In our culture when someone says to someone on the hearing end of a conversation with her or him, “You’re one of those people…,” or, “You’re one of those kinds of people who…,” what follows is usually not complimentary. There are exceptions, of course, but usually, I say again, what follows that kind of beginning to a sentence isn’t complimentary.
So my ex-wife said to me one day, “You’re one of those people who,” and I braced myself because I wasn’t expecting a compliment. I was correct! What followed was, “…has to find someone or something to blame for everything that goes wrong. Why does that matter so much to you? By the time you start talking about most things that happen they are over and done with. What caused them doesn’t matter anymore.” Before I had enough time to ponder the accusation, she apparently sensed that my brain was working around this theme: “Well, you’re the one around the house that I seem to find the most fault with because I know you’re responsible for charging up the credit cards into the stratosphere, the only candidate for being the one who puts things away that I’ve never been able to find, and, most heinously, the only one who could systematically been getting rid of all my leisure suits then acting like you had no earthly idea what possibly could’ve happened to them–especially my favorite orange one.” Rather than hear me or have me say anything like that, she pulled an “Old South” on me to stop me in my tracks. What she said was, “Besides, IF you were a TRUE gentleman and a lady made a mistake, you’d simply ignore it.”
In principle, I knew she was on target, but in reality could one ignore missing money needed to pay bills and missing articles that had taken weeks or months to write gone for good requiring rewrites. How could one dismiss the clandestine handing over of his beloved and probably irreplaceable orange leisure suit to Good Will Industries? I could not ponder those at that moment, however, because I’d been called less than a gentleman and by my own wife!
Ouch! I was wounded to the core. My gentlemanliness had been called into question. Certainly, there was a code of gentility in the south, and the not so old south also by the way, that was less rigorous than the codes of chivalry in the Middle Ages but nonetheless pervasive. For example, did you know that ladies in south did not sweat; they beaded. A lady did not faint; she vapored. A gentleman always opened the door for a lady even after the advent of the women’s liberation movement when opening the door for a presumed lady could get you a dirty look if not a hateful remark. A gentleman tossed his cloak or overcoat over the mud to keep a lady from having to mess up her own shoes. The lists go on.
I don’t think I’m a blamer at all. To be precise, there’s quite a difference between blaming someone and expecting that person to take responsibility for her or his actions. I do think that I am someone who wants to know who is responsible for what went wrong–whether that’s at home, at work, on the battlefield, on Wall Street, or in the Oval Office. Responsibility and accountability were twin messages underlying much of what Attorney General Biden said to the Wednesday evening group this passed week when societally trying to correct many of the problems from which we just can’t seem to shake loose.
My parents planted in me, from a young age, the self-requirement to accept responsibility for my actions–the good ones and the bad ones. An example of a lesson taught, probably more than fifty years ago, was the bubble gum issue. At the Piggly Wiggly grocery store, five pieces of bubble gum sold for 5 cents. Once I took six pieces rather than five, but only paid the nickel for my gum. At home, Dad saw six pieces of bubble gum, but he knew that I only had a nickel in my pocket. He immediately drove me back to the grocery store and marched me up to the cashier who’d rung up my gum, and he made me tell her I’d taken one piece more than I paid for. That made a point with me, don’t you think? Here I am still talking about it more than a half century later.
On the way home, I got the verbal lesson that went along with the contextual lesson. The lesson was exactly two sentences: “No son of mine is going to be a thief.” Since I was the only son he had at the time, it was pretty easy for me to figure out who wasn’t going to be a thief. Sentence number two: “No son of mine is going to be too weak to stand up and take responsibility for his actions.” Well, I hold myself to that practice, and I guess it’s true that I hold others around me to the same standard, if they are able to hold up under the weight of reality; not everyone is.
What would have helped Lindon and me with one of our struggles that got me called a non-gentleman would be for her to have shown me the credit card statement pointing out that we were over our limit before I found out by not being able to buy gas for my car one day and saying to me, “You look really nice today, and you’re the most understanding husband anywhere around. My friends are so envious of me for having you in my life. Their husbands aren’t nearly as understanding and kind as you are. I need help managing credit cards. I’ve made some errors, and obviously I need you to be involved in how we charge as well as how we pay for what we’ve charged.”
How can you be bent out of shape when information has been presented to you in that manner–even if you must live the rest of your life without a gorgeous orange leisure suit?
Nathan wasn’t the typical prophet tapped to preach for King David. When he was asked to preach the sermon for one of the Sabbath services attended by the King, he had a message especially prepared for the popular monarch. He intended to confront him with reality even though David was accustomed to having his ears tickled by the prophets invited to preach in his presence.
Girolamo Savonarola, the fiery Italian preacher of the European Renaissance era, was a kindred spirit to Prophet Nathan, and he was highly critical of his fellow preachers employed to preach for powerful politicos. He said they’d rather get a compliment from a higher up, and maybe a little extra cash also, than to preach truth at any cost. He called those sycophant sermonizers lapdogs. You can imagine that he wasn’t elected president of his local pastors’ association.
These preachers in the Middle Ages and the ancient prophets as well were not preaching to large diverse groups in a congregational setting. They were preaching to the king or some other political powerhouse, and they were preaching only to that power person and his immediate family and perhaps a few of his servants.
President Obama, as is true of his churchgoing predecessors in recent memory, attends a typical worship service in a local congregation with many other congregants, people from all walks of life. It is not proper for the preacher when the president is in attendance to preach to him or to advise or encourage him in or through the sermon.
An exception is the service at which the president specifically is preached to in a sermon the day after a presidential inauguration. Remember that day after the most recent inauguration when President Obama and Vice President Biden came into the National Cathedral to hear Dr. Sharon Watkins preach. She is the executive minister of the Disciples of Christ, and she did a bang up job. She was both pastoral and prophetic in her remarks to our leaders, with only a few hundred gathered there with them and a few million watching her on real time television. She was no lapdog, but she was kind in reminding our leaders what the American people and the world needed from them. She has remained one of the President’s spiritual advisors.
OK, so Nathan’s sermon to King David began as the sermon of a lapdog might begin. He was telling a sweet little story about an unnamed man’s pet ewe lamb whom he loved like a daughter. We pet people know what it’s like to love pets as if they were human. Nathan’s sermon, though, took a wicked turn.
A neighbor who had fields full of sheep took the man’s beloved ewe lamb, slaughtered her, and served her at a feast for his friends. How cruel and grotesque.
At that point in the sermon, King David stands up and screams out to his staff, kill the man who did this vile thing to his neighbor at which point Nathan pointed directly in the King’s face and said, “You are that man!”
Somehow, David thought that his affair with Bathsheba had been a well-kept secret. Yeah, about as well kept as directly reporting it to the Associated Hebrew Press. Everyone knew that David had begun an affair with Bathsheba who liked to bathe on her roof long before her husband died, leaving her a widow. Many people had also well before Nathan’s famous sermon was preached put together the pieces of the puzzle of Uriah’s, Bathsheba’s husband’s, death. Uriah was one of King David’s military standouts. In a particularly bloody battle, he had Uriah’s superior officers place Uriah in a sure as fire death zone, and Uriah was, as expected, killed leaving Bathsheba free to marry King David.
David already had wives and concubines–not nearly as many as his son, Solomon, would gather, but plenty. Suddenly the sad sermon application hit. David himself was the neighbor with herds and herds of sheep who took the ewe lamb from the man who had one sheep, Uriah. Bathsheba was the ewe lamb who, in Nathan’s story, was helpless though in real life she wasn’t helpless at all; she willfully began an affair with the King while her husband was alive and away from home in service to King and country.
“You are the man!” Nathan said forcefully as he pointed right into the King’s face. Nothing can ever be alright until the King, caught with his royal hands in the cookie jar so to speak, owns his role in the affair and in the unnecessary death of one of his strongest military leaders. Obviously, David does not have himself put to death, and obviously he does own up to his serious moral failure, but some things can never be fixed regardless of how much responsibility one takes or how sorry one may feel for a wrong that was done. It would be nice if saying, “I’m sorry,” could fix all our errors, but though it can fix many that confession can’t fix them all. As one of my countryboy classmates in elementary and high school used to say, “Sorry don’t put the hay back in the barn.”
Are there any fingers pointing at you these days, directing you to own up to what you’d just as soon forget about for good? In some cases, yes, I’d say. In some cases, no, because there are those genuine souls among us who live entirely by accepting responsibility for any of their mess-ups or wrongs. World renowned therapist, the late Virginia Satir, said until we own all of who we are and what we’ve done–the good, the bad, the ugly–we can never be whole.
Interestingly, baptism is related to taking responsibility for oneself. Baptism isn’t just a Baptist thing nor is it exclusively a Christian thing. Many of the ancient polytheistic cultures had baptismal practices. In monotheistic tradition, the Jews had baptismal-like rituals for lifelong Jews as well as for converts.
Most people associated with Silverside Church today, our members and our friends, were baptized at some point in their lives–either as infants or as teens at the culmination of confirmation processes or as adults. Baptism is not a foreign practice to people who are on a spiritual journey. Our church doesn’t require or even subtly push those who want to be members to be baptized; it’s strictly a matter of one’s choice or preference, and we certainly don’t ask those who have been baptized in other traditions to get re-baptized in the manner that is in tradition of this congregation. We do, however, offer baptism as an option for those who believe they will find it meaningful, and about once every ten years or so, someone does. We and our water pump as well as our water heater and the pastor’s baptismal garb must stand ready to serve when called upon. We don’t know when in a given decade someone will ask.
Many progressive Christians have discovered in recent years that their current spiritual thinking causes them to look back to their baptism as a less than satisfactory experience. This is true for several reasons. One is that they were infants when baptized and had no choice in the matter. Another reason would be that the baptism they experienced carried a meaning they can no longer embrace. This is akin to the Lord’s Supper dilemma for many.
There are those who began partaking of the Lord’s Supper in a tradition that would have had them believe communion was an ingesting of the literal body and blood of Jesus. It also emphasized repeatedly that their ability to be okay with God was dependent on Jesus’ bloody death to which the Last Supper/the Lord’s Supper was prelude; thus, they were taught that Jesus had to die to save us from our sins and to save us from an eternal burning hell. Today they walk into a worship room where they see a communion set up, and they turn around and run in the other direction. Nothing is further from their core beliefs than that God is angry and required the death of Jesus to appease the divine wrath.
Even though there’s an abundance of groups who celebrate communion with precisely those thoughts in mind, that does not mean that perspective was what Jesus intended. In fact it was not Jesus’ take on the Last Supper in any way. His teaching was: remember me every time you have such a simple meal.
So also with baptism, which has been woefully misunderstood. Baptism is not what one does to get in good with God. Baptism is not what one does to get on God’s good side.
Scripture knows nothing of infant baptism; the only baptism known of is baptism by choice. The form in Jesus’ day happens to have been baptism by immersion. That’s the way Jesus himself was baptized. He certainly didn’t ask his cousin and mentor John the Baptist to baptize him because he was afraid that, otherwise, he’d die in his sins of display disobedience to God. Baptism for him was a means of identifying himself with a given ministry and mission. He was, through his baptism, taking responsibility for who he’d discovered himself to be and what he would, therefore, do–regardless of who approved and who disapproved.
There are times when in politically oppressive situations, people have chosen to be baptized at their own peril. Afterwards, someone pointed the finger at them and said, “That person identifies with the teachings of Jesus and the Jesus Movement.”
Someone else, an Emperor or an Emperor’s representative let’s say, later asks the person who was baptized, “You were seen being baptized. Does this mean that you are identifying yourself with the Jesus Movement?”
A, “Yes,” meant imprisonment and ultimately, for many, death. A, “No,” meant personal safety and a repudiation of responsibility.
The word, “Baptist,” was originally a pejorative term used by Anglicans to make fun of a little sect near London that baptized adults who’d already been baptized as babies in the tradition of the Church of England. This small sect did, indeed, baptize adults. Some sprinkled adults; some baptized the adults by immersion. King James was not pleased. Officially, he tolerated them; that was miles away from approving of them or embracing them. The Baptists who came to embrace their nickname even though were about much more than baptism would eventually suffer persecution, death for some, simply for taking responsibility for their spirituality by seeking baptism. “Are you connected to that Jesus Movement?” Baptism was a visible act that said, “Yes I am.”
John the Baptist–remember the fiery Jewish preacher?–baptized Jesus by immersion long before there was a group who’d call itself Baptist, and Baptists by no means would be the only group within Protestantism to practice baptism by choice–by immersion and by other means such as pouring. Baptism isn’t a requirement in this congregation, but for those who want to participate in it to help them say who they are along their spiritual pathway of seeking we bless that request and happily participate in it.
King David had the prophet’s finger pointing at him because he was trying to pretend that he’d had nothing to do with a series of acts that were morally reprehensible. He could have had Nathan’s pointing finger chopped off and his head too, but he didn’t. He owned his wrong. Many enemies of the Jesus Movement across the years have pointed at those who identified with it by seeking baptism; later when asked to confirm their baptism as their way of taking responsibility for trying to live and serve as Jesus did, they could either deny it by lying and be sent on their way with the Emperor’s blessing, or they could affirm it and face punishment that sometimes took the form of execution.
Many in our day, for various reasons, will choose not to be baptized; in our church, that’s an accepted and respected option. There are those, though, who commemorate a milestone along their spiritual pathway and/or who say who they are to the world by walking through the waters of baptism by choice.