Preparing for Baptism: Questions of Faith and Practice
September 22, 2019
Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. So he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’ Then the manager said to himself, ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ So, summoning his master's debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ Then he asked another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill and make it eighty.’ And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes. “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”
I’m honored to be here at St. Monica & St. James for the celebration of Holy Baptism, as we welcome Luke and Eleanor into Christian community. I love baptisms, particularly when parents present their children. For there is so much we hope for our children as they grow, so many things we want to give them. And so much that we know we cannot give them, and from which we cannot protect them. What an act of faith it is to bring children into this world.
As a parish priest, I used to give families presenting their children for baptism an essay written by Anne Lamott entitled, “Why I Make Sam Go to Church.” The main reason she insisted on bringing her strapping nine-year old son to church, who more often than not would rather stay home and hang out with his friends, is this:
I want to give him what I have found in the world, which is to say a path and a little light to see by. Most of the people I know who have what I want—which is to say, purpose, heart, balance, gratitude, joy—are people with a deep sense of spirituality. They are people in community, who pray, or practice their faith. . . people banding together to work on themselves and for human rights. They follow a brighter light than the glimmer of their own candles; they are part of something beautiful. . . Our funky little church is filled with people who are working for peace and freedom, who are out there on the streets and inside praying, and they are home writing letters, and they are at the shelters with giant platters of food. . . When I was at the end of my rope, the people at my church tied a knot in it for me and helped me hold on. (Anne Lamott, “Why I Make Sam Go to Church,” in Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith New York: (Random House, 2000).)
When I presented our sons for baptism, what I wanted for them was the assurance that they were unconditionally loved by God, that they would never remember a time when they weren’t welcome at Jesus’ table or in the community that bears his name. I wanted them to have a sense of destiny, to know that they were alive for a reason. I wanted them to experience Jesus as a living presence in their lives, to be inspired by his teachings and guided by his spirit. I wanted them to know, as a prayer for young persons in our prayer book puts it, “that failure isn’t a measure of their worth, but a chance to start again.” And I wanted God to give them, as we will soon ask God to give Luke and Eleanor, “an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and love you, and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works.”
I want all those things for you, too, for all of us.
Later in the service, I will ask Luke and Eleanor’s parents and godparents questions that have been asked for millennia of those seeking baptism, questions about renouncing evil and turning to Jesus and putting their trust in his grace and love. Then I will ask all gathered here who feel so called to stand and recite the ancient affirmation of faith known as the Apostle’s Creed. These are questions of faith--do you believe in God, do you believe in Jesus, do you believe in the Holy Spirit? Now when you hear the word “believe” don’t worry if you aren’t sure what you know for certain. Rather ask yourself if you can place your trust in God, place your trust in Jesus and in the Spirit, or at least some of your trust. Ask yourself if you want to be the kind of person with such trust.
Then come five questions that are, in essence, a description of Christian practice, what it looks like when we strive to live the Christian life. More about these practices in a moment, but again, I’d like to reassure anyone here who feels as if the script--because that is what liturgy provides us--isn’t yours in the sense that you wouldn’t describe your faith in these words or you’re not sure what the words actually mean. That’s how it is for all of us most of the time. The words and ideas are given in liturgy to us to lay alongside our distinct, unique experiences of grace and holiness, of mystery and presence as a way of providing depth, challenge, and a means to interpret our own experiences and to trust them.
What matters most, I think, is to ask yourself if you feel called, drawn to the Christian life and community of Jesus followers. Is Jesus inviting you to take place here, and allowing yourself to be touched, and dare I say transformed, by what happens through the practices, rituals and experiences that you yourself would name as holy, or of grace, and of God?
When I try to articulate why I am a Christian, of course I must point to the cultural and family heritage that made Christianity the most likely religion for me. But culture and family influences wouldn’t have been enough to keep me in the circle, as it were, and certainly not drawn me into leadership within it. So what was it?
The inspiration of other Christians has been a big factor for me. To paraphrase the infamous words from the movie When Harry Met Sally, “I wanted what other Christians were having.” Faith, as it is often said, is not so much taught but caught.
For me it also comes down, I think, to the interplay between spiritual practice and life experience. So let’s consider now the importance of spiritual practices.
At their best, spiritual practices serve to open us to the mystery we call God, and help us to grow up. In the words of Christian writer Brian McLaren:
Spiritual practices are those actions within our power that help us narrow the gap between the character we want to have and the character we are actually developing. They are about surviving our twenties or forties or eighties and not becoming a jerk in the process. About not letting what happens to us deform or destroy us. About realizing that what we earn or accumulate means nothing compared to what we become and who we are. Spiritual practices are about life, about training ourselves to become the kind of people who have eyes and actually see, and who have ears and actually hear, and so experience not just survival but life that is real, worth living, and good. (Brian McLaren, Finding Our Way Again: The Return of the Ancient Practices (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2008), p.14.)
McLaren goes on to say that our character--the kind of people we are--determines how much of God we can experience, and even which version of God we experience. There’s a lot at stake for us, for it’s through spiritual practices that we learn to know and love God.
The five practices outlined for us in the baptism service are these:
Will you continue in the apostles teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and in the prayers? This is about the daily practice of saying our prayers, and actually reading our bibles, and on a weekly basis taking part in common worship, opening ourselves to Christ’s presence through the spoken word, community gathered, and sacraments of bread and wine.
Will you persevere in resisting evil and whenever you fall into sin repent and return to the Lord? Notice that the question isn’t “should you fall into sin” but “whenever you fall into sin.” In other words, when you fail, when you make mistakes, when you do what know is wrong or fail to do what you know is right, will you say you’re sorry, make amends, and turn back to God and to your better self?
Will you proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ? This is basically a “walking your talk” question. Will you strive to live in such a way that others will know what being a follower of Jesus looks like? The last two questions spell out more specifically what followers of Jesus do:
Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?
Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being? That’s what the Christian life looks like in action.
It’s a lot to take in, and we’re making big promises not only for ourselves but for those whose understanding of what it means to follow Jesus depends on us--the children we raise, but also your next-door neighbors and co-workers, the people you meet everyday.
And I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know when I say that we all fail to live up fully into these promises most of the time. Failure is part of the deal--not, remember, as a sign of our worth, but as a chance for a new start. We practice the things we’re not good at.
God knows that we will fail to live up to them as we make our lofty promises, and that’s all right, provided we know that about ourselves and we’re intentional about allowing ourselves to accept forgiveness, and the grace of God known to us in Jesus. Because here’s the most humbling truth of all: we don’t become more like Jesus through our own strength and will power, but through the grace of God working in us, accomplishing far more than we could ask for or imagine.
For me, it isn’t so much the practices themselves that keep me on the Christian path, but what happens to me as a result of those practices; how I come to experience the grace of God and the presence of Jesus through them. Now I have to tell you that large, dramatic moments are rare in my life. What has been the most transformative are small insights that over time help me find my way in a confusing world.
So let me share the foundational practice of my Christian life. It is simply spending time on a regular basis sitting myself down in a chair, setting a timer for 20 minutes, or 10 if I’m running late, or driving in my car if I’m really late, and pondering my life in the light of God’s love. Then, if I’m not driving, I read a bit from the Bible, and in particular, from the accounts of Jesus’ life and teaching. While I can certainly make a strong case for an in depth study of the Bible, what has been most impactful in my life is when a certain story or passage from the Bible not only captures my imagination, but seems to take up residence inside me for an extended period of time, becoming a lens through which I experience God’s presence in my life. Again--nothing dramatic here, but simply a small shift in perspective.
For example, for years I’ve lived my life through the lens of a particular biblical story about two sisters, Martha and Mary. Perhaps you’ve heard of them: Martha, Mary and their brother Lazarus were among Jesus’ closest friends, and their home in Bethany was a place of refuge and rest for him. On one occasion when Jesus had come to visit, Martha busied herself in the kitchen preparing a meal for him and others guests. In a bold move for a woman of that culture, Mary chose not to join Martha in the kitchen, but instead she sat down on the floor and listened to Jesus speak. Martha was not pleased about this, and she became angry enough that she complained to Jesus: “Lord, tell Mary to help me.” Jesus replied, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and anxious about many things. Only one thing is needed right now. Mary has chosen the better part, and it will not be taken from her.”
I don’t know what it’s like for you, but rarely, if ever, does my life afford me the luxury of focusing on only one thing. Our culture requires us to be adept at multitasking, to hold many things in our hearts and minds at the same time, and to juggle multiple commitments. The better we get at this, the more we’re asked to do or we take on ourselves, because we like being among those who get things done. I used to have tacked up on my bulletin board a saying from one of those daily calendars: Any mother can perform the work of six air traffic controllers with ease. Dare I say that most mothers identify with Martha, not Mary, and for good reason.
I love Martha. But the more I live with Martha and Mary as my inner sisters, I realize that Mary wasn’t a slacker. She was simply able, in that moment, to focus on the most important thing while Martha was worried and anxious about many things. So as I juggle and multi-task and harness myself to the good work that needs to be done, I think of Mary and her single-minded focus. She helps me focus on what I’m doing in the moment, and to ask myself, “What is the most important thing, right now? What is the most important thing today? This week? This season? Simply asking the question is grounding and it allows me to consider questions of priority and relationship and rest in ways that I might otherwise miss.
I have a similar response to Jesus’ words at the end of his rather irreligious story of a shrewd and unethical manager that you heard this morning: Whoever is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much. It doesn’t matter if what I’m doing today is a small task. What matters is my faithfulness in this moment, to this work, to these relationships, to the beckoning of God. As I am faithful to what is before me now, I ask God to help me become large enough inside to hold whatever may be asked of me tomorrow, and to meet it with the same faithfulness.
The Benedictine monk Joan Chittister also has words of wisdom about this daily faithfulness: “Life is short,” she reminds us.
To get the most out of it, we must attend to its spiritual dimension, without which life is only half lived. We risk going through life only half conscious, asleep or intent on being someplace else other than where we are. . . It may be the neighborhood we live in rather than the neighborhood we want that will really make human beings out of us. It may be the job we have rather than the position we want that will liberate us. For God is calling us to more than the material level of life. (Joan Chittister, The Rule of Benedict: Insight for the Ages (New York: Crossroad Publishing, 1992).)
And as Jesus said in another zinger of a one-liner today: we cannot serve God and money. Jesus doesn’t seem to care about how much money we have or don’t have. What he cares about is how what we earn, spend, and give away serves that which matters most. “Where your treasure is,” he said in another place, “there your heart will be also.”
So where is Jesus asking you to be faithful now? What is the one most important thing?
If you ask yourself that question at the beginning of each day, or as you consider the arch of your week or the coming year, I promise that you will live your life differently, attentive to the voice of God guiding you through the cares and occupations of your life. Spoiler alert: you’ll still be busy, with many commitments and responsibilities to juggle. You’ll still have more to do than can be done on most days. But certain things will rise to your conscious mind as priorities that may surprise you, things that you otherwise wouldn’t make time for, but now, having asked yourself the question, will become the most important thing, that to which you must be faithful today. And when you go to sleep at night, you will enjoy the rest that comes not from having successfully completed your “to do” list, but rather from living a life in alignment with your true north. As you are faithful in that one thing, whatever it is, Jesus will help you sort through everything else, let go of unnecessary burdens and be faithful to the next most important thing, large or small, in its time.
The Christian life is a life of practice, which implies that we’re not always good at it, that we will often fail to reach the highest aspirations set before us, or that we set within ourselves. But what all the practice allows us to experience is a God of love, and a way of love and of life that is worthy of us as the children of God that we are, and worthy of the children of God that Luke and Eleanor are. May we be the kind of community to show them what it looks like to know, love and follow Jesus. They will know we are Christians by our love.