The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity-New York City
Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost (September 4, 2016)
“A More Profound Life: Christ Bids Us Come and Die” (Luke 14: 25-33)
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The ancient rabbis warned against reading certain bizarre biblical passages at worship lest they confuse or even offend children who were present. Perhaps we should take the rabbis’ warning to heart.
My hunch is that Jesus’ strange words, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple,” may already have confused or offended more than the little ones here this morning.
Using Jesus’ words from today’s gospel reading to undergird a snappy evangelism program is almost unimaginable in our entrepreneurial age. In all candor, most people searching for a church home will eventually ask, “What’s in it for me?” The minute they hear Jesus’ answer, “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple,” they are likely to walk out the door and seek a church that buries Jesus’ troublesome words deep in a dusty archival vault. Who wants to be part of a nauseating religion that calls us to hate our families and to bear the cross—such thinking seems so passé, so abusive really.
Soon after I arrived as your pastor in July, our Church Council seemed curious as to my take on baptisms at Holy Trinity. People do, after all, call the church office regularly seeking to have their children baptized. Parents are enthralled with the thought of having their adorable little ones front and center in the presence of grandma and grandpa going gaga as Uncle Burt madly videos the entire proceeding for posterity’s sake. So Holy Trinity leadership rightfully wondered what baptismal procedures I thought best for our life together.
While pondering our policy, we wondered whether we actually do giddy parents a disservice if we do not tell the whole truth about the promises they will make on their children’s behalf on their baptismal day. Baptism, after all, is not some kind of eternal life insurance policy where we simply baptize little ones just in case something happens to them in years to come and then they never show up here again with mom and dad. Baptism is much, much more. Parents promise to nurture their little angels in such a way that, as they grow in years, they will lead lives which “proclaim Christ in word and deed, care for others and the world God made, and work of justice and peace.” And you, the new brothers and sisters in the faith, promise as well to support the newly baptized as they grow in the Christian life. Does promising “to support these children and pray for them in their new life in Christ,” ever give you pause? Are you really serious about your intention to help these little ones bear the cross of Christ or are their baptisms nothing more than a little holy razzle-dazzle as they make their grand entrance into polite society?
Lest we forget: no sooner have I poured water over a little one’s head than I trace the sign of the cross on the baby’s forehead and say, “Child of God, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.” Are we mindful of the power we invoke, realizing as the great German martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said, “When Christ calls us, he bids us come and die.”
Honestly, I could never make this stuff up; it would seem far too radical. Only Jesus would dare say to parents who want their children to be his followers, “So, therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”
I recently saw a picture on Facebook of a baby boy with a cellphone to his ear, saying to his friend, “So today at church a guy in a suit tried to drown me and I kid you not, my family just stood there taking pictures.”
We have domesticated the Christian life so much that few people, in their wildest dreams, would suggest, as did that little kid, that we actually drown people at baptism. Our baptismal practices tend toward “a little dab will do you” where we use the slightest amount of water possible and then quickly wipe off any trace of the offending liquid lest irreparable damage be done to the beautiful child or the lacy heirloom baptismal gown. This is far different from what ancient Christians practiced: they created baptismal pools shaped like coffins and crosses. Who could stare at those places of initiation and not think of death?
We should do better at warning parents of the cost of baptizing their little ones into the family of God. The best way of doing this is by placing our font at the center of our life and water should flow on these baptismal days like an early September tropical storm moving ferociously up the Eastern seaboard.
My dear friends in Christ, we are called to a faith that bids us to carry the cross, young and old alike. This calling is a torrent of water not a little dab will do you. Such a faith is hardly, as is said in today’s jargon, “user friendly” …then again, perhaps it is.
Earlier today, in Rome, Mother Teresa of Calcutta was canonized as a saint in the Roman Catholic Church. Pope Francis said, “Choosing not to not see hunger, disease, exploited persons, this is a grave sin. It’s also a modern sin, a sin of today.” Conversely, aren’t we moved by the deep dignity of Mother Teresa and her Sisters of Charity embracing the poorest of the poor on Calcutta’s streets as if they are Jesus himself?
Deep down, we hunger for a more profound life. God has wired us in such a way that our deepest desire is, as the book of Deuteronomy would have it, to execute justice for the orphan and the widow, and love the alien in our midst, providing them food and clothing? Almost unbeknownst to us, we long to travel on a mysterious journey where God has already destroyed death and eternal life has been promised to us at our baptisms and we can exuberantly seek Jesus in the vulnerable and forgotten ones. This, of course, is precisely what our parents and brothers and sisters in Christ promised to help us do the day we were baptized.
Yes, indeed, we are at our best when we remind one another of the life we have been offered at our baptism, the breathtaking life of the cross; that is why we repeatedly make that wondrous sign in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.