Sermon for the First Sunday after the Epiphany: The Baptism of our Lord
January 12, 2014
Do not pass Go. Do not collect 200 hundred dollars.
Monopoly is a great game, but I hate drawing that card. You’re sent directly to jail, and you do not pass Go. You do not collect 200 hundred dollars. You’re trapped. There’s no escaping it. You are stuck. You’re in jail. Do not pass Go. Do not collect 200 hundred dollars.
It’s like anything else when we’re told no. When we’re told no, that makes us want to do that thing even more. When you see a signs that says, “Do not enter, Authorized Personnel Only,” doesn’t that make you wander even more intently what’s behind that door?
Now, of course, some “do not” rules are important; the ten commandments are crucial to who we are. But I think that we, as Christians, have taken the “do not” rules to a whole new level. In wider society, Christians are known for our “do nots.” Do not dance. Do not love that person. Do not miss church. And if you do happen to make it to church, do not laugh and do not run and do not play. My mother told me horror stories of her childhood in church, “do not go to church without your hat.” “Do not go to church without your gloves.” We could go on and on with do nots that we, as Christians have made for ourselves. Do not pass Go. Do not collect 200 hundred dollars. Is it any wonder, then, why fewer and fewer people every year claim to be Christians?
Our negativity, I believe, only makes us focus on the things we are forbidden to do. When I was a kid, and my mom would say, “no more cookies,” you know what? That would inspire me to tip-toe into the pantry and quietly steal as many cookies as I could. When my mom told me to keep away from the cookies, I think she really wanted me to start eating my vegetables. But if she only tells me to stop eating cookies, then I will never make the leap into understanding that really, I need to be eating my vegetables.
The Church does a disservice to the wider world when we are known for what we stand against, rather than what we stand for. See, we’ve got the whole thing backwards. Christianity is not about saying no, and stifling certain behaviors. Christianity is about saying yes, and cultivating all new behaviors.
Imagine if I were to stand here every Sunday and give you the rules, “Do not lust. Do not be gluttonous. Do not forget the poor. Do not miss church. Do not pass Go. Do not collect two hundred dollars.” If I were to do that, two things would happen. First, you all would stop showing up to church. Because who wants to be berated every Sunday morning? Second, none of us would actually become better Christians. Because if all I’ve done is tell you what to avoid, then how would you know what to do? Handing out a list of do nots never inspired anybody to greater depths of love.
And there is no better day to bring this up than on a day with baptisms. In a few moments, we will baptize Will and Caroline into our faith. And listen to the promises that we all make in the baptismal covenant. “Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching…will you resist evil…will you proclaim the Good News of Christ…will you serve Christ in all persons…will you respect all people?” The answer to each of these questions is, “I will, with God’s help.” Baptism, and indeed our entire life as baptized Christians, is about creating new behaviors. Christianity is not all about telling us what to avoid. Christianity is about boldly proclaiming the things that we stand for.
And exactly is it that we stand for? What are the positive things that Christians should be known for? Listen to the words of Peter’s sermon in our reading from Acts: “It’s become clear to me that God really does show no favoritism. No: in every race, people who fear him and do what is right are acceptable to God.”
We, as Christians, have done a great job of telling the world who it is that we do not love. And look at where that has gotten us. We, as Christians, have done a terrible job of telling the world who God does loves. Imagine what the Church would be like if we told everybody that God shows no favoritism?
Again, that brings us back to baptism. Regardless of who you are, or where you’re from, or what you look like, your baptism is a sign of God’s eternal love for you. This is the truly earth-shattering nature of Christianity. Where we try to put up barriers and divide the world into yes and no, God showers the world with baptism and sends the Holy Spirit to any and all people. Truly, God shows no favoritism.
As lovely and beautiful as that sounds, it should also frighten us. Because if we want to be on God’s side, if we want to do the work of Jesus, then we must also show no favoritism, no partiality. As the Church, if we say, “Jesus does not love that person because they do that thing,” then we are standing in the way of baptism, we are standing in the way of Jesus. Remember, God shows no favoritism.
Now, before anybody accuses me of watering down the gospel, or not caring about sin, let me say a few things. I believe that sin comes from the in-curvature of our souls. Sin is the natural outgrowth of our own self-centeredness. To overcome sin, we cannot just do a better job of avoiding sin. No, we have to work on curving our souls outward. Curving them outward to people not like us, and truly understanding that God shows no favoritism. Curving our souls outward, and allowing the grace of our baptism truly take effect. Curving our souls outward toward God and our neighbor in love, so that there is less room for sin, and more room for Jesus. You cannot become a better Christian by fleeing from sin and running from the satan. You become a better Christian by binding yourself to love and following Jesus.
I speak from personal experience. I only got over my cookie habit after I started eating my vegetables. And I didn’t start eating my vegetables because my mom told me to stop eating cookies.
So this morning, rather than telling you what not to do, rather than enumerating the sins you should avoid, what I tell you is this: Love your neighbor as yourself. Love God with all your heart, mind, body, and strength. In the name of Jesus, show no partiality, exhibit no favoritism. Curve your souls outward, and make room for the Holy Spirit. Make room for love.