Monday, January 11, 2016

Claimed and Called (Baptism of the Lord Sunday)

Churches that follow the traditional "liturgical" church calendar usually celebrate the baptism of Jesus on the second Sunday of the year. At Main Street, our traditional services remain strong and vital, so we tend to observe these special Sundays. Having come to Main Street from a less traditional setting, I've enjoyed exploring the meaning of these special days. 

This year for Baptism of the Lord, I felt the need to explain how we United Methodists understand baptism. I realize that many of my closest brothers and sisters in Christ will not agree with this. That's OK. What matters is that we agree on this: "Jesus is Lord." I offer this sermon, not to throw rocks at other people's views (which I respect and admire), but simply to explain who WE are. 

Matthew 3: 13-17

Everybody say this: It’s more about God than it is about me.

Right after I graduated from high school, I went on a youth beach retreat. And during that retreat, I made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ. I accepted Christ as my Lord and Savior. 

(And by the way, let me say: If you have not done that yourself, you need to do that.)

So I went off to college full of passion and faith. I was excited, I was pumped – I thought, “Man, I have found Jesus. Now, God is at work in my life.”

Well, I got involved in a Christian group on campus, and some of the leaders told me that since I’d made a new commitment, I needed to be baptized. I said, “Oh, I was baptized as a baby.” And they said, “That’s not baptism. You need to be immersed as a believer.” And I said, “OK,” and in January of 1981, I was “baptized” in the swimming pool of Woolen Gym on the campus of UNC-Chapel Hill.

And for the next 12 or 13 years, I was confused about baptism. Is it babies, is it believers? Is it pouring, is it immersion? WHO do we baptize, and WHY do we baptize, and WHAT does baptism really mean?

That confusion lasted through my time at Duke Divinity School. I wrote a paper about it. The paper was entitled, “A Confusing Legacy: John Wesley’s Theology of Baptism.”

And then I graduated and I became a pastor, and I was still confused about baptism. And then my son was born.  And I was still confused about baptism! So, despite the pleas of my parents, I did not have him baptized.

But then – I went on the Walk to Emmaus, which is the Methodist version of Presbyterian Pilgrimage. It’s a 3-day spiritual retreat. And if you’ve done this retreat, you know that it’s all about grace. During that retreat, I experienced God’s grace like never before, and for the first time, I understood God’s grace like never before.

And here’s what I learned about grace: It’s more about God than it is about me. I thought that God entered my life when I accepted Christ at age 17. I thought that when I went on that youth beach retreat, I found Jesus. But what I learned is that Jesus is not the one who was lost. What I realized on the Walk to Emmaus is that from the moment I was born, God was coming after me, calling me, wooing me, hunting me down to offer me a relationship.

The technical term for that is Prevenient Grace, from the Latin pre, which means before, and venir, which means to come.  So Prevenient Grace is the grace that “comes before” salvation. Before I said yes to God, God had already said yes to me. Before I started looking for God, God has already been looking for me.

In other words: It’s more about God than it is about me.

Well, by the time my daughter came along, I finally understood. Yes, personal faith is crucial. You have to accept Jesus for yourself. Ephesians 2:8 says, “You are saved by grace through faith.” But we don’t baptize babies as a sign of their faith. In fact, we don’t baptize anybody as a sign of their faith. We baptize people as a sign of God’s grace.

It’s more about God than it is about us.

So, I decided that on January 24, 1993, I would baptize my two children. My daughter Mary was still a baby, but my son David was now three years old. And he was a pretty smart kid, very verbal, so before the baptism, I sat down with him and talked about it. I said, “David, Mom and I are thinking about having you baptized. Do you want to be baptized?” And he said, “Oh yes.” And I said, “Now being baptized means you’re going to follow Jesus. Do you want to follow Jesus?” “Oh yes.” And I said, “Being baptized means that mom and I are going to promise to take you to church. Do you want to always go to church?” “Yes.” And I said, “And being baptized means we’re going to raise you in a Christian home. Do you want to grow up in a Christian home?” And he said, “No, I want to live here with you.”
(That really happened. I promise it’s not a joke.)

Today is Baptism of the Lord Sunday. This is the day that churches all around the world celebrate and remember the baptism of Jesus. And now here’s something else to be confused about. In fact, John the Baptist himself was confused about this. Why would Jesus present himself for baptism? Baptism is about washing your sins away—but Jesus had no sin! John the Baptist had said, “I baptize with water for repentance”—but Jesus didn’t need to repent!

So why was Jesus baptized?

This is an important question, because it will help you understand your own baptism. Especially if you were baptized as an infant, and you have friends telling you, “That’s not baptism.”

When Jesus was baptized, two things happened that I believe happen in every baptism. Whether it’s an infant brought by her parents, or an adult who chose it, or a teenager who just did it because all the other kids were doing it—in all of those baptisms two things happened; two things that happened in the baptism of Jesus.

Number one: You were claimed. And number two: You were called.

First: You are claimed. When Jesus was baptized, a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Jesus was identified. He was claimed by God. And in the same way, when you were baptized, God was there. And whether you were an adult who chose it, or a baby who didn’t, God said, “This is my precious child, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” You were identified as a child of God. God claimed you.

You say, “But I didn’t know what was going on!” That’s OK. Why? Because it’s more about God than it is about you. If you’ve been baptized, God has claimed you. And so now the question is, Will you claim God?

A lot of you know that my dad’s a pastor. Rev. Jack Kayler—that’s my dad. And he’s not able to get out much anymore, but I used to love to have him come to my church and preach for me, (while I was there). And sometimes when he didn’t have services, I’d have him come help me on Christmas Eve. And on those occasions, I would just grin from ear to ear, because I was so proud to be Jack’s son. In fact, that’s my middle name: Jack’s Son. Jackson. Really and truly—my full legal name is Claude Jackson Kayler.

But there was a time when I rejected my identity as Jack’s son. I rebelled against my upbringing. I didn’t want to be known as the son of a preacher man, so I tried to like a son of the devil. Obviously I’ve changed since then, and I’ve accepted my identity as Jack’s son, and now I’m pretty excited about being a “child of Jack.”

The question for you is, are you excited about being a child of God?

If you’ve been baptized, you’ve been claimed. You’ve been identified as a child of God. If you were baptized as an infant, you don’t need to be re-baptized, you just need to accept that identity for yourself.

God has claimed you; now you need to claim God.

So first of all, you’re claimed. And then second, you are called. A lot of theologians see Jesus’ baptism as the beginning of his ministry. Why? Because when was baptized, the Holy Spirit came upon him. And just a short time after that, he said this:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me
        to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
    and recovery of sight to the blind,
        to let the oppressed go free,
 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

When Jesus was baptized, he was called. When you were baptized, you were called. You say, “But I don’t want that! I didn’t choose that! I didn’t ask for that!” But remember: It’s more about God than it is about you. The call is there whether you answer it or not. Jesus says, You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit…”

Now: You can reject the call if you want to. God has given you free will. You can reject the call, but I don’t recommend that as a course of action. Go read the book of Jonah, and read about a guy who ran from God, and became fish food. Or go read Exodus, where God calls Moses through a burning bush and Moses makes a bunch of excuses—“I don’t speak well,” and “I’m not a good leader”— and finally it says, “The Lord’s anger burned against Moses.”

You can reject your call if you want to, but I don’t recommend it.

Listen, I’m not saying you’re called to be a pastor like me and Rick and Amy. Your call might be to teach Sunday School, or to cook meals, or to help the homeless, or to volunteer at a school, or to work with youth, or to lead the Boy Scouts, or to sing in the choir. There are all kinds of calls, but if you’re baptized, you’ve got one. Reject it if you want to. But I don’t recommend it.

So, you say, “How am I supposed to know what God is calling me to do? How do I find my call?” A theologian named Frederick Beuchner said, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” I like to say it like this. Take your two hands. With one hand, get a grip on how God has made you. What are your gifts, your talents, your abilities, your passions? And then with the other hand, get a grip on the world around you. What do you see going on? What are the needs out there? What problems in the world keep you awake at night? And then bring your two hands together in prayer and your call will emerge.

When you were baptized, God claimed you—and now you get to spend the rest of your life growing into that identity. And when you were baptized, God called you—and now you get to spend the rest of your life answering that call.

By the way—something I understand now: When those guys dunked me in the swimming pool in Chapel Hill, that was not my real baptism. My real baptism happened on December 1, 1962, in Mills River, North Carolina, when I was six weeks old. My father took me in his arms and said, “Claude Jackson Kayler, I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” And what happened that day absolutely changed the course of my life. And the fact that I had no idea what was going on does not matter. Because why? Say it with me: It’s more about God than it is about me.

[Service of baptismal reaffirmation]

Monday, January 4, 2016

Overcoming Evil with Good

I was invited again to write an article for a local Christian newspaper, the Piedmont Christian News, and this time, I made the deadline! 

For those of you who don't live in the Piedmont Triad area, I'm posting the article here. 

“Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
            -Romans 12:21

This month our country will celebrate the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. and remember the values that he and others fought for in the Civil Rights movement. Recent events have shown that we need this time of remembrance more than ever.

The bad news is that we continue to be divided along racial lines. Shootings, protests, angry rhetoric, lack of unity—it goes on and on. The good news is that we Christians can do something about it. Just look at what happened last summer in Charleston.

On June 17, Dylan Roof walked into Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church during a prayer meeting. The people welcomed him with open arms. He sat in the meeting for an hour, and then he took out a gun and started shooting. By the time he left, nine church members were dead.

But what happened next is amazing. On the Friday after the shooting, during the bond hearing for Dylan Roof, the judge asked if any of victims’ family members would like to speak. The first person who spoke was the daughter of a woman who was killed, and the first thing she said was:

“I forgive you. You took something very precious away from me. I will never get to talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again, but I forgive you…”

And then a man got up and said:

“I forgive him and my family forgives him. But we would like him to take this opportunity to repent. Repent. Confess. Give your life to the one who matters most: Christ. So that He can change him and change your ways, so no matter what happens to you, you’ll be okay.”

A victim’s granddaughter said this:

“Although my grandfather and the other victims died at the hands of hate, this is proof, everyone’s plea for your soul, is proof that they lived in love and their legacies will live in love. So hate won’t win.”

These family members who lost their loved ones overcame hatred with forgiveness. They overcame evil with good.

The following Sunday morning Emanuel AME Church was open for business. The bishop appointed an interim pastor named Norvel Goff. And as he stood before a packed house, he said:

"The doors are open at Emanuel this Sunday, sending a message to every demon in Hell and on Earth that no weapon formed against us shall prosper!"

And the people of Emanuel AME went on to have a powerful service of worship in the very place where nine of their members had been gunned down just a few days before.
Instead of giving up, they overcame despair with hope. They overcame evil with good.

And then that night 10,000 people gathered on a bridge in Charleston. Half of them started on one side of the bridge, the other half started on the other side. They marched across the bridge singing “This little light of mine” and when they met in the middle, they joined hands and locked arms and formed a unity chain two and a half miles long.

They observed nine minutes of silence in honor of the nine victims. And then they hugged and they laughed and they sang some more. And they showed the world that they were not going to let a madman divide their city. Dylan Roof wanted to start a race war. What ended up happening was exactly the opposite.

The people of Charleston overcame division with unity. They overcame evil with good.

What happened in Charleston was horrible, but the faithful response of the church led to the unifying of the community. It gives me hope that if we who follow Christ will practice forgiveness, hold out hope, and join hands across racial lines, we can change what’s happening in our country. We can overcome evil with good.

On Sunday, January 17 at 5 pm, Main Street UMC will hold a service in remembrance of Martin Luther King, Jr., and YOU ARE INVITED. In addition to Scripture and prayers, we’ll have special music from the Winston Salem State University Choir, and a special presentation by “Authoring Action,” a literary and performing arts organization for teens.

Please join us at 306 S Main Street in Kernersville, and let’s show the world that we are united in our commitment to overcome evil with good.