A sermon preached on June 24, 2007 based upon Galatians 3:23 – 29 and Luke 8:26 – 39, on the occasion of the baptism of Andrew Paul Schnetzer.
I had lunch with Bart Routhier this past week, the twenty year old sailor from our church family who was home on leave. For a year now Bart’s been in the Navy, learning construction, having spent several months in Afghanistan and in Guam, putting his skill into practice. He has four more years to serve.
The thing that I have been marveling at is the difference between Bart in the present and the Bart we knew back in high school. Bart’s always been a good kid, but back in high school he wasn’t exactly what you would call self-disciplined. By his own recounting, he didn’t apply himself in his studies, just coasting along doing as little work as possible to get by. At home he was something of a couch potato — his favorite pastime being watching TV and eating junk food. He’d always been a big kid, but in high school his weight ballooned to over 300 pounds.
In this regard there wasn’t anything particularly unusual to Bart. High Schools across America are filled with kids floundering with no apparent direction, which, in itself, makes this state all the easier to fall into; it is, to some degree, the norm.
But somewhere along the way, Bart got hold of this dream: he wanted to follow the path set by his mother and other members of his extended family and join the Navy after graduation. The dream meant service to his country, adventure, a way to acquire skills for work and life, and who knows what else, and it took hold of him.
There were a lot of skeptics regarding his dream: teachers, for instance, who had found Bart a likeable enough kid but doubted he’d ever amount to much. The biggest obstacle to his dream coming true was his weight: Bart would need to lose a hundred pounds before the Navy would accept him.
Millions of us Americans are trying to lose weight, and the success rate is pretty meager. The forces of inertia are always pretty strong: daily habits of sedentary lifestyles; food addictions with which we comfort ourselves — these things can be pretty tough to overcome.
We can say, “I know I should lose weight — I will lose weight.” But knowing this and saying this doesn’t mean we will follow through. As I said, the forces of inertia are pretty tough to overcome.
Bart, however, started out walking everyday, then jogging around Lake Parsippany. He changed his eating habits, staying away from the junk food. It took a long time — slow and steady wins the race — but he did it; he took off over a hundred pounds, and now he is trim and fit and self-disciplined in a way he never was before. And there’s other changes, too: having taken on the risks involved in leaving the safety, comfort and familiarity of home, Bart has an appreciation for his life and his family that he probably would never have had stuck in his old life.
I thought about Bart’s transformation in light of our scriptures this morning. First off, Paul talks about the difference between “living under the law” and the possibility that has arisen through the appearance of Christ of “living by faith.”
Now laws and rules have their place. We need them to help provide some order in the face of the chaos into which we human beings are capable of descending. But living by the Law has some definite shortcomings. Apart from the desire to avoid punishment, laws don’t provide any real motivation — any real focus and direction to a life.
You can follow all the rules and inwardly be as dead as a doornail. (Which is a good way of describing the Pharisees in Jesus’ day; no joy, no passion.)
And when an addiction and a law come into conflict, well, the addiction will win out every time.
Now when I speak of laws, I am talking about laws broadly speaking: the laws that our governments legislate, as well as the internal laws and rules we carry around inside ourselves, things like:
“I really should lose weight.” “I really should get more disciplined.” “I really should study more, or be more honest, or be more helpful, or spend less money,” or whatever.
In Bart’s case, I’m sure these kinds of rules lived inside of his head, and he had teachers and parents reminding him of the rules, but the rules didn’t really provide him with any power to change.
The power to change came about only when his dream grabbed hold of him. There was something Bart wanted passionately, a vision of his future that was compelling, and this dream provided the motivation he otherwise lacked to overcome the inertia of his bad habits.
Now I do not mean to equate joining the Navy with faith in Christ. But what I am trying to do is to get at what is involved when we talk about motivation and what’s required for real change to talk place in our lives. And if we think about it, real change of ourselves is a tough thing to bring about.
Whenever we have a baptism, we are reminded that life involves a struggle between good and evil. We don’t tend to look at it this way, but at the heart of life, that is what we have. The deepest question in life is, are we moving towards the light of God’s love, or are we moving towards the darkness that is opposed to love? Will we be a part of the problem, or a part of the solution? Will we be creative, or destructive? Will we align ourselves with love and hope or with hate and despair? The battle is being waged in countless little and big choices we make in the course of each day.
And so at the outset of our baptism, Andrew’s parents, Ted and Bekki were asked where they came down in this struggle, and whether they were determined to help Andrew as he grows and confronts the struggle between good and evil for himself?
Well, how do we do this?
The first thing that comes to mind for most of us is to make sure Andrew knows the rules. Teach him the ten commandments, the golden rule, stuff like that. And that certainly will be a good thing to do.
But something more is required. We need to help him move, as Paul says, beyond living under the law to living by faith in Christ.
The strange story from the Gospel reading describes the incredible transformation of a man who lived in a place called Geresene. He is suffering horribly — described as demon possessed. He has no internal freedom, being subject to destructive forces within himself over which he has no control. He is an addict, with multiple addictions, the nature of which is unclear from the brief story. His life is absolute chaos: impulsively he lashes out at others and at himself, forcing him to live in utter isolation, attempting again and again to kill himself.
The Law has been tried with this man. The townspeople have told him to behave himself, to control his impulses, and then punished him when he didn’t. They even put chains on him, but he simply broke the chains. Nothing seemed to work.
And then Jesus shows up — his boat landing on shore. There is strange stuff here: on the one hand, the man comes running to Jesus. There is something powerfully attractive about Jesus, drawing the sick man to himself like a magnet. And yet at the same time, the demonic powers inside the man are crying out in terror to Jesus, begging him to leave them alone.
Jesus is irresistible to this man — that is, to the healthy part of this man, even as there are parts of himself that realize that to move towards Jesus will mean their death. (It’s a little like Bart realizing that if he wanted to go towards his dream, it meant killing off the part himself that wanted nothing more than to eat French fries in front of the TV.)
Long ago sitting in a rather tedious, long winded lecture in seminary, a fellow student taught me this little hand signal from the lexicon of charades. First, you tug on your ear — the gesture that means, “sounds like”– and then you pantomime pouring water from a pitcher. Who can tell me what this means? “Boring.” Sounds like, “pouring”.
I am tempted to give you permission to flash me this gesture when I am descending into the land of boredom, because I think that one of the great sins of the church is being boring. Somehow we’ve managed to turn being good into “boring”. We learned this from the Pharisees, for whom goodness meant nothing more than following all the rules. It involved no passion, no adventure, no risk taking, no joy.
Think about the way the meaning of the words “good” and “bad” got switched a few years back in youth culture, so that “bad” came to mean “good”. To say, “Oh, he’s bad!” meant someone who was doing something very well, indeed. The reason for this switch was that in the common usage of the words, “being good” had come to seem boring.
But Jesus wasn’t boring. Just ask the man in our story. He’d never met anybody like Jesus. Jesus was the real deal. He was absolutely free, and full of life and passion and creativity as well as real joy and real sorrow. It was absolutely impossible to be bored in his presence. Some people got angry enough to kill him in his presence, but nobody got bored. And many people fell into love with Jesus — they caught hold of his dream called the kingdom of God, and in the power of this dream they were transformed.
So back to little Andrew. How do we lead him into goodness? Obviously, it will involve more than teaching him the rules. We want to introduce him to Jesus. Well, what’s that mean? Does it mean teaching him to say things like: “Jesus is my Lord and Savior.” “Jesus died for my sins.” ? If that is all it means, I can pretty much guarantee you that Andrew will be out of here when he reaches adolescence. Teenagers, if you haven’t noticed, have a low tolerance for boredom.
We gotta make being good “cool.” Which isn’t as hard as it sounds, because Jesus was way cool. (Remember, nobody ever got bored in his presence.) And in baptism we have put on Christ, the inherently cool dude.
We want to love Andrew well, but part of what that love means is modeling for him the same kind of passion and joy and love and life that was in Jesus. Andrew’s got two great parents: Ted is a police officer, and Bekki a school teacher, both living out dreams that took hold of them like Bart’s dream of being in the Navy. Let Andrew see your passion, the pleasure you get from making a difference in this world, putting your God given gifts to use helping people, giving back to our community.
And Lord help us make the church a cool place to be, where people are full of life and joy and concerned with far more than following the rules, willing to take chances.
The same way Bart is a walking advertisement for the Navy, we are walking advertisements for Jesus. Let us not be accused of false advertising.