A baptism sermon preached by the Rev. Jeffrey Gill on All Saints' Sunday, Nov. 7, 2010
All Saints’ Sunday
A funny thing happens when you wear one of these clerical collars on a plane – or really in any public setting where people are going to be forced into close proximity with you. And you can’t always predict which of several interesting things might happen, so most of us just don’t take the chance. Sometimes it’s “Heya, Fatha. How ya doin’?” Or a polite and deferential gesture of respect, or an apology when an expletive is uttered. Sometimes it’s a look of scorn or suspicion. Sometimes you get a zealous fundamentalist who wants to check out your position on inerrancy or the atonement. And sometimes you get a person who feels compelled to explain to you why they don’t go to church. A common one is “I’m a Golden Rule Christian.” In other words, I believe in “do unto others what you would have them do unto you” – but I just don’t see any value in “the whole church thing.”
Everybody believes in the golden rule, right?! Well… most of us say we do. But saying you believe in the Golden Rule so that you don’t need to go to church is, well, a bit... ironic.
Most of us probably don’t appreciate, first of all, just how radical the so-called golden rule really is. Do to other people what you would want them to do to you. It seems perfectly obvious – and in fact, all major religious traditions espouse some version of these very words. We can all agree that it’s a good idea. But in the history of human relations, it’s a pretty novel – and a pretty radical! – idea.
For most of human history, a very different kind of expectation has ruled. When somebody steals something, you get your whole village together and go on a rampage to wipe out the offender’s village. Revenge – a kind of indiscriminate justice who’s primary aim is to punish an offender, without regard to how the punishment fits the crime. Or hitting back so hard against someone that they’ll never want to do something against you again. We can still find versions of this kind of justice around and surviving with their own logic well intact. We sometimes take it even a step further and engage in preemptive justice – do unto others BEFORE they do unto you!
The consequences to this kind of justice can, of course, be devastating, and so a different and more enlightened attitude toward human relations came into being, something more fair, and equal, what legal scholars might call proportional justice – the good old “eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.” We often hear that phrase used with disdain, but it actually makes a good bit of sense, and it is a great improvement over the kind of indiscriminate, preemptive justice that has prevailed through much of human history. So, you do something against me, and I (or society) get to pay you back in a way that is roughly equal to the offense you committed. Very controlled, civilized. Seems fair, huh? “Do unto others AS they do unto you!”
The biggest problem with “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” however, is that you end up with lots of blind and toothless people. It’s still focused on negative actions, and lacking incentives for positive human relations.
And then we hear Jesus: “But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you."
Now that is radical. The Golden Rule, it turns out, is not for Pollyannas! Doing to others as you would have them do to you involves returning good for evil – not just being nice to people when they are nice to you. It involves loving your enemies, not hating them. You might think of it as preemptive kindness, which multiplies upon itself, and which anticipates and intercepts the reasons for revenge or punishment by doing the thing that leads not to a cycle of negative consequences, but positive ones. Because if you do something nice for me, I’m most likely going to want to do the same for you. Brilliant!
I think we can all agree that this would be an infinitely more positive way of living than either an eye for an eye, or a more disproportionate kind of justice – because they involve retribution, and not the restoration of relationship.
OK, so we can agree that at least in theory, it’s a much better way to live. But we also know just how difficult that can be, don’t we! Loving our enemies?! Turning the other cheek?! Doing good to those who hurt us?!
We might chalk all this up to just more hyperbole from Jesus (he was good at that, you know) – and yet, there is a serious point being made in these challenging words. If someone strikes you on one cheek, and instead of striking back, or of cowering in fear, you look them in the eye and turn your other cheek toward them, you have just shined a light on the futility of violence. Turning the other cheek is definitely not for weaklings. It is an act of defiance and strength that shames the one who resorts to their more primitive, brute-force instincts.
Difficult it is, indeed. And that’s exactly why we cannot learn to live this way by ourselves. We need each other. The Church is a community of practice, where we learn to live according to these “kingdom principles” – that is, the principles of the kingdom of God. We’re the laboratory for the new way of being. And we have to do it together.
In a few minutes, we’re going to invite six young children, their parents and godparents, here to this font to be baptized into this new way of life. They’re going to renounce the old way of life that only leads to more violence and death, and they’re going to embrace the way of the cross, being baptized into Jesus’ death and resurrection, then from the waters of baptism, rise to walk in newness of life.
One of the promises they will make and we will all reaffirm is to “continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and the prayers.” We make that promise in baptism precisely because this is a way we cannot walk alone. We need each other. We need the reinforcement of teaching and fellowship, the sacraments and prayer. You can’t be a golden rule Christian by yourself.
Gathering at this altar week by week, we take into ourselves a visible and tangible reminder of who we are, as people made one with Christ in his death and resurrection; as people being formed in the image of the One who looked injustice and even death in the face; the One who showed us that the power of love is greater than the power of violence and death. We meet Christ in the Eucharist, and take Christ into ourselves, and in doing that we are reminded of the continuing transformation that is taking place, making us people of the new creation, and helping us to live in the power of the resurrection.
On this All Saints’ Sunday we are reminded of all the saints who have gone before – people who did their best to live in the power of the resurrection. Some of them did so with heroic deeds and lives that helped us to see the very face of God. Others limped along like most of us do most of the time, but still aware of the call to newness of life. As I look around this church today at all the saints gathered here, I am reminded of the company of saints that transcends time and space, past present and yet to come, among all cultures and languages and peoples, and of just how much we depend on them all – and on all of you – to help make our new life in Christ a reality among us.
So, Christopher, Theodore, Eleanor. Olivia, Sophia, and Kyle, take a look around. These are the folks who are going to help you learn to live the Golden Rule. They’re going to teach you in Sunday school. They’re going to show you by their example what it means to love your enemies and return good for evil. And yes, they’ll catch you running around the Parish Hall at coffee hour and remind you to be kind to others; they’re going to be in youth groups with you and create bonds of friendship and community that reflect Christ’s love for you. They’re going to be there for you when you’re going through difficult times in your life. They’re going to forgive you when you really mess up, and you’re going to learn to forgive them when they do the same. These are your partners in the new life of grace.
We really do need each other.