Jesus Christ: Fire, wind, flood, earthquake, sword – Don’t
leave us alone, don’t bring us tranquility, don’t offer us peace
until you have made us into all that you would have us be.
Amen. (Taken from a prayer by James Howell)
Jesus has got to be kidding. I mean aren’t Christian values at the heart of family values and aren’t family values all about strengthening the family? What is all this about division? “Father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother,” – that doesn’t seem right does it? Jesus does not divide people does he? Isn’t the Christian message a message of reconciliation, a message of healing broken relationships? Our passage for today must be the exception to the rule – right?
I wish that were the case. The fact of the matter is – faith when it is taken seriously changes you, and others in your life may not like those changes. But I think we forget this fact. We have so domesticated our faith that we often see it as a nice addition to an already nice life. People have forgotten that believing in Jesus Christ, being a Christian is something that one dedicates one’s life too. Instead we have made believing in Jesus, being a Christian into another label we add to life rather than an identity that claims our life. Many think of being a Christian in the same was they think of being a Republican or a Democrat, a Wahoo or a Hokie. It is just another tag that says something about what you like – it doesn’t necessarily say anything about how you live your life.
But faith, real faith – deep, gut wrenching, heart warming, Spirit filled faith, changes people. It claims people and remakes them not in their own image but in God’s image. Every October we celebrate the Feast of St. Francis with our blessing of the animals. St. Francis loved animals and so on his feast day we do the same. It is a wonderful service where we celebrate our favorite non-human friends. But we forget that Francis was more than a lover of animals. His was a life changed by faith. As a young man Francis was a knight who fought in the wars with Perugia (pear-ru-ga). He was successful, his wealthy father was proud of him and he had the prospect of a fabulous future. But what Francis wanted to know most of all was not what his father expected from him but what did God want from him. He prayed for long stretches of time, he wrestled with what he felt the Holy Spirit was doing with his life. Over time he became convinced that God did not want him to be a French troubadour or a powerful knight, but a genuine disciple of Christ – to literally serve the poorest of the poor. Francis heard the scripture say, ‘Sell all that you have and give it to the poor’ and with startling naiveté he did just that. He sold all that he had (he was a very rich man) and gave it to the poor. But his father was less enthused that Francis in effect gave away much of the family fortune. In response, he threw Francis in jail and then took him to court to recover his estate. Francis is quoted as saying – “No longer is Pietro Bernardone my father for, from now on, my father is in heaven.” Faith changes people. Faith even sets father against son and a son against his father.
Over the years all kinds of people have come to me wanting to strengthen their faith life. They want to grow in their relationship with God, they want to learn how to pray, they want to learn to be more faithful. Some of these folks want to grow in their faith because they want to get their lives in order. They believe if they take God seriously, then they will be happy, everything will be better and life will straighten itself out. We sit and talk and I give them what little advice I can about the journey of the spiritual life. Sometimes as I meet with these people I have the distinct impression that they have no idea what they are getting themselves into. They see their faith life as this mysterious and romantic gift they have never taken the time to unwrap. But do I tell them this gift is also a bomb, a holy explosive device that can blow up on them, that can blow up their lives, that can change them in ways they never imagined? Do I tell them if they open this gift they may find themselves writing far fewer checks to meet their own needs and many more checks to try and meet the needs of others? Do I tell them if they unwrap this gift they may be unable to remain numb to injustice and oppression, poverty and suffering? Do I tell them if they unwrap this gift they may find themselves unable to hang out with the same people, unable to spend their time on the same activities or even unable to continue in the same line of work? Do I tell them if they unwrap this gift God may do with them things they aren’t prepared for and aren’t sure how to handle?
I want to be supportive because I know God is pulling at their lives trying to build a relationship. I can tell by the very fact that they are in my office at all. Their struggle is evidence of the Spirit’s presence knocking on the door, so to speak. But I also know that sooner or later they are going to realize Jesus never promised a life of faith would be anything like they think it is going to be. He never said faith would make life easier, simpler or more manageable. The lives and deaths of the first disciples and the stories of the saints would say that faith rarely if ever makes life easier. Faith makes life more meaningful, more fulfilled, even more joyful – but that is not the same thing as a life made easier, happier or simpler. If Francis wanted his life to be happier he might have done better to stick with his wealthy father and a career as a valiant knight. But what Francis wanted, what Francis could not pull away from was a life close to God and in his case that meant a life of poverty, a life of service, and in the end a life of holy living.
This morning we baptize all of these beautiful children. It is a great occasion. We welcome them into the church, the waters of baptism symbolizing the love of God which covers them in their new life in Christ. But more is happening here than just the sweet ritual of sprinkling water on babies dressed in white. Today these children receive the gift of the Holy Spirit and we pray one day that Spirit will burn in them with a holy fire – a fire that causes them to embrace their faith, a fire that enables them to hear Jesus’ call and to answer that call. We pray these things not because a life of discipleship is easy or convenient or safe, because it’s not. No, we pray these things because a life of discipleship, a life of faith is a life in service to God and in service to others – and that is the greatest life of all. Amen.
 S tory adapted from illustration by James Howell.