Articles, Essays & Sermons

Baptized into death?

Father's Day, and a whole lot more

Ken Sehested
Texts: Genesis 21:8-21; Psalm 86:1-10; Jeremiah 20:7-13; Romans 6:10-11; Matthew 10:24-39

Circle of Mercy, 19 June 2005

In case you missed it, it’s power-tool weekend across the nation. Father’s Day, that bastard child of a holiday, commemorated only slightly more than President’s Day. My best gift was the arrival this past week of my first-born, Jessica, and her beloved, Rich. They’ve moved to Asheville, living with us for the time being, and I couldn’t be happier.

Like most holidays, Father’s Day has its competing histories. The dominant one seems to be the story of Sonora Smart Dodd, a woman who in 1909 wanted to honor her father, a Civil War veteran whose wife died giving birth to their sixth child. Ironically, Ms. Dodd came up with the inspiration after hearing a Mother’s Day sermon in her church and later convinced her pastor to dedicate a Sunday to fathers. Later U.S. presidents endorsed the idea, with Lyndon Johnson signing a declaration in 1966 and, in 1972, Richard Nixon signing legislation making it a permanent holiday. Some say his action was to distract the nation’s attention away from information then emerging from a secret source who, until a few weeks ago, was known only as “Deep Throat.”

So the holiday, signed into law by one who very nearly overthrew our constitutional government, is actually a recognition of the struggle of single parents. All of us with children know how difficult parenting can be even when shared by two people. So, yes, we can honor the special circumstances of single-parent households, particularly those where the surviving parent has to be less absorbed with power-tool sales and more attentive to laundry and late-night cries and stretching food budgets.

I’m pretty sure this is the first time I’ve done in the same year both a Mother’s Day and a Father’s Day sermon. I did the former while in Cuba, during my extra week there. I was the guest preacher at the Baptist church in Matanzas. As you may know, Mother’s Day in Spanish-speaking countries is usually a VERY BIG deal, usually celebrated with a good deal of (what for me is) sentimental music and poetry and LOTS of flowers and special cakes.

I began that sermon with a story about my brief career, during student days, as a bellboy working in a New York City hotel. I told about how I was tutored by an older Puerto Rican man, a lifelong veteran in the trade, who taught me how to recognize big tippers from stingy ones. I went on to say how I sometimes felt that Mother’s Day often felt like nothing but a “tip” to our mothers. I told them that in the U.S., Mother’s Day was founded originally as an anti-war protest, of mothers refusing to relinquish their sons to the gods of war. I mentioned that on my own birthday I usually call my Mom to wish her a happy giving-birth-day, because SHE was the one who did most of the work that day.

The text I read was the passage from Proverbs which describes the work of “Sophia,” the Wisdom figure in chapter 8, who was present with God at the dawn of creation—who parallels in Jewish Scripture the work of the Logos, of Christ, as depicted in the first verses of John’s Gospel. And I reminded them that the Hebrew word for “compassion” is the same word for a woman’s womb, such that the redemptive work of God is actually “wombish” work, that the Bible’s principle word for God’s saving character is an image we usually associate with the traditional characteristic of women.

I didn’t say, “You go girls!” But I did get a round of applause when I finished, something which the pastor said had never happened before.

Last night, at the conclusion of a welcome feast we threw for Jessica and Rich (and including Zach and Karen), Nancy gave me a book as a Father’s Day present. The title is Blood Done Sign My Name by Timothy Tyson, who tells the story of an African-American man—a Vietnam Veteran—who in 1970 was brutally murdered, in broad daylight, in Oxford, N.C., north of the Raleigh-Durham area. You native Carolinians may know the story.

The gift, however, reminds me that today is also Juneteenth, a significant marker in African American history, particularly in Texas but increasingly in various parts of the country. (Nancy told that story earlier.)

If this isn’t enough, tomorrow, June 20, is World Refugee Day. I mention that because one of today’s lectionary texts, from Genesis 21, is the gut-wrenching story of when Abraham—ancestral father of Jews, Christians and Muslims alike—made a refugee of his own son, Ishmael, and Ishmael’s mother, Hagar, who was Sara’s servant girl, because of Sara’s (and maybe Abraham’s) anxiety over which child should inherit the family fortune.

It’s a pretty stunning collection of texts, if you think about it: When you combine Jesus’ slash-and-burn prediction that obedience to the Reign of God will provoke such familial conflict, and the story of child abandonment and abuse by Abraham and Sarah—not to mention exploitation of slaves—what a strange set of texts for Father’s Day! Makes you wonder what the “Family Values” crowd is doing with these passages!!

Then, on top of these anti-family value stories and statements, you pile on Jesus’ bizarre comment about bringing a “sword” instead of “peace” and Paul’s insistence that followers are to be “baptized into death.” “Losing” your life in order to “find” it sounds good as a mantra—you know, kind’a has that new-agey Zen feel to it.

But following such advice in real-life situations, and as a paradigm for Christian faith, you almost wonder if this is some kind of divine sadomasochistic scam: God loves it when we suffer.

So many texts, so little time. Seems to be more questions than answers here. Father’s Day, child abandonment, refugees, “hating” your mother and father” (as another Gospel account put it); shoved up against the context of the psalmist’s list of woes, of Jesus recommending losing one’s life in order to find it and Paul’s comment about being “buried with Jesus” and “baptized into death.”

What are we to do with this bloody chaos?

I won’t pretend to answer all the questions. I’m sure I don’t even know what all the questions are. But I do know that one thing is clear; and I am sure there are many significant parables right here in this Circle; and, finally, I have two specific recommendations to make.

The one thing I think is clear is that relinquishing our own lives for the sake of others—especially when the “other” is in no position to repay the debt—is the pivot point of our lives as followers of Jesus. Every father, every mother, knows this strange wisdom: we repeatedly forego on our comforts and desires and wishes in order to nurture the life of a child.

I remember a period of several months when Jessica was an infant. She woke up every morning at 5 a.m. with a dirty diaper. And Nancy and I took turns—before coffee, even before the sun reached the horizon—with our hands in the toilet rinsing a shitty cloth diaper. (Back in the old days, disposable diapers were an occasional luxury.)

We found the wherewithal to do that and countless other chores because of the memory of joy at Jessica’s conception, gestation and birth; and the anticipation of her developing into a full-grown woman. Such is the character of life: those with assets protect and nurture those without. Not for singled-out recognition or reward or debt repayment. That’s just how life—real life, spiritual life—is shaped.

That’s the one thing, above all others, that I’m clear about. And I remain clear about this in no small measure because I continue to learn it from those of you here in this Circle who practice this losing-life-to-find-it kind of faith.

Consider Amy and Tim and Sam and Bethany pressing beyond the boundary of security, reaching half-way around the world to embrace a foreign infant facing the deathly future prospect of orphans everywhere.

Consider Kiran and Mark, relinquishing the privileged income of Kiran’s private medical practice so she can work in public health, working with people who can't afford the ungodly cost of modern health care in the U.S. And before that, Mark’s willingness—and that of Greg and Terri, and Tom and Colleen as well—to abandon the upwardly-mobile dream of a two-income family to make sure their respective children have the kind of parental presence which money surely cannot buy.

Consider Greg Clemons’—and others at Mars Hill College—willingness to risk not just the cultural opposition but also their own careers to support the aspirations of gay students for full human recognition and respect.

Consider Anthony Martinez, who was inspired to organize a bake sale—not for his own profit but for the benefit of Doctors Without Borders. Or of Joy and Will who took the risk of traveling to the forbidden land of Cuba, crossing monumental political, cultural and language barriers—not to mention nearly 20 hours in airports and airplanes, plus 1,000 miles in a van (with a bunch of grownups, no less)—to make new friends. Or of Rachel Berthiaume’s daring risk of Peace Corps service in a far-away

Or consider Louis Parish’s bold gift. Louis, I know I’m breaking a confidence which you asked me to keep. I’m doing it not to give honor to you but to give honor to the Spirit who provokes outlandish generosity from us all. As you know, Louis is retired on a very modest income—much like many of us will be someday. Recently, though, he decided that the joy of supporting his passionate convictions for racial reconciliation was more important than economic security for the future, and he made what many would consider a foolishly large gift to the work of Christians for a United Community here in Asheville. (Having said that, I am now pledging you all to confidence about this. Louis has lived long enough to know that getting credit often gets in the way of getting results. So, after tonight, “mum’s the word.”)

I could go on and on with my list until every one of you, without exception, is a living parable of losing life in order to find it. I’m quite sure I don’t even know all the ways you have said “yes” to this invitation. And I’m equally sure none of us know all the invitations that will come to us in the coming days and years. We only know that they will be challenging, that they will be risky, but ultimately the will add to the reweaving of God’s good creation, that our efforts will contribute to the repair of the world, to “tikkun olam,” as it’s called in the Jewish tradition. And we know that in the process not only with the “other” be saved, but we, too, will be redeemed by the very process which animates and empowers our efforts.

Finally, my two recommendations. The first is brief and more general: I would love to see us have more explicit conversations about baptism: about what it means, about how we do it, about when we do it. Baptism is the central ritual act of the Christian tradition. Disagreements about this subject within the church make us weary, which makes us wary of even talking about it. I think it is a profoundly counter-cultural activity, one that is essential to our shaping our vision of how life is truly “found” when it is “lost.” I think everything we do is about baptism, because baptism is about identity.

My second recommendation is much more concrete and immediate, and it’s related to an appropriate way for us to celebrate Father’s Day.

Some of you probably saw Leslie Boyd’s Asheville Citizen-Times article on Friday about Helpmate, the Asheville agency that cares for and advocates on behalf of battered women. Leslie’s story noted two things in particular.

First, Helpmate is planning next year to provide public recognition to men who publicly support victims of domestic violence. And they’re wanting your recommendations for who should receive such awards.

Second, they are resurrecting an idea, first proposed a dozen years ago, of asking 1,000 men to donate $20 to support Helpmate’s modest budget.

To close this sermon, I am urging all the men in our Circle to join me in accepting this challenge. Furthermore, I am planning to take a recommendation to our Church Council that the Circle of Mercy, via our missions budget, match the total amount pledged by us men.  (If you support, or have questions about this proposal, I encourage you to communicate with Marc Mullinax, our church moderator. If approved, the Council will bring this recommendation to our Circle for discussion and action.)

Sisters and brothers—but, on this Father’s Day, especially my brothers—this is the Gospel message: The grace of God is not a particular religious emotion. Rather, grace is the power that unlocks our stingy hearts and self-preserving habits, provoking us to find creative, imaginative ways—however small and ordinary, however large and extraordinary—to “lose” our lives for Jesus’ sake . . . which is to say for the sake of those he most clearly identified with in his brief journey on the earth: for the sake of all who are bruised and battered and broken, who have no place at the table, those for whom our political, social, cultural and economic institutions have no use.

The central calling of this fellowship of faith is not to take intelligent social and political stands . . . though we do that from time to time. Our central calling is not to do social service . . . though we do that occasionally. Our central calling isn’t even to nurture strong bonds of friendship among us here in this Circle . . . though we obviously spend time doing that.

No, our central calling is to introduce people to the new orientation which baptism signifies. Our mission is to coax each other—and the larger world—to remain open to the kind of grace which empowers us to extravagant living, grace which calms our fearful hearts and exaggerated security needs and introduces us to the vision of the coming new order whose promises are known to us the Reign of God.

Brothers and sisters, power tools are nice. When I do stone work I still mix mortar by hand, which is a backbreaking job. So someday I’d like to get a concrete mixer.

But the tools of power most effective in the world’s redemption are lives buried with Christ, baptized into the same mission and purpose as Jesus, confident of the final defeat of Satan—of the dominion of sin and violence—and the coming of the Reign of God, of a new dominion of justice and mercy and peace.

May it be so. Come quickly, Lord Jesus.

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©ken sehested @ prayerandpolitiks.org