The Wrong Scripture – A Baptism Homily

Romans 12.9-13

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. 

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Dear Jacoby,

You’re not going to remember today. 

If he had it his way, and by he I mean your uncle, and by uncle I mean someone who wishes he was your uncle, and by all of that I mean Jason… If he had it his way, I wouldn’t baptize you.

It’s not because you don’t deserve it, or that you’re not the paragon of cherubic cuteness.

It’s because he believes baptizing babies is an inherently problematic theological adventure.

And, though it deeply pains me to admit it, he’s got a point.

Jacoby, in time you will come to know the stories of Jesus – in fact your parents have already started telling you about the man to whom they committed their lives. And as you come to know Jesus more and more you will discover that baptism in the bible, whatever it may be, never happens to children. 

It’s reserved for adults.

The theological rationale is that only adults have the wherewithal, the ability, to comprehend the immensity of what is about to be done to and for you. Only adults have the maturity and the agency to commit their lives to the death made manifest in the water, and the new life that comes from emerging out of it.

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And that’s our problem little Jacoby you’re too young and you’re not going to remember any of this – which is why I’m writing you this letter. The hope is that when you look back at this decision that was made for you, you can at least to some degree appreciate how strange it all was, that your parents and the rest of your family agreed to make a covenant that you cannot.

I mean, we’re pretty good people – you’ve got an aunt who can dance like there’s no tomorrow while also writing in iambic pentameter. You have an uncle who can literally fix anything, literally. You have another aunt who can listen to 5 podcasts in a row while throwing on the wheel without missing a beat. You’ve got an uncle with such good taste in music that other people are often green with envy. You have an aunt who is so dedicated to the needs of others than she often forgets to think of herself (she’s also gorgeous). You have an aunt and uncle who have more scholarly education than most of the rest of the world. And you have an uncle who can marry, bury, and baptize anyone. 

But the really funny thing about putting all of the responsibility on the adults in the room is that we have no greater role in any of this than you do. Whether we have the proper frame of mind or not, your baptism is not about us. 

And that’s why it doesn’t matter what Jason thinks – baptism isn’t really about adults or babies. Not even you Jacoby.

It’s about God.

Jacoby, one day, if we actually live up to the covenant we are about to make, you will see the similarities between baptism and marriage. In both, individuals make promises they cannot possibly understand in the hopes that God will make something of their nothing. And in both circumstances, I often encourage those involved with the service to choose the scripture passage that, to them, best suits the moment.

When I married your aunt and uncle they, strangely, thought it best to proclaim the story of David’s anointing when being joined together. I have to admit that I scratched my head in the days leading up to their backyard wedding as I struggled to make some theological sense out of kingship in the midst of marriage.

The stories we gravitate to in scripture tend to define us. I could make the case that your uncle David wanted to hear about the story of the biblical David because he likes to think of himself as a king, or at least a king when it comes to chess.

But, of course, there’s also more to it than that. Like the biblical king with whom he shares a name, your uncle has lived a life whereby looking at the content of one’s heart, rather than their outward appearance, has defined much of his personality in all of the best ways possible.

Similarly, your parents chose the passage about the threefold cord not being easily broken as their wedding passage. And, to be honest Jacoby, that was so them.

They humbly know and recognize that their marriage will require more than just themselves, and they pray regularly for God to be the third part of their cord that binds them together through better and worse. Moreover, as you grow older and older you will come to find that your parents love to make friends of strangers, particularly when it comes to inviting others to the tables. And thus the threefold cord grows and grows.

Which makes what I’m about to say all the stranger: your parents picked the wrong passage for your baptism. 

And, to be clear, this is even more bizarre when you consider the fact that your parents are much better Christians than I am, and I am paid to be a professional one. 

The passage is okay, in the church we call Paul’s list in Romans 12 the marks of being a true Christian. But here’s the strange, dark, and even terrifying truth of reading this passage, a scripture all about being the best you, is that you will never do it.

You might try. Hell, I hope you do. And maybe you’ll even be good at some of it for awhile, but ultimately laying out a list like this one, on the day we kill you and resurrect you to new life here and now, is like telling you to climb a mountain that has no peak.

Let your love be genuine, hate what is evil, hold fast to the good. 

Jacoby, your grandmothers are salt of the earth Christians. They earnestly pray for others, they show up when few others do, and they understand the virtues of active listening. But even they fall short of the expectations of Paul’s list. But Jacoby, for as faithful and flawed as your grandmothers are, they know that reading this list immediately before your baptism, like they are commandments from the Lord, is to confuse what we in the church call the law and the gospel. 

Or, to put it another way, reading this list implies, to some degree, that you are only worthy of the water to which I will pour on you if, IF, you do these things.

But the truth I hope you come to discover in your parents, your family, and your church, is that there is no such thing as “if” in the kingdom of God.

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In no way shape or form is the love of God almighty continent on our willingness, or our ability, to actively live a life according Paul’s list. So, Jacoby, you can hang these words above your door frame, you can write them on your heart, but don’t you ever believe that God’s love for you is dependent on your love for God.

Jacoby, your name is a cooler version of one of the most important people in all of scripture: Jacob, son of Isaac, son of Abraham. Jacob, the heel-grabber who swindled the birthright away from his older brother Esau. Jacob, who dreamed of a ladder that stretched into the heavens. Jacob, who married the wrong sister. 

But Jacob’s name eventually changed. He wrestled with the Lord on the banks of the Jabbok river and when they came to a stalemate, Jacob was renamed Israel. 

Israel means, “You have striven against God and humans and prevailed.”

You, Jacoby, share a name with a man whose life was turned upside by God and a man who walked with a limp for the rest of his life after his name was changed.

It is my sincere hope and prayer that you would be so blessed as the one from whom you received your name.

Because Jacob, the biblical Jacob, stands as a shining example of what it means to be baptized by the Lord – whatever your life was, whatever it could have been, will be destroyed forever; in the water you will find the same Lord that changed Jacob into Israel, the same Lord that will grab hold of you throughout your life, the same Lord who will refuse to let go whether you do or not.

What we do in your baptism has almost nothing to do with any of us – but it has everything to do with the God who chose to come as close to us as a baby boy, a baby named Jesus, the one in whom we live and move and have our being.

Which brings me back to the list from Romans. I would love to spend even more time lambasting your parents for picking the wrong passage, there is some wisdom in choosing it for today. 

But the wisdom comes in the recognition that the list, though meant for us, is actually about Jesus.

Jesus’ love was genuine as he marched to the margins of life bringing hope to the hopeless, joy to the joyless, and voice to the voiceless.

Jesus hated all things evil particularly when it came to the powers and principalities that preyed on the weak.

Jesus held fast to the good in the moments of fear and frustration, like kneeling in the garden, and mounting the hard wood of the cross.

Jesus’ loved those around him with mutual affection, particularly when he removed his outer robe and used it to wash the feet of his disciples.

Jesus outdid everyone in his life by showing honor, though he did so in recognition that the least of these are the ones who will be first in the kingdom.

Jesus did not lag in zeal, and was remarkably ardent in spirit, as he served the Lord every day of his earthly life.

Jesus rejoiced in hope, hope for a day when weeping, and crying, and death would be no more. 

Jesus was patient in his suffering, even in the midst of death.

Jesus persevered in prayer, regularly retreating from the crowds to places of solitude to commune with the Lord.

Jesus contributed to the needs of the saints, fed the hungry, clothed the naked, befriended the lonely.

Jesus extended hospitality to strangers, particularly those forced to the edges of society and those who were far too often forgotten.

Jacoby, this list was meant for us, but it’s ultimately about Jesus. Which actually makes it the perfect passage for the day of your baptism, because you have done nothing to deserve it – and you never will.

That’s why we call it grace.

Though, lest you read this as a middle schooler and think you’ve been baptized into zero responsibilities – it’s not that doing the things on Paul’s list don’t matter. Instead, it’s that even if you lived according to it and were considered a saint by all your friends, your life would still pale in comparison to the work of God made manifest in Jesus Christ made available to you by water and the Word.

We will make a covenant to love you, and pray for you, and raise you in the faith that was first handed down to us. But following Jesus is not simply about people like me telling someone like you that God calls you to do nice things and live a life with genuine love.

The world is a mixed up, topsy turvy, broken place filled with messed up, upside-down, sinners like you and me.

And, you will absolutely fail to follow the commands of Romans 12.

You only need to think about the story of the biblical Jacob, the one whose life reads like a roller coaster, to know that in our heart of hearts we often make the wrong choice, we hurt the people we love, and we think we deserve more than we receive.

But your baptism, Jacoby, is something you do not deserve. You have not, and you cannot, earn it.

It is offered to you in spite of you.

It’s grace.

My beloved nephew, you are about to be baptized into something you cannot possibly comprehend, nor will you ever be able to. In the water offered to you God will incorporate you in to a life defined not by lists and expectations, but by grace and mercy.

I hope you come to discover, with each passing day, that God exists neither next to us, nor merely above us, but rather with us, by us, and most important of all, for us. 

God is great! God is the one who created the heavens and the earth, who entered into covenant with his servant Abraham, who wrestled with Jacob on the banks of the Jabbok, who called Moses from the burning bush, who delivered the people Israel from captivity in Egypt, who sustained the nation through the judges and the prophets, who anointed kings to lead, who became incarnate in Jesus Christ, who saved the world through a cross, who was resurrected three days later.

In baptism, God’s story becomes your story.

So welcome dear Jacoby, welcome to the story that started long before you arrived. Welcome to the life where in spite of our best intentions, and even our worst, God will refuse to let us go. Welcome to baptism made possible by Jesus. Amen. 

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The Not Top 10

Exodus 20.1-17

Then God spoke all these words: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven alone, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments. You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name. Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work – you, your son of your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and consecrated it. Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

Lent is a season of repentance and introspection. However, that doesn’t mean the liturgical season encourages navel-gazing – in fact it compels us to look at our lives individually and corporately. Lent almost forces us to ask, “How have I failed, and how have we failed?”

It is not an easy season in the life of the church.

In preparing for this Lent I was struck by the theme of covenants – both biblical and otherwise, and what they have to do with our faithfulness. Almost everyone here is familiar with what a covenant is, we’ve borrowed money, or rented an apartment, or purchased a car, all under the auspices of a contract. They exist because of a fundamental distrust that we have for one another and institutions, we use them to protect ourselves should the other not hold up their end of the bargain.

Yet the truest and deepest relationships are those built on trust – when we lovingly yield ourselves to the other with vulnerability and fragility. And that is precisely what God has offered us in the covenant – the vulnerability required for true trust.

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Confession time: I am prejudiced against Sunday School.

I can’t help it really – while growing up in the church, I had far more love for what we did in a room like this, than what happened in the Sunday School rooms. Participating in Sunday School required waking up earlier than usual, it forced us to rush through the typical morning rhythm, and then we’d be deposited in classrooms in which there were old smelly couches, fading biblical posters, and an assortment of discarded bibles.

Bless the teachers’ hearts: they tried to teach us about the bible… but it never really stuck. I can remember a lesson about David and Goliath, but all we talked about was how buff David looked in the pictures and we wondered aloud how long it would take us to look similarly.

I can remember learning about Abraham and the sacrifice of Isaac, and even though I now know that God provided a ram instead, at the time I was terrified of God and didn’t want to go back to church for a few weeks.

I can even remember learning about Jesus and Mary Magdalene, but the story fell a little flat when our teacher kept referring to her as a “lady of the night” which made Mary sound more like a vampire than whatever a lady of the night is.

Beyond the lack of theological depth, the thing that really drove me crazy about Sunday School was the fact that it felt way too much like regular school. We had a teacher, who took our attendance, assigned us particular seats, gave out homework, and even presided over pop-quizzes. And I understand that theological education is important, I went to seminary after all, but the way it was done for me resulted in my studying not to hear what God had to say, but for the promise of receiving a piece of candy if, for instance, I could find the book of Isaiah before anyone else in the room.

I could fill this entire sermon with Sunday School anecdotes, but the one event I remember most vividly was the day we were quizzed on the Ten Commandments. I knew they were a thing, I was pretty sure we had an embroidered version of them hung on the wall outside the sanctuary, but I had no idea what they were.

I sat there at the table with my blank piece of paper and I stared off into the distance for a long time. What does God command us to do? I probably wrote something about loving God, and loving neighbor. I might’ve even suggested that we’re supposed give our money to God. But when the time of our quiz came to an end I turned in my poor excuse of a quiz, and I failed.

There would be no piece of candy for tween-age Taylor that day.

Do you know all of the Ten Commandments, in order? If I gave each of you a piece of paper for a quiz, would you receive your piece of candy? How many of us have memorized God’s top 10?

When I was living in Durham, NC there was a period of time when people started placing the Ten Commandments on lawn-signs in their front yards for everyone else to see. I’d be riding my bike to class, and house after house, rather than wanting me to know who they would be voting for in the next election, wanted me to know that I’m not supposed to break the Sabbath, or worship any other god, or kill anyone.

It was around that same time, as it comes up again and again, that a sizable portion of the population began advocating for the appearance of the Ten Commandments in public buildings, like schoolhouses and local courthouses.

And I couldn’t help but think that God was using the surging publicity of the Ten Commandments to make up for my failure in Sunday School.

            Somehow or another, God was going to drill these commandments into my brain!

            But then I began wondering, was this God’s work, or was it ours?

Or, to put it another way: Were the commandments being used to provide freedom, or as a weapon?

Then God spoke all these words… Through a covenant, a promise to be our God, God delivers us, sustains us, heals us, and watches over us. God only asks that we follow ten simple rules. And we can’t do it.

Every single one of us in this room has broken a commandment (some of us more than others!) And yet, our failure to hold up our end of the agreement does not affect God’s commitment. It is in knowing that we fail, God loves us.

God is the one who establishes the covenant with us, not the other way around. No response, no bargaining on our part, was required. God binds God’s self to us knowing full and well how we will respond.

And the way we talk about the commandments, the way we quiz children, or place them in our yards, or desire them in our courthouses, makes a mockery of the gift that they are.

We make them more about us, than about God.

The Ten Commandments express the purposeful will of God for God’s people. In our limited imaginations we’ve made them out to be a list of what we can and cannot do. We’ve used them like a bludgeon against those who do not follow them.

But at the heart of the commandments, at the heart of God’s covenant with us, is the freedom to love God and one another.

Of course, there is a freedom to ignore the covenants, something we do all the time. All those signs in people’s yards, they were all facing away from those who lived in the houses. It was as if they wanted others to follow what they themselves had forgotten. Quizzing children on what the commandments say is a far stretch from helping them to be implemented. Displaying them in courthouses will not make people follow them any more than a speed limit sign will on a highway.

It’s incredibly ironic that many people want the Ten Commandments up in public in a country where divorce is over 50% (you shall not commit adultery), where we have more guns than human beings (you shall not kill), where capitalism is more important than community (honor the Sabbath), and where we spend more time worshipping celebrities than Almighty God (you shall have no other gods before me).

Public displays of religious affection in the form of the Ten Commandments will not change or transform this world.

But binding ourselves to them, holding each other accountable to these strange and life-giving realities, is the seed that results in a new garden of life. If we ignore them, we do so at our own peril, not because God is waiting with a whip to punish us, but because the teachings establish a way of being.

Living outside the commandments results in a life of isolation, individiualism, and apathy.

            But living in the commandments, writing them on our hearts rather than our walls, is the beginning of a trust that transforms everything else.

We might say, “What’s the harm in a little coveting?” Our entire advertising economy is based on the principles of jealousy and envy after all. Or we might wonder about what’s so wrong with working extra hours on a Saturday morning… Our entire culture produces a narrative in which over production is an expectation.

It is in the prohibition of such things that God challenges our understanding of reality. We can give our lives over to our own commandments, but our lives will be a shallow shadow of what they could be. Living in the Ten Commandments sets us forth on a path that allows us to fully love God and one another. It is the way we become who God is calling us to be.

The Ten Commandments are God’s Top 10 rules for faithful living and, sadly, they have become a Not Top 10 list for us.

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We regularly worship other gods, like the god of wealth or political power. We build up false idols in material objects. We do things in the name of the Lord that harm and destroy others. We break the commitment to rest. We reject and rebel against our parents. We live in a world fueled by war and violence. We are captivated by a highly sexualized culture that tempts us toward adultery. We steal from those without power. We lie constantly. And we believe the commercials that tell us life will be better if we just had what the person on the screen has.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. We can rediscover this Not Top 10 list for the freedom that it provides. We can bind ourselves to it, and in so doing the shackles of death will fall away. We can remember that its not a list to be memorized, or a weapon to be used, but a way of life that leads to life.

We can love God with our whole hearts, we can trust in our allegiance to the Lord, we can ask to be used by God rather than the other way around, we can find true rest, we can love our parents both biological and spiritual, we can see all people as having sacred worth, we can live into the promises we make in marriage, we can give to those in need, we can tell the truth in love, we can believe that we already have enough.

We can do all of this but God makes the impossible possible. God fills us and fuels us for lives bent not toward ourselves, but toward others. God sustains us when we are down in the valley, and uses the Spirit to push us back toward the mountaintop.

Displaying the Ten Commandments for other people to see will never bring us closer to God, but striving to live according to the them results in a profound freedom unlike anything else. Amen.

The Last Jedi – Spiritual or Religious?

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A few week ago I was able to share a conversation with Jason Micheli and Chaim Saiman for our podcast Crackers and Grape Juice about the theological dimensions of Star Wars, and in particular The Last Jedi. After seeing the most recent Star Wars film, Chaim was struck by some of the subtle (and not so subtle) religious motifs within the movie and wrote an article for The Atlantic titled, “Why The Last Jedi Is More Spiritual Than Religious.” Chaim is a law professor at Villanova and is interested in the intersection between law and faith.

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Our conversation covers a range of topics including Jesus and the Law, growing up in the bible belt, the First Commandment, Jesus as the proto-Christian, the religiosity of Star Wars, and how our faiths and cultures are tied together. If you would like to listen to the episode, or subscribe to the podcast, you can do so here: Fact Checking Star Wars