Baptisms of Resistance: Sermon for January 15, 2017

Last Monday I saw an incredible new movie. I’m not much of a movie goer, but I had heard amazing things about “Hidden Figures”, a true story about three African-American women who worked for NASA in 1961 in Hampton, Virginia.

hidden-figures-posterAll three were absolutely brilliant, and they were what NASA at the time called “computers”. We hear that word and think of laptops or the like, but for them it literally meant that they were doing the math, the computing, necessary for the Mercury Seven astronauts to launch and return to earth successfully.

And yet, they were living in a time and a place where even their brilliance could not give them equality. While they crunched numbers for NASA all day, they did so in a separate office reserved for “Colored Computers”. And when they had to use the restroom, they went to one with the word “Colored” written on the door.

I really believe everyone should see this movie, and so I’m not going to ruin it and tell you more than that, but I will tell you that all week I have been thinking about this story. I’ve been thinking of it in light of the Civil Rights Movement, and of Martin Luther King Day, which we celebrate tomorrow. But I’ve also been thinking of it in light of something else. I’ve been thinking about baptism, and about how we live our life.

Today we are observing Dr. King’s birthday, but we are also observing a holy day in the life of the church. On the Sunday after Epiphany, which we celebrated last week, we remember Jesus’ own baptism.

John the Baptist, who we heard about throughout Advent, had gone out into the wilderness and people had started to come to him to be baptized. And this isn’t the kind of baptism that you and I know about today, but was instead an adaptation of a Jewish custom where you would immerse yourself and wash yourself clean in anticipation of a new beginning.

Jesus ended up being one of those people who came to John, and when John saw him dovecoming he said, “Wait, Jesus…I shouldn’t baptize you…you should baptize me!” But Jesus told John to baptize him anyway, and when John did Jesus came up from under the water, and Scripture tells us that you could see the Spirit of God resting on Jesus like a dove, and that a voice said “this is my son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

As Protestants we celebrate two sacraments, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. And we say that we do these two things because Jesus “instituted” them. That doesn’t mean that people weren’t already being immersed in water or eating bread and wine. But that does mean that Jesus himself participated in these things, and made them holy, and told us to do the same. And so today, you and I do these things because we follow him.

Jesus, being Jesus, understood baptism a little better than we do. He knew that he was about to embark on a journey, a new thing, and like the people of his place and time, he went to John to mark it and to prepare. And when he was baptized, Jesus was publicly marked as God’s own.

What was true for Jesus is also true for us. Whether we are baptized as infants, and we can’t remember a thing about it, or whether we are baptized as adults and can remember everything, the real work of baptism is not done by us. In baptism God does the heavy lifting, claiming us as God’s own and strengthening and sealing us for life.

What happens on the day we are baptized is not the end of our baptism. It’s just the beginning of a whole new journey. Because while God claims us in baptism, once we are baptized our job is to claim God’s plan for us in all of our lives.

Our job as Christians is to live the life that God intends for us. I don’t mean that in the sense that some preachers you see on TV do. This is not about being “blessed” by big houses and bank accounts, or about claiming your “best life now”. Instead this is about figuring out what gifts God has given you, and using them not for yourself but to help others. This is about finding your purpose and living out your baptism every day.

Watching “Hidden Figures” I thought about these three women who had been given profound gifts by God. They were amazing mathematicians. And yet, every step of the way they were confronted by barriers, both because they were women, and because they were African-American.

The work load for every employee of NASA was backbreaking, but can you imagine what it was like to have to carry the additional burden of breaking two barriers at the same time? To work the same long hours computing figures that could literally save or take a man’s life, and then to have to drink from a separate coffee pot? To have to claim your place not just by being the best, but by not being silent and by standing up for yourself and for others at every turn?

Last week “Hidden Figures” was the number one move in the country. It even beat the new Star Wars. Can you imagine that? A movie about three African-American women doing math beat a perennial office blockbuster.

I asked myself why that happened, and I think the answer is this. I think we need stories like this right now. We need reassurance that when the world tries its best to hold people down, when it overlooks the gifts that God has given because of the ones who bear them, that does not have to be the end of the story.

The three woman at the heart of the movie were women of faith. Presbyterians, as I understand it. And they understood that they were baptized. And so, that’s why I believe that this was a baptism story. This was the story of three women who knew that they were God’s beloved, and who knew that in them God was well pleased. And they refused to let the world treat them as anything less.

917f3bba67764b291ffc5a59916e6b2bOn Dr. King day we remember a man who lived into his baptism by doing the same. It was Dr. King’s faith that fueled his work for equality. He was first and foremost a preacher, who believed in the Gospel, and believed that each of God’s children deserved dignity because of that. He believed this enough that he could not be silent, even though he well knew that it would likely cost him his life.

That is incredible. And yet, it is nothing less than what God asks of us. That is what our baptism means.

When we baptize someone in this church it is a joyous occasion. Particularly when we bring a child to the font, there is this light and joy. They come dressed in white, with their smiling parents and siblings. We take pictures. We eat cake. We walk the cute baby through the aisles and we smile.

But there’s a part in the baptismal service that reminds us that baptism is the start of something incredibly risky. Whether we make the vows for ourselves as adults, or we make them on behalf of a child, we are committing to a life of resisting the worst in this world.

The baptism vows include this question: “Will you (or will you encourage this child to) renounce the powers of evil and receive the freedom of new life in Christ?”

And a few minutes later: “Do you promise to be Christ’s disciple, to follow in the way of our savior, to resist oppression and evil, to show love and justice, and to witness to the work and word of Jesus Christ as best you are able?”

Those are the words that the UCC uses, but every Christian liturgy I know has some form of the same questions. The implication is clear: if you want to be a Christian, if you want to follow Christ, if you want to teach a child to be a Christian, you can’t do it by sitting down or staying silent in the face of evil or injustice. You have to rise up.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was martyred by the Nazis, once wrote that when Christ calls a

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John Lewis’ work in the Civil Rights Movement was inspired in large part by his Christian faith. This is him being beaten by police in 1965 during the Selma march.

person to follow him, he “bid him come and die”. That sounds harsh. And yet, it’s true. People like Bonhoeffer and Dr. King knew that literally.

But in our baptism we too are called to die. Maybe not literally, but certainly in a real way. Because if we are really going to follow Jesus, then we must be willing to let our hopes of always being comfortable die. We must be willing to let our self-protecting silence die. We must be willing to let our neutrality in the face of injustice die.

We must do these things because in the end, it is the only way that we, and the world, may truly live. Amen?

And so, on this Baptism of the Lord Sunday, for those who are baptized, I invite you to join me in reaffirming your baptism. For those who are not baptized, I invite you to reflect on these words and see whether God might be inviting you into baptism. Let us use the words of the baptismal liturgy…

Remembering the Stones: Sermon for May 18, 2014

Acts 7:55-60
7:55 But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.

7:56 “Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!”

7:57 But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him.

7:58 Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.

7:59 While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”

7:60 Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (copyright, US Holocaust Museum)

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (copyright, US Holocaust Museum)

When I was in seminary the most dreaded class was preaching. Many people have an aversion to public speaking, future ministers included, so that’s not surprising. But the word around campus was that preaching class would rip you apart before putting you back together. There were plenty of stories about feedback and how your sermons would be videotaped and you would be forced to watch yourself as you stumbled over readings or swayed back and forth in the pulpit.

So on the first day of preaching class, we all walked in and sat uneasily at our tables. And one of the preaching professors got up and started reading stories like this one from the book of Acts. They were stories about how the early Christians were beaten or imprisoned or even killed for their faith. And at the end he turned to us and said “that’s what they endured to preach the Gospel…I think you’re going to be just fine.”

Today’s story is not an easy one. It’s the story of Stephen, the first Christian martyr, which means the first person to die for their Christian faith. He is called to trial and asked about his faith. And instead of lying or recanting, he tells them about what he believes about Jesus. And they respond by stoning him.

The book of Acts is full of stories like this. It’s a book about how those early disciples in the uncertain days were learning to be the church together, and were facing the very real consequences of what it meant to claim their faith. And it wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t what we’ve come to expect from church.

It’s funny, because sometimes I think the modern church needs to go back and read Acts from time to time. We need to remember our roots. And we need to remember those stones. Sometimes we need to see that stark reminder. Sometimes we need to know that ours is a faith for which peopled died.

The reality is that the faith of the early church was a lot different than the faith of American, middle-class Christianity. No one is waiting at our church doors to stone us. We are not losing anything except maybe an extra hour of sleep by being here. We are under no threat being here. And really, if you want to, you can walk out the church door today and not think about your faith again until next Sunday morning.

That’s our luxury. But sometimes that is also our problem.

We live in a culture where almost everything else is done for our convenience or pleasure. We expect to have things our way. We demand that we be served. We expect that things will be done the way we want. We don’t like being inconvenienced. And we are often all-too-quick to remind those we believe are there to serve us that there are other options down the road.

And sometimes that attitude even finds its way to our churches. We become not disciples, but consumers, looking to be fed, or be inspired, or be made happy. The church becomes a vehicle for meeting our own needs and wants.

But here’s the hard truth that stories like today’s remind us of: the church does not exist for us. This building is not here for us. This worship service is not about us. The committee meetings and decisions we make are not about us.

Instead, the church, and everything about Christian life, is about Jesus and his will for us and for the world.

That’s a little distressing to hear, perhaps. Because it goes against almost everything else we encounter in our culture. This isn’t about us and the way we want it. It’s not about our comfort and convenience. It’s not about whether or not things fit into our schedule or preferred timeline. It’s about Jesus. We are not the served. We are the servants.

And sometimes we are called to make great sacrifices as a result. And sometimes we are asked to put aside our self and find our identity in Christ instead.

Stephen did that in a literal way. The Scripture right before the passage we read today tells of Stephen being on trial, and being asked whether the charges against him, about whether he followed Christ, were true. And Stephen responds with a long speech in which he testifies to his faith in Christ, and even tells those gathered some hard truths about what it means to follow God’s will, and how they had often dropped the ball.

That’s when they decided to stone him, by the way. Even though his words were true, hearing the truth enraged them and they had to literally kill the messenger.

And yet, even in his dying moments, he was a witness to something greater than himself. Scripture tells us that as Stephen was being stoned, there was a young man watching. He was one of the people persecuting Stephen. The others gave him their coats to watch as they killed Stephen. And he stood there, watching what it meant to have faith in Christ, and what the consequences could be.

His name was Saul, but we know him all this time later as Paul, the great messenger of Christ’s life and love. He was not converted to faith that day. That came later on the Damascus road. But before he ever believed, he understood the potential costs of being Christ’s disciple.

Maybe there’s something to that. Maybe we should be more up-front in the church about the potential costs of following Christ. Maybe we should have a sort of disclosure process before someone decides to join, not to discourage them, but to just be honest. Because, if we are all being honest about this, following Christ means that you are going to lose your life.

I don’t mean literally. At least not in the sense that Stephen did. We have that luxury now. But if you are doing this Christian faith thing honestly, you are going to lose your life. You are going to lose the illusion that you are in control. You are going to lose the perception that it is all about you and your needs. And you are going to lose the right to have it your way. You are going to lose the life you know, and maybe the life you have always wanted.

That’s the cost of discipleship. That phrase, “cost of discipleship”, comes from a man named Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He was a German Lutheran pastor who managed to get out of his home country and secure a seminary teaching post in New York City when the Nazis rose to power. He was safely stateside, and out of harms way.

And yet, he did not feel that he was doing what Christ had called him to do with his life. And so, he went back to Germany, and worked as a Christian pastor to oppose Hitler and his regime. When he went back, he knew in a real way that he was signing his own death certificate. And yet, he went anyway. Because, like Stephen, he felt like he had no choice. And like Stephen, in the end he too became a martyr.

That’s not a very cheerful story, I know. But, for me at least, it is an inspiring one. It’s good to have examples of selfless faith. And it’s good to have reminders that sometimes our faith calls us to do the things that we do not want to do, even to the point of losing the life we know.

For you and I, hopefully, we will never have to make a choice to literally give up our lives in order to follow Christ. But we will have to make, everyday and in dozens of ways, a choice to give up the life we know, the life we want, and the life we hope for, for something else.

The good news is that the “something else” is something better.

Because Christ doesn’t call us to give up our life and follow him for no reason at all. He doesn’t call us to something hard in order to make us miserable and to hurt us. Christ calls us from the lives we know and imagine to a life that is unimaginable in its meaning and its depth.

No, we no longer get to have it “our way”. Now we get to have it Christ’s way. And, if we really open ourselves up to that, we find that it is more incredible than we could have imagined.

But that day that he watched Stephen die, do you think Paul believed that? Do you think he was saying, “I want to follow that guy?” No. And I wouldn’t have wanted to either.

But when that blinding light finally hits you, like it did Paul, you realize that you can do no other, and that life itself is a small price to pay for a life of meaning.

So, what price are you willing to pay? What is the cost of discipleship for you? I’m not talking about buying grace or anything like that. You can’t do that. But, what are you willing to turn over to God in order that you might live a life of gratitude for the gifts you have been given? What are you willing to lie down on the ground, or cast off like a stone, so that you might follow him into something else?

What are you holding onto, and what are you willing to let go of in order to claim something better? It’s a question worth asking for all who would follow Christ, and it’s a question that can change our lives.

May our lives be changed by Christ’s call to discipleship, and may we choose to pay the cost. Amen.