Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Passing the Baton

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Hebrews 11:29-12:2:

On September 21, 2008, the New York Yankees played their last game in historic Yankee Stadium.  Home to the Yankees since 1923, the stadium had played witness to some of the greatest players, some of the greatest moments in baseball history, as well as home to 26 World Series titles.  And for that last game, my family was there.  Linda and I bundled up the girls and drove down to New York City, to 161st and River Avenue, home to the big ballpark in the Bronx, We watched as Derek Jeter became the last Yankee to ever come to bat, and the great Mariano Rivera recording the final out at 11:43 pm, with the Yankees wining 7-3.  And then with tears streaming down my face, I held my oldest daughter who was then 2, and my youngest, who was 5 months, and told them that although they wouldn’t remember this that it was important, and I told them tales of the Yankees and of our trips to Yankee Stadium

Perhaps the moment was best summed up by Derek Jeter who was given the microphone after the game to try and give words to the moment, and said, “There’s a lot of tradition, a lot of history, a lot of memories.  Not the great thing about memories is you’re able to pass it along from generation to generation… and we are relying on you to take the memories of this stadium, add them to the new memories that come at the New Yankee Stadium, and continue to pass them on from generation to generation.”  And of course the Yankees christened the new stadium by winning their 27th World Series title.  But one of the things that makes baseball great and unique is that it is about remembering and passing on stories and traditions of the game from generation to generation.  A love of baseball isn’t so much taught, as it is caught, no pun intended, and the same is true with Christianity.

People are always shocked when I say this, but no one is born a Christian.  This is not true of some other religions.  In Judaism, if your mother is Jewish then by tradition you are considered Jewish.  Not so in Christianity.  Your parents being Christian does not make you a Christian, and Garrison Keilor famously said, even attending church does not make you a Christian, any more than sleeping in your garage makes you a car.  To become a Christian is a choice that is made by each individual, recognized in the act of baptism, and like a love of baseball, Christianity is caught more than it is taught.

Today’s passage from Hebrews is part of that story telling, and comes from an amazing section in chapters 11 and 12 explicating not only what faith is but what faith looks like.  Last week we began with the first portion of this reading in which we were told that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”  But after the author of Hebrews tells us what faith is, he then begins to highlight it for us, and tells us that by faith Abraham was called by God.  “By faith” is a key phrase in these passages and used repeatedly as the reason why our ancestors in the faith did the things they did.  It was not just that they had been called by God, but that they did this by faith, and each and every one of them had to choose that faith for themselves.

The writer of Hebrews then lists others who through faith “conquered kingdoms, administered justice and obtained promises.”  Some of them you may be familiar with, such as David and Samuel, others like Jepthah and Barak, probably not so much, and I’m guessing that many of you did not even know that Barak is a Biblical name, although you will be more familiar with the other character in Barak’s story and that is Deborah.  We don’t have time to tell their stories, so I trust that you will either look them up in the Bible or in Wikipedia.  And then the writer moves onto those unnamed, who suffered or died for their faith, and I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news this morning but not being able to publically pray at a football game, or not having the cashier at Wal-Mart say merry Christmas to us, does not entail suffering for our faith.  These are the great cloud of witnesses that came before us, who were not perfected in their faith, until after the coming of Christ, so that we might all be made perfect together.

And then he says, what I think is the key of today’s passage, “let us run the race before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of the faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.”    Run the race that is before us, and where is Jesus in this race?  He’s in front of us, as we are looking to him.  But, as this list of the faithful shows us, this is not just any race; it’s actually a relay race, in which the baton of faith is passed on from generation to generation so that the race can continue.  The baton has been passed to us, and we pass the baton on to others, but the problem with relay races is that the passing of the baton can be very tricky.  You might remember the 2008 Olympics in which both the men’s and women’s relay teams dropped the batons.  If you don’t remember that, here is a clip, but pay close attention to what we are told about how the baton is to be passed. (Video)

Gail Devers says that the person receiving he baton is to give a good target, the incoming runner has the eyes, has to get there, look for the target and put the stick there, the outgoing runner is just supposed to put a good target.  What strikes me about this is that both parties have to be ready and prepared, and both runners are looking in the same direction.  The person receiving the baton does not look back, and the person handing off the baton does not look back either.  Both are looking forward, both are looking toward the future.  This is not something the church does very well, and it’s really nothing new.  After Moses leads the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt and they are out in the wilderness, what do they do?  They complain to Moses about how much better it was when they were back in Egypt.  Sure we were slaves, they say, but at least we knew where our food and water and shelter was, can’t we go back?

A minister I know has said that every church has a back to Egypt committee, who wants to try and return to the good old times, if only it could be like it used to be.  But to pass the baton on successfully we have to be looking forward, and we can be assured that those who will be looking to receive it are not looking back.  Now I can say as a historian that there are reasons to look back, but let’s compare something.  This is a rearview mirror, and this is a windshield, so which should we be looking in the most? It’s not that the rearview mirror is unimportant, because it is, but its size indicates how much we should be using it.  There are traditions that we need to be holding on to.  There are reasons why we sing hymns that are 500 years old, and we should still sing them, but we shouldn’t believe that that is all that we should sing, that only songs written before 1900 are real hymns, after all we are in a tradition, in which Charles Wesley, one of the founders of Methodism, is the most prolific hymn writer of all time and created an entirely new hymnody, you know that group of hymns that no one knew, that were new and strange, and I know he had people say to him why can’t we just go and sing the old hymns?

But the other thing to pay attention to in Gail Dever’s quote is who has the greatest role to play?  The person who is handing off the baton.  As I said last week, the number one indicator of whether a young adult will attend church or not, had nothing to do with what they personally did, although that too was important, but instead is was the religiosity of their parents.   To turn our children into faithful adults, we have to have faithful adults for them to learn from and to model their lives after.  Christianity is caught, and it is caught because children see other people, people they care about doing it, and people who are willing to extend the baton out to them and say this is what my faith looks like, this is how I live it out.  Now sometimes the baton is dropped, sometimes the person we want to receive it does not give a good target, they are not a willing recipient, and we want to fight against that, but sometimes it’s not up to us.

Although Jacob is only briefly mentioned in this list of faith, there is a telling story in Genesis about him that I think highlights the passing on and the receiving of the faith.  In dealing with his father Isaac, Jacob says that it is the “Lord your God” ( 27:20b) who is doing things for him, the your in this case referring to Isaac.  It is not Jacob’s God, and in fact we might even read into this that maybe Jacob doesn’t even believe the whole thing at all, but then Jacob has his own encounter with God, in his famous dream in which he sees angels ascending and descending into heaven, from which we get the term Jacob’s ladder, and when he awakes Jacob makes a vow saying “If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go… so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be MY God.” (28:20-21)  and thus it is so, and the faith is passed on from Isaac to Jacob, but it’s because Jacob has chosen to receive it.  Before Jacob has his own encounter with God, the faith is his father’s and God is his father’s.  Jacob has to encounter and witness God on his own terms before he can truly receive the faith.

But often when the baton gets dropped we want to, as Gail Devers says, grab their wrist and force the baton into their wrist.  It sort of reminded me of the title of a book written by a professor at UNM entitled Democracy at the Point of Bayonets, we are going to force you to do it.  We are going to make you do this.  But where does the power and the movement, and the trust, of the Holy Spirit came into play, when we think it is only up to us to make sure that people receive the faith, even if we have to force it on them?  I have had several friends and acquaintances who had faith forced on them, and none of them are involved in the church today.  It did the exact opposite of what was intended, but what we know as United Methodists is that even if the baton is not received that God is still at work in those lives.  Amen? And so we turn it over to God, and the Holy Spirit and pray for them.  But we should also note that it is not just always us handing it off to others, but that we too must still be willing to receive, we must provide a good target for others, because our children, youth and young adults can all teach us some amazing things about God as well.

But one of the biggest things I hear about why this is difficult is because people are unsure of their faith themselves.  We don’t know the Bible as well as we think we should, we don’t know our tradition, we don’t know how to express our faith and tell our faith story to others, and so we feel ill prepared to try and pass it on to someone else, because there is the fear they might ask us a question that we don’t know the answer to.  Well the first thing is that it’s okay to simply say “I don’t know. Let’s ask pastor John.”  And second is that it’s not really about knowledge as it is about passion.  Think about the best teachers you had.  Now hopefully they had some knowledge of what they were teaching, but was it their knowledge or was it their passion that excited you?  Was it their facts or their love of the information, or their desire to tell the story?  I strongly suspect it was because of the passion for the subject, and their desire to get others to know the same things and, more importantly, to be just as excited about it as they are.  As I keep saying Christianity is more often caught, then it is taught, and the best way to pass the baton is to be passionate, to be excited about our faith, and to want to pass the love of God on to others, not as if it is our possession to give or withhold, but instead as the gift that it was when we received it and we want others to receive it as well.  Kendra Creasy Dean said that the “Question is not about do we know enough about our faith to share it, but do we love Christ enough?”

The faith passed from the disciples to others because they passed the baton.  The reason we are here today, is because someone passed the baton on to us, and the only way the faith is going to continue is for us to pass it on to others.  It is not the government’s job to pass the baton, it’s not the schools job to pass the baton, it’s not television or the medias job to pass the baton, it’s not even Wal-Marts job to pass the baton, and it’s our job.  The question of the week, which you will find on the blue insert, is who passed the baton to you?  I want you to think about that and then take sometime this week to thank them or to thank God for them, and for their presence in your life, and then I also want us to ask the harder question, which is what are we doing to pass the baton on to someone else?

The two most important ways we pass the faith on here at the church are through worship and Christian formation, and oddly enough, while there are many volunteers who are doing great work, there are no organized groups overseeing these activities.  We need to be much more focused and intentional about Christian formation, small groups and worship planning.  I need some wonderfully creative people to help decorate the sanctuary each week and to help the musicians and I plan out worship services so we can pass on the baton.  I need some wonderfully creative people to help those who are already working on Christian formation do an even better job.  These things are too important to be left to only a few.

In addition, it is up to all of us to teach our children how to worship, to make them a part of the community now so that they will want to be a part of the community in the future.  One of the terrible things that the church did in the 50’s and 60’s that we are still paying the price for, is that we took kids out of worship and put them into Christian education classes at the same time, and so they didn’t learn how to worship or what worship is about.  Christian formation is important, but so is worship.  We removed them from the community of worship, and worse we told them that worship is boring and they wouldn’t have any fun, etc.  and then when they “graduated” from Christian ed at 13 or 14 and we told them to come to worship we were shocked that they didn’t want to.  But they had been told for their entire lives it was boring and they wouldn’t like it, and we never taught them how to worship, so why are we surprised that they don’t want to do it?  If they are not welcomed into worship as children, why would they feel welcomed as teens or as adults?

We are called to run the race that is before us, we are called to run by faith, we are called to run with perseverance, and we are called to pass the baton of faith on to the next generation.  By faith God has called the saints who have gone before us, and by faith they answered and ran the race to give the baton to us, and so now it is our time, to hear God’s call, to follow God’s voice, and to be faithful to the past by being faithful to the future.  May it be so my brothers and sisters.  Amen.

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