On Baptism and Behavior

Sermon on The Baptismal Covenant

First Sunday after the Epiphany:  The Baptism of Our Lord (January 8, 2012)

Mark 1:4-11

by Todd McKee

If I say WalMart, or McDonald’s or Nike, what comes to mind?  Or if I say Starbucks, or Apple, or Cadillac, what do you expect?

If the marketing and business people do their job right a brand comes with a certain set of expectations, emotions and assumptions.

If I say Christianity, what comes to mind?

I just finished reading a book that gives the answer to that question from our youngest adult generation.  The book has the somewhat provocative title unChristian* because it is all about, quite frankly, how UNchristian Christianity often seems to outsiders.

The author is a researcher who conducted interviews and surveys with young Americans, age 16-29 at the time, who are outsiders to Christianity.  They asked hundreds of young agnositics, atheists, and members of other religions to describe how they view Christianity from the outside.  And, as the author says, “it is not a pretty picture.”

This book was published back in 2007 so these are people who are today about 20-33 years old.  In their research they showed these young people a list of 20 or more words or phrases, both favorable and unfavorable, that might be used to describe a religion.  They were asked to rate how much each of these describes present day Christianity.

Here’s what they found, and I warn you, some of this is hard to hear.  Starting with the descriptor that the most of them said applies to present day Christianity “a lot” here are the top ten:

1.  Anti-homosexual
2.  Judgmental
3.  Hypocritical
4.  Too involved in politics
5.  Out of touch with reality
6.  Teaches the same basic idea as other religions
7.  Old-fashioned
8.  Insensitive to others
9.  Boring

and finally something more positive with number 10:

10.  Has good values and principals

But by the time you get down that far you have only a quarter of them agreeing that this describes Christianity “a lot”.  That’s compared to well over half of them who agree with what the author calls the big 3:  Anti-homosexual, Judgmental, and Hypocritical.  This is our brand.  When they hear Christian that’s what springs to mind.

This morning we move beyond the Christmas season and the babe in the manger and the visit of the Magi to the story of the adult Jesus having an amazing life changing, spirit filled experience in his baptism.  Two key things happen in this story:  Jesus is affirmed as a beloved child of God and his baptism includes not only cleansing with water but the gift of being inspired by the Holy Spirit.

This brief passage from Mark is remarkable in of itself but the power of Jesus baptism must also be understood in its larger context:  this is a sort of turning point in his life, it is a spiritually significant experience that sets him off on a path of ministry to those who were ill, outcast, and seeking.  In short, his baptism is as significant for what comes after it as it is for what happens at that moment.  Baptism is not an end in itself—it leads to doing.

In our tradition, we too understand baptism as not only entry into the Church, but also our entry into, even our ordination for, ministry.  A few weeks ago De reminded us in his sermon that we are all ministers of the Church.  Remember that little review of part of the Catechism?

Q. Who are the ministers of the Church?
A. The ministers of the Church are lay persons, bishops, priests, and deacons.

As a part of our celebration, in a few minutes, we will renew our baptismal covenant—a clear statement about what we believe and, perhaps more importantly, how we commit ourselves to action.  It is the brand of Christianity that we strive for.

First we will reaffirm our renunciation of evil and our belief in God.  But then we move on to some very critical statements not about belief but about behavior.

This is at the heart of what we say it means to be a Christian:

First, that we believe in God, the church, the saints, forgiveness, and resurrection.

For me that’s the easy part, now here comes the tough stuff—we also say that what it means to be Christian is that we DO the following:

  • live in community with others and learn from the past
  • pray
  • resist evil
  • admit when we have sinned and start over again
  • proclaim good news
  • serve everyone as if he or she is Christ
  • love our neighbors as ourselves
  • strive for justice and peace
  • respect the dignity of every human being

This is a very different brand than the one perceived by outsiders.  Why is that?

There are many reasons why this might be true and some of this is complicated stuff.  But at least one kernel of truth is that our beliefs and what we say don’t always match what we do.  We are all guilty, from time to time, of being hypocrites:  of saying one thing and doing another—or of saying something and doing nothing.

And, in many ways, as the author of my book points out, Christians “have become known for what we oppose, rather than who we are for.”  Or I think I would say we have become known for our conflict not how we love.

To live our lives that are faithful to this covenant of humility, love, justice, peace, and dignity is no easy challenge.  It reminds me of one of my favorite William Sloane Coffin quotes:

“It is often said that Christianity has been tried and found wanting.  It would be more accurate to say that it has been tried and found difficult.”

This covenant that we will renew this morning is hard stuff.

The reason I stick my finger in the water in the font as often as I can and cross myself with it is that I need as many reminders as I can get that this covenant is what I’ve committed myself to.  And I must pray again and again the prayer “I will, with God’s help.”

As the author of unChristian says at the start of the book, “Christianity has an image problem.”

I think that the solution to this is a subversive marketing strategy that involves nothing less than you and me and every Christian taking this covenant seriously.  Others will see and experience the love of God as we continue to live into it.

That is what drew me back into the Church years ago after a very dry period and I saw the amazing witness of the peole in the Church in Bethel who were tired of talking about the problems faced by young people in that community and did something about it by starting an after school program.

Or I think of a retired school principal from the church in Stowe who I met yesterday.  A big part of his ministry in the world right now is that he is helping to establish a unique school for children in long-term foster care who have special needs.

It happened time and time again after the flooding when we reached out to people in the White River Valley.  One of the volunteers from Christ Church told me that when they kept bringing supplies up to Stockbridge at one point someone said, “Wow. The Episcopalian church is doing all this? Maybe we should start one here in Stockbridge.”

My point is not that we should try to look good, or do good things just so people will like us or want to be Christian.  The point is that actions matter and our faith in not just one that has to do with our intellect, our beliefs, and our words.  Rather in baptism we join with Jesus in ministry to the world.

I close with a story from a Lutheran pastor (in his own words) about a parish in Minnesota that illustrates this beautifully:

Every year Prince of Peace has a Mega-Garage Sale.  It was not my idea!  In fact, to be honest, I don’t like garage sales of any size.  But this garage sale is totally dedicated to charity.  Fifty Percent of the net proceeds to outside of Prince of Peace and 50 percent go to ministries within Prince of Peace, with none of the proceeds going to the woman’s ministry that sponsors the sale.  Least year, more than $60,000 was given away.  NO wonder it keeps growing!

The focus of the women who give of their gifts, time, and energy for the garage sale is on misson, not on themselves.  The joy they feel when they prayerfully make the decisions of where all the money will go is phenomenal.

The first to go through the Mega-Garage Sale are families identified through social service agencies as in dire need.  They take what they need for free.  Then the sale is held and when it is over, whatever has not been sold is given to a Hmong group who repairs, reconditions, and uses everything.  From start to finish, this garage sale is dedicated to the welfare of others.

The power of the garage sale is found in our common commitment ot mission.  The most I do is help collect furniture and perhaps make a few small purchases.  But others give days and days of their time, energy, and love.  We have discovered that when the disciples of Jesus are able to connect their gifts and passions to concrete acts of mission, they give far more time and energy than we could have imagined.  The garage sale is a small but significant response to God’s call to all of us to live beyond ourselves, to be a community in the service of others in the name of Jesus Christ.  It is an example of doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God–living the prophet Micah’s marks of the spiritual life.**

May we do the same, with God’s help.  Amen.

______________________________________

*David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons, unChristian: What a New Generation Thinks About Christianity…and Why it Matters (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007).

**Michael W. Foss, Power Surge: Six Marks of Discipleship for a Changing Church (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000) 65.

 

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