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Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
15 years ago, when we were serving as missionaries in Lithuania, we spent our home leaves in America travelling around Minnesota visiting churches and presenting “The Sunday Morning Haug Family Dog and Pony Show.” We all had our parts to play. I preached the sermon, Janna described missionary home life, and the boys had a set of interactive games of show and tell. By the end of the summer, our sons knew my sermon so well that they could tell the punch lines to all my jokes. To this day they still laugh politely when they we say the Lithuanian word for thank you. Which for the curious is “Aciu.” So let’s say it together, on the count of three. One, two, three, “Aciu.” God bless you.
There was a favorite missionary story as well. A woman was sick in bed with the flu and her darling daughter wanted so much to be a good nurse. She fluffed the pillows and brought a magazine to read. And then she even showed up with a surprise cup of tea. “Why, you’re such a sweetheart,” the mother said as she drank the tea. “I didn’t know you even knew how to make tea.” “Oh, yes,” the little girl replied. “I learned by watching you. I put the tea leaves in the pan, and then I strained it into a cup. But I couldn’t find a strainer, so I used the fly swatter instead.” “You what?” the mother screamed. And the little girl quickly added, “Oh, don’t worry, Mommy, I didn’t use the new fly swatter. I used the old one.”
This is an important message to embrace for missionaries living in foreign lands. But it is equally important for Christians at home living in a skeptical, questioning world. For better or worse, your children and your neighbors watch what you do. They learn from your strengths and your weaknesses, your virtues and your vices. And believe me, your actions and mine, speak louder than our words. We want our children and our neighbors to learn the virtues of charity, honesty, integrity, and fidelity, but often times our actions and word teach other lessons.
Throughout history men and women have been challenged to live virtuous lives. It is a theme that flows through scripture and literature, and is at the heart of this morning’s unseemly and grisly gospel lesson. Even the great American humorist Mark Twain entreated people to live lives of dignity and honor. He wrote, “Be virtuous and be eccentric.” Unfortunately, the virtues for daily life cannot be bought and sold, but they must be taught and embraced from one generation to another.
This morning, I would like to share with you two convictions drawn from this morning’s gospel lesson that are tightly woven together: first, I believe that Christian virtues are the life giving, life affirming and life sustaining habits which give wholeness to homes, marriage and family. And Second, living a virtuous Christian life may be a costly choice- so beware of losing your head.
Now it would be easy to dismiss the story of the martyrdom of John the Baptist, as nothing more than a gruesome Aesop’s Fairy Tale, but truthfully, aren’t the characters just as real today as they were 2000 years ago? Is Herod any different than contemporary politicians, so blinded by ambition that they are willing to sacrifice their principles for political gain? We read that King Herod actually appreciated John the Baptist’s preaching, but Herod was so mired in a life of deception that he couldn’t tell the difference between talking the talk and walking the walk? Or consider the beloved prophet. You respect John the Baptist. He is a devout spiritual leader, to be sure, who is willing to tell truth to power whatever the costs. But secretly you confess that John makes you a bit uncomfortable. You would distance yourself from him today as being too political or moralistic? You prefer to be selective, and pick and choose the best of John’s teachings. Or consider the evil Queen Herodias. She can almost seem noble in protecting herself and her daughter at all costs from John’s accusations. Simply ponder the lengths some parents travel to protect their family from harm and to get what they believe they rightly deserve for their children. Christian discipleship in such a world, you see, is not easy.
Over the course of 30 years of parish ministry, I have known many Christians who have struggled to live virtuous and eccentric lives. Some have excelled in being eccentric, but have not yet achieved being virtuous. They simply couldn’t get their words and phrases to match their beliefs. Their actions are rather like the poorly edited church bulletin which read, “For those who have children and don’t know it, we have a nursery downstairs.”
Three qualities, however, characterize the men and women, and families who live by their Christian values. First, virtuous and eccentric Christians recognize that choosing God is a choice. Second, they know that they must tell the story of God’s love themselves, and Third, they live and walk boldly so others can see their faith.
Let us begin with the first characteristic. Virtuous and eccentric Christians recognize that choosing God is a choice. The great playwright, Eugene O’Neil once wrote, “There are ten church members by inheritance for one by conviction.” It is an interesting commentary. We hear a lot about the freedom of choice, and the freedom to decide. But, do you really think about choice when you speak of faith? It is often said, that Faith itself is caught and not taught. Most children acquire the characteristic and habits of their parents and their parent’s faith by observing them. Children have a way of knowing and absorbing your example and attitude when it comes to questions of honesty, temperance, kindness, and industriousness and faith. So ask yourself, what are your children learning from you? What god do they see you worshiping?
Choosing God for you and your family is your choice. Reading and playing together is a choice. Praying together with your children before they sleep is a choice. Worshiping together on Sunday morning is a choice. Choosing God, you see, is not merely a good confession, but choosing God is a way of life. Choosing God is a daily commitment of time and energy. As the ancient Proverbs states, “Train a child in the right way, and when old they will not stray.”
The second characteristic is that virtuous and eccentric Christians know that they must tell the story of God’s love themselves. I often hear parents wondering when they should begin teaching the lessons of Jesus. The answer is quite simple. There should never be a day that a child does not remember hearing the story of God’s love.
As a lady in the church was singing a solo, a four-year old grandson tugged at his grandmother’s sleeve. “Nana,” he said “she can’t sing very well, can she?” Knowing the deep faith of this wonderful woman, the grandmother said, “She sings from her heart, so it’s good.” He nodded with understanding. Later after the worship service, the little boy heard his grandmother singing along with the radio, he interrupted her. “Nana,” he said, “you sing from the heart too, don’t you?” As loving mothers and father, as beloved aunts and uncles, as faithful grandparents and godparents, you are not responsible for interpreting and explaining the story. That is the work of the Holy Spirit, but you are responsible for telling the story- from the heart.
The third characteristic is virtuous and eccentric Christians live and walk boldly so others can see their faith. Christians believe that faith is a very personal matter, but personal should not be confused with private. Faith should be open and visible for all to see. Virtuous and eccentric Christians aren’t necessarily any nicer or more educated than anybody else. Sometimes we’re not even better informed about our failings. But as the American Presbyterian author Frederick Buechner once characterized the faithful, “A Christian is one who is on the way, though not necessarily very far along it, and who has at least some dim and half-backed idea of who to thank.” That is the truest sense of virtuous and eccentric living.
Of course, it is not easy to be moving in the opposite direction of the crowd. It is certainly not comfortable for you or your children to be the outsiders, simply because of your values, expectations and beliefs. But my friends, I do not believe that a faithful and joyful Christian remains alone for long. Men and women, serving as living examples of faithfulness to God, are always bringing warmth and color to new communities. As a missionary family, I hope that we were a blessing to those we were sent to serve, but I know how richly they were a blessing to us.
In living and walking so that others can see your faith, you are boldly telling the old, old story of Jesus and his love, so that others may be changed. Your neighbors will learn to know God’s grace, forgiveness and strength, and you will share this story with the stranger. Your family will experience the Father’s love for the Son, and his sense of longing and mercy for you. And you yourself will know and trust the love of one who died upon a cross for you.
Throughout the ages, “virtuous and eccentric” prophets, poets and saints, have been called to teach men and women how to live virtuously. God called the herdsmen Amos, to proclaim the word, “There is a plumb line, upon which all behavior will be judged.” The ancient Jewish historian Josephus described the witness of John the Baptist in his work, Antiquities of the Jews. “John the Baptist was a good man who commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, both as righteousness towards one another, and piety towards God.” And my friends, God is calling you as well, to be “virtuous and eccentric” witnesses of love and charity, honesty and integrity, fidelity and loyalty. But beware of losing your head.
Yes, Jesus, the one who offered his own life for you, the one who offers you the possibilities of a blessed life, is calling. Will you accept the challenge of living day by day in healthy, virtuous life giving ways, perhaps sometimes eccentric, or will you choose another? Your children’s and neighbors’ eyes are watching. My friends, be virtuous and eccentric. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.