We don't see TV commercials at my house, so I have to ask: do they still have those ads for medications where they give a long list of side effects?
"Side effects may include bloating, hiccups, hair growth, sore throat, hair loss, hallucinations, headache, double vision, delusions of grandeur, and lower gas mileage."
Well, baptism can have side effects. And maybe we should warn people.
"Side effects from baptism may include self-righteousness, smugness, judgmentalism and intolerance."
It bothers me to read in church history how Christians have fought with each other and condemned each other. Here are some of the fights: Is it okay to paint an image of Christ? Is Jesus God, or only very much like God? Should we baptize babies, or only people who can speak for themselves? Is it permissible to ordain women, or gay people? Is every word of the Bible literal fact, or is there some poetry and metaphor in Scripture? And what color shingles should we use when replacing the church roof?
Sadly, religion has a dark side. Baptism can have these side effects. I want to warn people about them.
But as we baptize Hannah today, and whenever we baptize here at St. Mark's, we hope for much better things. It all comes down to what Jesus says in today's Gospel. This is the heart...the heart of Judaism...the heart of Christianity...and, I would argue, the heart of all true religion.
We call it the great commandment. "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself."
This is the great commandment. It's the test for true religion, spirituality, faith, whatever you call it. And it's the heart of everything.
I once read an article by a woman who made a pilgrimage to Lourdes, the great Roman Catholic healing shrine in Europe. She wrote, "The message of Christ is so huge, so clear, perfectly understandable by anyone. Love God. Love your neighbor. Love your enemies. It seems to be enough to be getting on with. Who needs dogma?" She puts it perfectly well, I think.
If religion has a dark side -- and sometimes, sadly, it does -- if religion sometimes results in bad behaviors or attitudes, if religion can have bad side effects, then here is the antidote. Here is the cure. Here is the heart of Christianity. Love God, and love your neighbor.
Now, the word "love" is used in the ancient biblical way. This kind of love is not about feelings and affection. It is about commitment and action. The command to love God is not a command to feel warmly, although we sometimes might do that. Instead, it is a command to adopt an unwavering commitment to God and to God's ways.
In the same way, to love your neighbor, or even your enemy, is not to have warm feelings or affection. To love the neighbor is to take their needs seriously and do what you can to provide for them. After all, Jesus said to love your neighbor as yourself. How do I love myself? Well, not by getting up in the morning and saying, "I can't wait to look in the mirror, 'cause I get better looking every day." It's not to feel warm and gushy about myself.
No, I love myself by taking care of myself. I work to feed and clothe and shelter myself. I love my family by working to feed and clothe and shelter them. And so to love my neighbor or even my enemy is not to have warm gushy feelings. I might not even LIKE my neighbor. But I must help feed and clothe and shelter my neighbor by helping assure that EVERYONE is fed and clothed and sheltered. That's what the Bible means by loving your neighbor.
So let me remind you once again of one of my favorite stories. I tell this all the time, hoping it will sink into my heart, and the heart of my church. It was told originally by a Jewish philosopher hundreds of years ago.
Once upon a time there was a magic ring that gave whoever wore it special gifts: the gifts of grace, kindness and generosity. The owner of the ring had three sons. Each of the sons asked to have that ring left to him. And the father promised it to each of them separately.
Well, the old man secretly contacted the greatest jeweller in the land. He paid this artist to create two copies of the ring. When the copies were made, they were exactly like the original. And before he died, the father gave each of his sons one of the rings, without telling him about the other two.
Of course, after their father's death, the sons quickly found out each of them had a ring.
None of them knew which was the true magic ring. So they went to their rabbi and asked for help. The rabbi studied the rings and saw that they were identical.
So the rabbi said, "Why should we decide? We will know the true magic ring by watching your lives in the future." And after that, each of the brothers acted as if he was the one with the true magic ring. Each of the brothers lived with grace, kindness, and generosity.
That is a story not about magic rings about about religions. When we live the heart of our faith by loving God and our neighbor, we really do have the magic ring.
So, "hear what our Lord Jesus Christ saith: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it: thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets."
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