A sermon by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ar.
June 22, 2014
Psalm 86:1-10; Romans 6:1-11
This is an odd passage of scripture for this time of year. What I mean is, Paul refers to walking in the “newness of life.” Wouldn’t this be better for the first Sunday in January, when a new year has rolled around and resolutions are on our minds? We don’t often relate newness to the beginning of summer. In fact, if you think about it, this is the season of the year when very little is new. One day pretty much looks like the next, and the next day will look just like the one that will follow it.
Just yesterday, I heard a local forecaster say that we’ve entered the season of “copy and paste” weather. You can copy today’s weather and then paste it in for tomorrow. One day is pretty much like the next.
A more appropriate scripture for today might have been from Ecclesiastes…
What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done;
there is nothing new under the sun (1:9).
The newness of spring is over. If it hasn’t turned green by now, chances are it’s a goner. The children may be still adjusting to their days without school, but for the rest of us… well, we know we’re starting to settle in to the “hazy, lazy days of summer” when the humidity is high and the temperatures are even higher. There will be little rain for quite awhile, and before long we’ll be talking about how we can’t wait for the fall season to roll around with its more favorable conditions. In other words, it won’t be long before we’re longing for a change, for something new to come along.
I mean, they don’t call it the “dog days” for nothing.
Apart from the fact that Carolyn Staley is vacating her position on our church staff, it may appear that nothing new is happening around here. The order of worship doesn’t change much from week to week, the sermons tend to morph one into the other, and we’re once again fighting a deficit in the budget and wondering why there are so many empty spaces in the pews. It’s the same old same old.
That may be exactly why this passage from Paul’s epistle to the Romans has been chosen for today. We need it, need it desperately. It is in the face of such sameness that Paul encourages us to walk in the newness of life. He did not write Ecclesiastes, obviously, and though he was no doubt familiar with it, probably didn’t appreciate its message all that much. Paul believes this is the appointed time for us to look toward that which is new and as yet unmet. He would be the first to tell each of us that life is giving us a new opportunity with each new breath we take. It’s time for us to walk in the newness that comes with our baptism, our relationship with the One who has given us new life.
William Barclay was the product of the Church of Scotland. That means he grew up with a tradition that practiced infant baptism by sprinkling. Yet, he readily admits that as Paul writes this portion of his epistle to the Romans, and encourages them to remember their baptism, the practice of infant baptism by sprinkling would not have been what Paul in mind. When Paul refers to baptism, he is thinking of believer’s baptism by means of total immersion.1 By golly, maybe we Baptists have got something right after all!
Most people, especially the ones to whom Paul is writing this letter, would have been converted to Christ from paganism. Sometimes, that meant leaving one’s family behind, one’s past behind, and beginning all over again. It was a radical change from that which used to be, and needless to say, it was a commitment not made lightly.
I’m not advocating that we go to that extreme. The context in which we live doesn’t require it. But I do believe there’s a sense in which our faith has gone soft. We’re just playing around with it, not truly allowing the presence of Christ in us to change much of anything. If being involved in church and faith is convenient for us, then we’ll do it. But it’s really become just another option for us in which to dabble a bit here and dabble a bit there.
Which is why, at least on occasion, we are called back to the table of our Lord. It is here we remember why… why we are who we are, why following Jesus is so important, why our relationship with Christ offers over and over again the newness of life.
Frederick Buechner was asked to speak to the incoming students at Princeton University in the fall of 1997. It was a sermon of sorts, in which Buechner shared with them his own experiences back in the day when he was a student there. He tells them of the day he graduated. “… we were all lined up behind Nassau Hall in our caps and gowns,” he says, “trying to keep the tassels out of our eyes as we waited for the signal to start marching to our seats… Some member of the class – I wish I could remember who – decided to walk the whole length of the long line asking everybody the same question, and the question was, ‘What are you going to do now?’”
“What are you going to do now?’” “What are you going to do now?’” It was unsettling, Buechner says, unsettling.
In light of Buechner’s story, I figure we can do this one of two ways… participating in the Lord’s table, that is. We can just go through the motions and nobody will ever know the difference. Or, we can allow the eating of the bread and the drinking from the cup to unsettle us. We can use this occasion as the means to ask ourselves the question, “What are we going to do now?”
Will it be the same old same old, or are there new adventures of faith and life awaiting us? When the bread and the cup come around to you, you will hold the answer to that question in your hands.
Lord, unsettle us with your presence and the newness of life you offer us. Then challenge us to go out and be your presence wherever we are. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.
1William Barclay, The Daily Study Bible: The Letter to the Romans (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1955), pp. 83-84.
2Frederick Buechner, Secrets in the Dark (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2006), p. 292.