Proper 17B: August 29, 2021



Some years ago, when I was living in Richmond, I think it must have been during my first year of seminary, I drove to Charlottesville to have lunch with a friend. I’m going to call him Steve for the sake of this story, but that is not his name. Steve was one of my best friends at UVa, and I think this lunch must have been during my first year of seminary because otherwise there weren’t that many gaps where we wouldn’t have seen each other for a while. Anyway, I remember during this lunch, somehow, we ended up talking about religious demographics, and I admitted that I assume most people I meet are not Christian. I did not, for example, consider Steve to be a Christian. I do not view this as inherently a bad thing; I do not believe God is nearly as wrapped up in our various religious and sectarian squabbles as we like to imagine, in much the same was as I imagine most parents of siblings do not particularly care which team names their children pick in games so long as they are playing nice.

Steve was appalled. How dare I think he was not a Christian! I asked what evidence I should use to make that judgement? He seemed to think being a white man from Virginia was sufficient. He told me he had been baptized, he accepted Jesus in his heart, he grew up going to Church, he went to church when he visited his parents.

I think I said “So, your parents are Christian, and you humor them.” I’ve known you for five years. We lived together for one of those. In all that time, time during which I was a religious studies major, time during which you saw me set out to read the Bible in a semester, a time during which I started to publicly articulate my call to ministry, a time during which I applied and then served as a missionary in Northern Ireland and during which I applied to and enrolled in seminary, a time, in other words, in which you can hardly say the opportunity was not present, this is the first time you have ever spoken with me about your faith. We had spoken plenty about mine.

Steve did not volunteer anywhere, did not give money in support of Christian or other charitable efforts, did not, to the best of my knowledge even after this conversation have a Bible in his home. Steve considered himself Christian on the strength of having been baptized and enjoying Christmas.

And, since we celebrated a baptism today, I need to say that yes, baptism is an important mark of joining the church. Baptism and communion are the only two sacraments in the Presbyterian church, the only two rituals that we consider essential practices, essential components of a Christian life, but they, alone, do not make a Christian. Mary Ann, Rion, I do not think it will come as a surprise to you that, even though Savannah has now been baptized, your job is not finished. Savannah’s baptism is not the end of her faith journey, is not the end of anything. It is the beginning of our journey together, with her everyone in this room, everyone joining us online, and unknown numbers of others, including some known to not one person here, will walk that path with her in the months and years to come.

We have already had the baptism, and Gayle has added more, but I want to point out again that today, we asked nothing of Savannah. We asked four questions of Mary Ann and Rion, because as Savannah’s parents, they will be the biggest influence on her life. We also asked two questions of everyone here.

Do you, as members of the church of Jesus Christ, promise to guide and nurture Savannah by word and deed, with love and prayer?

Will you encourage her to know and follow Christ and to be faithful members of his church?

Friends, today we have not only heard the word, but we have ourselves spoken words. How much more then, do we need to hear these words today from James’ letter to the early church:

“…be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, ongoing away, immediately forget what they were like.”

How many other Steve’s do we think are out there? Much as we might like to think like Steve, that a vague notion that, having been baptized, occasionally attending church, and saying we have accepted Jesus into our hearts without demonstrating any transformation, without demonstrating in our lives God’s love for the world is sufficient, it is not. This is clearly not a new phenomenon if James, the brother of Jesus was writing about those cultural Christians, those who hear the word and do not do the word, those who hear the word and are not transformed, those who come to the community to hear the word for an hour or so on Sunday morning and then do all they can to make sure it does not intrude upon the rest of their week. Friends, I hope you have not come here today, I hope you do not come here at all just to feel good about yourselves, just to have a glance in the mirror so that you may then go home and forget. Some of us might like looking in the mirror more or less than others, but if we are honest with ourselves, there is always something we do not like, and if we come together as a body, let it be so that we may strive not to forget what we are like, not to forget the blemishes in our lives, not to forget, but so that we may, together, seek always to be doers and not merely hearers of the word.


Friends, I have seen that Savannah is already learning from everything that is happening around her. I pray that, as she grows in this community of faith, that she will grow in a community that does not only speak, but also acts according to the word and love of God. We are setting an example for her whether we like it or not. Let it be an example we like. Amen.