August 28, 2011 Gospel: Matthew 16:21-28 Psalm 26:1-8
1st Reading: Jeremiah 15 2nd Reading: Romans 12:9-21
Holden Frederick, today is your baptism day—a day of joy for the family you are born into, a day of joy for your family of faith, and a day for rejoicing by the angels. You have come into this world all full of promise and hope. You’ve come into a family who loves you and provides for you. You’ve come into a community who has walked with your grandparents over the years and seen your dad and aunties born and grown up and married and been with them all in good times and in difficult ones, and now offering that same support and love to you. Today is the day that God says publicly and clearly how much God loves you, that God made you and claims you—you belong to God. And this church as a representative of the body of Christ makes some promises to watch over you and teach you and raise you with faith and hope. Today you gain a family and we gain a brother.
You already belong to God completely. God formed your little ears and toes and every little body part. God loved your cells into being and multiplied them. God made your bones strong and gave you a voice and nerves and systems and everything you needed. We didn’t participate very much in that miracle, except your mother eating right and getting her rest and exercise. Now God has handed you over to us all to teach and prepare for life and enjoy.
You’ve got a lot to look forward to. God’s world is fun to explore! There are all kinds of foods you’re going to want to try—some you’ll love and some might be acquired tastes. There are all kinds of textures to feel and put in your mouth and maybe your nose. There are all kinds of people to meet and animals to bum along with and songs to sing and feats of balance and agility to attempt. You’re taking in life every moment and storing it in that amazing computer God has given you, sorting and evaluating and trying again and perfecting skills. It is an amazing time in your life.
Even Jesus said so—you’ll be hearing a lot about this guy, Jesus, by the way. He said that we should all be like little children in order to experience the Kingdom of God. We all want to be like you Holden! Here we are teaching you to be like us, when really the goal is for us to reclaim that curiosity you have—your ability to trust, willingness to learn, flexibility, forgiving nature, and your joy. God says those should be our goals. You get to teach us!
We’ve come along way since infancy —some of us longer than others. We’ve been learning how to live in this world for a while now. Some of it has been very helpful: I tell you, there is nothing like being able to walk wherever you want to. Then you’ll want a tricycle and a scooter, then a bike and a car and who knows what kind of transportation they’ll have when you’re an adult! It is nice to be able to take care of your own needs and do meaningful work and say what’s on your mind. All those are good things about growing up.
And we’ve learned some bad habits along the way. We’ve learned to argue with each other, how to utter what is worthless, how to be arrogant and selfish, how to repay evil for evil, and so many other things we wish we hadn’t learned. And we have learned the selfish pursuit of saving our own life and put that front and center of everything. It can get to be all “me” first. That’s not all bad. We want to survive and prosper. But we also want to get our own way at the expense of others. We’ve learned to play some games that aren’t very nice. And we are going to teach you those games, too. Some you’ll learn at home, some on the playground, others at church or at work or in relationships. It won’t be long and we’ll be taking you down some questionable paths.
But it doesn’t have to stay that way. Our faith gives us other options. Jesus shows us another way. Jesus says, “let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” He says, “Those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” Let me tell you, Holden, there are a lot of puzzles that you are going to run into. No one can solve these life puzzles for you. You’ll have to figure out what they mean for you. And you can have a community around you, also puzzling out these riddles with you. You’ll get to puzzle out what it means to find and lose your life. You’ll do it many times over. You’ll get to discover what it means to accept yourself and deny yourself. You’ll get to practice following Jesus and getting distracted from that. You’ll have a lifetime to puzzle out these sayings of Jesus and this is one of the more challenging ones.
Maybe it seems kind of ornery of Jesus to offer you a riddle, right now. But riddles make us think. They give us a chance to use our God-given wits. It might be easier if God would be more clear and lay it all out there, but I’m sorry to say that life isn’t so simple that one rule works for every situation. And God doesn’t insult our intelligence by pretending that’s the case.
Instead God respects us enough to let us figure it out for ourselves and with the help of others. It is a lifelong journey unpacking some of these puzzles, but you can also see it as an adventure. It isn’t about winning or getting it right. It is about walking with Jesus through your whole life and being in relationship with God and God’s people. It is about being in a conversation with God about what makes for a good and generous and fulfilling life. God doesn’t need us to get it right, because Jesus, God’s Son, took care of that on the cross. That makes us free to live our lives and to try to be loving and make this world better.
Today, Holden, you practice denying yourself, giving up your life, and following Jesus. We will get you wet in the font, a symbolic drowning, taking you through the waters, washing you clean, hearing God’s word of promise for you and for people throughout the ages, finding your part in the story of God’s people, and bringing you up into new life—one that isn’t defined by your mistakes or the world’s. This is a new life of second chances, of learning from history and from your past to try to find a better, more life-giving way. This is new life that is counter-cultural where you learn what doesn’t make sense for getting ahead in this world, but makes for a better world for everyone.
See it described in Paul’s letter to the Romans: being genuine, loving, honoring, rejoicing, persevering, contributing, blessing, living in harmony, being humble. And isn’t that the world you have now, Holden? You will come full circle, starting out an innocent child, living that harmonious life, being corrupted by this world, and then finding a better way and probably going round and round many times in your life and maybe even daily. And going to the cross doesn’t have to be so scary. We can practice dying every day to those things that don’t make this world better and don’t serve us or God or our neighbor. And when the time comes that we breathe our last breath, we don’t have to be afraid, because we’ve practiced many times before giving ourselves over into God’s hands and we know he will be with us every step of the way and give us eternal life, with God and all creation in unity forever.