Baptism is Risky Business

Sermon Preached at St. Mark's Episcopal Church
November 19, 2017
Proper 28A, Matthew 25:14-30

Baptism is risky business. We dress it up --- it’s a pretty font, a nice pitcher with fresh water, some sweet-smelling oil and a beautiful baby (maybe dressed all in white) --- and when we do it like this, baptism looks like a good deal, it’s an unusual ritual but it’s civilized and proper.  And, when you think about it, from this side of faith, it certainly beats the alternative.  I mean, we start out asking the candidates for baptism – or, in the case of an infant, we ask the parents and godparents:
  •       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?[1]

And to each of these, even if the spoken response is a barely audible, I renounce them, I hope that on the inside you are shouting “Yes! Yes! Yes! I renounce them!!!!”  My goodness, who wouldn’t?!  Spiritual forces of wickedness, evil powers of this world, sinful desires - these are the Lex Luthor’s, the Jokers, the Minervas, the Sinestros of our world.  And it is easy to say “Yes, I renounce them.”  Baptism is a good deal. Baptism – if I may be so bold – is the Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and Green Lantern all rolled up in one – it is the antidote to all the evil around us. 

And yet, I still contend that baptism is risky business. . . and the reason can be found in the next three questions:
  • Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Savior?
  • Do you put your whole trust in his grace and love?
  • Do you promise to follow and obey him as your Lord?[2]

And the spoken response again, is often barely audible – “I do.”  And this time, I wonder if there might be an unspoken question mark that goes with it.  More of an “I do?” than an “I do!”  And, I get it; I’m right there with you. 

Do you accept that Jesus is YOUR Savior --- not just a really good guy, not just a model for how to live our lives, but a savior – and not just any savior – OUR Savior – yours, mine.  It is no longer about Superman fighting Lex Luthor in Metropolis.  It is about Jesus and it is about you and it is about me, right here, at the corner of Ridge and Grove.  And it is this Jesus, this Savior in whom we are asked to put our WHOLE trust – not just trusting Jesus on a day when things are going well but trusting Jesus in those times when there are hungry people waiting to be fed and we don’t know if we have enough bread to feed them all, trusting Jesus in those times when the roof is leaking and the budget is already in the red, trusting Jesus when our hearts are broken, our health is failing, our spirits floundering.  Giving Jesus our WHOLE trust – placing our very lives in the care of God’s grace and love when the world around us tells that we should instead place our lives in the care of money, power, prestige.  And then, as if this is not already enough, we are asked to promise to follow and obey him as Lord – a promise that goes counter to our national narrative that says that every citizen should have the opportunity to achieve success and prosperity through their own hard work, their own determination and their own initiative – in short, to be their own Lord and Master. And in baptism, we promise to renounce that too and to follow and obey Jesus as Lord.

So, yes, baptism is risky.  Because it demands our whole self.

In this morning’s gospel reading, Jesus tells a parable of three servants, summoned by their master who is going on a journey. To each one he gives a ridiculous amount of money – one of them receives five talents, another two and another one.  Now before we get concerned about the injustice here, I want to say a couple of things. First, a talent, according to New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine is about 15 years-worth of wages for a day laborer in Jesus time.[3]  So, ONE talent is a LOT of money – never mind two talents or even five talents.  And the second thing I want to point out is that the story tells us that each servant receives according to his ability. In other words, there is no sense that the one with two talents was offended that the other guy got five talents and no indication that the one who received only one talent was angry about being slighted in some way. 

So, what we do have in the story – is a master who gives three servants a lot of money to take care of and then he goes away.  The first two servants take risks with the money and by making wise trades, each of them manages to double the money they had received.  But the third servant simply hides his money for safe keeping, for a rainy day.  So when the master returns, he is delighted with the servants who have doubled his money, calling them good and trustworthy, and putting them in charge of many things and welcoming them into the joy of their master.  The third servant, on the other hand, the one who hid his money in the ground, tucked it under the master, left it in a non-interest-bearing account – that one, he is punished.  Now, I don’t like that part of the story any more than you do and, to be honest, I don’t know what to do with that because I don’t believe in a God who doles out punishment like that. But, because of where we began -  that each received a LOT of money (even this one who received only one talent) and that each received according to his ABILITY (even this one who received only one talent had the ability to do something with it), it seems then that the primary difference between this last servant and the first two is that this one received an abundant gift and squandered it.  This one received and did nothing.

Each one of us – infant, child, teenager, adult – each and every one of us receives the gift of God’s abundant grace and God’s infinite love. And we don’t have to do anything with it. And some perhaps never will. It’s a gift.  But in the waters of baptism, we are saying, yes, yes, we accept this gift, we accept Jesus.  Yes, we will use this gift poured out for us.  Yes, we will risk it all with this gift.  Because that is what it means to put our whole trust in God’s grace and love. Yes, we will turn our backs on selfishness and self-seeking and turn toward the needs of others.  Yes, we will turn our backs on fear of other people - prejudice, jealousy, hatred – and turn toward loving our neighbors as ourselves and respecting the dignity of every human being.  Because that is what it means to follow and obey Jesus as our Lord. 

St. Mark’s has had many opportunities to take risks with the love and grace God has showered down upon God’s church.  For example, more than 20 years ago – maybe even 25? – St. Mark’s took a risk in providing a place for Interfaith Action of Evanston to open its Hospitality Center.  Not sure what that would mean for the wear and tear on the building. Not sure, perhaps, as to how allowing homeless men and women to come into our space five morning each week would impact St. Mark’s image in the community – but sure that there was a need and certain that God was calling St. Mark’s to meet that need.  You took a risk and because of that, over the decades, hundreds of homeless men and women have found at St. Mark’s a place of warmth and compassion, a place for breakfast, job coaching, and computer training, and perhaps more important than any of these, a place of welcome for the weary.

Just a couple of years ago, St. Mark’s took another risk when it began serving lunch every Wednesday to our hungry neighbors – not sure where the money would come from, not sure where the volunteers would come from – but sure that there was a need and certain that God was calling St. Mark’s to meet that need.  You took a risk and because of that, dozens of men and women receive a lunch, a hug, a conversation – the dignity that they deserve as God’s beloved.

What is the next risk God invites us to take?  What gift is God giving us that is calling out to be used – not to be buried or saved for a rainy day – but to be used with joyful thanksgiving – thanksgiving that it is a gift, a gift from God, a gift given in love and in grace, the gift of Jesus given to us in baptism. What is the gift and what risk are we willing to take with it? It’s a question of ongoing discernment – one that we must attend to together. One we cannot ignore – because we have said, “I do” in baptism.

Baptism is risky business.  We dress it up with a pretty font, a nice pitcher with fresh water, some sweet-smelling oil and a beautiful baby (maybe dressed all in white) --- and when we do it like this, baptism looks like a good deal, an unusual ritual but civilized and proper nonetheless . . . My brothers and sisters in Christ, trust me, baptism is not something we can tame – even though we may continue to try – baptism is risky business and so we dare not enter into its promises lightly and we dare not travel alone to the water.  And so, let’s dare to take the risk together. . . in the waters of baptism.

[1] The Book of Common Prayer, 1979, p. 302.
[2] Ibid., p. 302-3.
[3] Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler, eds., The Jewish Annotated New Testament (New Revised Standard Version), 2nd edition, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), footnote b, p. 57.