Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Journey From the Font



Journey From the Font
Psalm 121
July 14, 2013
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
Christina Berry

A pilgrimage song.
1 I raise my eyes toward the mountains. Where will my help come from?
2 My help comes from the LORD, the maker of heaven and earth.
3 God won't let your foot slip. Your protector won't fall asleep on the job.
4 No! Israel's protector never sleeps or rests!
5 The LORD is your protector; the LORD is your shade right beside you.
6 The sun won't strike you during the day; neither will the moon at night.
7 The LORD will protect you from all evil; God will protect your very life.
8 The LORD will protect you on your journeys— whether going or coming— from now until forever from now.


As I mentioned at the time we read and sang the scripture reading, this is a Psalm that was most likely used when people were setting out on a journey. The worship planning team selected Psalm 121 some weeks back, not knowing that this would be the Sunday that we baptize our newest brother in Christ, Emmett Jeffrey Brown. But the Holy Spirit has ways of moving that surprise us, and today is no exception, because I can think of few Psalms that would be more appropriate for a baptism.

As Christians, we believe that our baptism marks the beginning of our life journey, a journey of ascent – ASCENT – upward movement – toward the heart of God. As Christians, we believe that our journey begins – and ends – at the font. Our lives in Christ may be lived without baptism, but it is for us an outward sign of an inward seal, a tangible mark of God’s grace and a welcome to Christian community.

Baptism also reminds us of the finite nature of our journey. All of us are born, and each of us will die. Death’s not a very popular subject at a baptism, and I won’t dwell on it for long.
But the water signifies not only cleansing, it is also a re-enactment of the death and resurrection of Christ, pre-saging our own eventual death and resurrection through Him. That’s why at a church funeral, I stand at the font, after the commendation, and pour the water into the font, to demonstrate that a baptism has been made complete, and that death is not the end.

But we are talking today about beginnings, about setting out on a journey, and that is certainly what Jeff and Tarah have done with their children, first with Lillian and now with Emmett. They have set off bravely on this journey of parenthood. It is also certainly what each of us does in our lives, in ways large and small, not always with children, or even with geographic relocation, but we do journey. And this Psalm assures us, in a poetic and powerful way, that as we set off from the font, we do not journey alone.

The Hebrew verb for “protect” in this Psalm, shamar, gets translated in several ways – often, it is translated as “keep.” The Lord is your keeper; it connotes guardianship, protection, and relationship. We use that verb “keep” in lots of ways –  “he/she is a keeper” meaning that’s someone I want in my life forever; keeping sheep or keeping a dog – that creature is in our safe-keeping; and then, of course, there is the zoo-keeper, which usage I would guess that parents of small children can relate to.

In all of those ways we talk about keeping and keepers, we imply relationship, but not really ownership, at least not like the ownership of an inanimate object. So as the people who first sang this Psalm knew, when we set out on a journey,
God keeps us.
God protects us.
God travels alongside us, day and night, through ups and downs.

The Psalm contains both blessing and promise – the Lord will keep your life.
Not that God is some kind of talisman, magically warding off evil. There will be difficulties and challenges, joys and celebrations, but God will be with you in every single moment. That’s how God protects us – like a parent, raising a child: not an act of power and control, but of love and protection. I don’t think it is possible to attend a baptism without thinking about the big ideas in life – growth, development, parenting, beginnings and ends. At the font, the placement here at the front of the church reminds us that as we set off, we do not make the journey alone. It is not just Jeff and Tarah who have Emmett  baptized; they acknowledge that he belongs to God, and to us, as well, and they commit that he will be raised as a beloved child of God. So when we, in community and in worship, baptize Emmett, we acknowledge that Jeff and Tarah cannot do all of that alone, and that we, on behalf of the whole church, commit to helping them. It is a profound act of community –
a family enfolded in a congregation, which is enfolded in God.

In all of this ritual and promise and blessing, we all claim the promise of this Psalm, that God is our protector and our keeper, watching over all of us in every stage of life.

You know how, when you hold a tiny baby, you just automatically bring them up to your chest, cradling them close? Like that.

You know how, when a little one walks under a table, and you automatically put your hand out, between their head and the corner of the table? Like that.

You know how, when you are crossing the street with kids, you hold your hand out, and they take it, before you step off the curb? Like that.

You know how, when you’re on a hike and the kids are running ahead of you, you tell them to slow down, to be careful? Like that.

You know how, when they get a bike, you outline the perimeters of the area in which they can travel? Like that.

You know how, when your son or daughter gets a driver’s license, you instruct them repeatedly about where they can go and what they can do, and then you pray like crazy until they come home? Like that.

And then it all shifts.
And they are calling you, asking where you are going, and who with, and when you will be back. And they are reminding you to take your cell phone, take your medicine, take care.

And  when it is time to cross the street, or climb the stairs, you reach your arm out for them, but it is to steady you, as the two of walk together.

Eventually, the children whom we once protected become the ones who look out for us.
Because that is the nature of this journey from the font.
Things don’t stay the same.
We change, and we grow.

It has been such fun to watch Lillian change and grow, becoming more independent with each passing week. It seems like just a few months ago that we stood here at the font for her baptism. Emmett is a sweet, snuggly little baby, but he won’t stay little. One of the delights of our faith community is the pleasure we take in seeing our young ones grow up. But they are not the only ones who are changing. Each one here is journeying through life, hackneyed as that image might be, and each one of us is changing as we go.

That’s why things change in the church – we change, we grow,  individually and as a community. That’s how we keep on living – by growing and changing. There are many congregations – I am happy to say that this is not one of them- who resist change, even resent growth in membership, because it means giving up the old comfortable ways and accepting new ways, new music, new people, new programs. We all have that impulse, I think, the desire to arrive somewhere and stay put and not change anything. We want to say – “It was good enough for me,  so it should be good enough for you.” But even churches must journey – reaching out from the space where we have been so comfortable to welcome to those who are not within our doors, and maybe will not ever come into our worship service.

The old models that worked for us – worship, fellowship, Bible study – centered around this building – gathering here in this place -- but they may look different for the new generation. Lillian and Emmet’s generation may not value home visits, or Christian Education on Sunday morning, or even the worship music that we think of as “contemporary.” Maybe they will gather for prayer and Bible study at a coffee shop, or online, or through some kind of technology we have not even imagined. We can’t know what the faith community will look like by then, but we know that it will not stay the same.

Poet Kahlil Gibran expressed that in a beautiful way. He wrote:
“Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.”

We don’t know where Emmett’s journey is going to take him. But we do know that God is going to be traveling with him, just as God has been with us on our journeys. So we acknowledge that today, Emmett sets out on a journey. Our job is to help him, help his parents, help each other, as we travel this road. And God is with us, helping us through. Dr. Jonas Salk famously said:  “Good parents give their children roots and wings— roots to know where home is and wings to fly off and practice what has been taught them.” That’s what we are given in this community, and that’s what we are called to give to our children.

Roots and wings.
It’s what they need  -- what WE need -- for the journey from the font.
That, and the promise, as we journey:
“The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.”

Amen. 

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