From Death to Life

June 25, 2017

Series: June 2017

Category: Faith

Passage: Romans 6:3-11

Speaker: Rob McClellan

I wrote my sermon this week on Monday, earlier than usual, because I had some other things scheduled during my regular writing times.  It was a good enough, as far as drafts go.  I had studied the text and made what I thought were important observations.  I put forth some appropriate theological claims.  Admittedly, though when I was finished, an unsettled sense lingered.  There must be something more to say, or perhaps something else.  Some biblical passages lend themselves to easy ethical instruction that can inform everyday life, and some just do not, not matter how much we contort ourselves around them (or them around us).  I put the sermon to bed knowing I would need to return to it later in the week to clean it up. 
Then, on Tuesday night, I had a dream.  Really it was Wednesday morning, one of those vivid dreams you have in the early morning, perhaps after you’ve awoken and then drifted back to sleep.  I was somewhere in Marin.  You were there too, some of you.  We were in a grassy field, a park of sorts.  At one point a group of you were singing on a small stage.  There were hills in the background, not Tam, but like Tam, and then all of a sudden, we noticed that the hills were burning.  Wildfire had broken out and was destroying them.  I remember feeling panic inside, and the urge to rush and protect my family, move them to safety.
I awoke.  Rarely do dreams stay with me throughout the day, but this one did, those images did, and in my wakefulness throughout the day, other images came and joined them.  One was of a building with giant Roman columns, regal stained glass windows—it was a church—a standing icon of a bygone era.  Every time that church came to mind, I experienced a coldness, in the pit of my stomach, an emptiness, almost a sucking into nothingness.  I didn’t want to be there.
There weren’t only haunting images, however.  In contrast, another image that kept coming to me was of my son.  He’s young, 4 ½, and thanks to a last-minute opening, he got to go to “nature camp” this past week for a couple hours each morning.  There he and the other children went out into the wild each day to explore the forest and creeks, to turn over rocks, to make molds of animal tracks.  My wife always dropped him off, but still somehow this image of him, gathered with other children in a circle, then exploring, discovering, touching, wondering, their faces shared between sun and shade, his feet cooling in the stream.  He’s come home with new ways of talking.  One day he was talking about the “protector plant,” the “protector oak,” it was.  We know it by another name, poison oak.  Its job is not to poison us, however, to make us itch or scratch; it’s job is to keep things away so the small animals and birds, the little ones have a place to be safe and take shelter.  Every time I picture this set of images, these children in the safety of the wild, learning about how things live, how they fit together, how new life springs up out of the old, I get this expansive feeling inside, this fullness, this hope welling up.  Maybe that sounds silly, but it doesn’t feel silly.  I want to be there, to be a part of that, to step in the stream myself and sense what is being born. 
Something is passing away, some of the old ways and old fixtures are burning down.  That seems increasingly apparent, and it can be a scary scene to behold.  The trick is to learn to watch for and learn about what new is trying to be born.  Birth is always tricky.  Just ask Sarah.  In our Older Testament story, we find her unable to give Abraham a child—it was always on the woman—so she gives him her slave girl Hagar the Egyptian.  Imagine what that must be like.  Through Hagar, who as a slave has her own pain and lack of choice—let’s not forget that—Abraham has a son, Ishmael.  Not long after, Sarah is able to conceive with Abraham, and she gives birth to Isaac.  When she sees Isaac playing with Ishmael, she can’t bear it, for all kinds of reasons.  Abraham and Sarah cast Hagar and Ishmael out into the desert to die.  We know this is at least the conclusion in Hagar’s mind because after she has finished her water skin, she places the child ‘neath a bush and goes a bowshot away, presumably so she won’t be near enough to hear his cries as he succumbs to the desert’s heat and barrenness. 
As an ethical play, this story is troubling at best.  Sarah is to be lauded for giving another partner to her husband?  Are we asked to do that?  Then, appears a villain because she realizes she has offered a generosity she cannot bear to endure, and who could blame her?  Abraham goes along with the whole thing (must be nice), including casting out the slave woman even when he feels it’s wrong.  As for God, God seems to assure him in this.  Who is the simple moral exemplar for us to emulate, to take into the boardroom, much less the bedroom?  Sometimes the Bible gives us ethical teachings.  Sometimes the Bible has other gifts.  Sometimes, it simply explodes our imagination, gives us visions, new dreams.  What we thought was, and was fated to be, starts to go up in smoke, chaos happens, and then out of the ashes, possibility.
Just when panic sets in as we watch the scene of Hagar and the child, God does a new thing.  While Hagar is out of earshot of Ishmael’s cries, God is not.  God steps in, and sends an angel to call out to Hagar, “Do not be afraid…come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand…I will make a great nation of him.”  “Then,” Scripture says, “God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water.  She went and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink” (Genesis 21:17-18).  It says God was with the boy, and wouldn’t you know, when he grew up he lived in the wilderness, where new things come to life all the time?  As for the well, it’s still around.  According to tradition, it is in Mecca, about 20 meters, 66 feet from Kaaba, the Cube, where we see modern Muslims circling every year in pilgrimage, 20 meters or I’d say about a bow’s shot away.  God meets the tears of the frightened child, the thirst frightened mother, with a well that has not yet run dry.  (Muslims, of course, are the descendants of Hagar, and her children again find themselves on the same playground with the children of Sarah, now with adult toys.)
It is the same water, I would suggest that flows into our sanctuary, and awaits us in the font, where we re-enact God’s blessing, God’s promise to us, and we make Godly promises to one another to be Godlike, Christlike, in a life in which one encounters both life-giving streams and intimidating columns.  In baptism, we make a claim about the world to which we belong.  This is what Paul is speaking of in Romans.  Paul gets a bad rap, perhaps especially among Christians.  He’s seen as a legalist, rigid in his attempt to maintain a strict establishment.  Of course, nothing could be further from the truth.  That’s the world he left behind, where he persecuted the early followers of Jesus to maintain an old order.  Paul is a mystic, one who has been touched deeply, transformed by a religious experience.  The old order crumbles for him as he is blinded into new sight by a light that literally knocks him off his feet.
Paul rarely touches on the ethical teachings of Jesus.  He is busy helping communities embody them.  For him that means nothing short of dying to an old way of being, so a new one can come to life in Christ.  “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?  Therefore, we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.”  If you stumble at those words, be helped by brother Richard Rohr who reminds us that Paul is inviting us to die to our false selves, and our false systems, so we might be born into truth, to real reality.  Think of snakes—they too get such a bad rap in Christianity, but we’re all serpents—we must shed our old skin in order to grow.  Our skin protects us until it eventually constricts us, and we must cast it off if we are to grow.
Columns are falling, or holding up cold, empty spaces.  Things are burning.  And yet, the word I am given is “do not fear.”  There are little ones taking shelter in the safety of the wild, learning new ways, or old ones.  God’s dream is germinating in them right now.  The stream is still flowing, and we are being called it, to be rendered cleansed from old ways of being, to old systems of control, to being captive to what the world says is powerful, to be moved literally in Paul’s words, from death to life. 
Do you want to be touched by that, to let it run again over your body, washing your fear away?  Then don’t sit there listening to me teach you what you know in your heart.  Come forward and touch the waters of baptism.  All over this room are containers of this water.  Come and put your hand in the water, let it run down your head, your cheeks.  Put it on yourself, or bless each other.  If you’d like I’ll bless you, or you can bless one another.  If you don’t want to come forward, simply remain in your seat in prayer and allow the Spirit to wash over you.  Or, pick someone who has gone forward and pray for them.  This is not your ticket to heaven after you die; this is your invitation from death to life, which starts now.  Amen.