you’re going to fail. We all do. That’s the reason we need Jesus. 

Therefore, instead of self-righteously proclaiming that you, or any other Christian for that matter, is the perfect example to follow, perhaps we should consider how visible we are to the world and to God. That is, God already sees and knows you better than you will ever know yourself. And knowing that you won’t live up to the promises made in your baptism and in the proclamation of the gospel, God already nailed to the cross every one of your sins before you even had a chance to make them.

Or, to put it another way, God has imprisoned all to disobedience in order that God might be merciful to all.

Lucia, when you read this one day and you wonder why I rambled on and on about all of this, don’t blame me – your parents picked this text for your baptism. I think it’s rather notable that, right before this passage, Jesus offers what we in the church call the Beatitudes. 

And, I must confess Lucia, I’m not sure why the baptized are not included in the list. Surely it would’ve been better for the Lord to say, “Blessed are the baptized for they will be surprised by what God has in store for them.”

Perhaps Jesus did not include what is done to you and for you today because the baptized either make the choice for themselves or, as in your case, the choice is made for them. Whereas the poor, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and the persecuted name the different states of life that happen to those who are baptized.

Today, your baptism, is not a choice that you, or frankly even your parents, made. That Jesus has to the gall to call you a city on a hill is indicative of it. The only decision possible for you was made on another hill 2,000 years ago on top of which stood a cross.

The only thing you have to do Lucia, is be what you are. How you live and move in the body of Christ called the church will be a visible act that will forever separate you from the rest of the world. 

Today you are made different. Not because of me, or your parents, or Godparents, or even the church. You are different because Jesus is the difference that makes all the difference. 

So welcome precious lamb to the strange new world of the baptized in which in spite of your worst, and even best intentions, God loves you and there’s nothing you can do about it. Amen. 

You Can’t Handle The Truth

Exodus 24.12-18

The Lord said to Moses, “Come up to me on the mountain, and wait there; and I will give you tablets of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for their instruction.” So Moses set out with his assistant Joshua, and Moses went up into the mountain of God. To the elder he had said, “Wait here for us, until we come to you again; for Aaron and Hur are with you; whoever has a dispute may go to them.” Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. The glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days; on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the cloud. Now the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel. Moses entered the cloud, and went up on the mountain. Moses was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights. 

Matthew 17.1-9

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

Everything is politics.

Politics are everything.

I don’t know if it’s completely true, but I can remember a time when my family and I were able to watch the news at night and nothing about politics would come up. There were no brief shots of the Capitol building with soundbites of senators arguing with one another. There were no cutaway shots of political campaign rallies. And if there was a debate on television, it certainly wasn’t attended to in such a way as if people talked about it the next day like the Superbowl.

Whatever that time was, it’s long gone.

Now we can’t do anything, or watch anything, or read anything without the allure of politics taking center stage within the midst of our reality.

Politics are even seeping into the church!

So here I was in the middle of the week, racking my brain for something worth addressing in the sermon. I knew that it was Transfiguration Sunday, and that we’d be looking at Moses on the mountain in Exodus, and Jesus on the mountain in Matthew, and I was about to offer up a prayer to the Lord for a little bit of homiletical manna from heaven, when someone emailed me a YouTube clip in which two news reels had been edited together.

In the first, Rush Limbaugh, having just received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Donald Trump, said that America isn’t ready for a man to be president who kisses his husband so willingly on stage. He continues with some other homophobic remarks before moving on to address the other Democratic presidential candidates.

In the second clip, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, the person Limbaugh was talking about, responds to the controversial comments by saying, “The idea of the likes of Rush Limbaugh or Donald Trump lecturing anybody on family values – I mean, sorry but, one thing about my marriage is it’s never involved me having to send hush money to a porn star after cheating on my spouse. Let’s debate family values – I’m ready.”

Moses goes up on the mountain to receive a word from the Lord, to get the Law, and politicians debating the intricacies of moral law falls into my inbox.

God surely has a sense of humor.

Now, I’m not going to make this into whose righter or whose wronger, as if to comparing systems of morality would be at all helpful or even faithful. And yet, in both cases there is a clear understanding on the part of the speaker about rightness and wrongness, as if all of us should know the rules we are meant to follow and then we must follow them.

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The only problem with that, is that none of us follow of the rules.

And that’s a truth far too inconvenient to handle.

Whenever we talk about right and wrong, which is just another way of talking about the Law, we do so at the expense of how Jesus and Paul actually talk about the Law. For, when we talk about the Law, we do so as if it is a bludgeon that we are privileged to use against those we deem unworthy. We hold over the heads of the transgressors and we tell them to get better or get out. The Law becomes our litmus test about who is good enough and who isn’t even close.

But according to Jesus and Paul, the most important part of the Law, in fact the purpose of the Law, isn’t to regulate our behavior… It’s to accuse us.

The Law shows us again and again and again that none of us, not even the best of us, have the kind of lives and moral histories that are enough to meet the righteousness of God. 

Moses goes up on the mountain, gets a sunburn from getting too close to the divine, and comes back down with the stones tablets of what to do and what not to do.

The rest of the Old Testament is a story of the people called Israel who struggle to adhere to those very laws and, more often than not, they do the things they know they shouldn’t, and they avoid doing the things they know they should.

And if that were the end of the story, then our politicking and our moralizing and our finger-pointing would be fine. We could parade out the ledger books whenever someone took a step too far and we could hang them out to dry. We could saunter over to Fox News or NPR and give testimonies about who has done what such that some are torn down while others are built up.

But then Jesus shows up and ruins all of our fun.

The story from Matthew is eerily similar to the one in Exodus. A man is called to a mountain, he brings only a few companions, and it’s clear that whatever happens on the mountain changes everything. 

For Moses it’s the giving of the Law, but for Jesus, it’s different.

Peter was there and Peter was like us. He loved the Lord, he volunteered for the Lord, he showed up when he was asked, and he found himself on the mountain path listening to the voice of the One who had called him out of whatever his life could’ve been. And as the light shines around and through and in Jesus, as Peter takes in the sight of Moses on his left and Elijah on his right, he must’ve been thinking about the Exodus story, he must’ve viewed his present through the past. 

It’s no wonder he offers to build dwelling places on the mountaintop – that’s what the people called Israel were supposed to do. 

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But the mountaintop miracle is different this time. There will be no stone tablets, there will be no Law by which the people will discern who is right and who is wrong. Instead, there is only a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” 

And how does Peter respond to this remarkable Transfiguration? He is afraid.

Today we use the Law as a set of principles by which people like us can live good and perfect lives. Do this and don’t do that and in the end you’ll be good enough.

But none of us are good enough.

Jesus says before all of this mountaintop madness, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees you will not enter heaven.” No one’s righteousness exceeds the Pharisees!

Contrary to how we’ve been talking about it for so long, the Law isn’t about living the right way. 

The purpose of the Law is what the Law does to us.

The Law is the means by which God brings us down to our knees.

The Law is the recognition that God is God and we are not.

The Law is what made Peter tremble on that mountain.

For, at its best, the Law compels us to see ourselves as we really are (no easy task); to see all of our wickedness and imperfection, and to wonder, “How could God love someone like me?”

That’s how Peter responded the first time he met the Lord on the boat, “Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinner.” Peter’s proximity to Jesus forced him to see things about himself he never would have seen otherwise, and it made him afraid.

He was afraid because he knew, just as some of us do, that the truth of who we are is no good. As St. Paul puts it in Romans, “None is righteous, no, not one.”

Jean Vanier was a Canadian Catholic theologian who founded what is called the L’Arche community in 1964. He was moved by the experiences of those with developmental disabilities who were often ostracized and sent away to live in institutions far away from everyone else. At first he invited two men with disabilities to come live with him in France. He believed that, as a Christian, he had a duty and responsibility to make these particular individuals feel loved and a part of a community. Their time together led to the establishment of a communal way of living where people with disabilities began living with the people who care for them, rather than being marginalized and put away.

Since then a network of over 150 intentional L’Arche communities have been founded in 38 different countries around the world. 

Vanier wrote numerous books on his experiences, about the theology beyond the practices, and calls to others to learn how to live as intentionally.

Throughout his life, Vanier was regarded over and over again as a living saint. His patience with those who had experienced no patience at all was heralded as the paragon of virtue. Without his work, there is a serious chance that our understanding of those with developmental disabilities would be horrendous and not at all faithful, let alone kind.

Jean Vanier, at the age of 90, died last year in May. 

Yesterday, the L’Arche organization published the results of an inquiry which investigated the claims about the early history of the community and Vanier’s role within it. The investigation was carried out by an independent agency and they determined that Vanier abused at least 6 non-disabled women during those early years under the auspices of spiritual guidance through which he manipulated them and they experienced long emotional and physical abuse.

Imagine your abuser being regarded by the rest of the world as a living saint.

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None is righteous, no, not one.

That’s the point of the Law – on our own we can’t even fulfill a fraction of it. All that stuff that Moses brought down from the mountain, it is good only insofar as it shows us that we, all of us, are bad.

We’re all bad no matter how good we think we are and no matter how good we think other people are.

Because behind closed doors, when we think we’re alone, or that no one will ever find out – in the secrets thoughts of our hearts and minds – each and every one of us are more like Donald Trump and Pete Buttigieg and Rush Limbaugh and Jean Vanier than we are like Jesus Christ.

The Law exists to drive us to Jesus not as a teacher or as an example, but as someone who did something for us that we could not and would not do for ourselves.

Jesus is the only one who is fully obedient to the Law, the only one who can fulfill its demands, the only one whose righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees. 

Jesus’s love and grace and mercy has overflown on to us so that we, not because we’ve earned it or deserve it, can stand before God justified by Jesus Christ. 

When we come close to that grace, to the Gospel we call Good News, it brings us to our knees like it did Peter because we can’t make sense of it. If we are strong enough to look into the mirror of our souls we know that we’re no better than anyone else. And yet the cloud surrounds us anyway, the voice speaks to us anyway, and we are changed forever anyway.

The truth is we should be afraid. If our moral laundry were to hang out to dry for everyone to see it wouldn’t be good. If we were compelled to share our inner thoughts and regrettable choices, none of the people here would ever look at us the same.

And for some strange reason Jesus looks upon all of that and comes to find us on our knees and says, “I’m going to do what you cannot. Get up and don’t be afraid.” Amen. 

Devotional – Philippians 1.27

Devotional:

Philippians 1.27

Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel.

Weekly Devotional Image

“Church Shopping” is a phenomenon in the contemporary church that I have not quite wrapped my head around. Oftentimes when a family, or an individual, moves to a new community they will try out a number of churches, regardless of denomination, until they find one that fits with their understanding of the way church is supposed to be. They will use their own rubrics and check-lists in order to determine whether the church is a good fit; Was I genuinely greeted and welcomed to church? Is the church full of people around my stage of life? Was the worship authentic and life-giving?

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In Staunton I have been struck by the more particular phenomenon of “Pastor Shopping.” When we have new visitors that become regular attendees I often ask them, in preparation for membership, where they came from and how they arrived at St. John’s. More often than I would like to admit, many of the responses have to do with a disagreement or a frustration with a pastor from their last church: He walked around too much while he preached; She wore blue jeans during worship; He doesn’t preach from the Bible; etc.

I will admit that there are plenty of churches that are detrimental to Christians’ faith. Pastors and congregations sometimes lose sight of the Gospel and become so inwardly focused that they forget to proclaim the Good News of Christ. However, I also believe that as Christians we have the responsibility to “stand firm in one spirit” with our brothers and sisters in Christ at our churches. The fact that so many are willing to leave a faithful community, after years of shared discipleship, because they disagree with a pastor is a frightening reality for the contemporary church.

It is my hope that if we have people at St. John’s who do not agree with what I preach, or how I lead, that they would be faithful enough to share their frustrations with me, and strive to continually serve “side by side for the faith of the gospel.” If we continue to commodify the church, which is to say if we make it into something that people can pick and choose like they pick and choose a cereal brand, then we will continue to have churches that are filled with people who are not challenged in their faith journeys.

Whether I’m your pastor or not, have you shared your thoughts and concerns with your pastor? Are you lovingly honest with them about their preaching? Have you prayed for them?

Perhaps today is the day that we can begin living our lives in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ with our pastors, with our families, and with our brothers and sister in Christ.