Eleven weeks ago today Hilton and Terry were beginning a day-and-a-half journey from Liberia, Africa to their new home in Racine, WI, as new sons and brothers in the Slaggert/Nuechterlein family.
As long of a journey as that was, it's part of a much longer journey, of course -- a journey of many intersecting stories. Hilton and Terry remain sons and brothers in the Baffo family of Liberia, too. In fact, today I want to bring us to the Good News of the new basis for family that we all share in Jesus Christ. In baptism, God brings all our intersecting stories together as they intersect with God's story in Jesus Christ [hold up hands intersecting as cross]. As Hilton's and Terry's lives become intersected with the Slaggert/Nuechterlein clan, this morning they also become intersected with a new sister in Christ, little Cazhmere Sanders, and her Sanders / Roberts / Rhoads clan. In the promises made by you the people of St. Andrew, the stories of these three children are forever joined with all of our stories.
I'd like to begin by noticing that we often leave something out of these intersecting stories, and that is the story of the earth itself. Hilton and Terry are experiencing in a unique way the story of this earth and its wondrously diverse geographies. They come from an arid coastal and jungle region of Africa near the equator. And they've journeyed to the heart of North America, into a humid lakes region, whose land is marked by glaciers, and is half way to the North Pole. Already on some cold days in April, Terry and Hilton had their first experience of wearing gloves on their hands. What a concept! All bundled up to ride his new bike, Terry took a tumble or two but popped up immediately, "I'm O.K.!" How could you get hurt with all those layers of clothes on?
But all of our stories intersect with the earth's in ways that we often fail to notice. Did you notice this morning the way the prayer of thanksgiving over the water begins? "We give you thanks," we pray, "for in the beginning your Spirit moved over the waters and you created heaven and earth. By the gift of water you nourish and sustain us and all living things." By water, in other words, each of us is first of all linked to the story of the entire universe, of this created world. This is an ongoing story that takes us back to "in the beginning," but it is also a story that very much includes our relationship to the earth today -- and even far beyond it to the earth's future fulfillment. Our Christian hope, in other words, is too narrow, too short-sighted, if it involves only the fate of a few human souls in some sort of eternal repository for souls called heaven. The baptismal prayer echoes the biblical version of creation, that God "created heaven and earth." In other words, heaven is not some far-off repository for human souls; heaven is part of the created order with a fate forever bound up with the earth. We are sadly mistaken if our Christian hope is only for our own souls leaving behind an earth of woe -- meaning, as our sin often takes us, that we can do anything we please to this earth in the meantime. No, our fate as people of the resurrection is bound up with that of the earth.
Let me take just a moment to bring in our Second Lesson from Romans. The rich baptismal language of Romans 6 comes in the midst of just this same sort of recounting of how our human stories are bound up with God's stories as Creator and Savior of the world. Romans 1 begins to frame this section by noting that even Gentiles can understand the notion of a Creator God. But it's the ultimate fulfillment of that creation which brings this whole section to a climax in Romans 8:
I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; ...in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay. (Romans 8:18-21)All of us, the "children of God," are called to care for each other and for the earth. The stories of Cazhmere, Hilton, and Terry, therefore, are meaningfully joined today with the story of St. Andrew Lutheran Church, at a time when Cazhmere's grandpa, David Rhoads, is helping to lift up the importance of caring for the earth. Our Christian hope is that someday God's power of life in Jesus Christ will fill all the earth.
But that story of salvation for the whole creation does begin with us, the children of God, who need to first of all get our acts together as the stewards of the earth we were called to be. There's this thing that gets in the way called sin. In the passage in between last week's reading in Romans 5 and this week's portion on baptism in Romans 6, Paul performs the ultimate condensing of intersecting stories, boiling everything down to a First Adam and a Second Adam, Jesus Christ, where he sums things up, for example, by saying, "For just as by the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man's obedience the many will be made righteous" (Romans 5:19). In short, this is the story that about sin that only Christians seem to have, and it is not very popular among Christians these days either. It is the sobering part of the story of humankind that we can only dare take a look at because we already forgiven for it in the cross. It is the part of the story that says that sin infects everything about us as human beings going back to our very origins as human beings. And, as such, sin infects all our human institutions as well. St. Paul, in the letter to the Romans, is wrestling in Romans with how even something as wonderful from God as the Law of Moses could have been taken over by sin. Here this morning I want to conclude with how it is that sin could infect even such a wonderful gift from God as family.
Which brings us at last to those inspiring words from Jesus in this morning's Gospel Lesson. For here we are on a big family day, gathered for a baptism, and we hear Jesus say to us,
"Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth... For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother...; and one's foes will be members of one's own household." (Matthew 10:34-36)What's up with that?! Such inspiring words on the theme of family, huh?
But, you see now, don't you, that if everything about us human beings has become infected by sin, that means that even something as foundational as family has become tainted. What the cross of Jesus reveals is all the ways in which we divide ourselves from each other as insiders and outsiders. Jesus on the cross became an outsider so that in the forgiveness and new life of the resurrection we are able to begin knocking down all those dividing walls between us. In Romans, St. Paul is concerned with the basic divider for his people, that between Jew and Gentile. But we play these divisions out in so many ways: between nations, between religious groups, ethnic groups, racial groups. Between developed nations and developing nations.
But the foundational grouping behind Jesus' words this morning are the groupings according to families, or clans, or tribes. So when the Prince of Peace appears on this earth, his coming will first of all mean dying to its effects on the cross in order to reveal the taint of sin even in family. Households will become divided until and unless one also comes to see the new basis for founding God's family. That basis is a forgiving love that lowers all boundaries between human families, boundaries that have been erected by sin.
This is why St. Paul in Romans 4 goes all the way back to the story of Abraham and Sarah. The verses that have been so important to our family as we have welcomed Hilton and Terry into our family, is the promise in Genesis 12: "I will make of you a great nation," God tells Abraham, "and I will bless you, so that you will be a blessing...; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed." Blessed to be a blessing. This is the blessing of family that gets derailed by sin. We no longer live fundamentally to be a blessing to others but mostly to ourselves, or maybe to our clan, or perhaps even to our nation. But we never get to the point of becoming a blessing to all the families of the earth, including the earth itself.
Only in Jesus Christ are we joined to the whole of God's family, through a forgiveness that begins to knock down all our dividing walls. If at first, families are divided by this judgment of grace -- as the words of Jesus today imply -- through the gift of Holy Baptism we are given the means to begin reforming even our families. In short, all of us here this morning are adopted, adopted into God's family. What was it that Jesus said on several occasions when asked about his birth family? "My true mother and brother and sisters," he said, "are those who do the will of God." Living in God's grace, we are remade as family not for our own sakes alone, but blessed to be a blessing. Our family is living this out through the somewhat out-of-the-ordinary means of international adoption. But there are so many faithful ways to live this out. Some more ordinary means, for example, are teaching Sunday School, dedicated teachers who hold so many children as their own. Or we live it out when we offer comfort to a grieving brother or sister. There are also less conventional ways of living this out, some of which have drawn us as a family to join St. Andrew this morning. We've already mentioned the greening project. There are also those ways you have taken on in recent months of intentionally working to lower the walls of division through anti-racism work and through being a Reconciled in Christ congregation.
So let us adopted children of God all come now to our Lord's Table, to the family dinner which truly binds us together as God's family. We come to be fed and nourished in the story that sends us out once again this week to live toward being a blessing to all the families of the earth. Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at St. Andrew Lutheran,
Racine, WI, June 19, 2005