Do or Do Not
Pentecost III (O. T. 13)
June 30, 2019
Two weeks ago we got to witness the baptism of R. A. F. . Kathleen, my Aunt Esther, and niece Patty worshiped at the First Presbyterian Church of Hilton Head, as has become our Sunday custom when vacationing there. And the service included a baptism. As strangers, we didn't know what to expect; I of course anticipated a cute baby held in the arms of its parents.
When it came time for the Baptism, the Pastor said some introductory words and then asked the candidate for Baptism to come forward. A man in his mid-fifties, sharply dressed in white shirt and pants and a red bow tie and a blazer, stood and turned to the woman seated next to him. He bent over and gently lifted her off the pew and set her in her wheelchair, pushed her forward to the Font, and stood before the Pastor. The Pastor looked him in the eye and asked him the questions we Presbyterians ask: "Who is your Lord and Savior?" "Do you trust in him?" and so forth.
"Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior," he said. And answered all the other questions, too. We answered our questions: yes, we will encourage him to grow in the Faith. The Pastor prayed, then scooped water out of the Font three times, pouring it over R-'s head. And our hearts sang.
I have become jaded. I have grown so accustomed to the Church thing – that people bring their babies to the Church to be baptized because it's what you do, but they don't actually keep the promises they make. People join the Church and show up when they don't have something more important to do. Anyway, Baptism seems to be a rite of passage in infancy, and nothing more. People approach the Font with a sense of entitlement, rather than with the awe and terror appropriate to what is actually happening. So the sight of a man coming to the Font to profess his faith in Jesus Christ and be baptized, a man who is doing this not as a rite of passage but because God has come into his life and he acknowledges his salvation, moves me as something wonderful because it is so unusual. I don't know R-'s story, of course, but his Pastor said enough that I know I'm not just making stuff up. Then after the Baptism, R- wheeled his wife back to their place, gently lifted her out of the wheelchair and set her on the pew, and he sat next to her.
Christian parents should bring their children to be baptized. Baptism is an act of commitment, but mostly it is a sign of the grace of God. And we don't need to make them wait until they are older to acknowledge the grace of God. So in Christian families, the Baptism of children should still be the norm. But parents should not make promises they are not going to keep. Well, no one should make promises that we are not going to keep. And when we do not keep our promises, the worst thing to do is make excuses, rather than confess our failure and ask forgiveness.
Jesus bumps into some folks who say they want to follow him, but they all have excuses. And frankly they seem like good excuses, and it's somewhat troubling that Jesus does not accept their excuses. The first guy said, "I'll follow you wherever you go" and Jesus makes his interesting comment about foxes and birds. Luke doesn't tell us the rest, but it seems likely that the guy didn't follow him, because he wanted assurance of a decent hotel room and three meals a day. One friend has said to me that his idea of roughing it is to stay at the Holiday Inn instead of the Marriott; wanting just the right accommodations is one excuse for not following through.
The second one is actually less harsh than it sounds. Palestinian households were structured such that the eldest male is a patriarch and everyone else is accountable to him. So Jesus isn't telling this prospective follower that he is to skip his father's funeral; the father is probably very much alive. The man will follow Jesus, but not until his father is dead and he feels himself free to go his own way. More than once Jesus has said in the Gospels that if your family is more important to you than Jesus is, then you are not up to being his disciple. If following Jesus requires you to go against the ways of your family, well, so be it. But it's a handy excuse: my wife won't go to church with me, so I'm not going. I can't serve on the Session because my daughter plays basketball and I have to go to every game every week. So again: the man's excuse isn't, "My father's funeral is tomorrow; I'll catch up with you the day after." His excuse is, "I have family duties for the next several years; check back with me later."
The third guy's situation is the one that bugs me most, because his excuse seems to me perfectly reasonable: Let me say good-bye. Maybe we're supposed to imagine that his home is a long way away, and he won't ever really catch up. Or maybe we need to remember the context of this story: Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, where everything is going to hit the fan. Arrest, suffering, crucifixion: so the man doesn't really intend to follow Jesus to all that, but just wants an "out" to slip away. That could be. If Jesus is going to Jerusalem, his followers must go with him. His excuse, perhaps, echoes that of all the folks who refuse to go to worship on Good Friday, because they only want the happy moments in their Christian life; they don't want to deal with the realities of suffering, struggle, loss, and death. Maybe.
At any rate, the sum of all these encounters is: Either follow Jesus, or don't. Don't claim to be his follower and then make excuses for failing to follow through on what he calls you to do. For my part, I think my primary guilt in this arena is as a preacher: I shy away from saying things that probably should be said out of concern of offending someone. Last Sunday I worshiped at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, DC. There's a whole lot I want to say about that wonderful experience, but I'll limit myself to this today: the preacher did not shy away from saying clearly that our nation's treatment of migrants at the border is immoral. She was preaching about the power of Jesus over the demons of the world and one demon she called out was nationalistic xenophobia. After the service, a man who was seated in the pew in front of me thanked me for worshiping with them; I told him that I love visiting New York Avenue Presbyterian Church because of their Gospel-focused message that takes social justice seriously. He said, "That's why I'm in this church."
So that's one of my excuses: fear of causing offense. What's your excuse? What excuses do you hear from your family members, friends, and neighbors for their failure to participate in the life of the people of God? It is sad, but it is fine, to say, "I'm not interested in being a follower of Jesus." We can all respect that. But you and I, and the many who are not with us, are ones who call ourselves followers of Jesus, then find excuses for not worshiping, not tithing, not advocating for those who are out of power (whom Jesus calls "the least of these"), not following through on Jesus' call, "Follow me."
So, yes, the sermon topic quotes the prophet Yoda. When Yoda told Luke Skywalker to raise his speeder out of the swamp, Luke said, "I'll give it a try." Yoda sharply responded, "No. Try not. Do. Or do not. There is no try."
What of those who told Jesus they would try, and offered excuses, and to whom Jesus said, "Do or do not"? Well, Luke doesn't say, but I am relieved that Jesus does not speak some sort of condemnation. I take heart from his attitude to those Samaritans who refused to accept him. Interesting: we encounter people who say they want to follow him, but who make excuses, right after we encounter some people who want nothing to do with him. Anyway, James and John thought that they should teach those Samaritans a lesson, commanding fire from heaven to consume them, like the fire from heaven that consumed the offering of Elijah on Mt. Carmel. (If you don't know that story, you're missing one of the best scenes in the Old Testament.) Anyway, they are willing to put their faith on the line to punish those who reject Jesus, but Jesus rebuked them. He's not in the business of condemning people, whether they outright reject him or they say the right words but fail to follow him.
Since we belong here, and not at the First Presbyterian Church of Hilton Head, I will not know the destiny of Ron Farsetti, newly baptized Christian. I won't know whether he will keep the promises he made or he will begin to make excuses, the same ones I've been hearing from people my entire life, as well as the ones I offer too. I know this about Jesus: he calls, he invites, and he challenges, but he does not condemn. I think I could learn to stop making excuses and follow someone like that.
Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master
 When I preached this, I used his name. For purpose of public distribution, I think it best to refer to the individual only by initials.