Sunday, August 21, 2011

Baptismal Vows vs. the World's 'Salvation'

I have said before that I graduated from college with a double major in religion and economics. The school I attended was conservative in both fields and that perspective stays with me even now. The bible has a great deal to say about economics. It strongly supports the idea of private property, for example, by forbidding the movement of boundary markers. It establishes a social safety net through such directives as leaving a portion of a field unharvested and not picking up grain that falls to the ground - both are to be left for those in need. The culture’s emphasis on hospitality provided for those travelling and those in transition. The bible forbids the incursion of debt and decries coveting what another has but you do not. It clearly commands that promises must be kept, especially those made by the powerful to those who are poor and vulnerable.

The bible is deeply suspicious of centralized government. The prophet Samuel objected to Israel’s desire for a king, insisting that each individual would be better off accountable only to God. Jesus’ political teachings (things like render unto Caesar…) come at a time when his part of the world was occupied by a foreign government – the Romans. Against their oppressive presence, Jesus put forward the notion of the Kingdom of God.

This suspicion of a central government goes back in history to this morning’s reading from the Old Testament. The Hebrew people, who hade been invited to live in Egypt during a time of severe famine, find their fortunes turned when a new regime looks less than kindly upon them. As a people they are forced into servitude and become targets of genocide.

This whole scenario came about because generations earlier a Hebrew named Joseph became well-positioned in the Egyptian government after predicting the coming famine. The Pharaoh empowered Joseph to appropriate huge amounts of food during good years and to store it as a means of getting through the lean times. It was a centralized approach to the problem that had intended and unintended consequences. On the positive side, it accumulated food reserves that lasted through the famine. On the negative side, it created great wealth and power for the government, impoverishing those who had to pay for the food they had grown years before. And for the Hebrew people, invited to Egypt by one of their own, it eventually led to misery.

Those of us in the conservative camp wonder how a decentralized approach might have played out. What if Pharaoh had warned the people of the coming famine and encouraged every person and family and tribe to store up food on their own? Surely some would have ignored this; others may or may not have been able to help them through. Each person would have been accountable for his or her own actions. No one would have ended up beholden to the Pharaoh.

This outlook, and the lessons derived from it, continues to drive the economic and political perspective of conservative Christians in America. It fosters a deep distrust of government and a yearning for personal freedom. Mix into this a literal interpretation of the Book of Revelation and you can see why so many in this camp paint such a negative picture of the direction our country is headed politically and economically.

I don’t believe apocalyptic writing is best understood as a figurative prescription of events yet to unfold, so I do not believe that a doomsday is inevitable. I do believe that the bible contains God’s revelation of God’s love for creation; a revelation that describes the best way for us to live in accordance with how the world has been formed. To live otherwise is to invite our downfall.

In today’s Gospel reading Jesus asks his followers what many say is the most important question each of us can ever consider… “Who do you say that I am?” In a slightly different way it is a question I will ask in a few moments of Hunter’s parents and godparents. And in that every baptism provides each one of us with the opportunity to renew our own baptismal covenant, it is a question I will ask of each of you:

Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Savior?

Do you put your whole trust in his grace and love?

Do you promise to follow and obey him as your Lord?

The answer to each is a direct, firm, “I do.” Far more than just doctrinal concerns that reverberate only in the church, and much more than boxes to check off on an insurance policy to get you into heaven, these questions cut right to heart of how we live and move and have our being in today’s world.

Do you turn to Jesus Christ accept him as your Savior? ‘Turn’, turn from what? Well the previous questions give us a clue. In them we renounce Satan, the world, and the self. We turn from these to Christ. Now, most of us find turning from Satan not to be much of a problem because we never engaged in direct allegiance to this being. Turning from our own evil desires is a different matter altogether. For the most part we know what these are and will struggle with them all of our life – gaining the upper hand at some instances, while falling short at others.

In our day and age I believe the most challenging renunciation is turning for the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy us. It is like asking a fish not to swim in water. We are so immersed in our world that it is nearly impossible to step away from it in order to gain perspective on it. Every Sunday we hear Jesus proclaim a another reality he calls God’s kingdom, but I for one always wrestle with the temptation to water down what he says so that it more closely resembles our ‘watery’ world.

The driving forces behind our current economic and political lives can be characterized by ancient words like greed, covetousness, envy, and idolatry. We want more, we want what others have, we want it all, and we want it right now. We want a feeling a safety and security and when something happens to disrupt this we want new laws, new regulations, and new programs that will make it never happen again.

In such a climate, our savior becomes our possessions, our ability to purchase what we want when we want it, and a strong, centralized government to ensure that it all works out without so much as a hiccup. Through baptism we turn away from this and accept Christ as our Savior, not just to get us into a next life, but to find fullness of life here and now.

Do you put your trust in Christ’s grace and love? This question asks us to proclaim that we need most to make it in this life can not be found at the mall, it is not achieved by building up fortunes in the stock market, and it can not be earned through a ‘healthier lifestyle.’ We are a people who believe that what we need first, foremost, and always is grace (and awareness of the riches God so freely shares with us) and love (a sense of God’s unconditional presence and unflinching desire to see us thrive).

Do you promise to follow and obey Christ as your Lord? We are a people whose prayer to God is always, “O Lord, what should I do?”, “O God, how should I live?” More and more, it is a question being asked less and less.

I watched a documentary a few weeks ago called Inside Job. It chronicled the 2008 collapse of the financial world. Here is one slice of how that disaster came to be. The financial firm Goldman/Sacks bought up thousands upon thousands of shaky mortgages (mortgages put out by Fannie Mae and Freddy Mac, and up until 48 hours before it all fell apart, given the highest investment rating by Standard & Poors). They bundled these properties into what was called ‘derivatives’ and sold them on the open market. Private investors like you and me bought them through our managed our 401k’s. Local pension funds for firefighters and teachers also invested heavily, believing them to be worthy and reliable. Long after Goldman/Sacks knew the derivates were nothing but junk they continued to promote them while at the same time insuring against their collapse by taking out policies with firms like AIG.

Well, as you know, the whole house of cards came tumbling down, plunging us into a world-wide recession, leaving 10% of the population unemployed, and stripping each one of us thousands upon thousands of dollars in equity and savings. The government stepped in and bailed out the industry, but the people who ran these markets played the system well and walked away with billions of dollars in earnings and bonuses. I do not envy their wealth because I do not want to be accountable for their sins.

Do you promise to follow and obey Christ as your Lord? How should I live? What should I do? I should live in a way which, to the best of my ability, provides for me and for my family. I should live for myself in a way that promotes the well-being of all and does not deplete from it. I should live not for myself as the world defines ‘self,’ but for him who died and rose for me.

These are dark times in which we live. I don’t know if they are darker than other times, but it is certainly a time of despair. It is a time when the light of Christ burning in each one of us committed to living out our baptismal covenant is a sign of hope to this sinful and broken world. It is a time for those of us who have died with Christ in the waters of baptism to rise up in newness of life; a life God intends as a blessing for the world. We have a different Savior than the world offers. We strive not for the things of this world, but for a deeper awareness of God’s grace and love. We follow Christ as Lord who guides us into a life marked by integrity, generosity, and a concern for the welfare of the world.