Sermon for Sunday, March 4, 2012

Different Initiations
A cathedral was located opposite a synagogue in a well-to-do neighborhood. Both the Jewish and the Catholic congregations were driving nice cars and living well. Only the clergy was in poor condition. In fact, the priest was driving a car so old that the floor had rusted through, and he could see the street under him as he drove. The rabbi had so old a car that he had to hold the doors together with ropes.

One day the Catholic congregation decided to do something for their priest. They collected $50,000 to buy the priest a new Lincoln Town Car. The next Sunday after mass, when the priest came to the door of the church to greet his parishioners, the chair of the collecting committee showed the priest the new car and handed him the keys.

Just then, Sunday school was ending across the street, and the Jewish congregants joined their Christian friends to see the new car. The priest just stood there dumbfounded. “Aren’t you going to say something or do something to accept the new car?” called one his parishioners. “Well, of course,” said the priest. “Just wait one minute.” So he walked into the church while the crowd waited. Shortly he reappeared with some holy water and sprinkled it on the new car and even said something in Latin. He thanked one and all and accepted the new car.

Well, the Jewish folks were ashamed that the rabbi was still driving such an old jalopy, so they, too, collected over $50,000 and bought the rabbi a new Cadillac, which they parked outside the synagogue the next Saturday. So when the rabbi came to the door of the synagogue after services, he was presented with the keys to the new car. Just then, members of the Catholic congregation came to join their Jewish friends across the street to look over the new car. The rabbi was so dumbfounded he didn’t say a word. So someone called out, “Rabbi, aren’t you going to get some holy water and accept the new car?” “We don’t have any holy water,” said the Rabbi, “but I will do something else.” With that he walked across the sidewalk into the basement of the synagogue while the crowed waited and wondered what he was doing in the basement. Shortly, the Rabbi reappeared with a pair of metal shears and clipped a piece off the tailpipe.

One of the things that makes this story funny is that each clergyperson uses a ritual that is meant to initiate persons into their respective communities as a means to give thanks for and bless a gift given to them by their parishioners who had compassion on them in their need. And for us as Christians, isn’t that what baptism is all about as well? Whether we have been baptized as infants or as older children or adults, it is someone other than ourselves who has shown us grace in our condition of need, and has sought to meet that need spiritually as signified by the ritual that symbolizes the action of the actor towards us. God has created us, as God also created Adam and Eve; God breathed into us the breath of life after we exited our mother’s wombs; and, through baptism, God has infused us with the Holy Spirit that directs and empowers us to live the life God intends for us to live, each of us in a unique and unduplicatable way, but all of us in a way that ultimately brings glory to God our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer.

The question before us is, have we given ourselves over completely – in faith – to the life that brings God the glory God deserves; or is something still holding us back from doing so? For Abraham and Sarah, what was holding them back could have been – and was, for a brief time – their skepticism that God could use their 99 and 90 year old bodies to produce an infant after so many barren years had gone by. For Jesus’ disciples, what was holding them back was the idea that Jesus and they had to remain alive, above all things, so as to restore the reign of God in the world through a restoration of the Davidic realm in a particular piece of geography; when Jesus was making clear that neither his nor his disciples’ lives needed to be protected for the reign of God in the world to be accomplished; but that reign might be established in a way that involved their true devotion, even if it also brought about their deaths. This was to affirm the idea that they trusted that God had power that was stronger than death, and that God could use even the limited efforts of fallible but devoted human beings to accomplish God’s purpose of bringing salvation to the whole of creation.

Whatever we do as a church, the degree to which we are concerned about the ongoing existence of this church will be the degree to which we will actually fail to do the work God is calling us to do. On the other hand, the degree to which our major concern is to do God’s will, to fulfill God’s unique and unduplicatable purpose for us as a church in this place at this time in history, is the degree to which God will be glorified by what we do, even if it leads to the elimination of this church as a unique entity. The work itself will live on, and the church will live on through that work.

This is the promise into which we have been initiated through our baptisms, and into which this church was initiated through its consecration. Let us commit and recommit ourselves to fulfilling our purpose as baptized Christians and as the Church of Jesus Christ, making disciples for Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, and being ourselves transformed in the process.