I ran into someone in the grocery store, somewhere between the red leaf lettuce and the radicchio in produce when I asked them how the Holidays went and added, ‘how is your family?’ I forget at these moments that because I’m a Minister, sometimes people feel the freedom to actually tell me the truth. “It’s funny you should ask”, she answered,” because I’ve been asking myself lately, if you don’t anything together as a family and if you don’t share much of anything as a family, are you really still a family? I mean, I’m really a lot closer to people right here than I am to the people I am related to? What is family anyway?’
“Excuse me”, I’m thinking to myself, “I need the mushrooms behind you”. But, of course, she is spot on, right there in the middle of produce. It reminded me of the introduction of one of Robert Kaplan’s books about traveling through failed states in Africa. He says, “if you look at a map of Mali and you picture the straight lines. If you think that within those nice straight lines, there is a postal service that regularly delivers the mail, a government that maintains a highway system or taxes its people and provides and education for its children, that it has a regular police force that enforces orders from an impartial judiciary- all the things that happens at home in Europe or the U.S.- you would be sadly mistaken.”
There may be a wide variety of families, but I know what this woman was trying to say. I’ve listened, as you have listened, to people who speak ruefully about how their marriages just slowly grew apart, then grew cold, then comes a day when they both realize they’ve become just two people sharing bills, wondering how they got to this place, uncertain as to whether or how they could get back home.
Jesus at one point says, “”You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.” (Mt. 5:13) And that is the way that you feel, a form of a marriage, a form of a community, a form of a nation… without any substance”.
In our scripture this morning, we read about Jesus going to be baptized. By the way, this is how the earliest Gospel begins, the Gospel of Mark which was written before Matthew, Luke or John. It doesn’t have any story of Jesus birth. It just starts right here with Jesus at 30, coming to be baptized in the river Jordan, right outside Jerusalem. We like the warm, fuzzy story of the birth of Jesus but truth be told nothing about his life was particularly noteworthy until he becomes committed.
In being baptized, he is surrendering his will to God or dedicating himself to following God. As you probably know, this is the root meaning of the word Islam ‘to surrender’ or ‘to submit’ or ‘to dedicate’ in the sense of ‘obey’ the will of God.
It is first just a simple matter of perspective. For the last thirty years, I’ve regularly repeated a prayer I heard from Brian Piccolo, the distinguished football player from Wake Forest undistinguished football program. A reporter once asked him a throw away question about his priorities in life and he stunned the reporter by speaking, without hesitation, saying “My God is first. My country and family are second. I am third.” I say that many mornings to start the day with the right perspective. It is not all about me, not even much about me. Don’t you wish that more of our national leaders would say something like that every morning? Perhaps they would act less like the diplomatic buffoon Dennis Rodman and more like a genuine statesman such as Nelson Mandela.
No, we must have a serious commitment in our lives if they are to bloom into anything of significance and we know this from our relationships. I regularly perform wedding ceremonies full of breathy sentiment in which two young people, charged with hormones and a charming naivete, pledge to ‘have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish until we are parted by death.’ Sometimes I look around the room at the faces of other couples that are witnessing these two young people make these vows, couples that have been at this for a few decades, some of them have struggled with diseases that they never anticipated, some with children that special needs they never imagined, some who have sadly failed their marriages and they really, really didn’t want to, and I can almost feel the complexity of those moments.
When we were about 30 or so, my fraternity brothers were swapping stories one night about close calls with infidelity and dangerous liaisons. One of them had only been married a few months when he was on a business trip to Sao Paulo in Brazil and he told a long tale about how in a relatively short amount of time after a few too many drinks, he had almost completely forgotten about his life back in Washington D.C. or his wife great with child, and was cavorting about a nightclub with girls he’d just met, ready to follow wherever they led. It was way too much information and he looked like a rake, so the tale entered the lexicon of lore that we bring up every so often.
A couple years ago, we invoked the story again, and everyone was razzing him about it. As we were sitting there, I looked around the room, and reflected on how much all these guys have changed. We have a few divorces, but an astonishing number of us are still married. And it isn’t just that they are still married, as a group, they are really terrific fathers. They provide, they coach, they show up for their kids, their homes are the center of the neighborhood.
And you can tell they are good husbands. Their wives are happy. They support them. They do caring little things. They check in at the right time of day. They listen. It is hard to say how it happened but over the years, and surely with a lot of failures, the boys became men. We don’t tell those stories anymore and they wouldn’t be as interesting, not because we aren’t capable of rogue behavior, we most certainly are. But for all these years, we’ve actually been living in ways that are faithful, not that any of us really thought about it like that. Day in, day out, you just do things that support your family and love your wife. And it becomes more and more important to you that your children, at least, turn out to be boys and girls of substance, young men and women you can be proud of. And you create an environment conducive to stability and growth. And you keep doing that month after month. Next thing you know, a decade on, you know what? You change too. My grandfather was right. Just after the birth of my first son, he said to me, “Charles, Parents don’t make children. Children make adults.” Not every time, but I know what he meant now.
You just want to be surrounded by people of substance in good seasons and bad. Rev. Caroline shot me a list of our confirmands this year and their mentors. We have 20 kids this year. I’m reading down the list of mentors: John Ross, Vinny Caravano, DeShawn Cook, Deanna Smeltz, Katherin Nukk-Freeman, John Vigilante, Colleen Jefferies, Jocey Gueci, Mike Paytas, Moira McCullough, Ed Walter, Ali Caravano, Kristen DeSanto, John Przedpelski, John Feeley… I get through reading that list and I’m like ‘Wow, I hope my grandchildren will be so lucky as to know adults like this that they can go to be guided and shaped positively. What a great group of substantive people. What a positive force.
And you know that is truer still when you are weak. A couple years ago, I was diagnosed with cancer, turned out to be quite curable, but in the beginning I had to go to the cancer clinic by myself. Of course, there are all these people there that are very sick. I’d been to a few doctors and I’d done some reading on the internet, so I had plenty of rational understanding of what was going on and what to expect. But for some reason, signing in myself, I was just filled with a kind of fear that the grim reaper was near, that weightless anxiety that you get when you have a foreboding you might not be. Horrible. I opened my valise and saw that I had, almost unconsciously, packed a stack of cards and letters mostly from you all, wishing me well. I sat there and read every one of them again and it was strength. I could feel myself surrounded with support and love. Who doesn’t need that.
That is the point, with Jesus, God’s precious child. He may be special but he is not exempt from the real difficulties and tragedies of this life. Born in poverty in a barn. No sooner is he born than Herod kills all the babies in the region trying to kill him. His parent flee with them refugees in Egypt.
He goes to be baptized by John the Baptist and Pilate would shortly have John the Baptist killed, his head put on grotesque display. Throughout his short career of just three years, it is true that he managed to attract enough followers that even Roman historians wrote about him far, far from the Imperial city. But there was never enough resources for the crowds and he was overwhelmed regularly enough that he once commented. “Birds have nests. Foxes have holes. But the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.
Misunderstood needlessly as a threat by the religious and political leaders of the day. Ostracized and shunned at every turn. Ultimately, he is inadvertently betrayed by his closest followers. Unjustly arrested. Tortured just short of death. Tried unfairly. Crucified. Died young.
His life, like all our lives, can suddenly turn and be filled with a lot of really bad, arbitrary negativity. We know that to get through that, we have to be committed. At the very end of his life, seeing everything that he had gone through, the Roman centurion that watched him die, said, ‘Surely he is the Son of God’. In other words, as a human, he was filled with God’s spirit which is the only way someone could endure with dignity so degrading a series of abuses.
I hope you don’t have to go through that but you probably will go through some of it. And you will need character because your character is likely to be tested to its limits.
I can’t tell you what parts of your character need to be strengthened to make you a more substantive person. Only you know that. I can’t tell you how you need to commit your life in this next chapter of your life, but I suspect that you’ve probably been cogitating on this since the new year, possibly dreaming about this since the new year. What changes do you need to make? I want to close having us think on that in just a minute. We are going to give you some space to call to mind what you are going to commit yourself to this year, a change in yourself, something you want to do for your family, for your community.
I’m going to ask Mark to play and after a minute Caroline and I will be down front. And I’m going to invite you to come forward. And we baptismal waters here. We are going to make the sign of the cross on your head or on your hand, so that you remember your baptism, that you remember that you that God says to you, “You are my beloved son, my beloved daughter in whom I am well pleased”, that you will remember that God who began a good work in you will be faithful to complete it. Amen.