[The following sermon was preached at the dedication of our older grandson, Grant.]
In England and throughout all of Europe the standard line regarding church attendance is this: most people are in church three times during their lives—the day of their baptism (and remember that almost all of Europe practices infant baptism), the day of their wedding, and the day of their funeral. When you stop to think about it, two of these three times the person has to be carried in and out. They are not there by their own choice. They are not even aware that they’re there as an infant or a corpse.
It is well known that the churches through Europe are virtually empty. The cathedrals and historical churches have their tourists and die-hard members. But for the most part the churches are empty. There is very little interest in church life in that part of the world. Weddings, funerals and baptisms celebrating the births of children are about the extent of most people’s involvement in organized religion.
Americans, as they look on that pattern, are puzzled. They can’t see the point of showing up three times in your life (two of which you are not even aware of) if the church, God, or faith has no meaning and relevance for you. Some Americans even call this pattern hypocritical. I think Europeans follow this pattern because the custom of doing so is so ingrained in that culture. These observances are part of a larger tradition. It’s what is expected. (I also wonder if these observances occur because deep down there may be a sense that something deeper is involved in the lives of those participating.) For centuries the established churches throughout Europe catered to the powerful and wealthy. As Walter Brueggemann says, “They learned that the best way to get along was to go along.” But in the process of getting and going along, they lost sight of Jesus’ radical message and example of the Kingdom of God. They became for the most part spiritually, ethically, and theologically bankrupt. So, with the modern and post-modern eras, they also became irrelevant. One reason the churches in Europe are empty is because they had no powerful gospel or example to offer.
Christians in the U. S. are shocked by this development, and, of course, we love to criticize the Europeans. But I would suggest that we should not be so smug in our criticism, because much of the church involvement in this country occurs because in our culture it is still the popular and expected thing to do. This is especially true throughout the South, the Bible Belt, the Midwest, and rural, small-town America. In such areas church attendance still can provide advantages. It may help business or enhance reputations. Also, in such areas most of one’s friends perhaps go to church and in some churches (such as this one) generations of our families have been a part of the church. We’re here in part because we want to be, but sometimes many people are in church simply because it’s the thing to do. It’s expected, routine, and customary.
But that trend is changing. Compare church attendance and involvement in this church today to what happened in the 1950s. In another fifty years our churches may be as empty as those in Europe. And they may empty for the same reasons we looked at in Europe.
What I’m getting at is the tendency of many people in the church to see church attendance as just one more aspect of life—just one more thing to do. Rather than being the dynamic community which allows us to seek God’s will with risky freedom and joyful abandon, the church has become just one more social institution in our lives. And, as such, it often takes its cues from society as to how to operate and what to value. Rather than being that fellowship which empowers us to seek the Kingdom of God in every aspect of our lives, the church has become for many, a gathering place—especially for those who still find it advantageous and beneficial to attend and belong.
Now what does all this have to do with baby dedication? Far too often parents bring their children for dedication with very little understanding of the significance of that event. (I think that was true of us when we took our daughter for dedication). I mean, it’s the thing to do. We were dedicated. Probably our parents and grandparents were dedicated and would love for us to dedicate our children. And it’s the custom in Indiana Protestant churches to baptize or dedicate children. And, yes, it’s a time when we can celebrate the birth of our children with our friends and our fellow church members. We come seeking the blessing of God as we thank God for these precious gifts of life. And it also gives us a wonderful opportunity to show off our darling little ones. And it’s not that these reasons are totally wrong. It’s just that that’s not what child dedication should primarily mean.
If we take our faith seriously, we are here today to dedicate these children for one purpose in life—and that purpose is for them and for us to seek first the Kingdom of God and to do the will of God revealed in Jesus Christ. Later when the parents enter into a covenant with God in our service, they will commit themselves to be Christ-like examples and witnesses for their children from this day and as far into the future as we can imagine. Now, I want you to enjoy this day. I want you to savor and celebrate it. I intend to! But I do not want us to overlook the reason why we are here. The stakes are too high for that.
Perhaps this illustration will make my point. John Westerhoff, a Christian writer and theologian, says that the most meaningful church service he ever attended was in a small Latin American church with a dirt floor and none of the comforts and advantages we enjoy. As the service began, the congregation began singing a funeral hymn. Westerhoff thought, “I thought this was a church service, not a funeral.” Then he saw the procession. First came the father carrying a small wooden coffin that he had made. Then came the mother carrying a bucket of water from the family well. Then came the priest, holding the baby wrapped in a native blanket.
When they reached the altar, the father put the coffin down and the mother poured in the water. The priest took the baby out of the blanket and put her down in the coffin. As the head went down into the water, the priest said, “I kill you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” The whole congregation shouted “Amen!” Then the priest brought the baby out of the water and said, “I raise you to love and serve the Lord.” And the whole congregation broke out in an Easter hymn. As the singing diminished to a whisper, the priest anointed the body of the baby with precious oils, put on the child a home-made white robe the mother had made for her daughter, and placed the sign of the cross on the baby’s forehead, saying, “I brand you in the name of Jesus Christ, so that you and the world will know who you are and who you belong to.” Then each person in the congregation came down, took the baby in their arms, kissed the infant, and welcomed her as a new sister in Christ.
Now there is a part of us which is a little uncomfortable with that story, and our discomfort is not totally wrong. We have all known people whose lives were consumed with an unhealthy obsession with their narrow view of life and God, and we label them “religious fanatics.” We have all known people who know no joy; who love to divide the world up into two camps—“them and us” or “the damned and the saved.” They think they know exactly what group they are in as well as exactly what group everyone else is in. They are far more concerned about being right than they are for the welfare of others. We have known such people. We don’t like to be around them, and we certainly don’t want our children to grow up to be one of them.
But John Westerhoff says that Latin American community of faith profoundly understood the meaning of baptism. In Paul’s letter to the Romans, he says that when we are baptized, we die to the old and are raised to walk in the newness of life. Being immersed is symbolic of dying to the old, fearful, greedy, violent, self-centered ways of the world. And as we come out of the water, it’s like being born again into a new life. Those parents who brought their daughter for baptism in that simple church structure understood that their child came through them, but not from them. And they gave that child to God, saying, “God will have the first and last word in this baby’s life.”
So, we need not be uncomfortable with what was said at that dedication and baptismal service because it sounds like a bunch of religious fanatics. I think our discomfort goes to a deeper level. Our fear is that our children will miss out on a lot that is important and fun in life if they take God too seriously. I’ve never read that, and I’ve never heard anyone say that. But in several decades of ministry, I have come to that conclusion. That is one of the fears in American Protestant Christianity that parents have for their children as far as faith is concerned. Because if they take God too seriously, they may not choose the vocation we want, make the money we want them to enjoy, or have the recognition we would like for them to have. They may face some difficulties in life if they become authentically dedicated to Jesus and his way. I have the suspicion that we (and I’m including myself here) have never understood or taken seriously those words from our Lord, “Take up your cross daily and follow me.”
Sometimes I think we want to vaccinate our children with just enough Christianity to keep them from catching the real thing. In our passage for today, Simon Peter expresses his fear that by following Jesus so radically, he will miss out on life. But Jesus says, “Anyone who follows me will receive a hundred times more love, joy, peace, and true security than they could every manage on their own.” Obviously, Jesus does not believe that following him is going to lead to a miserable and joyless existence. And certainly the four Gospels tell us otherwise. Jesus was accused by his critics of being a “glutton and a wine-bibber.” (in the King James Version that’s a fancy way of saying a drunk). Jesus, although the church seems not to know this, knew how to party. All four Gospels show us that. He loved to be around people. And the kind of people he loved to be around were the outcasts, the marginalized, the disfranchised, women, lepers, children, prostitutes, and sinners. Those were the people he ate and associated with. I think he wanted to be with those people to show that the grace and love of God were for them as much as they were for those who were so sure of their own standing before the Almighty. But I also think he preferred the company of exciting sinners to that of stale, self-righteous saints—I know I do!
As Tony Campollo says, we have not yet caught on that “Kingdom time is party time!” Jesus, in fact, compared being in his presence to being at a wedding party. Years ago we talked about wedding banquets in the Jewish culture. In Jesus’ day peasants scrimped and saved just so they could give the most wonderful wedding for their children because it was the most exciting and joyful event in those small Palestinian villages. Everyone celebrated and had a good time. It’s still true today. A Jewish wedding makes “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” look like a wake! Jesus said, “When you are with me, you’re at a party!”
We don’t want our children to miss out in life, but Jesus says that if they follow him, they will discover more joy than they (or we) could ever imagine. So, how do we live life abundantly by following Christ in such a radical manner? I think in order to answer that question, we have to ask another. Who is this God that Jesus comes to reveal? We’ve got to get that down first. For Christians, this God is the one we see in Jesus. That’s what makes us Christian, isn’t it? We look to Jesus to show us the nature of God. And what do we see? Who is this Jesus whom we call “Lord” and what is the character of the God he reveals?
We could be here all week unravelling that question, but I want to focus on some points I think are pertinent to baby dedication. Jesus revealed a God whose love is unconditional, indiscriminate, sacrificial, and everlasting. Now, some of you who were in the Inquirer’s class I had are probably shaking your heads thinking, “Yes, we had to learn that.” In fact, you had to take home the paper which stated and explained God’s kind of love. You had to have your parents read it to you and discuss it with them, and you had to have them sign off to assure that such an interaction took place. I think the nature of God’s love is so important to understand because so many people in the church still do not know that God’s love is unconditional. We still feel that God might quit loving us if we do this or that, but God will love us no matter what we do or don’t do. Too many of us have the “Maud” theology: “Walter, God will get you for that!” Only Maud said that in jest. We feel deep down that God’s love is conditional. And that mistaken conviction makes us afraid—but “perfect love casts out fear.”
God’s love is indiscriminate. That means God loves me as much as God loves any person in this world—but God does not love me any more than God loves any other person in this world. Now, that sounds safe, doesn’t it? As the church lady would say on SNL, “Isn’t that special.” But then when you apply this astonishing and radical insight, we’re not so sure. Do we really believe that God loves everyone the same? Does God love Saddam Hussein as much as God loves you or me? We’re not so sure when we apply this principle to those we condemn and judge to be beyond the grace of God. (To the reader of this sermon: this sermon was preached during the second Iraq war.) And yet that is what the gospel says. We had better be careful about the lines we draw regarding God’s love and grace because I assure you that someone is going to draw a line that will exclude you and/or me.
God’s love is sacrificial. That means it costs God to love. Parents know that. When you love your children you will spend some time weeping over them and worrying about them. It costs to love. Most of us learn a great deal about authentic love once we become parents. The love of God, who is the Ultimate Parent, is sacrificial and self-giving.
And God’s love is everlasting. That means that when the last star in the universe has flickered into oblivion, we are still held in God’s everlasting arms—still held in the heart of God.
I want to tell the parents today that the most valuable thing you can do for your children is to have them grow up knowing that they are loved by God and that this love is unconditional, indiscriminate, self-giving, and everlasting. I also want the parents here today to know that on that sometimes difficult path of parenthood when times are not easy and when you make mistakes, God’s love for you is equally unconditional, indiscriminate, sacrificial, and everlasting. Once we have children in our care, we have the most demanding and paradoxically the most joyful responsibility we will ever have on this earth. And if you don’t understand that today, check back with me in about thirteen or fourteen years.
Second, Jesus says that the chief characteristic of God is compassion. Compassion means to suffer with another—to put yourself in the place of another and to feel what they feel, and then to step back and do the loving thing for that person. It’s interesting that Jesus taught us to call God Abba (Aramaic for “Papa/Daddy”), but the chief characteristic of God, according to Jesus, is feminine. The word compassion in Hebrew goes back to the word for the womb of the mother. It is what the mother feels for her child. When the child is in pain, the mother is in pain. When the child suffers, the mother suffers. God has that kind of compassion. Now, that sounds so nice and good until we once again apply it to real life. For, you see, if we practice compassion there is no place for prejudice, oppression, or bigotry. You put yourself in the place of someone else who suffers because of who they are—maybe because of race, ethnic background, mental or physical challenge, age, sexual orientation, or whatever. You put yourself in their place, ask yourself what the compassionate thing is to do, and then do it. God’s love is a compassionate love, and Jesus said our love must be compassionate as well if we are truly children of God.
Third, Jesus said that God has come to bring us joy. So many images people have of God are far from understanding God in such an affirming and loving way. For too many Christians, God is primarily the Cosmic Judge or the Cosmic Policeman. With this image we need to watch every step we take. For others, God is more like a Fairy Godmother, a Celestial Bellhop, or an Accommodating Genie. We want God on our terms when we need or want God, but otherwise, “God, do us the decency of staying out of our lives.” And then there are those who see God as a Sentimental, Old Grandpa patting us on the head and saying, “That’s alright,” no matter what we do.
None of these images correspond to the one Jesus has of God. One way of understanding God comes from one of my favorite characters in church history: Mechtild of Magdeburg, a medieval mystic living in the Rhineland of Germany. She represents God as saying, “I am your playmate.” When I reflect on that image I envision God coming to the door of my house, knocking on that door, and when I open the door, God says, “Will you come out and play with me?” God is constantly knocking at the door of our hearts and asking us to come out and play—to celebrate—to experience joy. But we don’t know that because we don’t understand that God seeks our joy and IS our joy. Catholic theologian and scientist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin said that “Joy is the unmistakable sign of God’s presence.” Just keep thinking of a Jewish wedding banquet!
Last, Jesus reveals a God whose ways are not our ways, whose thoughts are not our thoughts, and whose goals are not often our goals. He proclaimed an Upside Down Kingdom which reversed all the values of the world—his life and teachings stood those values on their head. He came proclaiming a realm where peace is sought, never violence; where sharing is the norm and not greed; where lovingkindness is offered, never inhospitable judgment; where the least of these according to the world’s standards are valued as much as the “greatest”; where forgiveness allows life to begin again; and where justice is pursued with tenacity until every trace of oppression is obliterated from the face of the earth. Our Scripture for today says, “Seek first the Kingdom of God and its righteousness.” We must remember that within the Jewish faith, righteousness is a synonym for justice. Righteousness means justice in the Hebrew Scriptures and in the Gospels. Paul perhaps uses the term “righteousness” in a different way, but on the lips of the prophets and Jesus, righteousness means justice. And justice in the Bible is what God wants in this world as we and God set things right where there is oppression. Any form of Christianity that does not have justice high on its agenda is not worthy of the name of God.
Now, let me ask this. Do we live in a world that needs a witness to the unconditional, indiscriminate, sacrificial, and everlasting love of God? Do we live in a world that needs to know the healing power of compassion? Do we live in a world that needs to know joy? Do we live in a world that needs to know an alternative to the violent, greedy, arrogant, and vengeful patterns that plague our planet? If we do live in such a world, then are we willing to dedicate ourselves and our children to the God who requires of us such a witness?
Twentieth Century German pastor Martin Niemoller was one of the founders of the Confessing Church in Germany—a church that was opposed to Hitler and offered a true alternative to the churches that Hitler took over and controlled. These churches were required to display swastikas at their altars, and their pastors were forced to swear absolute allegiance to Adolf Hitler. Niemoller and others said “No” to the tyrant Hitler. In 1937, Niemoller was arrested and put on trial by the direct order of Hitler. The Nazi tribunal that tried him failed to convict him. So, Hitler acted on his own and had Niemoller sent to the concentration camp Sachsenhausen and referred to Niemoller as “my personal prisoner.” Later Hitler said Niemoller was the most dangerous man in Germany. Hitler believed that if he could just get Niemoller, a part of the Confessing Church, to go his way, every other Christian opposed to Nazism would abandon their opposition. So, from 1937-1941, Niemoller was kept in Sachsenhausen. In 1941, he was moved to Dachau, a more well-known Nazi concentration camp. He was treated brutally and witnessed all kinds of horrors. His parents were interviewed and the interviewer said, “It must be terrible for you and so difficult to know that this son you love is in a concentration camp, being treated all these horrible ways—and you don’t even know if he is still living.” The parents said, “Yes, it’s been very hard.” Then the mother said, “But what would have been worse is if God has needed a witness, and our Martin had said ‘No.’” (I cannot help but wonder how much worse our world would be today if another Martin during the 20th century, whose life was frequently threatened and finally taken, had said “No.”)
Now, the vast probability is that neither we nor our children well ever have to give such a costly witness. But if we are serious about our faith, our world needs a witness for Jesus Christ. Not the Jesus of culture and sometimes not even the Jesus we talk about in church. Some years ago I preached a sermon in this sanctuary called “The Best Kept Secret in the Church.” Do you remember what it is? Jesus! I still think Jesus is the best kept secret in the church. When I hear Jesus mentioned by people both inside and outside the church and compare that to the Jesus of the Gospels, I despair because I find they have so little in common. If we take Jesus seriously, then we will provide a witness to the Kingdom of God in some way and in some form. We must seek first the Kingdom of God and God’s justice.
We have a choice today. We can play church as we go through the motions of dedicating these children. Or we can dedicate them and ourselves to the mission our world needs—the mission to which God calls each person. In other words, are we willing to follow Jesus? And are we willing for our children to follow the One we claim is “the way, the truth, and the life”?
[A clarification regarding Martin Niemoller: Initially, Niemoller supported Hitler and Nazism. Although he did not support the violent persecution of Jews, before his imprisonment he did make anti-Semitic remarks. He was imprisoned not because of any support of the Jews. He was sent to Sachsenhausen as a political prisoner because of his criticism of Hitler’s interfering and meddling with the church. It was only through his prison experience that he began a more faithful and all-encompassing discipleship. He learned through his own suffering and his own direct witness of the treatment and fate of all the victims of Nazism. In other words, he grew in his discipleship. That’s why he wrote those famous words:
First they came for the Communists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Communist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
[Powerful and relevant words for our day as we witness the greedy, arrogant, hostile, and persecuting atmosphere exacerbated by a political leader whose heroes are thugs and who has set up his own camps to detain men, women, and children.]