Pentecost and Baptism

May 27th, 2012

Preacher: The Reverend Doyt Conn

So last Sunday I mentioned that things weren’t going all that well between the Roman Catholic Church and the Girl Scouts.  And given the speed at which the church moves I don’t imagine this is going to change any time soon.

But turning on a dime has never been one of the churches strong points, and this reality is highlighted, I think, by the language used in the Baptism service we are participating in today.

We are going to ask a series of questions to the adults sponsoring these children for Baptism. They come out of the Book of Common Prayer, which is full of beautiful words linking to sound theology in almost all cases.  But the words that come up in the Baptism service, though undergirded by sound theology are so far out of context that they are easy to disregard.

Here are the questions: “Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?” “Do you renounce the evil powers of this world, which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?” “Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God?”

Now I’m against Satan and evil power and sinful desires as much as the next guy;but the next guy is my neighbor and lives here in Seattle, and when he hears Satan, evil powers and sinful desires his impulse is toward a good eye roll. (which, incidentally, I am getting better at now that my daughter is 13)

And if this neighbor is honest the next thing out of his mouth will be: “That is why I am spiritual and not religious.”

Religious language can get in the way and cause us to pass over some pretty important questions.

The ones we grapple with this morning have an underlying orientation around freedom… But to see how that connection is made, we need to have a clearer understanding of the questions themselves.

So, let’s take a look.

Question number one:“Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?”

Maybe we could think of that question this way: When people we meet bring out our worst self, or encourage us to do something in our “best interest” which really isn’t in our “best interest;” when temptations comes by way of personal invitation will we turn back to God? This is a question about personal, incarnational temptation.

Let me give an example of what that might look like.

Jesus and the disciples are in Caesarea Philippi.  He asks them, “Who do people say that I am.”  A couple of guys throw out some answers, and then Peter pipes in with: “You are the Messiah, the son of God.” Jesus gives him the nod, and goes onto say: “Now to Jerusalem we go, where I will be crucified” Peter, aghast, cries out:
“Then we can’t go to Jerusalem!” To which Jesus responds: “Get behind me Satan.”

Peter was one of Jesus’ best friends. Did he suddenly become Satan?  Of course not.  Satan is short-hand for a personal invitation that draws us away from God.

Our promise to these children is to both help them

• develop a discerning ear for invitations that tempts them away from God
• and ways of responding in the face of such temptations.

One pretty effective way is to say, “Get behind me Satan.”  Try it sometime. You’ll certainly provoke a response.

The next question asks: “Do you renounce the evil powers of this world, which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?”

Maybe we could think of that question this way: When the systems in which we are born are unhealthy, inequitable and unjust; when these systems benefit us to the detriment of others, or profit others at our own expense, will we turn back to God? This is a question about institutional and systemic temptation.

The prophet Ezekiel has a sense of this.  He says: “When the parents eat sour grapes, it sets the children’s teeth on edge.”  (Eze 18:2)

It is a proverb he quotes to draw attention to the unhealthy systems we inherit and pass on.

But God responds to Ezekiel by saying: “As I live, this proverb shall no more be used.  Know that all lives are mine; the lives of the parents and the lives of the children.”

You see we are God’s priority and when we make God our priority, sour grapes are made sweet.

Sounds simple? Put God first and everything is copacetic? Actually pretty close.

If we do one thing for God each day, every day, the same time, the same way,
on our last day, we will consider this devotion our greatest accomplishment.

Putting God first, even in a little way, opens a thin crack of perspective through which to glean a divine point of view.

Our promise to these children is to help them both see this perspective and to teach them how to turn toward God when they are trapped in an unhealthy systems they find themselves in.

The final question we’ll examine from the Baptism service reads: “Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God?”

Maybe we could think of that question this way: When we hear a voice, deep down inside, calling us to a particular action of impulse or compulsion, will we turn back to God?  This is a question about internal temptation.

The Christian framework believes there is an executive center that sits at the core of each person, like a captains bridge on an ocean liner. The theological term for this command and control center is the spirit, or the will, or the heart words used interchangeably…(I’ll use the term heart this morning.) Now the health of the heart is reflected in the character of the person.

When our control center is not running well, warning signals go off. They come in the form of impulses that compel us toward actions ill-suited for positive character formation.  What is that? We can define this however we like, but we’ll know these temptations when we feel the necessity to override them with self-justification.

Today we are promising to teach these children not to do that.  We are promising to teach them to hear the sirens, to know control panels, to have a sense of their entire ship and the skills to turn it around on a dime when the sirens go off.

The Baptism service acknowledges that it is not easy to see the ill-conceived temptations other people invite us into. It is harder still to see an unhealthy system when it is all around us. It is harder even still to admit our internal compass is out of whack.

These Baptism questions represent the three Great areas of human freedom…relationships; community; and the heart. These are the places where God lets us chose how we want to be.

God sees into our relationships, but does not intervene.

God sees into the actions of our communities, but does not intervene.

God sees into our hearts, but does not intervene?  God may entice and invite, but God doesn’t wield a club to compel our affection.

Why?

Because God loves us, and love isn’t love without reciprocity, and there is no reciprocity without freedom. And so we are free. The question is will we use our freedom to turn toward God? One way we do this is through the promises we make to these children.

We promise to stand with them as they grow up.  To watch them, and know them, and walk with them, so when they are wandering down the road of temptation wooed by misguided invitation we can sidle up next to them and say, I’ve been down this road before, do you mind if I walk with you a while.

Or when the system is sucking them into the cloud of delusion, we can sidle up next to them and say, I’ve had a job like this before, maybe I can be helpful.

Or when we see them on their knees or we catch a glimpse of the shadow of remorse sweeping across their face, we can give them a hug; we can remind them that they are magnificent; and we can offer to buy them a cup of coffee, and listen to their story.

That is what we are promising today through the archaic language of the Baptism service.

It seems weird language, words like Satan and evil powers and sinful desires. It seems weird language, words like Satan and evil powers and sinful desires, to use in the presence of such beautiful children perfectly formed by God.

But being who we are, people free to encounter God however we like in our relationships, communities and heart….

Being who we are we know what they will encounter, so we make the promises.

I pray we keep them.