“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” Luke 12:32
I spent the week in Milwaukee at the Churchwide Assembly of our Lutheran denomination – the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). The days were very full. We had lots of decisions to make, which I look forward to sharing with you in greater detail. Perhaps my favorite part of the assembly was the worship. It was a joy to gather each day with hundreds of Lutherans from all 65 synods of the ELCA to sing and to pray and to clap and to hear powerful preaching and to receive Holy Communion.
On Tuesday the preacher was my colleague from South Carolina, Deacon Sarah Bowers.[i] Sarah and her husband have a 17-month-old, and Sarah says that shortly after little Romney Ann was born, she felt a deep need to apologize to her parents. She was totally overwhelmed by how much she loved her daughter, and it made her realize in a different way how much her own parents must love her. And also how much some of her words and actions when she was growing up must have hurt them.
When Romney Ann was just a few hours old, Sarah found herself in the hospital room with her own mother, and she told her mom how sorry she was for things she had done that had been hurtful.
Her mom replied: “It’s OK. One day Romney Ann will say something mean and hurtful, and she will tell you NO, but it won’t change how much you love her at all.”
Sarah sarcastically said: “I’m sorry, but I’m certain she will never tell me no. Can you not see how perfect she is?”
Her mom replied, “You keep living in that fantasy world.”
Sarah was kidding, of course, and sure enough, it wasn’t long before Romney Ann was saying no in her own way. They would tell her not to touch something, and she would give them a dimpled smile and head straight for it. She hasn’t yet learned the actual word “no,” but that day is coming soon.
What I loved is that Sarah then admitted that she hopes her daughter does learn to say no. In Sarah’s words: “[To say] no when it comes to comments and actions and systems that hurt her neighbor and cause death – because we know that’s not the way of the empty tomb. That’s not the way of the resurrection.”
I kept thinking about what Sarah said throughout the week as I looked forward to Grace’s baptism this morning. Grace isn’t yet saying the word “no,” but she’s already practicing how to use her voice. And it won’t be long before she says that word defiantly.
What I hope Grace will learn – and what I hope we will show her how to do – is to say no. No to greed, no to violence, no to racism, no to all the other isms, no to conflict, to exploitation, to evil.
In our baptismal rite, we do say “no.” We did it just a few minutes ago: “Do you renounce the devil and all the forces that defy God?…Do you renounce the powers of this world that rebel against God?….Do you renounce the ways of sin that draw you from God?” Each time we answered “I renounce them.” That’s one way of saying “no.” No to anything that harms others. No to all that makes us selfish and small. No to what moves the world farther away from God’s vision for it.
We declare this “no,” but living it is much harder. Most of us probably don’t believe in a two-horned devil who wields a pitchfork and runs around wreaking havoc in the world. But there is no denying that evil is on the loose. How do we say no to that evil?
We start by remembering that we do not do it by our own strength. We rely on a God who has said “no” first. No to exclusion. No to all the death-dealing forces that leave trauma and suffering in their wake. No to death itself.
God also says “no” to the idea that we must be good enough to be worth saving. We want to believe it’s up to us, but it’s not.
Jesus reminds us this morning: It is the Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. God gives us all we need. It is not a reward for good behavior. It is not because we live perfect lives. It is not because we are free of sin. God knows us well – our gifts and our temptations – and still God chooses to give us the kingdom.
God does not give us these gifts of life and hope begrudgingly. God gives them freely, with good pleasure, in the hope that we in turn will know the good pleasure of being God’s own children. We call that grace. For her entire life baby Grace will carry in her name the reminder that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. And anything that tries to stand between us and God will hear a resounding “no.”
Grace Marie Beadle, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever. Forever. What is true for Grace is true for each of us. Marked and made whole. Sealed and sent out.
And so, having been sealed by the Spirit and marked by the cross, we’re equipped to do some things. Not required, but equipped. Jesus tells us to be ready: “Be dressed for action, and have your lamps lit.” He later uses the example of a break-in to remind us to stay ready for the unexpected. That example might seem a tad dramatic, but it’s not a bad comparison. When God’s kingdom breaks into the world, it summons us to act on behalf of our neighbors who are being violated and traumatized. We cannot predict when we will be in a position to stand up and say “no” to what is at war with God’s will for the world.
Maybe it’s speaking up when someone tells a joke that demeans another person or a group of people. Maybe it’s intervening when we know someone is being harassed. Maybe it’s getting so frustrated about a particular justice issue that we get involved with that issue personally. Maybe it’s the way we use our financial resources, knowing that where our treasure is, there our heart will be also. Maybe it’s learning more about something – or someone – we don’t understand.
We won’t all say “no” to evil in the same way, but we do say “no” in the name of the same God.
I hope that Grace will always carry with her the power of her name. I hope we will show her how to receive that grace again and again. I hope we will surround her with our prayers and with our love and with examples of how to say no.
But most of all, I hope Grace always knows that the God who says “no” to sin and death looks at her with love beyond measure and says, “Yes, yes, yes!”
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
[i]You can watch Deacon Sarah’s beautiful sermon in its entirety at the following link (starting at 21:50): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a2DlrkkKGCs&fbclid=IwAR3ur3OymggRI7olBGFRfxXX3BrbWKv9GIHOyOQUOw2Co_JeRPHSHb222FA