When Principles Get in the Way

A sermon delivered by Dr. Randy K. Hammer, June 26, 2016

2 Kings 5:1-15 GNT

A personal story to introduce the point: Two weeks ago, our daughter Kristin and her family were with us for the weekend.  And the day before they were to come up, our grandson Josiah called and said, “Guess what?”

Of course I replied, “What?”

“I’m getting baptized this weekend!”  Josiah exclaimed.

Somewhat caught off guard, Mary Lou and I returned, “You are?  Where?”  Now, my initial thought was Josiah was wanting to be baptized here, in the United Church; but we had not discussed it or planned for it as a part of the service.  But that wasn’t it at all.  When we asked, “Where?” Josiah replied, “In the river!  And I want you to help.”

Again caught off guard, I shared with him that in all my 35 years of ordained ministry, I had never immersed or baptized anyone in the river.  Having come from two denominational traditions that practice baptism by sprinkling or pouring—initially as a Presbyterian and more recently as a Congregationalist—I had never been asked to baptize anyone by immersion, especially in the river.  So it was both out of my field of experience and comfort zone.  You might even say it was a matter of principle on my part.  But I assured Josiah that we would certainly talk about it when they arrived.

Well, Kristin got on the phone and explained that Josiah had been talking about this for some months, and they had all discussed it, and she and Todd felt now was the opportune time to do it; and they wanted to include us in this joyous occasion.  You see, Todd was raised in a church tradition that strongly believes in and practices baptism by immersion.  Such is very important to his family.  So before we hung up the phone, I said something to the effect that we would figure out a way to make it work.

Well, I was a bit anxious about it.  But after pondering it, I decided that for Josiah, I would venture outside my field of experience and comfort zone, and set aside my liturgical principle, as it were, and I would help baptize my grandson because it was so important to him and our daughter and son-in-law.  So we decided that the best place to do it was Clarke Center Park.  So on Sunday afternoon, the six of us put on our swimsuits and we drove to Clarke Center.  We found a semi-private spot under a cedar tree on the bank by the lake.  And Todd and I shared with Josiah some of the meanings of baptism.  I was a wee bit self-conscious, I must admit, as there were so many people all around us swimming, yelling, drinking beer, and so forth.  But the three of–Josiah, Todd and I–waded out into the lake in water just above our knees.  (In Todd’s family’s tradition, the father assists in the rite of baptism.)  I became oblivious to everyone else around us and got caught up in the moment.  I said the words of baptism, Todd and I lowered Josiah under the water, I placed my hand on his head and said a prayer of blessing, then bent down and kissed him on the forehead.  And then got a bit emotional, teary-eyed, and unable to speak for a moment.

After a few minutes, I finally was able to say to Josiah, “Josiah, you know that you are the first person I have ever baptized by immersion.”  Then as we walked up the bank, Todd said to me, “We really appreciate your willingness to do this, since it is not your practice or the tradition you are accustomed to.”

I replied, the best I could, “For this boy I would do anything.”

And Todd replied, “We know you would.  We have observed that.”

And then I repeated, “I would do anything for him, including giving him my kidney if he needed it.  And the same goes for Bethany Grace.”

Well, here’s the point: Sometimes those principles that we think are so important prove to be more harmful than good and need to be tossed out the window.  My principle of only administering baptism by pouring or sprinkling became totally insignificant and was superceded by my relationship with my grandson.

The insignificance of principles is the point I get out of the biblical story of Naaman, a high-ranking Syrian commander who came down with a dreaded skin disease.  When the Hebrew prophet Elisha asked him to go dip himself in the Jordan River seven times in order to be cleansed of his disease, Naaman was appalled.  The very idea—dip myself in the muddy Jordan River!  How could the prophet even suggest such a thing?  Such an act was beneath him.  He wouldn’t think of doing such a thing.  So Naaman refused and angrily stomped away, railing at the prophet all the while.  After all, he was a man of principles!

Fortunately, Naaman’s attendants were able to see that doing what the prophet requested with the hope of being healed was much more important than being stubborn and holding fast to his principles.  And so, Naaman relented, set aside his principles, did what the prophet had said, and (as the story goes), was both blessed and healed.

The truth is, we all have principles.  Principles for the most part are a good thing.  They help define who we are and help keep us on track.  They help us keep a job, stay out of trouble with the Law, help us maintain important relationships, and so on.  But not all principles are good principles, and sometimes principles that we once thought were so important become obsolete, or become obstacles in our way, or need to be cast aside.  We come to understand that human relationships and compassion and kindness and doing unto others as we would have them do unto us overshadow and outweigh any rigid principles we might have held dear.

For instance, there was a time in the segregated South when many held the principle that a White person didn’t take a Black person to a drugstore lunch counter.  There was a time when most Americans held the principle that intermarriage between a man and woman of different races was wrong.  There was a time when many held to the principle that only men should be allowed to vote.  Sadly, today many in our country still hold to the principle that it is okay to hate and even kill those who have a different sexual orientation or religion.

As already stated, many principles that we hold are good; they help maintain order in our lives and society at large.  But not all principles are worthy principles.  And principles can change as the times change, as we grow personally, and as we become better informed about life and the world around us.

So we do well to examine our cherished, long-held principles every now and then and see if a change in attitude is in order.  This is true especially when our principles involve human relationships, how we view and treat others, and when our principles may rob us of life’s joy and blessing.

Returning to the story of helping baptize our grandson Josiah, it turned out to be an extraordinarily meaningful, and emotional, experience for me, one I wouldn’t take anything for.  That experience only served to strengthen the wonderful bond that already existed between us.

Yes, as both Naaman and I learned, sometimes principles get in the way and need to be discarded to open the way for life’s blessings and the priority of human relationships.  May we have the grace and wisdom to set our principles aside when their day has come and gone.  Amen.

 

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About randykhammer

Minister and writer
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