October 2013

Luke 18:9-14 (The Pharisee and the tax collector)

In preparation for yesterday’s sermon, I had to let what is below go to the threshing floor. But I thought this example was fitting with what I shared yesterday about not getting caught up in the game of faulty comparisons, so I decided to share it here. We often get tempted to treat discipleship as a competition of being better than everybody (or at least somebody) else.

Clive Staples (C.S.) Lewis. (Photo credit: wikipedia.org)

Clive Staples (C.S.) Lewis. (Photo credit: wikipedia.org)

C.S. Lewis wrote, in a way, about this sort of game of faulty comparisons that we as humans tend to play. In the chapter ‘Nice People or New Men’ in his classic work Mere Christianity, Lewis used a hypothetical example of two different sorts of people. One is a very “nice” or kind man who happens to also be an atheist. Lewis called him Dick Firkin. The other is a mean, nasty woman who never has a smile on her face or anything positive to say. He called her Miss Bates. (One wonders how much autobiographical content resides in his example as Lewis himself was an atheist prior to a series of conversations he had with J.R.R. Tolkein, well-known author of The Lord of the Rings series.) Here’s what C.S. Lewis said about their temperaments and who is to credit:

The niceness, in fact, is God’s gift to Dick, not Dick’s gift to God. In the same way, God has allowed natural causes, working in a world spoiled by centuries of sin to produce in Miss Bates the narrow mind and jangled nerves which account for most of her nastiness. God intends, in His own good time, to set that part of her right. But that is not, for God, the critical part of the business. It presents no difficulties. It is not what He is anxious about. What God is watching and waiting and working for is something that is not easy even for God, because, from the nature of the case, even He cannot produce it by a mere act of power. God is waiting and watching for it both in Miss Bates and in Dick Firkin. It is something they can freely give Him or freely refuse to Him. Will they, or will they not, turn to Him and thus fulfill the only purpose for which they were created? That is the question on which all hangs. Will Miss Bates and Dick offer their natures [themselves] to God?…

There is even, when you come to think it over, a reason why nasty people might be expected to turn to Christ in greater numbers than nice ones. That was what people objected to about Christ during His life on earth: He seemed to attract ‘such awful people.’ That is what people still object to and always will…

Often people who have all these natural kinds of goodness cannot be brought to recognize their need for Christ at all until, one day, the natural goodness lets them down and their self-satisfaction is shattered. In other words, it is hard for those who are ‘rich’ in this sense to enter the Kingdom

It is very different for the nasty people – the little, low, timid, warped, thin-blooded, lonely people, or the passionate, sensual, unbalanced people. If they make any attempt at goodness at all, they learn, in double quick time, that they need help

If you are a nice person – if virtue comes easily to you – beware! Much is expected from those to whom much is given. If you mistake for your own merits what are really God’s gifts to you through nature, and if you are contented with simply being nice, you are still a rebel: and all those gifts will only make your fall more terrible, your corruption more complicated, your bad example more disastrous…

But if you are a poor creature – poisoned by a wretched upbringing in some house full of vulgar jealousies and senseless quarrels – saddled, by no choice of your own, with some loathsome sexual perversion – nagged day in and day out by an inferiority complex that makes you snap at your best friends – do not despair. He knows all about it. You are one of the poor whom He blessed.

The question that hangs in the balance remains the same, church. Regardless of our temperaments; regardless of what sort of giftedness or tendencies we may have in terms of having a higher inclination for kindness than our neighbor across the street, here the questions that guide our intentions: “Will we praise our niceness, flout our rule-following selves with ‘lesser faults’ than those of our perceived competitors? Or will we turn to God, pleading, like the tax collector, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner?” If we do the former, that will be our undoing no less than it was for the Pharisees. Rather, may God have mercy on us and lead us to be better…not better than “them” but better than us: who we once were and who we would have been had it not been for the grace of God.

Note: This is the concluding sermon to my 5 week series on Baptism that I have preached at Liberty & Post Oak United Methodist Churches in September and October. For the previous sermons follow these links:

On Baptism: A “Catholic Spirit”
On Baptism: Immerse
On Baptism: Pour
On Baptism: Sprinkle


Psalm 77

I don’t have much to say in the sermon today. I just want to reflect briefly on the act of remembering and then for us to do these sacramental exercises of remembrance.

What are the things that evoke memories in us? I think it usually comes from one of our senses. Have you ever been preparing a Thanksgiving meal and the smell of the food preparation reminded you of your childhood holiday celebrations? Have you ever been stopped in your tracks at the sight of a sunset or some other beautiful scene that brought back memories of some beautiful experience you’ve had in your life? Have you ever heard a sound, a story, or a song that you haven’t heard in years and you’re brought back to the time and emotions you felt when that song really hit home with you or when that story was the present? Have you ever taken a bite out of a simple meal or licked an ice cream cone or lollipop in your adulthood and were taken back to a time when you enjoyed such a meal with your parents or grandparents? It’s like that scene on the movie Ratatouille when the food critic who scoffed, at first, that a meal typically served in peasant settings was served to him. Yet when he took a bite, he felt the memories of childhood bliss that no delicate 5-star entrée ever delivered in his career of critiquing food. Have you ever touched your child’s hand or kissed them good night and were brought back to the day of their birth or of their infancy when you put them to bed? It’s amazing how experiencing things through the five senses bring back memories in ways that just trying to mentally think of something just wouldn’t.

A certificate of completion for the Disciple Bible Study given to my grandfather in 1995. Papaw died 3 years later.

A certificate of completion for the Disciple Bible Study given to my grandfather in 1995. Papaw died 3 years later.

You see, God made us to be people who are sensory. This week I was searching for Scripture passages that talk about the act of “remembering.” I went to a concordance, not really thinking about where the concordance came from when I out popped this [pictured above] certificate of recognition for my Papaw’s completion of Disciple Bible Study. When I saw this certificate I remembered that the concordance it was in belonged to my grandfather and had been passed down to me. And as I paused to take in the sight, feel the texture of the certificate and even smell it, I remembered Papaw in some very meaningful ways. You see, I went through that Disciple Bible Study with him and Granny and remember seeing him intently reading Scripture and taking part in the in-depth discussions around the tables at Church. I remember the ever-so-distinct smell in Papaw and Granny’s house and not just around Thanksgiving and Christmas, but year-round. I remember the touch of soft velvety pad on top of the piano bench that doubled as a gate that he would open as I would ride on the back of Dad, or one of my uncles or brothers pretending to be a cowboy riding a bull in a rodeo. I remember the sound of his voice as he would count out loud and see if I could hang on for those 8 seconds. I remember the feeling of his arms around me on nearly every Sunday after Church when he would wrap us grandkids into his arms that he called a “bear trap.” All these memories unlocked by a simple almost accidental exercise of the senses.

Memories are stored in our minds through stories and experiences. And the keys that unlock them are usually something tangible, something sensory that takes us back to those precious times in our lives, but more importantly remind us of who we are and to WHOM we belong.

That’s why God gave us things we experience through our senses to communicate grace to us. These common or ordinary elements (water, bread, wine or juice) become extra-ordinary as the Holy Spirit uses them to pour grace into our lives. God gave us these tangible gifts as ways to remember God’s faithfulness even when we can’t “feel him” or when we’re not sure where God is. That’s what the Psalmist is doing in Psalm 77. They are frustrated, bewildered, doubting, all the while calling out to a God who seems to be so absent. And what should we do when we feel the same? Do like the Psalmist does: remember the faithfulness of God. These sacramental acts guide us in that. When we gather at the Font that cleanses us and when we gather around the Table that nourishes us, we remember Jesus Christ, his life, death, and resurrection. But it’s not just a mere memory, because Christ is no longer dead. He lives! And when we remember our baptism, that is our identity in Christ through this water, and when we break the bread and share the cup, the living Christ is really present with us in these moments, in this meal, by the Holy Spirit, reminds us of our identity as God’s children, and empowers us to be agents for God’s kingdom. Thanks be to God. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Ezekiel 36:22-28

In the great metropolis of Oscar, Kentucky (where nearly 100 residents live) there are only two churches: Oscar Baptist Church, which is really in the suburbs, about two miles north of town, and Oscar United Methodist Church. My grandmother’s house is about two tenths of a mile from the Methodist church, in which I grew up. I remember the humorous conversations had between Methodists and Baptists about the amount of water used in baptism and that it often came down to us Methodists accused of being afraid of water. Well there was one cold, snowy Sunday morning when the roads were less than ideal to be traveling on. We watched the ticker along the bottom of the TV screen to see what churches were calling off, waiting for the time it would get to the O’s. There aren’t a lot of towns that begin with ‘O’ so we had to pay attention. And sure enough, Oscar Baptist Church showed on the screen: “Sunday services cancelled.” But Oscar United Methodist Church did not show up on the cancellations so we packed into the car and made our way to church. When we got there, my Granny said something I’ll never forget in her sweet voice, “We Methodists may be afraid of the water, but at least we aren’t afraid of the snow.”

Let’s review where we are in this series on baptism. We’ve said over and over that baptism is a sacrament primarily of identity rather than of experience or feeling. Baptism is being united with Christ in his death and resurrection and is the recognition and receiving of the Holy Spirit Who was poured out at Pentecost. To illustrate these two realities of baptism, we’ve talked about immersion and pouring and how they convey this reality. So that leaves us with just one other common mode of baptism, so let’s talk that this morning. What is the reason behind the one that Methodists are sometimes known for, sprinkling? (Or the fancy word for it, aspersion.)

Baptism by aspersion (Photo credit - www.northalabamaumc.org)

Baptism by aspersion (Photo credit – http://www.northalabamaumc.org)

I want to acknowledge first of all that I know, because of conversations I’ve had with several of you about your own experiences and stories of baptism, that you were not given a choice on the matter. Of course, if you were raised in a tradition that does not approve of baptizing infants then you were more than likely not given the choice when it came to how the water was to be used; you were immersed. But it’s equally true that for many who were baptized in a United Methodist Church, you were not told or given options either as a new believer or as parents about how water was to be used on you or your child. The baptism was simply done and you were sprinkled with water. I also want to acknowledge that some of you may be frustrated about not having gotten the option to do otherwise when it came to your baptism or the baptism of your children, and had you to do it over again, you would probably have it done differently. It is unfortunate that we have not given the option as much as we should have. (We UM pastors are encouraged to counsel with parents and with individuals about the different ways water may be used so that they can select whatever mode in accordance with their conscience.) And this may not be true of anyone here, but I heard a fellow clergy describe to me that one of her parishioners at the age of 90 was terrified of dying and going to hell because he was sprinkled rather than immersed. Some of our friends are so insistent that it has to be done their particular way or you will be condemned to hell for eternity. And that often casts a real sense of judgment and fear that is so significant, it persuades many to go through the waters of baptism in that particular way for fear of being damned. Now, these friends are probably for the most part well-meaning and are so convinced of this and do care for others such that they want to convince others to follow through their process. So as much as I disagree with that belief, I see it as though that at least they love us enough to try to get us on the(ir) right path.

With that said, however, what I would like to share with you, especially for those who may be frustrated about your own experience of baptism or who think of sprinkling as “less meaningful” than immersion or pouring, is to maybe help you come to be at peace with your own baptism or at least to understand the validity of sprinkling as a mode of baptism.

So here goes…Every time you find the action of “sprinkling” mentioned in the Bible, it is in the context of the covenant God has established with God’s people. Covenants, or contracts, today are typically ratified by what? Our signature at the bottom of the agreement or a password of some sort. Covenants in Scripture were typically ratified with the shedding or sprinkling of blood. In establishing covenant with Abraham in Genesis 15, God had him collect 5 different animals to be sacrificed and then in chapter 17 required the shedding of Abraham’s own blood through circumcision. This would be the mark that Abraham and his descendants would have indicating that they are God’s people, much like how baptism is the mark of God’s children of the new covenant established and fulfilled in Jesus the Christ. After God delivered the Israelites out of Pharaoh’s hand in Egypt and brought them through the Red Sea, God made covenant with them on Mount Sinai, where the Law was given. On that occasion in Exodus 24, Moses was instructed to take the blood from the sacrifices and sprinkle half of it on the altar and then to sprinkle the other half on the people saying, “This is the blood of the covenant that the LORD now makes with you.” Those words ought to sound familiar to those of us with New Testament eyes and ears: on the night that our Lord was betrayed, he took the cup and said these words, “This is my blood of the new covenant which is poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.” In the sacrificial instructions in Leviticus there is all kinds of blood sprinkling going on, again given in the context of living into the covenant established by God in bringing them out of Egypt.

Sprinkling, therefore, is about the covenant. But there are a few times when water, rather than blood, is what is being sprinkled upon someone or something, all of which are about ritual cleansing and purification. You can find it in several places in Leviticus and Numbers, again in the context of covenant living, but is also seen in what we read from Ezekiel this morning. Only in this passage, we are not being taken back to the covenant established in the first books of the Bible, but we are hearing the notes to the prelude, promising the establishment of a new covenant. Ezekiel uses the analogy of a heart transplant with God’s people receiving a new heart and the implanting of God’s own Spirit into our lives. The ritual cleansing that signifies this new, deeper relationship (covenant) is the sprinkling of clean water on the people brought into this new covenant.

John Wesley said of this sprinkling of clean water: “This signifies both the blood of Christ sprinkled upon their conscience, to take away their guilt, as the water of purification was sprinkled, to take away their ceremonial uncleanness and the grace of the spirit sprinkled on the whole soul, to purify it from all corrupt inclinations and dispositions.”

What does this have to do with baptism, you may ask? Why this fits with the theology of baptism is because we understand baptism as a sacramental gift given by God in the context of a community in covenant with God and one another. Turn to page 32 and following in the UM Hymnal and you’ll find the services described this way: “Baptismal Covenant.” Thankfully we use the gift of water rather than blood. Yet when we use the water in baptizing someone, be it via sprinkling, pouring or immersion, we are also recalling the blood that Christ shed and are ourselves being united with him in his cleansing death and resurrection.

In thinking about these two liquids that are sprinkled in the context of covenant living, I was brought back this week to the way that St. John describes Jesus’ death and how when the soldier pierced his side to see if he was dead, blood and water came out from his side.

In his commentary on John, N. T. Wright traces through some of the medical descriptions of what happens at death and says: “The point seems to be, though, that whereas a living body would have produced [only] blood, a dead body, from somewhere in the chest or stomach, would produce a mixture of clotting blood and a watery substance. Jesus really was dead…But of course, at this moment of all moments, none of this is simply told for the sake of historical detail, vital though that is…John has left us in no doubt that all these details, too, though from point of view ‘accidental’ (nobody could have guessed what the soldiers might do next), were all to be seen as heaven-sent signs of what it all meant. We only have to think back through the gospel, to all the occasions where water or blood are mentioned, to realize that again and again they point to Jesus as the source of life, cleansing and purification.

In other words, it all comes together at the cross. The blood, the water, the establishment of the new covenant, all of it finds its meaning right here because in this event and what transpired on the third day, we find the source of life, of cleansing, of purification, of the covenant of our being brought into identity with Christ. The blood and water flowed from his pierced side, fulfilling the picture painted in Zechariah 12 & 13, which tells of God’s people mourning over one who was pierced, but that out of the pierced one would flow a fountain that would cleanse the sin and uncleanness of the people.

Hebrews 10:22 provides, I believe, the perfect response to this reality, how we should live in light of this gracious action of God in Christ, how we should live out our baptism. The author of Hebrews says, “Therefore, let’s draw near with a genuine heart with the certainty that our faith gives us, since our hearts are sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies are washed with pure water.”

Baptism is the sacrament of identity. I repeat from last week: There is debate about just how wet Jesus got. But everyone agrees on the identity proclaimed by the voice… “This is MY Son.” For us it is, “This is MY child.” And this promise was given in the final words of our Scripture this morning: “Then you will live in the land that I gave to your ancestors, YOU will be MY people, and I will be YOUR God.”

Sprinkling: that action of the covenant. And the thing about this biblical notion of covenant is that it is established by God. Notice that the One doing the action in all of this morning’s passage is God. “I will make my great name holy…I will take you from the nations…I will gather you…I will bring you…I will sprinkle clean water on you…I will cleanse you…I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you. I will remove your stony heart…and replace it with a living heart…I will give you my spirit…” God does this. And this is what we believe about baptism: God does this. God has established the covenant with us. God has washed away our dirt, our shame, our guilt, our sin. And this is done because of the cleansing and purifying death and resurrection of Christ. Now let us live as God’s people, “water-washed and Spirit-born” with this living heart and Holy Spirit implanted in us by God’s own doing. Thanks be to God!

Acts 2:14-39

We are a Pentecost people. Last week we were reminded in thinking about immersion that we are a people of the cross and the resurrection. This week in thinking about pouring, we affirm that we are people of Pentecost! Pentecost always falls on the seventh Sunday after Easter and is the time when we remember that the Holy Spirit was poured out upon the disciples. This event is what is often called the birthday of the Church and is what we often refer to when speaking of the baptism of the Holy Spirit. We are a Pentecost people, baptized in water and the Spirit, which took place on that occasion. This is why we can say to God, as hymn #605 in the UM Hymnal says: “We your people stand before you, water-washed and Spirit-born.”

Baptism through Affusion (or pouring) (Photo credit: Rick Hogaboam - totascriptura.com)

Baptism through affusion (or pouring) (Photo credit: Rick Hogaboam – totascriptura.com)

Last week, we talked about the Greek term βαπτίζω, and referred to its definition as “dipping, immersing, or submerging for the purpose of washing or cleansing.” But there is another meaning of βαπτίζω that we didn’t talk about last week. βαπτίζω can mean at times, simply, “to overwhelm.” This is not hard to see when we think about the baptism of the Holy Spirit. The disciples gathered at Pentecost were “overwhelmed” to the point where some spectators thought they were intoxicated. If you’ve ever had a large amount of water poured over your head and face unexpectedly, you know what an overwhelming sensation is. This is why pouring, or what is also called affusion, is a beautiful symbol and usage of water in baptism.

Now before I continue, I want to take a step back and acknowledge something said last week about rebaptism. As I was posting the sermon manuscript and remembered the way I presented it, I think I might have been a little too harsh. Let me share with you that it’s not my intention in this series to talk about “rules” or to lay out an agenda saying “It’s this way or the highway.” Moreover, I’m not interested in shaming the institution nor individuals nor families for the ways that baptism may have been confused or misunderstood in the past. And I think the way I said it last week may have come out that way. So let me clear it up and speak from my heart and my experience, that I’ve been right here with you. I was re-baptized when I was 10 years old, having previously been baptized as an infant, though my parents and probably most of the folks in my home church called it a Christening, and viewed that more as a dedication service than a “real” baptism, which would be done whenever I made a profession of faith. This is played out in debates and discussions about “infant baptism” vs. “believer’s baptism.” But I have difficulty with these phrases because they’re grammatically using “infant” and “believer” as adjectives rather than a personal recipients of divine grace.

Baptism is baptism, whether it is given to an infant or to a youth or adult. And we do not insist that people have to do one or the other, nor do we insist that it has to be done in a particular mode. An infant baptism is no more or less valid than “believer’s” baptism. Immersion is no more valid than pouring or sprinkling. Really, we have more freedom in our church for parents and new Christians to follow their own conscience in these matters than most others. This is because we believe the emphasis is not in the obedience of the person or parents of the one baptized, but in the proclaimed identity of the baptized. That’s why the voice that says, “This is MY Son!” upon Jesus in baptism is more crucial than the fact that he got more or less wet than others perceive. When a person is baptized, we believe it is God saying over the infant or young person or adult “This is MY child!” That’s what I hope we can think of in terms of baptism being about identity rather than a feeling or experience that we think is necessary for someone to follow a certain way. When I was an infant the pastor applied water to my head and invoked the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in baptizing me; in that act I was proclaimed as God’s own child.

There’s more to that story, but in telling it in the context of thinking about pouring, since that’s the theme for this week, I am reminded of how I felt the water on the Sunday after I made my profession of faith at age 10. I got wet y’all! It wasn’t an immersion, but it was more than just a sprinkling. The pastor filled his hands with the water and dumped it on my head. I remember the feeling of water flowing over my head as if it had been poured from above.

And how this fits with baptism is that pouring is an action of water coming from above, it is the sign and seal of the Holy Spirit like what we see at Pentecost. In baptism, we recognize the gift and promise of the Holy Spirit. In the sermon at Pentecost, Peter says that promise is for “you, your children, and for all who are far away – as many as the Lord our God invites.” Hence, again, baptism and its accompanying promise are not about an individual’s decision, but about the action, invitation and gift of God to bring salvation and offer it to all. In baptism, we acknowledge the work of the Holy Spirit in the person’s life, be it as an infant or at the time the person comes to believe in Christ as Lord and Savior. Baptism is that person being brought into this new identity as God’s child, a covenant community, being united with Christ. Baptism, then, is never a “private event,” because it involves commitments not only from the ones being baptized and/or their parents/sponsors, but also the entire community in covenant with one another, called the local church, who agrees to support the baptized with encouragement, prayers, and coming alongside them in the journey of discipleship.

Carrie and I sometimes get asked, “Why did you have Sam and Julianne baptized? Why not wait and let them decide that on their own?” One of the ways we have found helpful in responding to this question is to imagine it like a party…a Holy Spirit party, if you will. This party began at Pentecost and has been going ever since. That first crowd was the first generation of people who would be invited to the party, but then the invitation and promise was given to their children as well. There are some traditions where even children raised in the church are not completely welcome to the party or to participate in all its functions, and are told they aren’t really a part of the party until they’re old enough to decide they don’t want the life outside the party. In thinking through the parable of the prodigal son, this is like telling the child that they need to prodigal experience in a far off country before they can know the true joy of being welcomed home by the loving father. But where this fails, in our view, is that it misjudges the sin of the elder son who stayed home. His error was not that he didn’t go away, but that he never really claimed the party as his own. The grace was always there for him, too. He just never owned where the father had claimed him as his own as well: “…everything I have is yours…”

I hear it said all the time that babies shouldn’t be baptized because they don’t know what’s really going on. I think I understand that because I’ve thought that myself. But as I began to realize that baptism is about God’s gracious action prior to my response of faith, I asked myself, “Do we really ‘know’ what’s going on either? Do I really understand all of God’s grace?” Is it simply about the individual’s ability to “make a decision”? If so, then baptism would be about faith, rather than grace. But if baptism has to do with salvation, and I believe it does, then it is based not on me, but on God’s grace. Yes, I need to make the decision and own the faith, but that is my saying “Yes” to where God has already said, “Yes” to me. Baptism, in other words, is God’s “Yes” upon your life. And God said “Yes” to you long before you could even say “Yes” back, or even before you were able to utter the words, “Dada” or “Mama.” That’s why we say that baptizing an infant is as appropriate as baptizing a youth or adult. Because God has invited us all to receive grace. Thanks be to God.

Pouring is a beautiful image because it is significant language in the other sacrament in which we are about to participate. This day is World Communion Sunday, which falls on the first Sunday of October every year. An emphasis is made on this day that despite whatever differences we have in doctrines, practices, and so on, from all across the world on this day, Christians of multiple denominations unite together to celebrate this holy meal. It’s kind of an image of what took place at Pentecost, which was a festival where people from all across the known world came to Jerusalem to celebrate the giving of the Law; people from various sectors, or denominations, of Judaism came for this purpose and on that one occasion, the Holy Spirit was poured out so that the message of the good news of Jesus Christ spread to all the places that were there represented. That’s what this meal is about. We will pray that the Holy Spirit is poured out upon us and these elements that in this meal we will be filled, or baptized, with the Holy Spirit to go out to share the love of Christ with our neighbors as well.

We are a Pentecost people.