There’s Only Us

Sermon for Sunday, June 19, 2016 || Proper 7C || Galatians 3:23-29

theresonlyusDuring the summer, I am preaching without a text, so what follows is an edited transcript of what I said Sunday morning at the 8 a.m. service at St. Mark’s.

This is a sermon about two pronouns. The two pronouns today are “us” and “them.” Remember that for just a minute, because first I need to tell you why Paul is so mad. We’ve been reading the letter to the Galatians for the last month, and we haven’t really mentioned it in a sermon yet. But just quickly, here’s why Paul is upset during the letter to the Galatians. Continue reading “There’s Only Us”

Affirmation and Celebration

Sermon for Sunday, November 2, 2014 || All Saints Year A

affirmationandcelebrationThe feast of All Saints, which we celebrate today, is about family, namely the family of God. Each saint has a special day commemorating his or her life of devotion and service, but on this day we celebrate all of them. We celebrate them collectively: not as a group of individuals who walked the way of discipleship alone, but as the glistening threads of God’s tapestry woven together to tell the story of God’s presence in creation since the time of Jesus. However, this tapestry is vast, so much bigger than the threads of particular saints could fashion, and so God weaves other threads into the warp and weft in order to complete the story. I have a thread. You have a thread. And Reggie, the beautiful six-month old collection of smiles and joy we’ll be baptizing in a few minutes, has a thread. The tapestry God continues to weave is the story of God’s family from the dawn of time. It is the story of the people of Israel. It is the story of the Gospel. And it is our story because we are all members of God’s great family. Today, we celebrate God weaving us together with all the saints into the story of this great family. And today, we celebrate bringing another person into that story, into this great family, when we baptize Reggie.

So what’s really going on in baptism? The traditional understanding tells us that baptism serves as the initiatory rite of the church and marks the cleansing of our sins. Now neither of these definitions is wrong (let me be clear), but I think if we stop there we will be prone to misunderstanding. We need to dig a little deeper. Here’s one thing to remember about baptism, and this will be on the test (there’s no test): the sacrament of baptism affirms and celebrates a state of being that already exists. The action of baptizing doesn’t create anything new; rather, the sacrament marks our participation in something God is already doing.

Here’s what I mean. At the end of the baptism service, we will welcome Reggie saying: “We receive you into the household of God. Confess the faith of Christ crucified, proclaim his resurrection, and share with us in his eternal priesthood.” However, by virtue of Reggie being born in the image and likeness of God, he is already a member of God’s family. He is already part of God’s household. He already has a thread in God’s tapestry. Thus, his baptism is an affirmation and celebration of a state of being he already possesses. Today we will celebrate his membership in God’s family so that we can see the deep truth of God’s reality: that we are all members of that family.

Participating in this deep truth is what makes baptism one of the sacraments of the faith. If you’ve taken a confirmation class or CCD in the Roman Catholic Church, then you might remember the classic definition of a sacrament: An outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. Another way to put this is that sacraments are windows through which God gives us the gift of viewing the true and eternal reality of God’s movement in creation. Sacraments take ordinary, everyday things – water and bread, for example – and use them to reveal extraordinary holiness hidden in plain sight.

When we baptize Reggie, the hidden will be revealed for a moment, and we will see the unconditional love of God embracing a soul who has never done a thing to earn that love. And we will learn once again that we can do nothing to earn it either. We can only respond to God’s unconditional love in our lives.

If Reggie has done nothing to earn God’s love, then neither has he done anything to reject it, so you might be wondering why we baptize to cleanse sins, which you’ll recall was the second part of our traditional understanding of baptism. Once again, we are affirming and celebrating a state of being that already exists.

The word “baptism” sounds all fancy until you dig down to its roots. “Baptism” simply means “to wash.” When we bathe, we scrub away all the dirt and sweat and grime that accumulates during our day-to-day lives. We have to bathe regularly because we get dirty regularly. But we baptize only once because baptism is a celebration that our sins are forgiven – not just the ones we already committed but all of our sins past and future, everything that has, does, or will separate us from God. When we wash in the waters of baptism, we join God’s reality in progress, a reality in which nothing in all creation can separate us from God’s love. The sacrament of baptism allows us to mark the beginning of our participation in this reality.

So if baptism is an affirmation and celebration of a state of being that already exists, you might be wondering if it asks anything of us at all. If we’re just jumping into a river that’s already flowing, what is our responsibility in all of this?

Well, the action of baptism takes place in a few seconds at the font behind me. We’ll pour a few ounces of blessed water on Reggie’s forehead, say the words, and that will be that. But the baptismal life continues from that moment on. The baptismal life is a sacramental life, a life in which each baptized person becomes one of those windows into the true and eternal reality of God’s movement in creation. Thus baptism invites us into deeper commitment as followers of Jesus Christ, deeper relationship with God, and deeper resonance with the Holy Spirit’s presence.

When we reaffirm our Baptismal Covenant in a moment, we will promise with God’s help to commit ourselves once again to serve God in this world. We will remember that nothing separates us from God’s love, that we are all members of God’s great family, that we all have threads woven into God’s tapestry. And we will celebrate that God invites us to live baptismal lives, committed to bearing witness to the true and deep reality of God’s presence in creation.

The Sweet Six Billion

(Sermon for March 22, 2009 || Lent 4, Year B, RCL || John 3:14-21)

Last week, the annual rite of spring commenced. Sixty-four college basketball teams began competing for the NCAA title. My apologies for bringing this up. I wrote this introduction before Dayton upset our own West Virginia Mountaineers. The field has been cut in half, and WVU is, unfortunately, in the wrong half. Soon, the field will be halved again, and there will be sufficiently few teams left for SportsCenter to analyze them as the “Sweet Sixteen”: only one quarter of the teams will have survived. Presumably, this fact makes them “sweet.” After this third round of games, the sportscasters will chatter on about the “Elite Eight.” A mere 12.5 percent of teams will advance to play in this fourth round, making them (sure enough) “elite.” Notice how the sports media doesn’t have a term for the first and second rounds of games; there’s no such thing as the “Snappy Sixty-four” or the “Thrilling Thirty-two.” The field just isn’t small enough to qualify for such exclusive epithets as “sweet” and “elite.”

In our society, we often associate success and value with exclusivity. Only a handful of doctors can perform that neonatal heart procedure. Only a few original 1977 Luke Skywalker action figures exist still in the blister packaging. Only a couple dozen baseball players have accumulated over three thousand hits in their careers. As a culture, we assign value to these exclusive objects and groups. If every baseball player had over three thousand hits, such an achievement would certainly not make one a shoe-in for Cooperstown.

fruitrollupvspuddingcupOf course, our society operates in this way because of Econ 101. From a young age, we are socialized to think in terms of supply and demand. If only one kid in the cafeteria has a strawberry fruit roll-up, the demand for that delicious snack will be high. You might have to trade a week’s worth of pudding cups for that fruit roll-up. The same market forces apply outside of elementary school. If OPEC cuts oil exports, you know what happens to the price.

Sadly, the exclusivity model, on which the doctrine of supply and demand is founded, has infiltrated the Christian religion. Too many Christian groups attempt to define themselves as the exclusive repositories of the faith, as the exclusive holders of the keys to heaven. If you don’t interpret the Bible exactly as they do, then you are excluded. If you disagree about the way worship is conducted, then you are excluded. If you don’t subscribe to the same set of social values, then you are excluded. This exclusion provides for these groups of Christians an illusory feeling of certitude, and, consequently, a “my way or the highway” approach to outsiders.*

Over time, a single severely misinterpreted verse of scripture has developed into the brand for such exclusivist, cliquish Christianity. We heard it this morning in the Gospel. Perhaps, your ears perked up because you recognized the verse from a bumper sticker or the television or the half-forgotten memory of Sunday School. Homemade signs at ballgames give the citation: John 3:16 in big, block letters. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

Cliquish Christianity has so thoroughly branded John 3:16 that the verse rarely appears outside its exclusivist shrink-wrapping.  Here’s one plausible line of reasoning employed to co-opt John 3:16: Supply and demand teaches that for something to be valuable, it must be limited. Eternal life is valuable. Therefore, eternal life is limited. If eternal life is limited, we must figure out who’s got it and who doesn’t. Let’s see: “everyone who believes in him.” Okay, that’s seems clear enough. If you believe in the only Son of God, you may have eternal life.

But cliquish Christianity ignores two major problems with this logic. First, the major premise of the syllogism** (for something to be valuable, it must be limited) is altogether false. One of the wonderful things about God’s love and grace is their utter repudiation of basic economic theory. The counter-economics of the Gospel are well-documented. All the workers in the vineyard receive the same pay no matter how long they labored. The five loaves of bread feed a thousand times their number with twelve baskets to spare. God’s love abounds when it is freely offered, rather than becoming scarce like the bills in your wallet when you give your cash away. Likewise, eternal life cannot be limited. That’s what makes eternal life eternal.

Second, cliquish Christianity mistakes the minutiae of adhering to particular doctrinal positions for belief in the only Son of God. Disagreements about what constitutes the correct method of making someone wet during a baptism or what instruments are approved to be played in church have driven some Christians to deny eternal life to others. Such disagreements are akin to thinking that ketchup, rather than ground beef, makes something a hamburger.*** History and experience have shown that there are many paths to belief in Jesus Christ. The early leaders of the church recognized the need for four accounts of the Gospel to speak to the widest audience possible. In sixteenth century England, two competing groups struggled for doctrinal dominance, but Queen Elizabeth saw value in each position and accepted both into the Book of Common Prayer. As Christianity spread throughout the world, missionaries fused the message of the Gospel with local custom, creating unique expressions of the Christian religion.

But cliquish Christianity disregards both counter-economics and the substitution of particularity for belief. The misinterpretation of John 3:16 has become inviolable, an idol in blister packaging. And this packaging is necessary for cliquish Christians to use the verse as validation for their exclusivism. You see, the shrink-wrapping protects the sixteenth verse from all the ones surrounding it. But scripture has never been intended to be taken a verse at a time. Indeed, judging by the age of the Bible, verse numbers are downright innovative, having debuted in the 1550s.

So, let’s reattach verse 16 and see what happens: “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

In this context, we notice the object of God’s love: the “world.” God gave his only Son because God loved the world. God sent the Son into the world to save the world. In just these three sentences, the “world” appears four times. God’s loving gift takes on cosmic proportions and comprehends the whole creation.

God doesn’t give the gift of the Son to an exclusive group of people but to the entire world. The Son is not the exclusive property of those who believe in him. He is not trussed up in the backroom, ready to be ransomed in exchange for compliance to doctrinal particularity.  Rather, those who believe in him are the property of the Son, in whose presence eternal life gushes up like a spring.

God loved the world so much that God gave the only Son to be lifted up on the cross and to die and to rise again and, in so doing, to lift us to the light of eternal life. If this sublime story of sacrifice and salvation were meant only for an exclusive few, then there’s no reason to believe it. But the world is the recipient of God’s loving gift, a gift so extravagant and precious that an exclusive few could never hope to unwrap it completely.

In our fallen society, we measure success and value by exclusivity. But in God’s family, we measure success by our ability to include. We measure value by our generosity and hospitality. We invite others to discover God’s loving gift just as we have discovered him. We welcome everyone to celebrate the joy of an abundant life illumined by the light of God’s Son. We do not play the role of the gatekeeper to God’s house, checking credentials and barring entrance. We do not play the role of the bouncer with the clipboard. Our role is simple and humbling. We go out into this world that God loves so much and we meet our brothers and sisters and we say,  “Look at the gift I received from God, this gift full of love and grace. Come and see. God offers the gift to you, too. Come and see. God gave the gift to the whole world. Come and see.”

Footnotes

* In recent years, to the detriment of the work of God in the world, various members of the Anglican Communion, the Episcopal Church included, have exhibited a variation of these exclusivist tendencies.

** My focus group (read: my mother) advised me to remove this word from the spoken version of the sermon, which I did. But, this is technically the correct word for the context, so I figured I could sneak it back into the written version. A syllogism is an argument that has a major premise, a minor premise, and a conclusion. Here’s an example: “People who use the word ‘syllogism’ in sermons are pretentious goobers. Adam used the word ‘syllogism’ in a sermon. Therefore, Adam is a pretentious goober.”

*** Brian McLaren and Tony Campolo have written about this. Check out their Adventures in Missing the Point