Saturday, April 29, 2017

Year A, Easter 3, Acts 2.14a, 36-41

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen
“For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.”
It was November 2, 1989, just a little over a year after I had begun my ministry in Thompson Falls.
I was out in my backyard splitting firewood when the sirens blared out across our town.  I remember wondering to myself if one of my parishioners was involved in whatever event was the cause of the sirens.
Then the phone rang.
There had been an accident.  JoJo, the granddaughter of one of my members, had taken her friend Alison on a joy ride in her grandmother’s 1966 Mustang.  An inexperienced driver going too fast on a back road, she lost control of the car and flipped it.
Alison was thrown out, her head smashing into a tree twelve feet off the ground.  She was in critical condition.
I rushed off to the hospital to be with Jean, the grandmother.  Jean immediately told me that her granddaughter would be alright, but that the other girl’s parents were the ones that really needed me.
Bob was standing in the hospital hallway, leaning against the wall, in the hospital in Plains.  His wife, Laurie was not there, having gone to Spokane that day.
As Alison was life flighted to Missoula, we returned to Bob’s home to wait for Laurie to return from Spokane and share the bad news with her. 
You’ve never heard a scream, until you’ve heard one like that, coming from a mother whose just been told her daughter is dying. 
“You may want to talk about organ donation,” were the last words the doctor had said in Plains.
We took off and rushed to Missoula, about a hundred miles away.
During the drive, Bob and Laurie informed me that they had been remiss, and had never gotten around to having Alison baptized. 
When we arrived at St. Patrick’s Hospital in Missoula, the chaplain was waiting at the door for us.  A few words about baptism were exchanged and I was taken into the room where Alison was.
A little water in a Dixie cup. 
“I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
A prayer.
That was it.
And then the waiting began.
Alison never regained consciousness.  She died a few hours later. 
When we gathered for the funeral the next week, a fresh layer of snow had just fallen.  But amazingly, next to the cross in front of the church, an Easter Lilly, planted there last Easter, was in full bloom.
“There are lilies blooming at the foot of the cross,” were the words I shared that day.  We live with an Easter hope in a Good Friday world.
I spoke a lot about the promise of baptism and the promise of eternal life.  I called upon everything I believed to offer a word of grace and hope to Bob and Laurie.  At the end of the day, it was simply the “Promise”.  That’s all we have.  God’s promise, offered freely to us, in baptism.

As I left the sanctuary, I noticed Linnea standing in my office, crying.  I went in to console her.
Turns out she was deeply troubled by my sermon.
What I found out was that twenty years before, her second child Randall had died unexpectantly due to complications that developed after he was born.  Randall had never come home from the hospital where he was born. 
The Stevenson’s had every intention of having him baptized.  They were simply surprised when they got the call that Randall had died.
What troubled Linnea deeply, and angered me when I heard about it, was that their pastor at the time had said, “What a shame!”
Lacking baptism, he was convinced that the child was not saved, and was not in heaven.
I was deeply angered by his response. 
He had taken the promise of baptism that is meant to give us hope, and turned it into a law that condemned that innocent young child.
The next week, I spoke with my confirmation class about Alison.  They had all sorts of questions.
Alison was a classmate of theirs.
And they knew her far better than I did.
She had not gone to church, or like them, been part of confirmation instruction.
“Did she even know you baptized her?” was one of their questions.
The only thing I knew about Alison’s faith was that she loved Amy Grant songs, and had even sung one for a vocal competition. 
What the kids were trying to figure out, was why, if Alison could be saved by just being baptized in the emergency room, were they going to all these confirmation classes and church.
Grace is hard to understand at times. 

We are much more comfortable with the Law.
“Brothers, what should we do?”
That was the question that the crowds gathered together on Pentecost had asked the disciples. 
What must we do?
 “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
Is this a promise?
Or a law?
Grace is the unconditional love of God that is totally undeserved and unmerited. 
But we want to make it a law.
We take the promise that was given to us that we might have hope, and turn it on its head, so that it becomes a law that condemns us.
Have we repented, well enough?
Is repentance a turning away from our sin, or a turning toward God in faith?
Who among us have truly repented of all our sins?
But perhaps that is not what repentance is all about.  Perhaps the real repentance is about having faith, trusting in the promise, turning from our doubts and simply believing.

But what is believing?
How much must we believe?
Was I wrong to baptize Alison in that hospital room without a confession of faith from her?
The most common questions people today would ask center around a profession of faith.
“Did she accept Jesus Christ as her personal Lord and Savior?” 
And what does that mean?
Surely, there is something that is required.
Do you believe in God the Father, who created the heavens and the earth?
Do you believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, who died and rose again, that you might be forgiven?
And have you received the gift of the Holy Spirit?
And how would you know if you had?

All of these questions arise because of our tendency to make every promise of God a law that must be obeyed.
We attach conditions, requirements, on the promise.
Beware the Word “if”.
That simple word negates the promise, and makes it a law that ultimately will condemn everyone.
If you believe all the right things-
If you repent of all your sins-
If you accept Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior-
If you live your life according to the Gospel-
If you are baptized-
If you commune-
If, if, if.
That one little word makes everything a law and negates the promise of God that is freely given.
And where there is a “if” involved, there is no love.

The word that we should cling to for hope, is not “if” but “because”.
“Because God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son-
                You need not worry.
Faith, you see, is not something we do, it is to be dependent on, and trusting of, what God has already done.
As Linnea cried in my office that day, one thing that was perfectly obvious was the love that she had for Randall, her child, though he only lived but a few weeks.
Randall had done nothing to deserve that love.
Love, if it is love at all, is ALWAYS, is ALWAYS, freely given and received.
We know that.  We know that to attach an “if” to love, is to destroy the possibility of love.
You cannot say “I will love you if and only if you do what I demand.”
That doesn’t work in our marriages.
That doesn’t work for our children.
That simply doesn’t work.
Why then, do we think that God loves us, only if we do one thing and not another? 
Why do we think God’s love is any different than our own?
Actually, God’s love is different.  It is perfect.  It is totally unconditional, absolutely freely given, and undeserved.
God loved us before we so much as breathed our first breath.
And nothing will ever separate us from that love.
It’s a gift, that keeps on giving.

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