“You’re the One Who Started It”
A Sermon by the Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie
Rector of St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church
In Fort Washington, Pennsylvania
Sunday, July 15, 2018
The Episcopal Church sets aside five Sundays for baptism, but at St. Thomas’ we offer an additional Sunday each month in the summer to assist families celebrating a baptism. Hence, the lessons assigned for today were not selected with baptism in mind. Hence, with your permission, I would like to forgo preaching about John the Baptism being beheaded.
Instead, I’d like to focus briefly on Paul’s letter to the Ephesians and upon two words that shed light on baptism and more importantly our lives – grace and adoption. In one of her books, Anne Lamott wrote, “Sam was baptized today at St. Andrew’s. It is almost too painful to talk about, so powerful, so outrageous and lovely. Just about every person I adore was there. They were the exact people I would invite to my wedding.” Such is the significance of baptism.
The lesson that we read from Ephesians is a favorite text for those who believe in “prevenient grace,” which means “grace which goes before.” Prevenient grace signifies that long before you and I have ever figured out who God is and have taken our first steps towards following Jesus, God has been caring for us. God provided us with loving parents, food, shelter, safety and health. God’s grace proceeds anything that we do or deserve.
Hence, none of us can ever truly say, “I am self-made.” For all of us have gotten to where we are thanks to the grace of God. After all, we did not choose our parents, nor specify where we were born nor select our DNA or physical or mental traits. All of these were gifts. From this perspective, the Gospel is not first about humans, but rather about God and what God has done for us through Jesus Christ “before the foundation of the world,” as St. Paul notes.
In his commentary, John Calvin describes the first three chapters of Ephesians as “chiefly occupied in commending the grace of God.” After centuries of use and often misuse, most religious words have become shopworn. They have lost their luster, but not so with grace. For some mysterious reason, grace still shines, still speaks and still captivates us. Yet at the same time, grace is hard to understand. We Americans live and die by the Protestant work ethic. We must work hard to get ahead and often scorn those who do not work hard. Grace is therefore counter-intuitive, because it is something that we cannot earn or achieve no matter hard how we work.
Yet, grace was probably St. Paul’s favorite word. He wrote, “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ”, “Grace and peace be with you”, and “My grace,” says God, “is sufficient for you.” But for all the times that we hear and read about grace, it eludes us. Frederick Buechner writes,
Grace is something that you can never get but only be given. There’s no way
to earn it or deserve it or bring it about any more than you can deserve the taste
of raspberries and cream or earn good lucks or bring about your own birth….
The grace of God means something like: Here is your life. You might never
have been, but you are because the party wouldn’t have been complete without
you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be
afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It’s for you I created the
universe. I love you.
Then Buechner adds, “There’s only one catch. Like any other gift, the gift of grace can be yours only if you’ll reach out and take it.”
The movie Won’t You Be My Neighbor tells the story of the Presbyterian minister Fred Rogers, who created the TV show Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, which touched a generation of children. When asked who he admired, Fred Rogers responded, “I admire people who have been through a lot of difficulties and have found a way to get through them and move forward. In one episode, he invited a young boy named Jeff Erlanger, who was confined since the age of four to a motorized wheelchair, to appear on his show.
Jeff had slender fingers and hands that twitched as he spoke. Mr. Rogers burst out of his make believe house wearing his cardigan sweater and sneakers and greeted Jeff with his signature smile and asked him about how he ended up in a motorized wheelchair. Jeff explained that when he was seven months old a tumor broke through the nerves that controlled his hands and legs disrupting his use of them. “I’ve had a wheelchair ever since I was four,” Jeff said. Then Mr. Rogers sang to him, “I like you not because of your fancy chair or the way that you part your hair. I like you just because of who you are. That is why I like you.” Mr. Rogers had a gift for making children feel safe and loved simply because of who they are and not because of what they did. Grace is like that.
C.S. Lewis notes that grace is Christianity’s unique contribution to world religions. It signifies that there is love at the heart of the universe, which is meant to unite all things. It is something freely given, unearned, unmerited, unstoppable and inexhaustible. In the gospels, Jesus does something scandalous. He notes that there is nothing that we can do to make God love us any more than God already does and nothing that we can do that will make God love us any less.
That leads me to the second word that I wish to focus on briefly. That word is adoption. St. Paul notes that through baptism we are adopted as God’s own children. That might sound like a religious platitude, but it’s really not. When Paul was writing, Roman law permitted a person to disown a natural born child. If your natural born child did something terrible, if your wife and you were in Rome for the weekend and your son or daughter held a toga party in Florence and accidentally burned down your villa or crashed your favorite chariot, you could disown him or her. But if that child had adopted, Roman law forbid you from ever disowning your son or daughter. You see adoption was forever. So, when Paul writes that we were destined for “adoption as his children through Jesus Chris,” he is highlighting that God will never disown any of us, because we are adopted as God’s own children in baptism.
Through baptism we become members of the Body of Christ, the Church, not because we are any less sinful than other people or because we have done all the right things. We have not done all the right things. Adoption as Christ’s own means that we belong to God and to this earth and to all who inhabit it simply because of the grace of God, which we did not earn and which cannot be taken from us.
Hence, we belong to God not because of flesh and blood or family tradition but because God who “destined us for adoption.” Our spiritual inheritance is utterly gratuitous. Adoption by God is good news because it conveys to us that grace is all around us and the grace of Jesus Christ always precedes us. In the words of 1 John 4:19, “We love because [God] first loved us.”
We may wonder why are some adopted by God and others are not? Why do some receive God’s grace and others encounter suffering? For theologians like Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Edwards and Barth, being adopted by God is something to be grateful for, to marvel at and to celebrate. It’s not about who is in and who is out, who is included and who is excluded. No, it’s merely about God’s good pleasure.
During the past month, over a billion people have watched the World Cup. The final begins 40 minutes. I am aware of one priest who may miss ice tea after church. I have taped every game in the tournament in both Spanish and English. Call me an addict! If you have watched any of the games, you may have noticed how many soccer players have tattoos. I am not a big fan of tattoos, especially if your wife is named Sally but you have Alice tattooed on your arm. A tattoo can apparently be removed, but I am told that it’s very painful. Yet, a tattoo is only skin deep. Baptism, however, is eternal. It’s like a soul-tattoo. You can ignore it. You can cover it up. You can pretend that you never had it. You can abandon it, foreswear it, deny it or avoid it, but it’s a mark that you carry with from this life to the next. Once you’ve got it, you’ve got it.
As children adopted by God in baptism we are called to specific tasks to serve God and neighbor. We are not called to power or privilege, but suffering and discipleship. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “When God calls someone, God calls that person to come and die.” Hence, our adoption is a gift with a purpose and the purpose is to remind us that we belong to God, and God has expectations for us to care compassionately for all people.
Baptism means that God treats us as God treats Jesus. God will love us and never condemn us. But unless we know this and trust this, it will make no difference in our lives. As T.S. Elliott said, “We will have had the experience, but we will have missed the meaning.”
I close with a story about Will Willimon, who was the Chaplain at Duke University. One afternoon, an irate father telephoned and berated him for having overly influenced his daughter. The father had packed his daughter off to Duke with the expectation that she would become the third generation in her family to become a doctor. Yet, under Willimon’s influence, she traveled to Haiti on a summer mission trip and decided to spend three years of her life there as a missionary. The telephone conversation between her father and the chaplain went like this.
Chaplain: “Now just wait a minute. Didn’t you have her baptized?”
Father: “Well, yes, but we’re Episcopalians.”
Chaplain: “And didn’t you take her to Sunday school when she was little? You can’t deny that. She told me herself that you used to take her to Sunday school.”
Father: “Sure we did. But we never intended for it to do any damage.”
Chaplain: “Well, she was messed up before we got her. Baptized, Sunday-schooled, called. Don’t blame this on me. You were the one who started it. You should have thought about what you were doing when you had her baptized.”
That is why in just a moment we will renew our own Baptismal Covenant as a way to recommit our hearts and minds and our behavior to following Jesus and remembering that we have been adopted by God in baptism and have received God’s grace. Through grace, we can become all that we were meant to be, all that we want to be and all that God intends for us to be. Amen.