Thursday, August 03, 2006

2 Timothy 3:16

All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.

We Americans are a very efficient people. In general, we treasure function over form, output over intention. We are pragmatic—something, anything is judged worthwhile if it bears positive results, and can be ruthlessly cast aside if it fails to deliver. Of course, there are positives and negatives to such a mindset. We are able to rid ourselves of practices that might have lost their luster, but at the same time we often cut ourselves loose from traditions, so that we at times are rootless, even aimless, unsure of who we are.

Regardless of whether or not our pragmatism is a good thing, this passage should certainly appeal to the modern American mindset. Why? Because it talks about Scripture not as “beautiful,” or “important,” or even “true.” It talks about Scripture as “useful.” Scripture has a function. It does something. Or at least it does if we open our lives to it.

Scripture teaches. Properly interpreted, it demonstrates what is right and what is wrong. We may not always agree on how it ought to be interpreted, but the fact is that Scripture holds a treasure of truth for those who are willing to give themselves to it.

Scripture reproves. When we are wandering from the truth, Scripture chides us for our errors—sometimes gently nudging, sometimes fully chewing us out for our disobedience.

Scripture corrects. When we wander, not only does Scripture rebuke us, it also gives us a pattern to shoot for, a way of living rightly to follow. Scripture does not just settle for haranguing us, making us feel guilty; Scripture also takes the more positive step of showing us the right way.

Scripture trains us in righteousness. Not only does Scripture give us a godly pattern for life, but our willingness to jump in to the Scriptures trains us for living God’s way, for speaking God’s word to the world in the way He made us to do.

Now here is an important point: Scripture does all of these things NOT for our own sake. Certainly, there is something cathartic and edifying about being taught, reproved, corrected and trained. It feels great! Yet that feeling is not why Scripture does these things. Scripture performs these functions so that we can be “equipped for every good work.” Out there, in the world, this is where the rubber meets the road; this is where God uses the hands of His people to touch the world with love and truth.

It is something like a runner training for a marathon; she does not train for the “runner’s high” she gets in the midst of a training run. She trains for the race itself, so that when it’s time to run, she runs well and finishes quickly. Just so, Scripture is training us; not for the nice feelings we get while it happens. Scripture is training us to reach out and embrace the suffering of the world as God created His people to do.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Sermon from Sunday, July 30

Hi folks--sorry to be posting this so late. THis is the sermon from Sunday; a request was made for me to share some thoughts on the questions, "What happens to babies who die?" The text is Eph 2:8-9: "For it is by grace that you have been saved through faith, and this is not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, so that no one may boast."

Many people chuckled when the preacher and his wife named their baby girl “Grace.” That’s an awfully Christian-y name, isn’t it? Grace? Will they name all their children after theological concepts? Will their next child be named “justification” or “sanctification” or “atonement?”

Well, probably not. But you probably have guessed that we gave Grace her name based on something more than just that it sounds pretty. We gave Grace her name after a very long labor and birth. Those of you who were around on Easter Sunday know that Jill started to have early labor on Easter Sunday and that we didn’t have the baby until late Wednesday afternoon. And at that point, the name Grace was one of the two finalists if we had a girl; the other was not a theological virtue at all (I won’t tell you what it is just in case we want to name another child with it). But we looked at her and when we were trying to choose the name, after that long, endless birth process, we said, “It would just seem wrong to give her any other name than Grace.” She was so perfect and so peaceful and so cuddly and so cozy after four of the most miserable days I had ever experienced (and that’s to say nothing of Jill!) that Grace just seemed somehow fitting and appropriate.

The theologians define grace as “the unmerited favor of God.” A good enough definition, I guess; the unmerited favor of God. Something God does for a person that is not deserved or earned is just an act of grace. Yeah, I could get used to it; the unmerited favor of God. A little dry but you get used to that kind of thing in theological education. But mere spoken words or written words on a page will never be enough to tell you what grace really is. For you to truly understand grace, you have to see it in action.

To truly understand grace, you need to meet someone like my friend Jake (not his real name). Jake was a tough kid on the streets of Wilmington, Delaware. He ran with the wrong crowd, had the wrong friends, and got into the wrong situation. A terrible argument with his parents led to him being thrown out of his home, and as a young teenager, he was thrust into the foster care system.

A pastor and his wife in upstate New York had just decided to take a foster child into their home, and so Jake was placed with them. Jake started going to church with them; they belonged to the Salvation Army. Before long, Jake had given his life to Christ. When I met Jake at Houghton, he was a youth ministry major, and he still had marks from his past. For pajamas, he wore prison clothes that his friend Fred had given him when he had been in jail. He slept with a knife by his bed, something I didn’t know until I crept into his room at night to play a prank. When he discovered it was me, he said, “You’re lucky I heard it was you, Mike; I have my hand on my knife right now.” But Jake continued to grow in the faith and he became a youth pastor for a time in the Salvation Army in inner-city Harlem, helping exactly the same kind of kid that he used to be.

You hear that story and it makes you think, “Where is the grace in that story?” And the answer is not the pastor and his wife showed grace to Jake. They did a good thing, they did the kind of thing Christians should do for each other. But only God can show grace. People do good things for each other all the time, and the good things don’t always work; people take in foster kids that don’t quite work out. People reach out to others and it fails to make a difference. The grace in Jake’s life is that God reached down and plucked Jake out and maybe literally saved his life. God used other people to do it, but those people didn’t show the grace; God did. He used other people to do it, but God showed the grace.

I say that to truly understand grace, you have to see it in action. But maybe the truth is you can’t truly understand grace without receiving it. Maybe you need to truly be at the bottom and have God pull you out to know what grace is like. Now this doesn’t mean that you have to be laying on the street with your face in the gutter and have an angel of the Lord appear to you and pull you out and give you an amazing new life. That happens to some people in that amazing, life-changing way and I certainly respect that.

But there are other ways of receiving grace; you don’t need to be at death’s door or all alone to receive grace. Some of us received grace in beautiful homes with beautiful families. I never had my face in the gutter, never wrestled with drugs, never battled alcohol.

But for me, I truly started to receive grace in my life when I realized there was no essential difference between me and the drug addict, no difference between me and the alcoholic, between me and the sex addict, between me and the person who had absolutely hit rock bottom. All of us–the drug addict, the alcoholic, the sex addict, the face-in-the gutter bum, and me, the church-attending lawyer’s son–all of us!–were infected with the same self-centeredness that threatens each member of the human family. All of us sought our salvation in something other than God. They sought it in chemicals and sex, and I sought it in my own goodness and righteousness. The only difference between them and me is that their vices would kill them quicker.

And the only reason I escaped is the only reason they escaped: God’s grace pulled me out. Yes, people played a part in it–pastors and teachers and most of all good friends who were not afraid to confront me. But they could have talked til they were blue in the face and it would have done no good if it had not been for God pulling me out and putting me on a different path. That is the only reason I was changed and delivered from what I used to be into what I am becoming. It wasn’t anything that I did, or even anything anyone else did. It was what God did. It was all grace.

A friend asked that I preach a sermon about something, and she doesn’t even know this is that sermon yet. She said that she and some friends had been talking and they were wondering about babies that die. What happens to the millions of babies that die? Do they go to heaven? Might God send them to hell? What happens to babies that die? She wondered if I would preach a sermon about that.

Of course, that is a complicated question. The question is complicated by the different things that churches do with babies. The majority of Christians around the world go to churches where it is the custom to baptize babies. Let me see a quick show of hands: how many of you were baptized as babies? Now, of course, we belong to a number of churches that baptize adults, believing that the proper candidate for baptism is one who has freely chosen to be a Christian. We believe that this has the support of Scripture. And indeed, this is the way baptism happened in the earliest church.

Sometimes, people wonder why the custom ever started of baptizing infants. I mean, if the earliest tradition was to baptize adults, why did the church start baptizing infants at all? Now the answer to that is quite complicated; there are a number of reasons. But the main reason is that there was a school of thought that people are born with a kind of stain on their spirits that the theologians call original sin.

All people have an inclination to sin. It’s something that all people have, ever since Adam and Eve. We all know that to be human is to be sinful. The human family has always fallen short of God, and that we all sin in ways that we don’t even see, because we’re blind to them. We can see this when we look at previous generations; we see people who were good Christians and still were committing some incredible evil that they didn’t even know they were doing, couldn’t even see. Haven’t you ever wondered how otherwise good Christians held slaves? I have no doubt that these were people who were sincere in their faith, but they were completely blind to what they were doing. Who knows what future generations will look at us and say?

Sin is not something we always consciously choose; sometimes we sin without choosing to sin, without even knowing it. And this is the idea that original sin is based on. For instance, Grace is not old enough to choose to sin. She can’t lay in her crib and weigh the options and decide to choose God’s way. But even though she can’t choose to do something wrong, I can already sense there is something rebellious in her, something human in her. She’s getting to the age now, for instance, where she knows when it’s bedtime. And she knows that when we go into her room for her little bedtime routine, that she’s about to have to go to sleep. And she doesn’t want to. So this is the time she really turns on the charm. And she smiles and she talks, and she tries to be as engaging as she can so we won’t put her down in her crib. It’s like she says, “How could you possibly bear to part with me for the night? Don’t you just want to play and play?”

Now again, I don’t think Grace thinks all this through and chooses to do this. But can’t you see what a little person she is becoming. Even before she can think about it, she already is practicing self-assertion, she’s already desiring her own way, she’s already falling into the same traps that you and I fall into. Like all of us, Gracie bears the stain of being human and thus not exactly what God would have us to be.

Once the church became really established, and started to grow, it was understood that baptism washed away this stain. Baptism removed that curse of being rebelliously human and lifted you to a different way of existence. Certainly, you still may sin, but you were no longer living in sin, once you were baptized. And getting rid of that stain made you acceptable to stand before God after you died, so that you could be saved and enter heaven.

In a day and age when many infants died, many more than today, people began to worry about their babies. Would they see their babies in heaven, considering the fact that their babies were not baptized when they died? Because if they died, still having that stain on them, then God could not admit them to His presence, since God can’t tolerate sin. And after all, God is a holy God who truly hates sin, and doesn’t like it when we live in ways which are self-destructive and not as he created us. Since sin is not only a personal choice, but a condition of being human, then it didn’t matter if you were a baby or a mass murderer; either way, you bore the stain, and you couldn’t be in God’s presence. The answer to these concerns became to baptize babies. By baptizing babies, the church believed they were washing those stains away and making their babies fit for heaven. It has become a tradition, then, passed down to the present day that babies are baptized in Christian families.

So now the question is for me and for all of us Baptists. Since we don’t believe that normal baptism is for infants but for adults, what happens to those babies who die without being baptized? If I’m a loving person and a good pastor, how could I possibly not baptize babies to get them clean just in case they should die?

This is where God’s grace comes in.

When I was talking about my deliverance, how God brought me out into his light, that was not something I did. It was not something that any person did for me. God did it. God changed me. It wasn’t a human act at all–it was divine. I did not work for it, deserve it, or earn it. It was a gift from God. Like our Scripture this morning, “it was by grace that I had been saved through faith.” Yes, it was through my faith that I was saved, but it was by grace. God’s grace did it. Anytime anyone is saved, it is God that does it.

And so anytime anyone has their stain of sinfulness wiped away, it is God that does it. This is where I think the church made a mistake. It is not baptism that washes that stain away, it is God that washes that stain away. God may use baptism to do such a thing, but usually it is a reality of the heart that baptism then symbolizes. It has already happened in your heart, and then you choose to get baptized to acknowledge that. God washes that stain away, not baptism. We are saved by grace, not something we earned or deserved.

In adults, there is a normal process. Each of us, as we grow up, reaches a certain age. At that age, we realize that God is inviting us into a new way of living in Jesus. We are invited to lay down our old lives, trust in him, and receive new lives. This is often not easy because we love things in our old lives and are afraid to give them up. But when we choose to trust Jesus and follow him, we are given a new way of life. And those of us who choose to do that, for us the stain of sin is washed away; God chooses to give life to anyone of us who asks, and washes that stain of sin away. Normally, it is our decision to say yes to that invitation that moves God to wash us clean; or, our decision to say no to that invitation that moves God to let us stay as we are, stained in sin. Normally, God respects our conscious decisions–but it’s not our decision for God that washes us clean. We decide for God and God makes us clean. It is through our faith–through our conscious decision–but it is by the power of grace. It’s like when you play a trumpet. The trumpet is an instrument that takes your breath and makes music out of it. Our faith is like the trumpet; and God’s grace is like the trumpet player. Without someone to play it, the trumpet just lays there quietly. It takes a trumpet player to make the music. The trumpet is just an instrument. Our faith is the instrument that God uses to wash us clean, but it is God’s grace that does the actual washing.

But there are many people in life who are not capable of making such a decision. They don’t have the capacity to make it. Babies can’t choose whether or not to accept this invitation; nor can three-year olds; nor can most six-year-olds. There are some people, in fact, who become adults and cannot make it; the mentally ill, perhaps, the severely autistic, those with developmental difficulties. When people like this die, who never could understand or make a decision, I believe they are saved. I believe God washes them clean. And I believe this because it’s not their ability to make a decision, and it’s not the baptismal water that cleans them–it is God and God’s choice to clean them. God is not just an ordinary trumpet player, after all. God is a trumpet player who can make music even without a trumpet. He is that powerful and that good. He doesn’t need to use the instrument to make music. And in the same way–even though our decision for God is the usual instrument he uses to wash us–he can wash people even without that instrument.

I believe babies who die are in heaven. And I believe that not because babies are so naturally innocent, or naturally good. Gracie’s a sweet baby but she’s already a little bit conniving and manipulative; she’s no more innocent than you or me. I believe God washes babies clean simply because of his grace and his goodness. We were saved by grace, and so are they.