Sermon - Ordinary 26 Year A | DB Home | RCL Resources Index |

What do we tell the coming generation?

[Note: This sermon takes its origin from the Psalm for today in the RCL, but might be regarded as a topical sermon. It was in fact preached on the occasion of the baptism of my granddaughter Alice Chapman, but I am leaving it here in the lectionary series as I believe pastoral needs, topicality and the discipline of scripture ought not to be too far separated.]

In the service of Baptism the parents promise with God's help to Today I want to share some simple ideas about this: the responsibilities of parents. Whether or not you have young children ourselves we can all help and encourage those we know who do have those responsibilities. This is some plain basic stuff. We might deal with the biblical, psychological and other foundations of it another time.

Good intentions and honest hopes

I suppose most parents who bring their children for baptism make these promises sincerely and with good intentions. After all, it is entirely optional in our society. There is no social pressure to be a Christian, and in large parts of our society it is now clearly against the prevailing attitudes to have anything to do with the church. Parents I speak with usually seem to understand something of what it means and, of course, want to do the right thing for their children, but sadly we see little of many parents who make these promises about growing in the fellowship of the church and learning the way of Christ. It makes you wonder what to do when they come back to have another baby baptised when they have not done anything to seek the fellowship of the church to help with learning the Christian life. Even the meaning of baptism which is to make a person a member of the church seems difficult for people to accept: it is as if the sacrament has a range of private meanings different from what it was originally in the church. It was called "Christening" because its purpose was to make people Christian, and that only makes sense if it is followed up with fellowship and teaching to learn about Christ and to develop a spiritual relationship with him.

We are reluctant to refuse requests for baptism of infants because it looks like rejection, as if we were saying that we did not think they were worthy of it, and the council of elders tends to approve if the parents are prepared to make the promises. We try to strengthen that by spending some time with people explaining the service and giving some basic teaching about the faith. It is important to keep the emphasis on the grace of God. I was talking about that in a different way last week when we were thinking of the parable of the labourers in the vineyard in which the last to come, who had done only one hours work, was giving a full day's pay. God gives us more than we deserve -- better than a fair go. We need to represent this generous attitude in the way we relate to people who come to the church. So, in the Uniting Church liturgy, in the baptism service itself the actual baptism takes place before the parents are asked to make these promises. The baptism is not given because they have promised to do anything. What is implied by having the baptism first, before the promises, is that the parents respond to God's grace, to his gracious acceptance and blessing of the child, by gladly promising to maintain the relationship in which God has reached out to them.

God's grace and our responsibilities

The worthiness of the parents or the child is not the point. People sometimes wonder whether we will baptise the child of parents who are not married, for example, but its not really a question. We might talk with them about what they understand by a Christian home that they promise to provide, and we might even ask whether the covenant of marriage has some part in it, but we rely upon the grace of God to help single parents as all parents to keep their promises about the Christian upbringing of the child. The basic belief we have about it is that it is God's action not ours that is important. That is why we baptize infants at all. It depends upon the grace of God, not what we do. So we proceed with prayer. That is really the key: we can only ask God to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. When I say "Alice, I baptize you ...." we are together celebrating the gracious love of God which we believe is extended to her in response to our prayers.

This does not mean that baptism can be administered to anyone who seeks it for themselves or for their children. We cannot be dishonest and must have a reasonable hope that our prayers will be answered. It is not magic that we do, but prayer that we ask. Nothing happens automatically just by the right people saying the right words and performing the required actions -- just following a formula would be magic -- but we act prayerfully with an honest hope and belief that God will act. We must have the right intention to do what the church does when it baptizes. To do that honestly there must be some basis for the hope that the child will indeed become a member of the church. Sometimes, we are perhaps rather too generous in that hope, but it is better to err on the side of generosity, which is clearly the risk that Jesus took.

What to teach and how

What then should parents teach their children to fulfil these vows? How can we all help as members of the fellowship in which they are to grow in the faith? Perhaps we will have special privileges as grandparents or supporting friends. One thing we do in the congregation is to maintain a Sunday School or some other learning program, though it is difficult today when there are so many competing interests; and, of course, we are related to the wider church where other congregations do these things to help keep the promises we make in our services. But these things in the church mean very little if they are not backed up at home. What parents do at home in the early years matters most and then the kind of social groups in which older children learn many things become very important as they grow up.

Let me suggest a few things about how these responsibilities can be carried out:-

1. You need to teach children directly what you believe and let them know clearly what you think is important. That is especially important for Christians today because there is tremendous pressure in society at large, among friends, at school, in the media and later in the commercial world and at work to conform to other ways. The pressure is on us all the time to adopt values which are selfish and materialistic and to believe all sorts of things that are not true. If you don't deliberately teach your children what they ought to learn they will be learning something else. There might have been a time when we had a largely Christian culture, or thought we had, when we could expect to rely more on society at large and general involvement in the social life of the church to pass on at least some key aspects of the Christian tradition; but we trusted that way for too long and should know now that it depends on parents to teach what they know and believe. The old liberal ways that many of my generation followed don't work any more, if they ever did. The next generation will not get it if we do not give it to them, personally. It is done with the help of others, but if parents don't do it, children will not grow up today with minds open to discover things about God for themselves but they will learn anti-Christian beliefs and non-Christian ways of life.

2. Remember the traditions of the ancient people of God, the Israelites, who had a great emphasis on teaching within the family. It was so strong that the Jewish people today still survive more than 3000 years after some of these things began to be shared in families. As we read in the Psalm today in regard to the laws of God:

Through all the generations they have repeated the story of their escape from slavery in Egypt. They have told of Moses and Elijah, of King Solomon and David, of captivity on Babylon and of Esther, Ruth and other women of faith and courage. They sang the psalms, read the scriptures and said the prayers, lit the candles and shared their special meals and passed on the tradition; and they went to synagogue to learn from great teachers and offer worship together. So they have survived, and they have survived not in awkward obedience to worn out old laws, but gladly remembering how God has blessed them in spite of all their struggles and wandering in foreign lands. We share these traditions and should learn from their methods.

3. Teach the essentials. Christianity is about Christ. There have been many good people in the world from whom we can learn many good things, but there is only one Christ. We believe God made us for a purpose. His purpose was and still is for us to know our Creator, to have fellowship with our Creator God and with each other: that is we have the potential to become children of God and brothers and sisters of one another. We believe that God reached out to make contact with us to fulfil that purpose through one man called the Christ, or the Messiah, who was the historical figure Jesus of Nazareth. The Christian faith is about him: a real man who lived a real life that made a difference to the lives of all others:-

Tell the story of his life: how he went about doing good, teaching and healing, and how they killed him and how he rose from the dead and met with his friends again.

4. Share a living faith with them.. Ask others to help you if you find it difficult. Show them how to pray. Take part with them in Christian worship and teach them to know the presence of the Spirit of God. Explain what it is about. If you don't know, ask someone who does know. Make a lively contribution to the worship yourself. Take any opportunity to share in planning services and involve the children actively in the drama of worship. If your local church does not provide interesting opportunities for children to take part talk with the local elders or minister about it. Share the Bible and a sense of Christian history. Tell about the great Christians of the past, Peter and Paul, and saints through the years, like brother Francis or Mother Julian and let them learn later of reformers like Luther and Wesley and recent leaders like Martin Luther King, and Mother Theresa, linking the ancient times and heros with our time. Show how a living faith looks to God for inspiration and out into the world to give service. And remember that they learn more from your example than from what you say, though you do have to say it: you cannot rely on example alone.

5. Teach them by word and example to love God and to love one another: Jesus taught us that that is the way we can fulfil all the law of God. Teach them by word and example to trust God and to expect to share eternal life with him. While hoping for life beyond this life, teach them to guard with care those parts of this world that we are given to care for. It is one way to honour God, to care for his creation. It is not ours to exploit, but we have what we have as stewards, caring for it on behalf of God and others who share it with us and will come after us. And teach them to appreciate the great riches of our diverse human family with the many different peoples in different parts of the world. Let them learn the value of sharing this creation with people who are different from ourselves, for that is very important in a shrinking world.

As they get older, they will need to learn some defences against false teaching in these things for there are many who would deceive and exploit the next generation especially in popular fields today like the environment and spirituality as well as in the use of money, sex, and power. Teach them how to use these gifts for the good of others as well as themselves. In all these things we need to work with others of good will, but the most important thing is to lay the foundations of Christian faith with honest direct teaching so that you convey your own understanding directly to your children.

If you are not confident of your own knowledge ask and seek help to grow yourself, for many people today have only very limited knowledge, sometimes because they have been separated from the church for a long time. You can keep up Christian teaching and some traditions on your own for a limited time, but you need renewal and growth to maturity in the faith if you are carry it on for very long, and for that you need the fellowship of other Christians. It is the job of the Church to help parents fulfil the promises made at the baptism of their children, so let us support one another in this task.

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