GiftsEden On The Bay

All are welcome ~ Come as you are

Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising, Michigan

Jesus Gives Us a Choice - 07/09/2017

Today's gospel reading from Matthew may contain one of the most compelling invitations we can use in trying to convince others to come and gather with us here for a short time on Saturday evenings or Sunday mornings.

Because, let's face it, the reasons used to tell us why we should go to church in previous times – whether those reasons were good or bad, right or wrong – just don't seem to work very well anymore.

When I was born, some 50+ years ago now, it was into a time we sometimes refer to as the Christendom era or maybe the end of that era – an era in which the church ushered you into your life in baptism, out of this life in your funeral and maintained a dominant position in everything you did in between. We Christians lived and breathed a belief that anything that happened out of the shadow of the church put you out of the reach of God as well.

So, for instance we believed – and the church nurtured this belief – that if a baby wasn't baptized and died, that child was not going back to the loving arms of our Creator, but rather to the mysterious terrors of purgatory or the well-imagined terrors of hell.

The reason I know of this perception of what it means to be baptized and this kind of fear of the Church is because of my own story as a Christian person in this world. A few years ago I was talking to my Mom – I may have been monologue-ing to my Mom – about my issues with someone's decision to be baptized again as an adult. This person had been baptized into the Roman Catholic church as a baby, just like me, but hadn't stayed active in the Catholic tradition. Rather she found herself drawn to a very large non-denominational church that didn't believe in infant baptisms and had convinced her that her baptism didn't really count because she didn't chose it.

That made me mad. My argument was, and still is today, that we confess that “we acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sin.” (Nicene Creed)

My Mom agrees with me, but that day she added a nuance to my thinking around this issue. “You were baptized twice,” she said.

I felt like someone had socked me in the gut. At that time in my life, I was doing  a lot of praying and discernment and writing about my identity as a baptized child of God. It was the central theme to what drew me into the Lutheran tradition of the ELCA … despite my failings, despite my divorce, despite my sin, I was always welcome at the Table of the Lord and I was always recognized as a baptized child of God, a person born into the Jesus Way. And it all hinged on what had happened to me on July 26, 1964, at St. Lucy's Catholic Church in Oak Park, Illinois, on the Feast of St. Anne. “Ann Maria Gonyea, child of God, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever. Amen.” (Or something similar. This is from ELW, Holy Baptism, pg 231)

“What do you mean I was baptized twice, Mom?” I asked, and she told me that when I as born, she was scared that something might happen to me before we could get to the baptismal font and if it did, I would be a victim of evil forces for all of my eternal life, cut off forever from the cradle of God's love. So, she baptized me herself in the hospital. That's how much my mom loves me.

Now today, this is not the way we view baptism. For one thing, we fully embrace baptism at any age – and how through those waters we die to our sin and are raised to new life in Jesus Christ. And we don't employ it as though it's some kind of insurance policy for the fires of hell … necessary mainly to protect us from damnation. Rather, we understand baptism to be one of the ways that we as Christians we are confident that the Holy Spirit breaks into us and claims us.  We are not to be arrogant enough to assume it is the only way God works to claim God's people – but it is our way, and it is beautiful and life-giving, so we not only trust it, we treasure it.

We also don't view it as a single act to check off one's list of to-do's as an obedient Christian. Instead we see it as the first act of many in which we nurture each other as followers of Jesus throughout our whole lives.

In infant or child baptism, the baptizing community promises to nurture that identity until the person is mature enough to nurture it themselves. In adult baptism, the community promises to encourage and support that person's Jesus-following ways. We do that when we pray and study scripture together, when we worship and commune together, when we work and play together – and sometimes when we do the hard work of lovingly holding a mirror up to each other so we can see where we might be turning away from God and our Christian identities.

Overall, I think we have a much healthier and more holistic set of teachings on what it means to be baptized and to be part of Christ's Church – what it really means to live in fear and awe of God.  Baptism is at the heart of who we are. It reminds us of our lifelong attachment to Jesus' Way. It allows us to seek and receive forgiveness for our sins. It assures us of a safe place in God's arms when our time here comes to and end.

And rather than living our lives in fear of stepping out from the shadow of the church – a human institution which has brought a lot of good and not so good into this world –  we live guided instead by a healthy fear of stepping away from the protective shadow of God's presence in our lives, which is not subject to human frailty.

And while this, in many people's opinion, is a much healthier theology or understanding of God's relationship with us, it does present us with some challenges in how we fulfill the Great Commission we find later in Matthew's Gospel: “Go therefore and make disciples of all peoples, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” (Matthew 28:19)

Because, let's face it, when all we had to do was scare people with threats of innocent babies in purgatory or hell, it was a lot easier to convince them they should go to church.

And while our understanding of God and what it means to be a Christian person in this world has shifted and matured over generations, our ideas of how we fulfill Jesus' Great Commission to us hasn't really changed that much.

We have some thinking and praying to do here, my friends. If fear tactics are no loner effective; if a world in which nearly everyone went to church because that's just what you did is a thing of the past, how do we convince people that life attached to a community of faith is worth the time and effort we give it?

There's a lot to an answer to that question, too much for one sermon and probably one preacher. But I think one thing we can say is that this activity is meant to happen in the course of our relationships and conversations we have with people in all parts of our lives. And I suggest that Jesus gives us one way into those conversations in the beautiful words of invitation at the end of our reading today – an invitation that is nothing the world can offer us because there are absolutely no strings attached and no limits to how long the invitation is open and who may respond to it.

Jesus extends this invitation to all who are weary and carrying heavy burdens – so all of us … at one point or another in our lives.

Those who are worried about jobs and paying bills and other obligations.

Those of us who lay awake at night concerned about mistakes we've made or people we've harmed intentionally or unintentionally.

Those of us who struggle with bouts of self loathing or feel like we cannot meet worldly expectations – our own or the expectations of others.

Those of us dealing with illness in ourselves or someone we love.

Those of us who are quite attached to a faith community and still feel doubt creep in on occasion … and those us with no attachment to a faith community who nonetheless find themselves instinctively seeking connection to a high power.

To all of these Jesus says, “Come to me.

Ahhh... there's a choice to be made here – a choice between Jesus' love for us and the world's love for us; Jesus opinion of us and the world's opinion of us; Jesus expectations of us and the world's expectations of us. A choice many people out there may not even know is available to them.

“Take my yoke upon you and learn from me,” Jesus says. “for I am gentle and humble in heart … my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

Jesus gives us words here to share with others about this choice we have to live in the endless forgiveness God offers us … to be accepted and loved just as we are and wherever we are in our journeys, no matter how we look, who we love, what we are good at, (what we are terrible at), no matter how perfectly or imperfectly we conduct ourselves.

And what do we get in return for choosing to define our lives according to the ways of Jesus instead of the ways of the  world? We get rest … rest and peace for our troubled souls.

The world can make a lot of promises to us, but none like these .

So as we continue to seek guidance in how we invite people into the community of faith here at Eden and in the wider Church of Christ in the world, let's lean into these words of invitation we have from our Lord and let's share them with the people around us everyday who haven't heard or perceived yet that there is a life giving choice open to all of us now and forever. Amen.

Pastor Ann Gonyea

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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising Michigan ~ An ELCA, Northern Great Lakes Synod Congregation
P.O. Box 360 ~ 1150 West M-28 ~ Munising, MI 49862 ~ 1-906-387-2520 ~

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