Friday, September 20, 2013

Found in Fluvanna[1]
Luke 15:1-10
September 15, 2013

Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them.  Does he not leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it?  And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home.  Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’”  Luke 15:4-6
An open letter to Erin on the occasion of her baptism.

Dear Erin:

We celebrate with you and your family on one of the most important days of your entire life.  This is a day that we hope you will want to hear about some day.  I like to think of this day as your spiritual birthday.  You won’t, of course, have any direct memory of your own of what has taken place this morning.  I hope that it has been well preserved in pictures and in the memories of your parents, your brothers and sisters so that they can tell you all about it.

I wish that I could be around in twelve years or so—whenever the day arrives in which you publicly confirm for yourself the promises that your mother and father have made this day for you.  Who knows where we all will be on that day.  But I would like to share with you now the thoughts, dreams, hopes, and prayers that I have for you on this important day.

What happened today?  In a way, it really is very simple.  Your parents brought you to church just as they always do, and mid-way through the service, they brought you to the front where everyone could see you.  Your brothers and sisters were here too, and some friends that your Mom and Dad asked to be your “godparents.”  We said a few words, told some stories of our faith, made a few promises to God and to you.  I splashed your head with water, and I used anointing oil to trace the sign of the cross on your forehead.  We gave a special candle to your parents.  Your sister sang while I walked around the church with you, proclaiming to everyone that you are a child of God.  It was all done in ten or fifteen minutes or so.

Or was it?  Maybe from the standpoint of human time.  But in another very real sense, your baptism is a continuing event that demonstrates to the whole world the work that God is doing in your life.  We have a special name for this work—this work is called “grace.”

I could spend lifetimes trying to explain the wonder and mystery of God’s grace, but in a thousand years, I would only be able to get a good start.  But let me try. 

Your baptism is an “outward and visible sign”[2] of the work that God is doing inside of you—in that deepest part of your soul, a part of you that is just beginning to develop, where at the age of three months you already are learning to think and feel and love.

The grace of God means that God has come looking for you, even though you don’t even realize yet that you need God. 

There is something about being human that make us want to go our own way.  When God made us, God gave us the gift of free will.  This means that as we grow older, we grow independent and we want our own way—so much so that we wander off away from God.  We have different names for our wandering—we often refer to this wandering tendency as “sin.”  Sin means that we want our own way instead of God’s way.  At first, this sin may seem shiny and attractive; but the way of sin leads to brokenness and death and separation from God.

The grace of God means that God loves you so much, that even before you were born, God wanted to heal you and to heal all of us from this brokenness that we call sin.  God took on the form of a little baby, just like you, a baby boy named Jesus.  As Jesus grew to be an adult, He taught us how to live and how to love, even when love meant dying for you and for me.  And just when things looked their bleakest, by His resurrection He showed that not even death itself can overcome the power of God’s love and grace.

This Jesus, the One we call the Son of God, invites us to accept His great gift of love and to follow Him, learning to walk where Jesus walks, to live as Jesus wants us to live, and to love as Jesus wants us to love—to follow Jesus just as sheep follow the voice of their shepherd (John 10:5, 16).

Our decision to follow Jesus as our shepherd is a decision that each one of must make for ourselves.  It is an important decision—a decision that takes a lifetime and longer to fully understand.  Your parents believe that it is such an important decision that they have said to all of us today on your behalf that as long as they have anything to do with it, they will teach you to follow Jesus.  They have said “yes” for you this morning.

But some day, you have to say “yes” for yourself.  This is a journey that you must learn to take for yourself.  And while it seems hard to believe, the chances are likely that somewhere along the way you will wander off the pathway and forget to follow your shepherd.  You may become lost, separated from the God who loves you.  The miracle of God’s grace is that even when you make bad decisions and turn the other way, God keeps looking for you.  Just as a good shepherd will come searching for a lost sheep, God will come looking for you, offering to you His grace, inviting you to come back home (Luke 15:4).

You might ask why we make such an important decision for you while you are still young.  Shouldn’t we wait until you are old enough to make up your own mind, when you fully understand these things?

Erin, the reality is that we never will be old enough or wise enough to fully understand God’s grace.  All of us are helpless to become by ourselves the people that God wants us to be.  All of us, no matter our age, are completely dependent upon God’s grace to heal us, to forgive us, and to change our lives.  There is no better time, no better place for us to begin our journeys of faith than right now, right here—right here in Fluvanna at a church called Cunningham.

I wish that somehow I could take this moment and bottle it up and save it.  But time marches on.  Your baptism is not the finish line of your journey—it is only the starting point.  You have a lifetime of experience lying before you.  Experiences of joy and laughter, of music and dancing.  Also experiences of sadness and pain.  You will have times of questions, of doubts, times when you are afraid.  When these times come to you, I hope you will remember that you will not be facing those questions, doubts and fears by yourself.  Even in times of sadness and pain, you will not be alone.  The grace of the Good Shepherd who has found you here in Fluvanna will be with you even then, calling to you to continue in your journey and to follow Him until your journey has been completed and you have arrived at the place that He has promised to prepare for you.

Erin, we celebrate with you the journey of faith that you are beginning.  We pray that God’s amazing grace will continue to follow you and sustain you for all your days, no matter where you may travel in your life.  May you learn to remember your baptism and be thankful, for you have been found in Fluvanna.

With love from your friend,
Pastor Tom

Copyright 2013 by Thomas E. Frost.  All rights reserved.

[1] Preached at Cunningham United Methodist Church in Palmyra, Virginia.  During this service, we celebrated the Sacrament of Holy Baptism for Erin Brannagh La Rochelle, who was born on June 16, 2013.
[2] John Wesley, “The Means of Grace,” quoted by Gayle Carlton Felton in By Water and the Spirit:  Study Guide and Text (Nashville, TN:  Discipleship Resources, 1997), 27.

Photo courtesy of Bridget and David La Rochelle.