This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Chelsea Morse about the readings for the 15th Sunday After Pentecost [B] (Proverbs 22.1-2, 8-9, 22-23 , Psalm 125, James 2.1-10, 14-17, Mark 7.24-37). Chelsea serves Micah Ecumenical Ministries where she is the Community Ministries Chaplain in Fredericksburg, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including radio jokes, extension ministries, vacation reads, library organization, meme material, complex personalities, do goodery, collective homilies, partiality, crumbly faith, and the little things of life. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: People Are People Are People
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest. Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel. In you our ancestors trusted; they trusted and you delivered them. To you they cried, and were saved; in you they trusted, and were not put to shame.
It was nine o’clock in the morning when they crucified him. The inscription of the charge against him read, “The King of the Jews.” And with him they crucified two bandits, one on his right and one on his left. Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads and saying, “Aa! You who would destroy the temple and built it in three days, save yourself, and come down from the cross!” In the same way the chief priests, along with the scribes, were also mocking him among themselves and saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down from the cross now, so that we may see and believe.” Those who were crucified with him also taunted him. When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, “Listen, he is calling for Elijah.” And someone ran, filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink saying, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.” Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”
It was early in the morning when they crucified Jesus.
The night before he was breaking bread with his friends and sharing wine. He was washing feet and talking about the command to love.
But then he was betrayed and one by one his disciples deserted him and denied him.
He went on trial before the powers and principalities, accused of crimes uncommitted, and ultimately sentenced to death.
He was paraded through the city to mocking crowds. His weakness was such that someone was commanded to help him carry his cross, his instrument of death, all the way to Golgotha.
And in the early morning light, they crucified him.
Nailed his hands and feet to the wood, and lifted him high for all eyes to see.
One by one they came to see this “King of the Jews” and the mocked him.
“You said you would destroy the temple and build it in three days! Good luck doing all that from up there!”
“You’ve saved others, let’s see if you can save yourself.”
“Come down from that cross you soon-to-be-dead-king, and we will believe you.”
Even those who were themselves hanging on crosses next to him lifted up their own taunts.
When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land and it lasted for three hours. And then, around three o’clock, Jesus cried out with a loud voice: “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” and he died.
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
I have thought about those words for a long time.
I can remember sitting in a dimly lit sanctuary as a teenager hearing those words proclaimed from a rather portly-looking Jesus in a dramatic re-enactment.
I can remember coming across them in college and wondering why in the world Matthew and Mark decided to include them in their versions of the Gospel.
I have read all sorts of commentaries and listened to all sorts of sermons just on this one sentence and, frankly, not one of them have left me satisfied.
I have been unsatisfied with so many thoughts on these words because they so often try to avoid what it is that Jesus said – they try to avoid the words that we, for millennia, have proclaimed in faith.
When I was in seminary, we debated this verse in a class. My professor wanted us to explain to him why Jesus used these words as his last. And so we competed with one another – “Well, surely Jesus meant to quote the entirety of Psalm 22nd but died before he could finish.” “Naturally, Jesus intended his disciples to understand that he didn’t really mean what he said.” And on and on we went.
That is, until my professor slammed his hands on the podium and declared, “This is one of the most important verses in the Bible! You cannot explain it away. Look at the words! Jesus has taken on our sin and he is abandoned!”
There is no good way to talk about this text. This is not a passage that leaves us walking with our heads held high. This is the depth of our depravity held high for all eyes to see.
This is, to put it bluntly, our sin.
In order for us to come to grips with the Cross of Christ, we are called to consider the gravity of sin. And I don’t just mean the little choices we make every day that we shouldn’t, or the things we avoid doing that we should do. I mean them plus all of the horrific examples that you only need a moment to scroll through Twitter to find.
“None is righteous. No, not one.” St. Paul says.
And he’s right.
Had we been there in Jerusalem all those years ago, we, like the crowds, would’ve started the week with “Hosanna” and ended it with “Crucify!”
Even his most faithful disciples abandoned him in the end.
“My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”
Why did he say it?
The moment of Jesus’ death is total hideousness. In that moment Jesus experienced separation for the Father for the first and only time.
Paul puts it this way: He became sin who knew known sin.
The condemnation that we deserved was absorbed by Jesus in totality.
Consider the strange new world of the Bible – God looked upon us and our sin and what did God do? God did not remain above and far removed from our struggle. Instead, God chose to come right down into the muck and mire of our existence. God looked upon us and our sins and God entered into our very condition, birthed as a baby to a virgin in a manger.
That baby grew to proclaim the Good News for a world drowning in bad news. He healed the sick. He fed the hungry. He befriended the lonely. And when he entered the Holy City we nailed him to a cross.
And in so doing, God removed the condemnation we rightly deserved.
This will no doubt cause us to wince, or simply to dismiss it because, surely, we don’t deserve condemnation. Maybe someone else like those people we saw on TV or the people who voted for the other candidate or for the person who keeps insisting on posting such reprehensible things, but definitely not us.
But we, all of us, are sinners without a hope in the world unless (unless!) we have something that can save us.
Something had to be done about Sin otherwise we would be doomed.
Something had to be done to get us from where we were to where we could be.
And that something is actually a someone – his name is Jesus.
In the Cross, justice is served. But it is also an injustice. It is an injustice because Jesus paid the price for the sins of the world.
All of our versions of justice in this life can certainly make things better and, at the very least, bring comfort to those wronged. But it will never be true justice because the specter of sin raises its ugly head over and over again.
But divine justice is altogether different.
We do not deserve God’s love, and yet God’s reigning attribute is love for us.
There is victory that begins on the cross (and comes to fruition in the empty tomb) in which the old word of Sin and Death is destroyed. That is our proclamation. It is, to put it simply, the Good News.
And yet, we sit in the shadow of the cross.
It’s why we put crosses in our sanctuaries and hang them up in our living rooms and even tattoo them on our skin – not just as a symbol of our faith, but a reminder about what we did and what has been done for us.
We lift high the cross because the Gospels remind us over and over again the bitterest of ironies – the only person who can touch us and heal and forgives and make us whole is dead. Forsaken and shut up in a tomb. Our only hope is that God won’t leave him there. Amen.
As for me, I said, “O Lord, be gracious to me; heal me, for I have sinned against you.” My enemies wonder in malice when I will die, and my name perish. And when they come to see me, they utter empty words, while their hearts gather mischief; when they go out, they tell it abroad. All who hate me whisper together about me; they imagine the worst for me. They think that a deadly thing has fastened on me, that I will not rise again from where I lie. Even my bosom friend in whom I trusted, who ate of my bread, has lifted the heel against me. But you, O Lord, be gracious to me, and raise me up, that I may repay them.
John 13.1, 12-20
Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord – and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to was one another’s feet. For I have set you an example that you also should so as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them. I am not speak of all of you; I know whom I have chosen. But it is to fulfill the scripture, ‘The one who ate my bread has lifted his heel against me.’ I tell you this now, before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe that I am he. Very truly, I tell you, whoever receives one whom I send receives me; and whoever receives me receives him who sent me.”
I have no idea how many people are joining us for worship tonight, or how many will watch or listen to this service later. Chances are, there aren’t that many.
And that’s fine. It’s fine because there weren’t a lot of people at the first Maundy Thursday service either.
So we can rest in that strange and good knowledge tonight because we are where we should be. We, like those first disciples, have been gathered by God to be here, to hear what God has to say, and to be forever changed.
We call this Maundy Thursday. And the name comes to us from our the Gospel according to John when Jesus last feasted with his disciples before the crucifixion: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you.”
In Latin, a new commandment is mandatum novum. “Maundy” is simply the Middle English version of the word mandatum.
We are therefore mandated to do what we are doing tonight.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t particularly like being mandated to do anything.
Christianity has long-suffered under the oppressive rule of expectations and assumptions, of “you must do this and you must do that.”
All of the “musts” don’t must up to a very lively faith.
When the exhortative mode of Christianity becomes the predominant way we understand our faith, then the Church merely joins the long list of other social endeavors seeking to make people better people – it tells us what we have to do, instead of proclaiming what Jesus already did, for us.
The synoptics (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) treat us to the scene of Jesus’ final evening with his friends as they sit around a table sharing bread and wine.
John, however, takes the scene a little bit further.
While eating at the table, Jesus gets up, takes off his outer rob, and ties a towel around himself. He begins washing all of the disciples’ feet and wipes them off with the towel around his waist.
Peter, of course, objects to the humble (read: humiliating) act of his Lord, but Jesus hits him hard with, “You do not know what I am doing, but later you will understand.”
Only after every disciples’ feet are washed does Jesus arise, and begins to teach:
“Listen, you call me Teacher and Lord which is good and fine because that is who I am. But check this out: If I, your Lord and Teacher, am willing to get down on the floor to wash your feet, you also out to wash one another’s feet. This is what the Kingdom of God is all about – the first being last and the last being first. Things are getting flipped upside down right here and right now. And I do and say all of this knowing that one of you will betray me, it is to fulfill the scripture, ‘The one who are my bread, has lifted his heel against me.’”
Shortly thereafter, Judas leaves and sets in motion the world turned upside down. In mere hours the guards will arrive in the garden, Jesus will be arrested, put on trial, sentenced, beaten, and left to die on the cross.
The foot washing has always been a little strange and a little weird to the people called church. For one, as mentioned, the other Gospels don’t include it, and for another, it reveals the heart of God in a way that feels uncomfortable.
Not only does Jesus, God in the flesh, get down on his knees to wash the dirty feet of the disciples, one of whom will shortly betray him, another will deny him, and the rest will leave him hanging to die on a cross, but then Jesus has the gall to command us to do the same for one another.
And yet, in a way, more than being told what we are supposed to do, the whole message of this final moment is, again, about what Jesus does for us.
We, however, can’t help ourselves from reasserting the narrative to make it about what we have to do but whatever we do in response is only possible because of what Jesus does first.
We always want to know what we have to do to get saved when, in fact, this story is a ringing reminder that the Gospel tell us how Jesus saves us.
Or, as Philip Cary puts it, “The gospel doesn’t tell us to believe, it gives us Christ to believe in.”
In the foot washing, Jesus repeats in himself the great lengths to which God was willing to go for a people undeserving – how far God was willing to go to wash us clean from our transgressions.
This moment, one that might make us cringe or, at the very least, furrow our brows, it reveals to the disciples and to us that the Lord, the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, is about to suffer and die just to rid us of the stench and dirt of sin and death that latches onto us.
Therefore, before we jump to any commandments, to any thoughts on what we must do, we do well to rest in the bewildering knowledge that the foot washing is a parable of God’s humiliation. Jesus lays down his garments just like he will lay down his life, Jesus offers grace to his betrayer just like he will extend forgiveness even from the cross.
And, notably, this is the final act of Jesus toward his disciples before Easter and, as John so wonderfully notes, Jesus loved his disciples to the end.
Do you see what this means? Even the worst stinker in the world, even the one who betrayed his Lord to death, is someone for whom Christ died.
While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.
Jesus, bewilderingly, loves us to the end, loves us so much that he was willing to take our sin upon himself, mount the hard wood of the cross, and leave them there forever.
But we can save the cross for tomorrow. For now, we are tasked with the challenge of coming to grips with the fact that none of us are any better or any worse than the disciples were on that first Maundy Thursday.
Which is just another way of saying: Each and every one of us in need of cleansing. And, thanks be to God, that’s exactly what Christ offers us, because he loves us to the end. Amen.
From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan, You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life? “For the Son of man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”
From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and the chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.
But Peter? Peter wasn’t having any of that.
“Um, Jesus, Lord, I don’t mean to interrupt but, are you out of your mind? If you’re the Messiah I’ve confessed you to be, then you know that you can’t die. That’s losing. And in the kingdom you promised us there’s supposed to be nothing but winning!”
“Pete” the Lord calmly intones, “Get out of my way! You’re stuck on earthly things, but the kingdom is bigger and better than your feeble little head can imagine.”
Then Jesus looks out at everyone else, “Hey, listen up. This is important. If you want to be part of this whole turning the world upside down endeavor, then your world’s need to get flipped right now. If you want to save your lives, go find some other teacher. But if you’re willing to accept that this life ain’t much to begin with, that’s what actually leads to salvation. Because, in the end, you can be the perfect version of yourself, but it won’t even come close to what I can do through you.”
We’ve struggled with Jesus’ mission of world turning since the very beginning. Peter was unable to imagine the strange new world inaugurated in God’s Son because he was so wedded to the way things were.
And we’re no different.
Think about parents compelling their kids to go to college even when they don’t want to go.
Or the rat race to earn more money to buy the bigger house and have the more expensive car.
Or the never ending quest in the realm of the church to produce perfect specimens of Christians who never make the wrong choices and always make the right ones.
All of that has little, if anything, to do with Jesus kingdom.
Notice: Jesus doesn’t command his followers to take up their crosses and then begin a five step program toward spiritual formation. He doesn’t require them to sit for hours on end studying the scriptures so that all of the secrets might be revealed. He doesn’t compel them to become the best versions of themselves by abstaining for everything wrong with the world.
Instead he says, “Follow me.”
Most preachers, myself included, preach a theology of Peter far more than a theology of Jesus. Which is just another way of saying, we preachers are also wedded to the ways of the world, to the ways we discern what is and isn’t successful, and we drop it on our dozing congregations. We tell people like all of you to shape up, start reading the Bible daily, fix your problems, pray with fervor, all that Jazz.
We preach a Gospel where we are saved by our efforts to live the good and righteous life.
But that’s not the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
The Gospel of Jesus Christ is the strange good news that we are saved in our deaths.
Karl Barth, the greatest theologian of the 20th century, spent some of his final years humbling preaching to prisoners in jail in Basel, Switzerland. A man whose tomes of theology line my shelves would stand to proclaim the Good News for a people who had been locked behind bars for making all the wrong choices.
In one such sermon, near the end of his life, Barth reflected on how all the crowning achievement’s of a person life will be nothing but a mole hill at the end. That, in time, all of the things we do in this life, whether great or small, will fade away and in our deaths none of it will do us any good.
At that moment, all of us will stand before the throne of the Lord and we will have nothing better to do than to hope for something none of us deserve.
Can you imagine? This incredible theologian and pastor proclaiming a Word of truth to a people undeserving, that is prisoners, and he counts himself among their ranks?
No matter how good we are or how bad we are, we all will stand before the throne and we will have nothing else to rely on, not our works and not our achievement, but only the mercy of God.
That’s why Jesus can look out at the crowds and tell them to lose their lives for the Good News because the only one who can redeem their lives is Jesus. No amount of good works could ever put us back in God’s good graces, it’s only the unknowable love of God in Christ Jesus that makes us holy and becomes the mercy seat by which our lives and deaths become transformed.
Martin Luther one wrote, “The law says, ‘do this’ and it is never done. Grace says, ‘believe in this,’ and everything is already done.”
The world is forever telling us to do more to be better to earn and produce and reform and things largely stay the same.
Jesus, on the other hand, is forever telling us that the most important thing has already been finished, the only thing we have to do is trust him.
Peter, like us, wants so desperately to be the master of his own fate, he wants to be in control of what happens and to whom. His imagination of the Kingdom of God is limited by his imagination of earthly kingdoms. But Jesus didn’t come to bring us more of the same.
He came to raise the dead.
And the dead can’t raise themselves.
In this moment, Peter is losing his religion. Religion, properly understood, is the stuff we are must do in order to get a higher power to do something for us. And Jesus takes all of Peter’s religion, is former understanding of the way things work, and he flushes them down the toilet.
In a sense Jesus says to Peter, “You don’t get it. You’re so obsessed with it making sense that you think you know what I have to do and what you have to do. But here’s the deal Pete – I’m going to do everything for you and for everyone else.”
The Good News of Jesus Christ is that God loves us whether we stop sinning or not, because our sins are no problem for the Lord who takes away the sins of the world and nails them to his cross.
The Good News of Jesus Christ is that all the earthly means and measures of success don’t mean beans in the Kingdom of God because the Lord has already gone and accepted every last one of us in his Son and loves us in spite of ourselves.
The Good News of Jesus Christ is that even our deaths can’t stop the Lord from getting what he wants because the Lord works in the business of raising the dead.
We can spend our whole lives in fear, like Peter, wondering if we’ll ever measure up to the expectations of the world. But Christ comes into the midst of our lives, offering a Word of transformation, “Follow me.”
Jesus didn’t come to improve the improvable, or reform the reformable, or teach the teachable. None of those things work.
He didn’t come to bring about a better version of whatever already existed but to transform the entire cosmos.
We can follow Jesus and we can lose our lives because Jesus came to raise the dead.
And that’s Good News. Amen.
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.
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.
Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and you neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”
When you look back on this day, when you think about what was done to you and for you in spite of you, I hope you know who to blame.
For, the obvious choice would be me. After all, I’m the one who baptized you into the death and life of Christ in the name of the Father, Son, and Spirit. I’m the one who got to wear the fancy pastoral garb and read from the Bible and preach a sermon. I held you in my arms knowing full and well what I was doing.
But don’t blame me for your new life.
You have to blame your parents for that one. They asked me to do this. They, whether they knew it or not, asked me to preside over this occasion and transformation in your life which will fundamentally set you on a course that is remarkably contrary to the rest of the world. They have invoked the power of the Spirit through their request in ways they can’t even imagine.
But the truth is, you can’t really blame your parents for all of this either.
If anyone is to blame, it’s Jesus.
However, I’m getting ahead of myself. On the occasion of your baptism I have written you this letter which I am offering as a sermon. I’m doing this because you won’t remember any of this. You won’t remember the room or the water or the people or even the preacher. You’re simply too young. Which makes baptism all the more strange – it is the most determinative thing that will happen to you, and it will happen largely in spite of you.
You don’t get a choice.
Hence the letter. My hope is that one day, years from now, when you start to piece together how much we messed up your life with this baptism, your parents can pull out this letter and give you an idea as to why we did this bewildering thing for, and to, you.
A few months ago, right around the time your parents and I started talking about all of this, I asked if they had a particular scripture passage that they wanted me to preach on for this holy moment.
Their answer was as follows: “We trust you – you pick something.”
Logan, I’m here to tell you that your parents, whom I love and adore, made a big mistake. By the time you read this you’ll probably know that your parents make lots of mistakes, but this one was a big one.
They could’ve picked any number of appropriate scriptures. We could’ve spent your baptismal service hearing about God’s love in Christ that cannot be separated from us no matter what. We could’ve read about Jesus’ own baptism by his cousin John in the Jordan river. We could’ve even used this time to listen to Jesus’ words about how he, as the Good Shepherd, will always go after the one lost sheep.
But instead, they trusted me.
So I picked what is both, perhaps, the most obvious and most misunderstood passage in the entirety of the Bible.
Jesus is in the middle of doing his Jesus thing. You know, healing the sick, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, telling stories about the kingdom of God, when all of the sudden a lawyer shows up.
One day, Logan, you’ll discover that whenever a lawyer shows up, whether its in scripture or in life, something bad is about to happen.
Anyway, this lawyer shows up and mic-drops the question to end all questions: “Hey Lord, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
In other words, “Forget all this preaching and story-telling you’ve been doing, I don’t need to see another miracle or eat another meal. All I want to know is what do I have to do to go to heaven?”
The lawyer’s question, Logan, is all of our questions. In a simple sentence the lawyer has laid out what we often lay awake at night thinking about. In the end, all of this Jesus stuff is nice and fine, but what we really want is to know the requirements – we want to know what will be on the final exam – what do we have to do.
Which means, for us, whatever Jesus says next should be of paramount importance. We can let other parts of the Bible even slip away so long as we hold on to whatever comes out of Jesus’ mouth.
And yet, Jesus, doesn’t answer the question. At least, not in the way that we would’ve hoped for. Instead, he answers the question with a question: “What is written in the law, what do you read there?”
The lawyer, being the good lawyer he is, knows the answer to the question, and so he replies perfectly: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your minds; and your neighbor as yourself.”
That’s it Logan, right there. The whole of the gospel, Jesus says in another place, hangs on these two commandments.
It follows therefore, that in your baptism, we, all of us who gathered to mark the occasion expect this kind of behavior out of you. That no matter what you grow up to be like, why kind of sports you enjoy (though if you like anyone other than NC State, Syracuse, or the Yankees your family might disown you), or what kind of career you pursue, none of it really matters so long as you love God and you love your neighbor.
This is the kind of life you are baptized into, a life of love for the One who created you, and for the ones among whom you were created.
What does this love look like? Some might say that to love God you need to go to church every Sunday, spend time everyday reading you Bible, give 10% of your income to the church. Other might say that to love your neighbor as yourself means to actually know who your neighbors are, regularly invite them over for meals, and never call the cops if they’re playing their music too loud late in the evening.
Whole books and careers have been made by trying to address what it means to love God and neighbor in such a way that it leads to eternal life.
But Logan, I am here to tell you something that few, if any, in the church would actually admit: you don’t have to do any of it.
At least, you don’t have to do any of it to inherit eternal life.
Notice: When the lawyer gives Jesus his answer about loving God and neighbor Jesus doesn’t not respond by saying: “Good job, do this and you will have eternal life.”
Instead, Jesus says, “Do this and you will live.”
You see Logan, one of the truths of the faith into which you are baptized is that our salvation isn’t up to us. Jesus has, prior to your baptism, already nailed all of your sins, past-present-future, to the cross. And there’s nothing you can do about it. There’s nothing you can do in this life, for good or ill, to make God love you any more or any less.
Eternal life is not contingent upon you or anyone else.
It’s up to Jesus.
Therefore to mark the occasion of your baptism by telling you to do this or to do that, to love this or love that, is to deny the hope of the gospel. Because our hope isn’t in us.
Now, Logan, to be clear, I don’t want you to read this letter as a teenager and believe that you get to do whatever the flip you want without repercussions, because that’s not the way the world works. In fact, I hope you do love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and that you do love your neighbor as yourself because it will lead to life. A full life at that.
Through that love you will come to experience the vast array of what this crazy world has to offer.
But at the same time, I don’t want you to think for one moment that your loving God and others is a requirement for eternal life, because if it was then none of us would make the cut. Not your parents or your grandparents, not your aunts, uncles, and cousins, not even me.
The proclamation we made and will continue to make in your baptism is that God did and does for us what we couldn’t and wouldn’t do for ourselves.
We baptize you into the death of Christ so that you can rise with Christ not because you deserve it, and not because you’ve earned it, but simply because Christ commands it. In your baptism, you have been freed from the expectations of the world to do this, that, and the other because Christ has already written the end of your story.
You will certainly live, and have life itself, through love.
But you will have eternal life through Christ’s love.
In the church we call this grace – a gift offered freely to us that can never be taken away. And it takes a lifetime to come to grips with it precisely because it is so counter to everything else we think we know and believe.
The world tells us to do all we can but the Gospel tells us we’ve already received what we need.
The world tells us that winners finish first, but the Gospel tells us that Jesus came for the last.
The world tells us that we have to live, but the Gospel tells us the only thing we have to do is die.
Contrary to what you will probably hear through the rest of your life, Jesus did come come to teach the teachable, reward the rewardable, or reform the reformable. Jesus came to raise the dead.
And your baptism, the waters blessed by the Spirit, is our way of dying you with Christ in order that you might live a resurrected life here and now.
Logan, what happens to you today will fundamentally reshape everything about your life. For, instead of being told to do more and more and more, God has spoken some of the most important words any of us can hear in your baptism: “You are enough.”
So welcome Logan, welcome to the complicated and confounding life now defined by your baptism in which in spite of your worst, and even best, intentions, God loves you and there’s nothing you can do about it. Amen.
Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to the span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the filed, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the filed, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you — you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?” Or “What will we drink?” Or “What will we wear?” For it is the Gentiles who strive for such things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.
No one knows what they are doing when they get married.
Everyone thinks they know what marriage will look like because they assume that everything is like how it is portrayed in the movies. Which, most of the time, never shows the marriage, but only everything leading up to it. We, then, bring to the altar all these preconceived notions about what our marriages will be when the truth is none of us know what we are doing.
Allow me to present a resounding example:
I asked Rosina a few months ago if she could remember what it was that drew her closer to Nathaniel all those years ago. She charmingly brought a finger to her chin and furrowed her brow only to declare that the thing that most attracted her to him was his hair.
His hair, huh?
Where is all of that hair now?!
We have no idea what we’re doing when we get married because we, as people, are forever changing. That’s why the act of Christian marriage is one of the more bizarre things any of us can do, because we know not what the future holds and yet we make a promise, a covenant, to face that future with another person.
Now, I want to be clear that most of you here know Nathaniel and Rosina better than I do simply because you’ve known them longer than I have. But I do know that all of us here can attest to the fact that your marriage is nothing short of a miracle.
It is a miracle not only because neither of you really knew what you were getting into but also because Rosina has had to put up with all your nonsense all of these years Nathaniel! She really is the pastor of your family because she knows what real forgiveness looks like.
I’m only kidding around.
It is a miracle because all marriages are miracles. God sees us, really sees us, with all of our idiosyncrasies, and all of our needs, and all of our faults, and all of our failures, and says, “Why not put these two together? They can probably figure it out.”
And figure it out you have.
But let’s get back to the beginning shall we? You two are here, after all, to renew your wedding vows and there’s no better way to do that than by remembering how you got here.
The story goes that one of Nathaniel’s cousins had a salon and one day Rosina walked in to get her hair done. Now, Nathaniel had seen her around town before this momentous meeting took place, he told me that he still loves the way you walk (!), but when he saw her in the salon he knew he had to do something.
To be clear, most enterprising young men would think of a witty remark to offer, or would simply ask if the young woman would like to go out sometime. But no, not Nathaniel. Instead he had it worked up in his mind to make a grand gesture. So what did her do? He paid for her hair.
For a complete stranger!
But he knew it would take some time for it to all wrap up so he decided that he could come back later to reveal his plan and see if his kindness could land him a date.
I can only imagine how puffed up your chest must have been that afternoon as you walked around town. You must’ve thought you were the smartest man alive.
And yet, when Nathaniel returned to the salon, Rosina was long gone!
Rosina left with a free hairdo and Nathaniel was left with the bill!
Eventually they did meet up with each other, they decided to go out together one night, and the spent the entire time talking to each other.
And now here you two are all these years later.
I know, for a fact, that neither of you could’ve have predicted where your relationship would take you.
For instance, Nathaniel, there’s no way you could’ve known that after applying to the immigration lottery for years and years that Rosina would win on her first try.
There’s no way either of you could’ve anticipated leaving most of your lives behind in Ghana to try out a new life here in the United States.
There’s no way you could imagined having the incredible children that you have.
There’s no way you could’ve known that one day you’d be standing in front of a pastor as old as you two have been together renewing your marriage vows!
Your entire relationship has been one with mountaintops and valleys. You both can look back over the years and remember both the laughter and the disappointment. That’s what makes marriage work. You know that you don’t know anything. But you cling to one another in the midst of the mystery.
And here’s what you have to show for it. Turn around please, and take in this view. It doesn’t get a whole lot better than this. For here, in this space, you are forced to confront the strange truth that your marriage was never really up to you in the first place. Everyone in this room has played a part to bring you back to the covenant you made so long ago.
Sure, we could chalk it up to your great sense of style Nathaniel, or we could attribute it to your marvelous hair Rosina. Or still yet we could give credit to Nathaniel’s loyalty and honesty, or even Rosina’s passion and faith.
But the truth of the matter is that these people, and the Lord Almighty, have done more for your marriage than you could possibly imagine.
Now back to me.
When we were meeting to plan out this whole covenant renewal I asked both of you to consider an interesting question. Most of the time when I’m marrying a couple I ask them to imagine what marriage is, or what their marriage will look like.
But the two of you have been married for awhile now which meant I got to turn the question around. So instead of asking you to imagine marriage I asked you to consider what advice you would give to other people getting married.
Who could be better at offering advice than those who have already journeyed through the crucible of marriage?
And I loved your answer: “You need to have patience! It’s the most important thing in the world because patience can fix anything. And you have to pray. Marriage is hard, and you can’t do it on your own, you need God with you.”
So what do all marriages need? Patience and prayers.
It would seem to me, therefore, that we haven’t changed much since the time of Jesus. The disciples were a bunch of worriers. They worried about everything. And do you know what the only good that can come from worrying is? More worrying.
And Jesus decides to speak directly into their anxieties and their fears with words that have resounded throughout the centuries: Don’t worry about your life! Think about the birds of the air… do you think they spend all their time flying so high filled with worry? No. They are fed and that is enough. When will you ever learn that you have enough?!
Do you think that by worrying you can add one minute to your lives? Of course not, worrying takes away life.
Think instead upon the grace of the Lord, who cares not about your faults and failures, who worries not about your faithfulness or grace, but who satisfied to shower life and life abundant down upon you for no good reason at all.
Stop worrying about tomorrow! God is in control. God knows what you need. And God provides.
This was the first passage that came to mind when I began considering your covenant renewal. Because you two are the type of people who know, more often than not, that all of the good in your life, your friends, your family, your faith, never came from you in the first place. Sure, you two look good, you are clothed better than Solomon in all of his glory, and yet you hold a humility that Solomon never knew.
You two see, better than most, how truly blessed you really are. And, more importantly, you know that you can’t take it for granted.
In my life I have rarely encountered two people for whom their joy is as infectious as yours.
It doesn’t matter if I’ve preached the worst sermon of my life, Nathaniel, you are always waiting in the narthex to cheer me up.
It doesn’t matter if I’m going through all kinds of stuff in my life, Rosina, because you always great me with a tremendous smile and encourage me to be grateful.
It’s one thing to talk about how all these people have played a role in your lives, and in your relationship, and in your marriage, but its another thing entirely for all of us to praise God for putting you two in our lives. Your commitment to one another has given us a glimpse of God’s commitment to us – an unwavering, joyful, and even at times ridiculous connection that will go on forever.
However, lest we give you two too much credit, all of the good that has come from your marriage came first from God. God gives more than we deserve. God loves us even when we do not love him back. God has turned the world upside down for us in the person of his Son so that we might always walk in the glory of the resurrection.
I see and I feel and I know resurrection in this life because I know both of you. I can believe in impossible things because you two shine the light of Christ through your lives each and every day.
So, Rosina and Nathaniel, thank you for blessing us. And may the Lord continue to bless you in your marriage such that you are filled with a prayerful patience that can lead you through even more surprises. Amen.
1 Corinthians 11.23-26
For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
This is a good amount of people for Maundy Thursday. It is a weeknight after all. But it isn’t as many people as we had for Palm Sunday and, Lord willing, it is smaller than the number of people we will have for Easter.
That’s okay. There wasn’t a big crowd at the first Maundy Thursday either.
And yet you are here.
Why are you here?
We are a people forever stuck in the past.
And we can hardly be blamed.
We only know what we know. And we can’t know what we don’t know.
So our minds, whether we like it or not, are often rooted in days long gone.
Take tonight for instance, some of you can and probably do remember former Maundy Thursdays. And even if you haven’t been to a service like this before, you can know doubt think of a time you’ve received communion. And if you’ve never had communion before, you can certainly think of a time that you’ve shared a meal with someone else.
And because we tend to spend as much time in our minds as we do, we read what is happening in our present through the lens of the past.
It happens in the political realm, and the familial realm, and the theological realm.
When I was a kid my home church had lots of volunteer opportunities.
There were the big ones, you could sign up to read scripture from the lectern during a service, or you could carry in the flame as an acolyte, and every summer you could travel near and far for mission trips.
And there were, of course, the little ones as well. Your family could sign up to be greeters for a particular Sunday, shaking hands with everyone on their way in, or you could join together with some of the older members and fold bulletins every Friday morning, and every Wednesday night you could help serve food for the weekly community dinner.
In my young life, I did all of those things at one point or another, but there was one particular volunteer opportunity that my whole family took care of for a long time: we prepared the communion elements.
This meant that every first Saturday of the month we would drive over to the church and retreat to the sacristy behind the altar. There we would pre-poke the bead with this medieval-like dagger to make it easier for the pastors to tear it apart on Sunday morning, and then we would set out hundreds of tiny little plastic shot glasses within the altar rail using a little squirt bottle to fill every single one.
It would take forever.
And forever really felt like forever when I was ten years old.
On Sunday mornings, every one would arrive at the church none-the-wiser about the work we had put in to prepare everything. Even my family, knowing how long the grape juice had been sitting out in that old sanctuary, we would line up like everyone else and we would patiently kneel at the altar until a piece of bread was placed in our hands, and then we were instructed to drink from one of the little cups, and then we would go back to our pew so the next group could go.
And if preparing communion felt like forever, doing communion was even worse. It was assumed that the sermons on the first Sunday of the month would be half as long so that the congregation would have the time to all come to the altar to receive our stale bread and tepid grape juice.
And this went on for years.
Until one day after worship, I mustered up the courage to approach our aging senior pastor and confront him about our way of the Lord’s Supper. I had been to other churches and seen other variations on how to consume communion. The Catholics would all drink from one cup, and the Presbyterians would pass around these giants trays of circular discs and tiny cups. I’m not sure what propelled me forward that day – perhaps the bread had been extra hard, or my sisters and I had consumed a few too many of the little grape juice shots after worship, but I walked up to the pastor and said, “Why do we do communion this way?”
His response: “Because that’s the way we’ve always done it.”
We call today Maundy Thursday. This quaint names come from Jesus’ words at his last supper in John’s gospel: A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you. In Latin, new commandment is mandatum novum. Maundy is simply the Middle English version of the word mandatum.
So, we are mandated by God to do what we are doing.
Now, I don’t know about you, but I don’t particularly like being mandated to do anything. Christianity has long-suffered under the oppressive rule of expectations and assumptions. You must do this, you must do that.
All of the musts don’t muster up to a very lively faith.
Instead we trudge into the sanctuary to sing the hymns and offer the prayers because we think we must do it.
We stand and proclaim with bored affectations the words of the Apostles’ Creed because we think we must do it.
We drag ourselves up to the altar to receive the body and the blood because we’ve made it out into our minds that we are mandated to do so.
What are we hungry for?
Are we even hungry at all?
There is always a lot that happens in the eucharist, a lot happens here tonight. In John’s Gospel Jesus spends his final evening breaking bread and drinking wine with his friends, but he ends with getting on the floor and washing all of their feet.
There have been countless traditions throughout the history of the church that are all tied up with what we are doing right now. By the time Paul writes to the church in Corinth he conveys it as “For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”
And so we remember. We remember how Jesus’ self-giving life included feeding the poor as well as dining with the rich. We remember that Jesus broke bread with the religious elite and the social outcasts. We remember that most of Jesus’ ministry took place around tables with those who both loved him and were confused by him.
And because we spend so much time remembering, we often look at this thing of communion backwards. We focus all of our attention on Jesus’ final night and we get caught up in the “we’ve always done it this way.”
Do you know what it says on our altar? I have it covered so you can’t just take a peek. Any guesses?
“This Do In Remembrance Of Me.”
It fits doesn’t it? We place the bread and the cup on the table, we read the words that Jesus shared with his disciples that final evening, and we do what we are doing in remembrance of all that Christ did.
But somewhere along the way we got our tenses confused.
Communion is not a backwards looking proposition. Yes, it is good and right for us to imagine ourselves in that space with those people on the night in which he gave himself up for us. But to do so as fully and totally as we do denies the fundamental truth that Jesus is here with us tonight in this space and with these people!
Of course communion is about remembrance, but it is equally, if not more, about anticipation. For as often as we eat this bread and drink this cup we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
There was a woman who used to sneak into the church during the first hymn and would often retreat before the final hymn concluded. I would see her from my preaching vantage point but it was as if she planned everything so as to not have to interact with too many people when she came. After a while I noticed that she would only come to church on the first Sunday of the month and when we held our Maundy Thursday service.
Luck had it one day that I was able to catch up with her outside the main doors when she was briskly walking to her car and I asked if everything was okay.
She told me that she was Baptist and that her church almost never celebrated communion. But she knew she needed strength for the journey, so she came every month to commune with us.
I expressed my admiration of her faithfulness and she said that a pastor once told her that communion is where the past, present, and the future get all confused with each other. The pastor apparently meant it as a bad thing, but she fell in love with the idea.
She told me that she loved her church and would never leave it, but that she always needed to feel the confusion of time with us.
Maundy Thursday services often end in a confusing way. Tonight, as we conclude, we will join with Christians across the globe in the striking of our altar. We will remove elements of color and vitality making the turn toward the cross.
We will do so because our sense of time is purposely confused. Jesus has already shared the meal with the friends. Jesus has already mounted the hard wood of the cross. Jesus has already broken free from the tomb.
But tonight we both place ourselves in the time of Jesus and we witness to the fact that Jesus is still with us. We will gather at the table not just because that’s what Jesus did, but because it is what Jesus is still doing. And, we will engage in all of this in anticipation of when we will gather at Christ’s heavenly banquet with all who have come before, and all who will arrive long after we’re gone.
This is the place where time gets confused.
And that’s a good thing. Amen.
Psalm 118.1-2, 19-24
O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever! Let Israel say, “His steadfast love endures forever.” Open to me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter through them and give thanks to the Lord. This is the gate of the Lord; the righteous shall enter through it. I thank you that you have answered me and become my salvation. The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes. This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.
For some strange reason we treat the Bible like a textbook – as something to be mastered. It’s why people are forever starting these foolish campaigns to “Read the whole Bible in a year.” I mean, good for you if you want to try it, but reading through the Bible in the year mostly guarantees that we will either resent it in the end, or we will have forgotten most of what we discovered.
Instead, the Bible begs to be considered, slowly, delicately, and above all, faithfully.
When we encounter scripture this way, as servants of the Word rather than masters of the text, we begin to see things we never saw before.
It’s like the way you two can look at a building and see things that most of us miss. You have taken the time, slowly, delicately, and faithfully to appreciate what might appear insignificant to the rest of us. And yet you know, without very particularly important elements, this room would not exist, nor would it have stood the test of time as it has.
But I’ll get back to this room a little later.
For now, I want to keep our minds firmly planted in the strange new world of the Bible. For it is a strange new world, one that opens up to us something new whenever we enter it. Whether we’re standing on the banks of the Red Sea with Moses or we’re walking around Jerusalem marveling at the buildings and stones with Jesus, we find ourselves in this book and sometimes we’re not sure if we like what we see.
Of course, there are those good and holy moments of profound beauty and clarity, but the strange new world of the Bible is equally coarse, and broken, and flawed.
It is all of those things precisely because we are in it.
The writer of Psalm 118 has been steeped in the strange new world. The writer knows that God’s steadfast love endures forever even say, in the midst of exile, or persecution, or marginalization.
It requires a willingness to believe in, or hope for, things not yet seen to keep a faith like that.
Which makes things all the more complicated when the Psalmist, inexplicably, declares the stone rejected by the builders has become the chief cornerstone.
It’s probably better to let the two of you speak of such architectural language, but for the sake of your wedding I will just make the point that there is good reason to reject certain stones. The cornerstone, after all, is the one upon which the entire building will stand. Any imperfection or crack warrants a plain dismissal because it is simply not up to snuff.
And yet, we learn that the stone rejected for its brokenness is precisely the chosen cornerstone!
Or, to put it in frighteningly applicable words, your marriage has a bad foundation.
I, of course, do not mean to imply that there is something wrong with either of you. You’re just plain old sinners like the rest of us. However, you have come to this place, with these people, to stake your claim on a marriage upon which Christ is the broken foundation.
Marriage is strange; two people willing to make a covenant into something they cannot possibly comprehend.
I like to put it this way: we always marry the wrong person.
Not because you two aren’t right for each other, but more so that we never really know who we’re marrying; we just think we do. Or even if we marry the right person, whatever that means, part of what makes us who we are is that we change.
Brent, turn to your beloved bride and take in her beautiful glow. Jane is better than you deserve – she calms all anxieties, and keeps your life together, which we all know is a herculean task. Moreover, Jane adores your incredible family, and I promise she will be the most fiercely kind person you will ever meet.
But she will change. And yet, Brent, you are making a covenant to be for her knowing full and well that she can and will change.
Your turn Jane – take a good look at your handsome soon-to-be husband. Brent is better than you deserve – he regularly puts your needs before his own. He is filled with what appears to be a never ending amount of love to give. Moreover, he goes out of his way, particularly with his crazy travel habits, to make sure that you two always have time to be together.
But he will change. And yet, Jane, you are making a covenant to be for him knowing full and well that he can and will change.
Marriage, being the remarkable and confusing thing that it is, means we are not the same person after we enter it. The primary challenge of marriage is learning how to love and care for the stranger to whom you find yourself married.
That is why, at the heart of what we are doing here, is the formation of a holy covenant binding you two, and all of us with you, together.
So take a moment now, and turn to take in this room. One of the reasons churches and chapels used to be designed this way is that the room is cruciform, it takes the shape of the cross. And to have everyone facing each other is a theological witness that we are to look upon one another through the cross.
Sadly, this type of worship structure is all but gone. We’ve decided that its better to all stare at someone like me instead of looking through the cross at one another.
And so now I ask you two to look out on all who are here. Look at them through the broken cornerstone that is the cross. Your marriage is about more than just the two of you. Everyone here has already promised, they have covenanted, to hold you to your covenant. Their presence and promise is a testament to what they see, know, and believe about the two of you, and it is not something you can take for granted.
But now eyes and ears back on me.
When the three of us talked about today I asked you to consider what you thought you were getting into. And you said that marriage is a sacred thing to share in which we become totally bound to and with one another. Moreover you described it as a complete promise and connection to the person with whom you are now standing. And finally, you described marriage like a history: it holds and ties everything together.
Theologically speaking, those were pretty good answers. In fact, they might be the best. In the church we call it something like the diachronic witness – it is a declaration that moves through time in such a way that we are connected to the past, present, and future all at the same time.
I’ve done a lot of weddings, and for the longest time I believed that where people got married didn’t matter. In a church? That’s fine. Out in a vineyard? Sure. But then you two invited all of us here.
Not only does it has this theologically intriguing style, it is also within the oldest college building still standing in the U.S.
And, I should knock on wood, it has caught fire three separate times in its long history, and yet the exterior walls remained after each fire such that they were able to build again.
Thats a pretty good metaphor for a marriage!
What I mean to say is that at the cornerstone of your marriage, is the person of Jesus Christ was was rejected by those with whom he encountered for a great number of reasons. And yet it is precisely because of his brokenness, his humanity amidst his divinity, that he rests at the foundation of all of our lives and your marriage.
This bad foundation is thus what can and will sustain you through the journey of discovering the stranger to whom you find yourself married, because there is no such thing as a perfect marriage. Just as there is no perfect building.
The broken foundation of the one who mounted the hard wood of the cross frees you from the marital expectations of the world and instead invites you into the mysterious covenant you are about to make.
Marriage is strange but it is at the same time wondrous. It is wondrous because it is less about us and more about what God does in and through us. Which is why the psalmist has the confidence to declare that this is the Lord’s doing and it is marvelous in our eyes.
Only a God of impossible possibility could have stitched your stories together into one.
Only a God of reckless grace could look upon your flaws and all of ours and still say we are enough.
Only a God who sees perfection in imperfection would lay Jesus as the cornerstone of your marriage.
This truly is the day that the Lord has made, which is why we can rejoice and be glad in it, with you.
And so, may the God of grace and glory, God of the beginning and the end, God of life, death, and resurrection sustain you in your marriage, knowing full and well that the foundation is bad, but that’s what makes it good. Amen.
Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
I hope someone takes a few pictures today, because you’re definitely not going to remember any of this. And even if if there are no pictures to mark the occasion of your baptism, I hope some that are present will tell you the story. And even if none of those people remember anything about today, I’m writing you this letter so that one day, you might be able to look back at this decision that was made for you, and you can begin to appreciate how strange it all was.
When I stood before your parents and brought them into their wedded bliss, of which you are a result (you’re welcome by the way), I told them that marriage is a mystery.
And I meant it.
Couples, even those as in love as your parents, have no idea what they’re doing when they get married. They think they know what marriage is supposed to look like or even feel like, but it will always be one of the most profound mysteries we will ever encounter in the world.
And Carson, make no mistake about it, what we will do to you and for you today has been to willfully place you in the path of another mystery – one even greater than the strangeness that is marriage.
Your family and friends have gathered together in one place to see you cutely baptized in the water as countless others have been before you but, to be honest, there’s nothing very cute about what is going to happen.
Baptism is nothing short of baptizing you into the life of Jesus of course, but also into his death.
In time you will come to find that to be Christian, is to be weird.
Sometimes the strangeness is so pronounced that I find myself bewildered that people even want to become Christians. What I mean to say is: Who wants to willingly give away part of their gifts just to bless other people? Who wants to turn the other cheek when someone strikes them? Who wants to worship a crucified God?
Apparently we do.
The fact that your parents have asked me to baptize you is both a testament to their faith, and their foolishness (at least according to the world). To get all of these people together, friends and family, and make them sit and listen to someone like me wax lyrical about the virtues of death and resurrection, to commit your life to something you will faintly understand, is to participate in perhaps the most counter-cultural thing any of us can ever do.
While the world tells us to do all we can and earn all we can and change all we can, baptism tells us otherwise.
Instead, today marks the beginning of your bewildering journey into the discomfort of learning that your life no longer belongs to you, neither does it belong to your parents, nor to the rest of us.
You’ve already done, earned, and changed all you can because you belong to God.
Now, Carson, there are some who would prefer that I not speak about death at the moment of your baptism, and I don’t blame them. You will come of age in a world just like the rest of us in which we are constantly denying the one truth – none of us make it out of this life alive. So, some of us will mark your baptism as a rite of passage, something to measure the time of your infancy.
But your baptism, and all baptisms, are actually quite dangerous.
Baptisms are dangerous not because of the water involved, but because in so doing we are setting you against the powers and principalities of the world, and incorporating you into something that will come to drive you crazy.
Carson, I asked you parents to choose the scripture for the occasion of your baptism, just as I asked them to pick the passage for their wedding, and they didn’t disappoint. These words from St. Paul have been used for centuries to encourage those newly in their faith about what their faith is all about.
“Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”
So, Carson, I am here to tell you to do all of that stuff. Imitate God, live in love, whatever that might mean. In other places Paul lengthens this list to include putting away falsehoods, living by humility and gentleness, and learning to speak the truth in love.
And all of that is good stuff, but more important than hearing a list like that is for you to hear this: don’t you ever think for one second that it will earn you anything.
In fact, by doing those things it will probably make your life harder.
Let me explain – If you want to live in love like Christ did then you will have to do all sorts of nice things, but you’ll also be expected to do some terrible things. The love that Jesus held for others certainly led to him feeding the hungry, and clothing the naked, and befriending the lonely, but it also led to him turning the tables over in the temple, and praying for his enemies, and eventually it led him to the cross.
My point, Carson, if there is one at all, is that you can try and try and try and no matter what you accomplish, whether for good or ill, it will never ever negate or change what is done for you and to you today, in Christ.
Paul tells us, again and again, that Christ has already given himself up for us.
That “us” is always bigger than we imagine because it includes all of us.
The person of Christ was a fragrant offering to God such that all of us would be forgiven.
Or, to put it another way, you don’t have to live like Christ because you won’t be able to – none of us are.
We do not deserve what has been done for us.
This hits home today because Paul is affirming that you are forgiven in your baptism for all of the sins you’ve already committed. Which, to be clear, are few and far between at this point. Save for that one night that a bunch of people were over at the apartment and you had multiple blowouts in your diaper.
But this baptism of yours forgives you of all your sins. Not just those that came before, but an entire lifetime of sins yet to come.
In the strange waters of baptism all of us confront the confounding truth that we are all forgiven before, during, and after our sins.
And we are forgiven for one reason, and one reason only: Jesus gave himself up for us.
In time you will come to discover that this claim is paradoxical in the eyes of the world. You will be bombarded throughout your life with the fallacy that there is always more you can do to earn the approval or the love or the acceptance of others. But you are already precious in the eyes of God and there is nothing, quite literally nothing, you can do to earn, or accept, or even fathom the forgiveness made possible to you.
We, your family and friends, are here with you to simply and fully declare that you already have it. Period. Full stop.
However, lest you discover this letter as a middle school and think you’ve been baptized into zero responsibilities – it’s not that living in love doesn’t matter. I hope you do live by love. But my greater hope is that you don’t fall prey to the foolish believe that whatever you do in that love isn’t enough.
You are enough.
And, I’ve been doing this long enough to know that no matter when you read this letter, you will fail to understand what was done to you today. None of us really knows what we are doing when we are baptized into the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Just like none of us know what we’re doing when we get married.
It’s only something we can figure out while we’re figuring it out.
Carson, on some level I’m actually grateful you won’t remember any of this. You might wake up and realize one day that being a Christian isn’t all that its cracked up to be and you might even blame me, your beloved pastor uncle for ushering you into it. But, like most of the things that determine our lives, we don’t really have control over our baptisms.
I’m also particularly grateful that you won’t remember the first time we met. In time you will learn that I’ve known your mother longer than just about anyone on this earth and when she introduced me to your father, I knew she had finally found someone willing to put up with all of her craziness. Though, by now, I know that it goes both ways.
Anyway, when I found out that your parents were bringing you into this world, I began counting down the days until I could hold you in my arms. And, I know this will sound selfish, there’s just something indescribable about being invited into the covenant of marriage between two people, particularly when you love them as much as I love your parents, and then knowing that their covenant has resulted in new life so much so that I feel bound to you in ways both tangible and intangible.
So when the day finally arrived that I got to see you in the flesh, I patiently waited as you were passed around the room and waited until you became fussy with all of the forced baby talk and pinched cheeks from the adults, and I swept across the room, took you out of one of your grandmother’s arms and declared that I would take you into the other room to calm you down and rock you to sleep.
But I was honestly just being selfish.
I wanted to hold you close and whisper the promise of faith into your tiny little ears.
But I never got the chance. Because as soon as I was out of earshot on the other side of the house, and I looked down into your eyes, you looked right at me and I started crying. I cried and cried all over you, to the point that I was worried I would have to wipe you down before handing you back to the family.
Carson, I was overcome by the emotions of the moment because I was filled with a sense of profound gratitude. You are, in lots of ways, a miracle. And not for the simple miracle of child birth and such, but you and your life is a testament to the miraculous ways in which God has stitched this world together. You are the result of a love not only between your parents, but also an entire community of individuals who helped to bring them together, and a God of such immense love and mercy that we have been blessed by your existence.
You, to use Paul’s language, are a beloved child of God.
Carson, in my family, which is beautifully bound to your family, we have a habit of calling one another precious lambs of Jesus. It’s cutesy, and religious, and even a bit weird, but it also points toward the truth of this moment. You are baptized into something you cannot possibly comprehend, you are led into it like a sheep guided by the divine shepherd. In the water offered to you God will bring you into a life defined not by lists and expectations, but by grace and mercy.
It is my hope and prayer, precious lamb, that you come to discover that God neither exists next to us, nor merely above us, but rather with us, by us, and most important of all, for us.
So welcome Carson, welcome to the complicated and confounding life now defined by your baptism in which in spite of your worst, and even best, intentions, God loves you, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Amen.