Read the origin story of this 2018 Lent sermon series about a small town wrestling with big questions about Baptism…
The chapel at that southern Illinois State Correctional Center was quiet except for the distant whir and hum of the prison porter’s vacuum cleaner. New Inmate Orientation was over. Chapel rules, activities and services were explained for them, along with the schedule of rotating religious groups who all took turns through the week hosting classes and leading worship. Some inmates just rolled their eyes. A few others looked back and forth between me and the state chaplain, wondering if there might be some small shred of hope left for them in here, of all places. An hour ago, the guards marched off the most recent batch of men–barely of college age, many of them fresh from the Chicago streets sent here to serve their first stretch of felony time. They soon found the cells they would occupy for the next several years.
The prison chapel porter made ready for the next group to cycle through the chapel, shuffling chairs back in place, clearing and cleaning the next area of the main activity room for his vacuum. Whenever he stopped to move chairs, the vacuum would switch off. The throbbing buzz of florescent overhead lights returned like the sound of electronic locusts.
It was my job that day to review the call lists, going over the names of the inmates who signed up to attend today’s or tomorrow’s activities, and check them in one by one. I paused over the name “Dale,” surprised to find him on this list for this particular non-denominational group. “Dale” was a Lutheran, raised up by Lutheran parents, attended a Lutheran school as a child, and one of my faithful regulars–he was well known to me and often seen at our own Lutheran chapel services. Our Pastors had been giving him communion there in prison for years, now.
“Dale” was the first real Lutheran I’d ever meet who intended (for a time) to be re-baptized. “Dale” wouldn’t prove to be the the last. I’d manage to meet various others in the coming 25 years, serving people of every race, color, religion or creed.
As a Lutheran, it’s somewhat possible, easier perhaps, to live in your own little Lutheran bubble, just going with the flow and floating along the surface of the waters in the ocean of Christianity. Surely others do this, too, besides Lutherans. Contact with those “other” Christians perhaps threatens to burst one’s bubble. At least that’s what some experience, or seem to fear. Honestly, I reckon I did at one time.
Prison ministry provided my first prolonged contact with religious people who weren’t taught as I was taught. They didn’t think the same way I thought. Some truly didn’t believe what I believed. Different core values, different life experiences, different personal priorities and theological focal points shaped their spirituality into whatever it was at the time I met them.
As a confessional Lutheran, the “pattern of sound doctrine” (2 Tim. 1:13) usually seemed quite clear and familiar to me from Luther’s Small Catechism. Whether in that time of prison chaplaincy, one decade serving on an Indian reservation, or another spent in nursing homes, hospice patients’ rooms or parishes elsewhere: I’ve found that for many people that “pattern” is not clear at all. Sometimes after meeting such persons in their questions, it wasn’t quite as clear to me either for a time. I found if I was to be at all helpful, I had to listen and study and learn for them, and when possible with them.
Otherwise, I’d have to retreat back to my own safe little Lutheran bubble. Eventually, I began to understand that Jesus actually wants me to talk to people who don’t already believe what I believe, preaching and teaching the faith also for them. (Life got so much more enjoyable that day, when I stopped being so upset that people didn’t always agree with me!)
By definition, inmates have a lot of time on their hands. Some spend it on voracious reading of Scripture and attending every possible Bible study, worship, prayer and praise service for which they can sign up. They are men who have lost jobs, homes, wives, children, friends–everything–and are trying to hold on to the one thing that might give them a little comfort and peace to get through the day: their Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. As the old saying goes, beggars can’t be choosers.
Gather a rather downtrodden, diverse group like that for your Bible Class, and you’ll find people have questions–lots of questions, sometimes desperate questions. To this day, no Bible classes have pushed me harder to become a better teacher than those unpredictable, ragtag groups of convicted Christians. God gave me the privilege to be one of the few constant voices speaking His Word in their life.
A veritable merry-go-round of people paraded by from every church in the area, often quite eager to fulfill Matthew 25:39-40 and obey Hebrews 13:3 to the letter. Many do-gooders came offering assistance, but rarely returned once they checked those verses off their “to-do” list for Jesus. Some of those Christians did prove helpful, came to meet the men right where they were at and serve them in their real spiritual needs. Some simply were not helpful, but there to help only themselves feel better. So it has been since Apostolic times, as St. Paul warns:
“But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people. For among them are those who creep into households and capture weak women, burdened with sins and led astray by various passions, always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth.” (2 Timothy 3:1-7)
Sometimes people creep into households, into chapels and churches, with an agenda so unhelpful it robs Christ of the glory due His name and robs people of their true comfort in Christ. The Lord Jesus warns of robbers in the sheepfold (John 10:1), folks who come in to steal and kill and destroy (10:10), and the sort of hirelings who flee rather than protect the sheep and fight such wolves (10:12). There is perhaps no more telling trait than robbing people of the truth, such that they no longer believe one can ever arrive at any real, certain “knowledge of the truth.” Not about God or spiritual matters. Not about Jesus. Not even when it comes to Baptism…
True theology is never done in a vacuum, but in context of real people with real lives and personally particular circumstances and spiritual concerns. Sermons of substance are not crafted for storage on a library shelf or unfurled for museum display in remote ivory towers. God’s Word is proclaimed for people. Sinful people. Sick people. Hurting people. Worried people. Lonely people. Successful people and failures, too. Angry people, and happy ones, too. Educated people and illiterate people. But always, true preaching is done by way of exercising real-world spiritual care for God’s own blood-bought, Baptized people.
About six months ago, people began engaging me with an unusual number of questions and conversations about Baptism. One expects such questions during confirmation classes or when a family wants to schedule a Baptism. But these were popping up casually on the street, off the cuff, in an occasional odd tangent during Bible Class, and even when visiting my elderly and shut-in members. Questions came with increased frequency from both outside and within the church. I began listening more closely, exploring the context giving rise to this curiosity about Baptism.
Of course, we Lutherans don’t really live in a bubble. We don’t float here quietly in our own private font, as peaceful and meditative as such an idyllic image might seem. We have dear friends and family members outside the congregation. We employ and work with folks who attend other churches in the community or none at all. We care deeply about people who aren’t like us, don’t necessarily believe as we believe. Admittedly, we could always do better expressing that genuine care spiritually.
What happens “out there” in the broader community impacts us. A death of a member in another congregation is likely one of our coworkers, friends or relatives for whom we also grieve. A tragic or unfortunate incident at school likely involves one of our kids’ or grandkids’ friends, classmates and team mates–even when that kid isn’t one of our members. When someone outside the congregation gets sick, it impacts family and friends in our congregation who offer their care and support.
The same is true of what happens spiritually in the churches. A few months ago, a pastor in our community surprised his congregation with the announcement that he could no longer in good conscience baptize infants. I am a man of conscience. I deeply respect people of conscience. Seldom if ever do I advise a man to go against his conscience (1 Corinthians 8:11-12). Rather, we urge them especially in matters of faith to be true to one’s conscience and to respect the conscience of others (1 Corinthians 10:23-29). To that pastor’s credit, he promptly renounced his calling, honorably resigned and left the congregation.
But of course, in being true to his conscience, that congregation was left somewhat unsettled and the matter remains unresolved still in the hearts of many of our dear neighbors and beloved friends. Questions about Baptism were bubbling up among members here before I could see their source in the broader community. They were bubbling up from outside the congregation, as folks in the community desired some help sorting through these matters. People ask their Pastor about Baptism because conscientious people care–about their family members, relatives and friends outside the four walls of Immanuel. They care also about Christ and His Word, desiring to know and acknowledge the truth for themselves and their neighbors’ sakes.
So this series hopes to meet specific needs of a particular blood-bought people whom God granted to live in this same place at this same time. Because there is one Lord, we confess He is their Lord and ours. Because there is one faith, we labor in the Word and trust that one Lord to preserve us in the pattern of sound teaching, “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). And believing there is one Baptism, we will rejoice in this gift and gladly give voice to its true purpose and role of bringing us in one Spirit into His one body (1 Cor. 12:13), the Church.
THE COLLECT FOR THE CHURCH
Almighty God, grant to Your Church Your Holy Spirit and the wisdom that comes down from above, that Your Word may not be bound but have free course and be preached to the joy and edifying of Christ’s holy people, that in steadfast faith we may serve You and, in the confession of Your name, abide unto the end; through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.
THE COLLECT FOR THE WORD
Blessed Lord, You have caused all Holy Scriptures to be written for our learning. Grant that we may so hear them, read, mark, learn, and take them to heart that, by the patience and comfort of Your holy Word, we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
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