Saturday, September 27, 2014

Whatever Will Be Will Not Necessarily Be

Messiah Lutheran Church, Roseau, MN
Pentecost 16/September 28, 2014 (Baptism of Bryce Beery)
Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

You’re stuck.  There’s no way out.   Deal with it!

As hard as it might be to utter those words to someone else….we know how to say them to ourselves.

We all have felt “trapped”…caught in some kind of “closed loop” situation….and therefore:  stuck, fresh out of options, paralyzed!

Some of us remember comedian  Flip Wilson whose 1970s TV show popularized the phrase:  “The Devil made me do it!”

In other words:  because the Devil made me do it, I’m not responsible—I’m just a victim.

If it’s the Devil who made you do something….or if it’s your poor family background, or fate, or your genes, or just plain dumb luck….well then you’re not responsible.  If you’re in the soup—someone else or something else put you there!

To be sure, this way of thinking isn’t just “rationalization” or excuse-making.   As a recent NY Times column[1] by Nicholas Kristof pointed out, there are mountains of evidence showing how the foundations for later life are laid in the first months of a child’s life—starting even before the child is born.  Drinking alcohol or smoking during pregnancy can be correlated with things like the child later being suspended or expelled from school…or getting involved in violent crime.   An infant exposed to constant stress grows up more likely to display a “fight or flight” hair trigger response to stress throughout life.   Choices that parents make dramatically impact the lives their children will lead.

That reality is as fresh as today’s newspaper….and it’s as ancient as this morning’s First Lesson from Ezekiel, where we hear this age-old proverb:  “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge.”

This proverb was in vogue among God’s people living in exile in Babylonia six centuries before the birth of Christ.  Exile was understood to be a punishment for sin—but whose sin was it?

The exiles, especially those who were younger, didn’t think they had gotten themselves in this mess.   It was perhaps only natural that they blame their parents and grandparents—“Them!    Their wrong decisions, their bad choices incurred God’s wrath and brought us here to this awful place.   They ate grapes that were rotten—but we’re the ones who got sick—our parents ate the sour grapes, but we’re the ones grinding our teeth!”

This proverb had become commonplace in Ezekiel’s day because it encapsulated a feeling shared by many of the exiles from the land of Israel:  “We’re stuck (through no fault of our own)…there’s no way out…we just have to grin and bear it!”

In response to this fatalistic thinking, though, another voice intrudes here in Ezekiel….a voice that says:  “Cut it out!   Enough of this ‘stinking thinking’…this line that blames everyone but yourselves for the life you now live.   That is not how things are arranged in God’s good creation, which is anything but a ‘closed system’ sealed by fate.”

God gets a word in edgewise here, through the prophet Ezekiel:  “Know that all lives are mine; the life of the parent as well as the life of the child is mine… Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed against me, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord God. Turn, then, and live.”

God’s word runs contrary to the conventional wisdom of the Babylonian exiles.   God longs for a relationship with everyone—each person in their own time, living their lives, in God’s presence.   God can’t stand the kind of fatalism that pervaded the exiles’ imaginations.   God cannot tolerate the notion that we’re all (God included!) stuck in some sort of closed-loop universe.    God refuses to abide by the “que sera sera,” whatever-will-be-will-be resignation that is forever insinuating itself into our heads and hearts!

Try to hem yourselves in, try to hem God in with such fatalistic thinking—and something’s going to give!   God will burst out of such closed-loop thinking, the way Jesus burst out of the grave on Easter morning!

When I was a little boy—I still remember this!—my pastor preached a sermon with a title I’ve never forgotten:  “Whatever will be will NOT NECESSARILY be!”

God is always cracking open whatever is closing you in, stifling your ability to lead the free, full, abundant life God created you for.   And the way God loves to do that best is by providing for us the path of repentance.

Now the word “repentance” has taken on a dark, gray hue in our imaginations.  It’s all too often a grim, “you gotta” word…when in reality it is anything but that.  When God pleads, through Ezekiel, with the exiles in Babylon to repent and turn from all their transgressions….God isn’t laying a new burden upon them, alongside their deadly fatalistic thinking.   No—God is saying to them:  “It doesn’t have to end this way.   Sin and death don’t deserve the last word!   I am opening a doorway for you…a doorway into the world as I intend it to be, a word in which there is always a chance to start over!

If you feel stuck, with no way out (says God) I’m here to tell you that there is a way out—and not just to tell you that, but to point you to it!  My gracious gift to you is the gift of being able to, being empowered to turn from what’s killing you and fall into my arms once again.   That, that, is what repentance is all about.   There is no such thing as a fixed, “closed loop” universe that leaves you fresh out of possibilities.   There is only my good creation, fallen but redeemed by my Son, Jesus Christ, so that every minute of every hour of every day presents you with a chance to start all over again.    That is what repentance looks like!

And that is the life we’ve all been given through the grace of our baptism into Jesus Christ, our incorporation into the life, death and resurrection of the One who saves us from whatever seems to hem us in and cut off all our possibilities.

So here’s the kicker:  just as we can mess up the lives of our youngest children, we can also enrich and bless those lives immeasurably.  What we do for the youngest children of God, to plant and nurture a living faith in them is more foundational, more far-reaching than all the ways we fail our children.   We have a chance, every day, to pass on to our children—all our children!—the best thing we have—and the best we have is Jesus!

Into that life, that full, free, overflowing baptismal life, we are privileged to launch little Bryce today.   Here you all are:  Moe and Messiah, together under one roof.   And believe me, I know you didn’t show up just because you heard the bishop was going to be here this morning.
No, you showed up because you wanted to be here for the best day in Bryce Beery’s young life!  You wanted to see, with your own eyes, the way that God bursts through sin, death and the power of the devil in the renewing Word and the refreshing Water of Holy Baptism.

This morning the God of freedom and the future will get a toe-hold in Bryce’s life.  God calls dibs on baby Bryce—just as God has called dibs on all of us who’ve been joined to Christ through water and the Word.

Which means for us (and in a few moments, for dear little Bryce)…it means that none of those awful-awfuls have a future with us.  Sin and us, death and us, the Devil and us—none of those awful-awfuls have a ghost of a chance with us, once God joins us to Christ in baptism.

We forget that, of course, just as Bryce will forget it.   That’s why you’re all here to promise to keep him from forgetting it, to remind him of his baptism.    Wow!   This little guy won’t have a chance to go astray—not with all you folks watching him like hawks (the way I hope you keep watch over all the baptized!)

But if somehow, Bryce tries to step out of line (and Michael and Lisa, I’m pretty sure that WILL happen, sure as shooting!)….if Bryce goes astray, no (let’s be honest) when Bryce goes astray, he will find himself not on some dead-end street, devoid of options…

No, he will find himself right where Baptism places all of us:  in the strong, gentle arms of God who says to us all:  “It doesn’t have to end this way.  I am the God of endless fresh starts.   Turn away from what is tearing you down….turn toward me, and live!”

In the name of Jesus.   Amen.

[1] Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WaDunn, “The Way to Beat Poverty,”  New York Times (September 14, 2014).

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