Many years ago, on the Great Vigil of Easter at Immanuel Church on-the-Hill, two of my four children were baptized. Zach was three and a half and Colleen was just eighteen months. It was a grand and chaotic occasion as friends and relatives gathered late that Sunday evening. The Paschal Fire blazed in a Weber Grille on the steps of the church. The people processed in behind the single flame, behind the deacon chanting the Exultet. Inside the church was pitch black. Zach tripped over a kneeler, bumped his head on the back of a pew and screamed bloody murder. As the lights came up, we dried his tears. Somehow the service continued with readings and prayers and responses and finally the baptism itself.
”Zach, you are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever,” said the priest as he smeared oil on Zach’s forehead.
Christ’s own forever.
With these words ringing in his ears, Zach turned to us, his mom and dad, with terror in his eyes. Christ? Christ? Who’s Christ? I don’t want to go home with Christ. I want to go home with you!
After all, home is where the heart is? Right? Home is where our duty lies. Right? Don’t we all have obligations? My family expects things of me, always has. Each time I set foot outside my parent’s home, my father would remind me: Remember you are a Peacock! To be a Peacock meant reading good books, using good manners, conserving electricity, graduating from college, dressing in good taste, voting Republican, and keeping family secrets. I cannot tell you on how many counts I have failed my father’s expectations (God rest his soul!)
My life, like yours, I’m sure has taken various twists and turns with jobs and family, hopes and dreams. Ultimately our lives are measured by the mercy of God, but in the meantime, it seems we are eternally beholden to our parents, our spouses, our partners, our children. Family first, right??
Caught between the first and the fifth commandments – I am the Lord, your God. There are no other gods but Me and Honor your father and your mother, we might feel betwixt and between. What does faith demand? What does family require?
How many of us went to the wrong school, took the wrong job or married the wrong person — at least as far as our family was concerned? How many of us dared to be an artist instead of an accountant? An organic farmer instead of a hedge fund manager? Who among us did not grow up to become the doctor, the lawyer or the Indian Chief? Did not become the one everyone expected us to be?
When did you realize that maybe you had fallen far from the tree?
When did you know, when did you become aware that Someone Else had a claim on your life? When did you get the inkling that while uniquely your own your life might not be entirely your own?
This is the Christian version of an inconvenient truth. It is the uncomfortable truth that Saint Augustine desperately tried to avoid. In his “Confessions”, the first autobiography ever written, Augustine shares his own tug-of-war tale between God and family.
Augustine’s upwardly mobile parents had grand plans for their bright baby boy. He would be instructed in the Christian faith but not actually become a Christian — not just yet. His mother, Monica wanted him to get through the terrible teens first; let those raging hormones subside. Then he would go to university, master rhetoric, become a lawyer. Not yet ready to marry, he would take a concubine with whom he later fathered a son.
Augustine managed to get to Mass most Sundays but only for the first half. He would leave before communion. He kept putting his baptism off, kicking it like a can down the road. First, you see, his family wanted for him every success, every prize.
So, Augustine knelt and fervently and famously prayed – “Lord, make me chaste, but not yet. Lord, make me a Christian, but not yet.” Let me stay home and be about my family’s business. First, Lord, let me honor my mother and my father (and reap the benefits thereof.)
Follow in the family footsteps or shake loose from the family tree? Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind OR Honor your father and your mother? Far from simple, right?
What seems like an either/or question is also a both/and proposition. What matters most is that the tree bears fruit. And quite ironically the more the manure the more the fruit.
A man had a fig tree planted in its vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So, he said to the gardener, “See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree and still I have found none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting soil?” He replied, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.
Jesus had no family home where he could lay his head. Even foxes have holes and birds have nests, but Jesus was essentially homeless. He did not go into the family carpentry business. His only security was in God and his only job was as a son in God’s risky business. Jesus headed God’s way, his own way to Calvary. An unorthodox life destined to bear much fruit.
The Way is the most ancient name for the Christian faith. To follow Jesus on this Way, to become his disciple, we can’t just stay safe and secure at home. We need to get out and about. We need to be more than couch potato Christians. St. Augustine – with God’s help – left behind father and mother – wealth and status — and quite belatedly went down into the Baptismal waters. And he came up a Christian – far from perfect, conflicted and complex and complicated – sealed as Christ’s forever.
And what was true for Augustine is true for us.
Christ embraces this life — imperfect and unfinished, messy in every respect and piled up to the neck in manure. Whether we are fully grown or newly born, it does not matter. We’re called to get up out of our pews, out of our comfort zones — to walk into those uncomfortable places. To walk into the places where we can see, seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves. Where we are called to strive for justice and peace among all people. Where we are required to respect of every human being.
Every human being.
So where is that for you personally? Where might that be for us as a parish? Pastorally, prophetically? Might it be in the things we are already doing? Or maybe in things we have yet to dream of.
Mis-steps are guaranteed along this Way, but let’s dream on anyway. Because with God’s help and with us holding each other up, we can walk this rocky and uneven path and walk like Jesus the way to Jerusalem.