Sunday, August 26, 2018

Phil Kniss: Marked for life

"Milestone Sunday and Baptisms"
Joshua 24:14-18

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None of us like to be labeled.
To label someone is to stop seeing them as a whole person,
a complex person.
To label someone is to put them in a box,
to categorize them,
to simplify them,
so it makes it easier to know whether they are good or evil,
winner or loser,
friend or foe.

But actually, whether labels are helpful or harmful
depends on who is doing the labeling,
and for what purpose.

I think there are some labels we should aspire to,
labels that actually help us to become whole persons,
persons with all the wonder and beauty and complexity
our Creator had in mind for us.
And those are the labels given to us
by the only one who has the right to name us.

So while I don’t approve of us calling each other names,
when God is doing the name-calling,
it is something for us to celebrate.

And that is what we ARE celebrating this morning.

Baptism has deep roots in the Christian tradition,
and the Jewish tradition we grew from.
And it is the baptism of Jesus himself,
that helps us grasp its rich meaning.

When Jesus was baptized, God called him a name.
As he was coming up from the waters of the Jordan,
a voice was heard “You are by beloved son.”
That was a label. A declaration of identity.
“You are!”
Not “you should” or “you oughtta” or “you will.”
Not words of duty, but identity.

That is what baptism is.
It’s submitting to God’s name-calling.
At the heart of all our baptisms is that we are named,
we are christened by God,
we are marked for life—
“You are loved. You are mine.
You are worthy, because I have made you worthy.
And I have an intention for you.”

We sometimes mistakenly think that the milestone of baptism
is a mark of spiritual achievement.
As if this day of baptism is something
that we have strived for,
since we began to think and act for ourselves.
And that now, at last, we have achieved
a sufficient measure of knowledge,
or faith,
or righteousness,
or what have you,
that we can now, in good conscience,
accept the rite of baptism.
As if we made it! We did it!

Baptism is not so much a rite of passage,
or a moving from one level of maturity into another.
It is a naming ritual.

You who are being baptized today.
We are not asking you to demonstrate that you are
wise enough,
holy enough,
faithful enough,
biblically smart enough,
or anything enough.

We only need to know
that you have heard God calling you by this name,
that you are willing to take on this name,
that you are ready to devote the rest of your life
to learning how to live into this name.

What you are doing this morning is
saying “yes” to what God has already said to you,
when God invited you to be part of God’s family in Christ,
and to join with other members of this family.

And that’s the other thing I want to underline for us all this morning.
Baptism is not a solitary naming.
You are not being given a name no one else has—
like some parents are known to do,
choose a name to distinguish their child from other children.
The more unusual and unique the name, the better.

Nothing wrong with that.
But in baptism we are given a family name.
It’s the same name everyone baptized before you was given—
God’s beloved and chosen child.

In today’s Old Testament reading from Joshua 24,
we see a great example of this idea.
It’s a famous text, and quoted often, usually out of context.
It was at a critical juncture in the life of the people of Israel,
when many were turning to the gods of their neighbors,
instead of the God Yahweh, who delivered them from slavery.
Joshua stood before them and made a powerful declaration.
“Choose this day whom you will serve,
whether the gods your ancestors served . . .
or the gods of the Amorites . . .
but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”

This often gets read in order to inspire us
to make individual, internal choices.
We are personally urged to choose to follow the way of Jesus,
in our daily lives,
instead of the many gods of this world.
That’s good advice, of course,
but there was a lot more at stake here in Joshua.
Joshua did not ask individual Israelites to make a moral choice.
He put the question to the tribes and clans of Israel,
to choose the family of their allegiance.

And he was not even speaking for himself alone.
“As for me and my household,” Joshua said,
and by that he did not mean a nuclear American family
consisting of Mom and Dad and 2.5 children.
It was an extended household, a larger collection of individuals,
located in an even larger clan,
within a larger yet tribe,
within the larger yet people of Israel.

He was saying to all these groups, “Examine your alignments.
Declare your loyalties.
Decide which family will determine your identity.
The family of Yahweh, the deliverer of the poor and oppressed,
that is our household’s choice.
Or the false and hedonistic gods of the nations around you.

He was demanding them to choose their family name.
And they chose wisely.
They answered, together as a family of families,
as a community of communities,
“Far be it from us
that we should forsake Yahweh to serve other gods;
for it is Yahweh our God who brought us and our ancestors
up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery . . .
we also will serve Yahweh, for he is our God.”

See, there is the naming thing again.
They are naming Yahweh “Our God, the Deliverer.”
So the naming cycle is complete.

God initiates our naming, calls us by name.
We complete the family circle,
when we accept the name,
respond to the name,
and name God in return, as our God.

That’s what baptism is,
an opportunity for those being baptized, and the church as a whole,
to publicly affirm our identity in Christ.
In baptism we commit ourselves to journey with a people
who have the same name, and know it.
Who are committed, together,
to live into our baptismal identity.

In baptism we claim a name for ourselves
which God has already given us, “My beloved child.”
and we become bonded to a family of God’s beloved children,
in order to become the whole person God intended.

John Bell wrote a simple song we plan to sing this afternoon,
at the outdoor baptisms.
So for the benefit of those who can’t be there, here are the words,
about being marked with God’s seal,
marked for life.
“Take, O take me as I am;
summon out what I shall be;
set your seal upon my heart and live in me.”

Josh Wenger, Josh Keim, Seth Keim, Reuben Mast,
we are your family,
and today we celebrate your choice to take the family name,
and seek to live into its rich meaning.
God give you courage and strength for the road ahead.

—Phil Kniss, August 26, 2018

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