Pledging Ourselves to Love
A sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on Reformation Sunday / Reception of New Members, October 26, 2014
Leviticus 19: 1-2, 15-18 Matthew 22: 34-40
After church last Sunday, I drove over to Hebrew Home and Rehabilitation Center and made my way down the first floor corridor, feet sweeping across the non-descript tan carpet, until I got to where Carmen Gray’s mother, Jane Scott, lives. Usually Carmen would be in her mother’s room, but this time she was across the hall, waiting for me in Milme Hoag’s room.
Many of you may know that Milme, a much beloved longtime member of this congregation, passed away on Tuesday. But this was last Sunday, and Carmen and I were there, at Milme’s request to baptize her. You see about a year ago, Milme shared with me that she had no memory of her baptism and that she had never heard her family talk about it. For a while she had begun to wonder, had she been baptized? She knew and we knew her sister had. But Milme?
Milme loved this church and the people in it and the people who, through this church, knew they were loved by others and by God. She was a stalwart member of the Nifty Thrifties, sorting and cataloging the donations received, helping organize and run the tag sales for year after year. She sat in worship almost every Sunday, right over there. But several years ago, she began to wonder, was I ever baptized? And, should I get baptized?
What do you know about your baptism? Were you a baby? A teen? An adult?
As for me, I don’t remember my baptism because I was a toddler, but it was the talk of Sunnycrest Community Church. That’s because when my parents said to the pastor that they wanted me to be baptized, the pastor refused saying he didn’t believe in baptizing babies – that it was “unscriptural.” Well Miss Peterson who had taught bible in the church for generations; taught bible probably since before that pastor was even born, wasn’t going to stand for that. She went in and challenged him until he confessed that there was “no scriptural warrant against it” and conceded to a private baptism. So I was baptized in the pastor’s office with my parents and grandparents looking on. There was no font, just a plastic cup filled with water. But it was enough.
Carmen and I greeted Milme. It had been a hard week. She had had another stroke. She wasn’t able to communicate well, but it was clear that she recognized us and was glad we’d come. After we spoke for a few moments, Carmen went to the sink to fill up the plastic cup with water and then she stepped to the side of the bed and picked up a hairbrush and began to brush Milme’s soft white hair.
Months before Milme confessed to me, “I am not sure I was ever baptized. And I want to be.” I went back and combed through our church’s records. I found her sister’s baptism duly recorded but nothing else. She and I chewed on this for a while. “I’d like my family to be there,” she said a few weeks later, “but I don’t know if I want to do it in church.” We talked about that and how the sacrament of baptism incorporated us into the body of Christ, how being in the midst of the community of faith who could witness and celebrate and welcome us, was part of it. She got it theologically. Her baptism was approved by the session. But she thought it would be nice to have her family there too. So we waited.
During worship last Sunday, I was handed a note during service from Carmen, saying she thought that Milme had had a stroke. She was prepared to come with me to Hebrew Home. So after church I called Milme’s daughter and told her I’d like to come that day to baptize Milme. She said, “the doctors said a month ago, that she probably had about two months to live. Go ahead and do the baptism without waiting for me.”
Standing on the side of the bed, I recalled with Milme, her desire to be baptized. I began the baptismal service, her milky eyes attentive and then distant. Carmen holding her hand. I picked up the plastic cup and dipped my hand into the cool water. I placed my wet hand on her head three times; in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Her skin was warm and her hair soft beneath my hand. I prayed that God would guard and protect her, God’s own child, a sheep of God’s own fold. Her eyes gently looked at me, with peace, with wonder.
Jesus’ memorable summary of the commandments “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind,” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” are in the form of a pledge; you shall love. You shall love God and you shall love your neighbor and you shall love yourself (which of course is assumed but which, too often, we forget).
Through our baptism we pledge or are pledged to God, we are incorporated into the church – no longer an individual, no longer a nuclear family, but now part of a larger family, a family made up of people we know and don’t know, a family of people from different parts of the world, a family of people who are youngsters, middlers and elders – we pledge or are pledged to Christ’s family, the church. And that pledge is made from love, for love.
Milme was surrounded by and offered love to this church and to all whom this church served. And while it appears she had not been baptized until last Sunday, we know that baptism is but the outward sign of the invisible grace bestowed upon us by God. What order it comes in matters less, than the pledge God makes to us in love and the pledge we make in return.
This morning, friends in our midst have decided to affirm their baptisms and pledge themselves anew to loving God and others by joining this congregation; by allowing their lives to become entangled with ours; by offering their creativity, time and gifts to this community. And while each of them has made an individual decision to join, the journey they are becoming part of is not simply an individual journey; it’s about who we are together. For while many in our society would hear Jesus’ words as an individual maxim, those of us in the church know that it’s more than that – it’s about how we love God and our neighbor together; how we do this as a community, both inside our walls and beyond our walls. And in doing so we discover the stranger in our self and the familiar in another; we realize the ways as human beings that we are woven together – that we cannot quite separate out who I am from who we are. That’s quite a pledge, is it not? That’s quite a risk to join oneself to a community. But it makes all the difference. For there is so much we can do together, that we cannot do alone. Whether it’s rushing aid to people following a disaster or marching together to stop climate change, or it’s sorting and selling at the tag sale, or whether it’s praying together for one another, or whether it’s visiting one another in the hospital. When we join this community, we pledge ourselves to love. And it changes lives – it changes our life, it changes the lives of others, and it changes the life of the world.
This week we all have the opportunity to pledge ourselves again to love of God and love of neighbor through making a financial pledge to the church. For we can love with our money too, you know. And, well, the heater in this building doesn’t run on love, it runs on oil, and so we need some of that money too to keep it all going. It’s not complicated really and I’m not going to give you a hard sell. I’m just going to encourage you to give a financial pledge to this loving community, so that through our ministry and mission and welcome in this building and beyond, we can share God’s love and our love widely. You should have received a letter and a pledge card this week. There are letters and pledge cards on the table in the back if you didn’t or if you’d like to make a first time pledge to this church. Please bring them back to church with you next Sunday (or mail them in) so that we can dedicate them here in love and for love.
Milme, I think, wanted to be baptized as a way of pledging herself anew to God and to this congregation. It was a way of saying, “yes,” I love you God with all my heart, soul, mind and strength. “Yes,” I love my neighbor and I will keep loving my neighbor. After Carmen hugged her and departed, I stayed with Milme, reading scripture and singing hymns to her. When I got to Blessed Assurance, she lit up. I continued singing as she fell asleep, and then as she slept, safe in God’s arms of love. I watched her for a while, thinking of Carmen and her tenderness, thinking of Milme’s hands that had folded so many clothes for the tag sale, thinking of her talking with others in the pew during one of the dialogue sermons, thinking of her love for her husband, thinking of her fierce faith and loyalty to God and this community. Then I picked up that plastic cup of water; not unlike the plastic cup from which I was baptized, overwhelmed by what love can do.