All Saints’ Sunday
November 3, 2013
Last Saturday during baptismal instruction I was reminded of one of my first baptisms 35 years ago at Saint Andrew’s in the Pines, in Peachtree City, Georgia: when it was time for me to pick up the three year old the child started screaming, hit the deck, and grabbed onto the leg of a chair with all his might.
I found out after the service that the child’s older brother had told him to watch out for the man dressed in white because he is going to hurt you, just like the doctor does when he gives you a shot!
We laugh because we know there is nothing painful involved—just a little water, preheated by the altar guild, sprinkled on the head—what could be easier?
In the ancient church you were totally immersed three times, often in a river or lake that could be quite cold. But the modern church has taken all the pain out of baptism.
Unfortunately it’s also taken the meaning out of it.
I’ve instructed so many parents and godparents for whom baptism is a cute ceremony in which people promise to do all sorts of hard things, like bring the child to church week after week so that child can grow into the full stature of Christ. But they don’t really mean it and forget all about it the minute they get home and take off their church clothes. It was just a bit of harmless playacting.
It reminds me of the famous book by Robert Belah, called Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life in which he interviewed a woman named Shelia Larson who described her faith this way: “I believe in God. I’m not a religious fanatic. I can’t remember the last time I went to church. My faith has carried me a long way. It’s Sheliaism. Just my own little voice.”
There was a more recent study of 1,150 Californians and North Carolinians that found that 66% agreed that a person should arrive at his or her religious beliefs independently of any church or religious group. (73% of those aged 18 to 34 agreed.)
This all makes perfect sense to us because we have been formed by the dominant culture to believe this is true. So, as Will Willimon says, “When an early twenty-first century North American says, ‘What the church says may be OK for some people, but I think it is important to think for myself,’ that person thinks that he or she is thinking for himself or herself. No. He is only espousing the self-centered, limited way of knowing that has been imposed on him by his culture.” Pastor: The Theology and Practice of Ordained Ministry, Page 211
Now so many years later I think that older brother of the boy being baptized was speaking more truth than he knew. That guy dressed in white along with the altar guild that heated the water and the organist and choir who led the hymns, and the faithful of the church who promised to support that child, were involved in a vast conspiracy to transform that child from a child of the culture into a child of God—and not some vague, marshmallow God but the God of the Jews, the God and Father of Jesus of Nazareth, or to put it another way, to transform that child into a disciple of Jesus who lives in a counterculture shaped by Torah and Gospel and the saints of God who practice an alternative way of being in the world.
This is done, not to hurt the child, but to save the child. As Willimon says, “Why ought the world of secular, national imperialism be privileged over the world called church?” Ibid page 212
As I’ve often said, either our children will be formed by the teachings, worldview, values, habits and practices presented by Jesus of Nazareth and his body the Church or those presented hours every day by the devices we carry in our pockets.
And if you think Jesus is just teaching the same conventional wisdom of our consumer culture you weren’t paying attention to this morning’s gospel.
Jesus is calling us into a very different world:
“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.”
Jesus is not just offering us a different way of acting in the world, he is offering us a different world—a world in which God is trusted for all things, a world in which “the Lord is my Shepherd”.
No child naturally grows into the kind of person who is a giver and not a taker.
I saw that yesterday at diocesan convention when I was having lunch on the steps of the cathedral and our own Edith Parekh showed up with a great looking Greek Salad from a local store. She had just opened the top when a homeless man asked her where she got her lunch and she said, “Would you like this one?”
“Yes I would”, he said.
So without a moment to think she handed over her untouched lunch to the man.
This is not a natural response—this is a learned response, learned from followers of Christ who passed on these strange habits in church.
Those Saints we keep singing about….
I was in North Carolina in September for my granddaughter’s baptism. Margaret was 3 months old and just entering that stage in which you could smile at her intently and she would smile back.
She is learning to mirror what she sees, which means what she sees is critical for her formation as a whole human being. She will not learn how to live with gratitude and compassion if she is only sees a society that lives with resentment and selfishness.
If she is shaped by the stories of how all rich people pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps and never needed anyone’s help, she will be a very different woman than if she is shaped by the stories about the Jew from Nazareth who said you will only find your life if you lose it and then who gave up his life on the cross, trusting his life to God.
So yes, it’s only water and a precious little water at that—more like a dry cleaning really. What makes all the difference is not the amount of water but the stories we live about new life in Christ.
When the water is being poured into the font: You’ll hear about the water of creation, the water of the Red Sea, the water of Jesus’ own baptism in the River Jordan and finally the water of our baptism in which we are buried with Christ in his death, share in his resurrection, are reborn by the Holy Spirit, and now live in joyful obedience to Christ, who is Lord over all false gods.
As Bishop Willimon puts it, “Faith for us is a matter of having one’s life bent toward Jesus Christ, through the ministrations of the church.” Ibid
You cannot grow a whole human being by accident or by leaving it to the child to decide for herself.
Today, we remember those saints who believed in Christ instead of the conceits of the world. Their journey started out just like these children today, with a little water, a praying community, and faith to live as a disciple of Jesus Christ.
Because of them you and I are here today doing something wildly counter-cultural. We could be home curled up with our devices drinking from another source that promises happiness if we would only do exactly what our ego desires. Instead we are worshipping God in Christ through the power of the Spirit, seeking the Divine Will for our lives and our world.
So don’t be fooled—these cute baptisms–they are serious business!