The film Remember the Titans tells the story of the integration of the football team at TC Williams High School in Alexandria, Virginia in 1971. Bringing together an all-white and an all-black team, the new head black coach has to be very clear about the rules – how and who they will be, how they will comport themselves, what is acceptable. The rules are strict – if you’re on-time, you’re late. The rules disrupt the norms – interracial roommates at camp for starters. The rules are non-negotiable – break them and you are out. In some ways, there is no other way for the head coach to be. He is trying to do the impossible at a racially charged time in a racially charged town in a racially charged system. Any lack of clarity about identity, purpose, and posture could lead to a collapse of the entire system.
This past week, we baptized another child into the household of God. When the church celebrates a baptism, we are similarly clear about identity, purpose, and posture. The parents and godparents promise to raise the child in the Christian faith and life, praying and witnessing for the child how to grow into the full stature of Christ. Further, we claim that the child is marked as Christ’s own forever. We are clear about identity. We are also clear about purpose. The community gathered promises to confess the faith of Christ crucified, to proclaim Jesus’s resurrection, and to share in the eternal priesthood. We promise to continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, the breaking of the bread, and in the prayers. We are also clear about posture. We will resist evil and when we fail, we will repent and return to the Lord. We will proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ. We will seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves. And we will strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being. We are clear about identity, purpose, and posture: who we are, what we are made for, and how we go about our faith.
Of course, what we do in baptism is not that extraordinary among people of faith. As people of faith, we have constantly handed down our sense of identity, purpose, and posture. We hear some of that in the Hebrew Scriptures today. Joshua pulls the people of God together and demands they proclaim their identity: they are the people of God who will serve the Lord. They respond by telling their story – the way God led them out of slavery, protected and provided for them. The people proclaim their purpose: They are to serve the Lord. And finally, they define their posture: they will put away false gods, the gods of the ancestors to free them to serve only the Lord.
What’s interesting is Jesus does the same thing in the gospel lesson today. Jesus is trying to explain his identity, his purpose, and his posture – the same he expects from his followers. In response, we are told many people walk away. Not unlike that football team in Remember the Titans, some are just simply unwilling to get on board with the identity, purpose, and posture Jesus demands. The text tells us, “Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.” Those disciples hear about Jesus’ identity, purpose, and posture, and they walk away – Jesus’ way of life is just too difficult. But Jesus does not judge or condemn; in fact, Jesus gives an out. He asks if those remaining wish to go too. But those who remain are clear. They know no other way but to follow Jesus now, the one who has the words of eternal life, the Holy One of God.
You know, sometimes I think we take for granted how difficult being a Christian can be. One of the things I consistently talked about in the bishop search was how proud I am to be a part of a Church who can gather people of all political persuasions around the Eucharistic Table peacefully. But in my pride in our identity, purpose, and posture, I sometimes forget how much work that common table really is. Just this week I read a blog post of epidemiologist who happens to be a preacher’s wife. She writes of her sympathy for pastors making decisions about gathering the church during the escalation of the Delta variant of the Coronavirus, especially as pastors weigh all the sides. She argues, “This is not a debate though. There are no sides.”[i] She argues that how we handle the church’s response to the pandemic is not political but a matter of faith. But that is the rub today. Everything these days is politicized: how we handle the prevention of the spread of a pandemic, whether we go or stay in Afghanistan, what the extents of humanitarian aid and support should be, and on and on. When people ask me how I handle politics in the pulpit, I usually say I just preach Jesus and let everyone figure out the rest. But even Jesus is political. His clear defining of his identity, purpose, and posture has people deserting him. Walking with God has always been political. The Israelites are given a similar choice by Joshua – to be with him and his house as they serve the Lord, or to serve the gods of the locals.
Our invitation this week is to take a similar hard look at our lives and the difficult teachings of Jesus and to decide which god we will follow. As Jesus gives the disciples a choice, we too have a choice; although, I suspect your answer may be similar to Simon Peter’s, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” The question this week is just what Simon Peter’s declaration means for our daily lives. How will we embrace our baptismal covenant this week, respecting the dignity of every human being, seeking and serving Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves? These are not just pretty words and lovely concepts. They are difficult markers of identity, of purpose, and of posture. Our work is to reclaim the baptismal promises together the only way we know how: by promising, “I will, with God’s help.”[ii] Amen.
[i] Dr. Emily Smith, “Delta and Church: Three questions: Is it truthful, faithful, and loving?” August 20, 2021, as found at https://emilysmith.substack.com/p/delta-and-church?r=aezlb&utm_campaign=post&utm_medium=web&utm_source=facebook&fbclid=IwAR0JMkDQ07Z1OHcV-ec0Z8s0lFQlyGMe8VdL-DDrvVbcF0txJi0LnyUncZM, on August 21, 2021.
[ii] BCP, 304-305. This is the repeated response to the five baptismal covenant questions.