This message was shared at Meridian Street United Methodist Church on Sunday, May 1st, the day that my son, Zechariah, was baptized.
“A Letter to My Son on His Baptism Day: God Remembers, Remember God”
As I began preparing for this week in prayer and reflecting on Scripture, I had the thought that much of the New Testament is written in the form of letters. Paul and other early church leaders wrote to the ancient churches in places like Corinth and Thessalonica, but some letters were also written to individuals like Timothy and Titus. With this theme in mind this morning, I would like to share with you a letter I have written to my son on his baptism day titled “God Remembers, Remember God”. I pray it’s relevant to all baptized Christians, as I share this to my son, Zechariah.
To my dear child Zechariah,
It is with immense joy that I share these words with you on the day of your baptism, the
day when God has received you into the family of faith through the ordinary, but purifying gift of water and the Spirit. You have received the grace that works within and the love that we cannot earn, but simply receive throughout our lives. One hundred and fourteen years ago, Joel C. VanGorder, your great-great-great grandfather, brought his son, Paul Joel, before the Methodist congregation in Avilla, Indiana to be baptized in the baptismal gown you are wearing today. This serves as a reminder that you are surrounded
by the great cloud of witnesses who have gone before us; grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins; a reminder that the family of God, into which you were baptized, goes beyond this place and time. God has been faithful to us. God has forgiven us. God has loved us. God has remembered God’s people.
As your mom and I prepared to welcome you last year, I was preparing for the season of Advent, which is the season before Christmas. As we were searching for your name, your mom wisely vetoed several names including the great Old Testament names Habakkuk and Obadiah, I wasn’t much help. During this season, your mom came across the name Zechariah. This name is found a few places in Scripture. Zechariah was an Old Testament prophet, but in the New Testament a different Zechariah was a faithful priest who couldn’t believe he would become John the Baptist’s father. Given these Biblical examples of your name, for the first few months of your life I would sing to you in superhero style “Zechariah: Prophet, Priest, and Baby.”
I would often read to you the words of Zechariah’s Canticle when you were a newborn, the words that were read today, where the old priest who was silent for nine months began to speak the great song after his son John the Baptist was born, where he reminded his people of the great covenant of God. It’s a song of mercy. It’s a song of forgiveness. It’s a song of love. I pray it is a song you will sing throughout your life.
Zechariah, the priest, writes that God has shown mercy to our ancestors, God promised to remember his covenant, God will guide our feet into the pathway of peace. The name Zechariah is a Hebrew name that means “God remembers.” I pray that throughout your life you will know that God remembers God’s people. The covenant made today at your baptism, means that you have put on Christ, you have received the free gift of grace that we cannot earn but simply receive, and you are a child of God forever. God remembers. Remember God.
God is faithful. The year was 2005. A terrible hurricane ravaged the Gulf Coast, nearly destroying parts of the City of New Orleans. Your mom and I both felt a call to go serve the people of the Gulf Coast who were hurting. We travelled to New Orleans separately, and met each other for the first time in the midst of the devastation and destruction that only a hurricane could cause. In the midst of tragedy and an opportunity to serve, love was found between us. I can still remember sleeping under the altar in a church north of Lake Pontchartrain, thinking about this amazing and beautiful young woman named Candace that I fell deeply in love with. I hope you find such love in your life too.
I share this with you, because I want you to know that following God’s call, God’s nudge, God’s push in your life is so important. Those baptismal waters that you received today now call you to serve God your whole life. And when you serve God, you never know what might unexpectedly happen, such as finding your love on a mission trip. In the midst of such tragedy, God brings new life and love.
Life is not always easy my son. In our journey of life there will be great joy and also sorrow, there will be mountain top experiences and valleys low in the darkness, but through it all God will be there, just as God is present today at your baptism. When you begin to question and wonder where God might be, remember that God is faithful. There will be times when your faith will be tested. There will be times when you question where God is in your life, but know that God is faithful. God is big enough to handle your doubts. God is bigger than your fears.
When I was in college, I can remember one night, after wrestling with my call to ministry, wondering what was next, I took off the cross that I wore every day, threw it on the floor and thought it was all pointless. But my son, God is faithful. Through my parents, family and friends, through my United Methodist pastor, Pastor Greg, my college Chaplain at the University of Saint Francis Fr. Jim, through people like Sr. Geraldine who is here today to pray for you in person on your baptism day, I remembered that God is always present. We just need others to remind us of that from time to time. God is faithful. God remembers.
When you feel like you have messed up, which will happen, it’s true, remember that God is forgiving. Just as the Canticle reads, “The Lord will give his people the knowledge of their salvation through the forgiveness of their sins.” My son, always remember that no matter how far one falls, there is forgiveness. God always welcomes us home. Your mother and I will do our best to offer you forgiveness. We pray you will extend forgiveness to us when we fall short. God is forgiving.
My child, always remember that God is good. God has given us a beautiful life to live. You have to live your life and follow the call that God has given you. You can’t follow my vocation or mom’s path; you have to do what only you have been called to do. Your life, every day, every moment is a gift to be lived and appreciated. Every day is a day to give thanks to the good God who has created everything around you. I remember that night, or really that early morning, when I was holding you in the hospital, I told you that “the world is a big and beautiful place with so many wonderful people. Don’t be afraid of the world, but learn to love the world.” I pray you will go on adventures. Go explore the world. Experience the creation, cultures, and cuisines of this world. God is good and God has created a beautiful world.
Always remember my son, that God is love. When your mom and I learned that you were coming to be with us, we were both thrilled and terrified with what this would mean. What we didn’t realize was how your arrival was simply another way for us to expand the love that God has already given us. When the doctor first placed you in my arms and we looked at you, it’s hard to describe, but our love expanded in that moment. We thought our love for each other, family, the world, and God was complete, until we met you. It is hard to explain the love one has for their child. I suppose it is meant to be experienced, not explained. I pray one day you will know this love. Until that day, I will do my best to show you the love that God has so freely shown me.
Unfortunately, you will probably hear in your lifetime, in church, in politics, and in many other circles, things that do not sound like love. But remember, my child, just as we read in the letter of James, that “God is love.” Do not listen to those who say otherwise. If there is one thing I have learned in my life, it is that God is a God of love. God loves you immensely, never forget that, but God also loves the people you see every day. Learn to live in love for everyone, for the neighbor, the stranger, the outcast, the brokenhearted, the person who believes and thinks differently than you, those of other religions, remember God loves them, just as much as God loves you. Extend to others the hand of kindness, hope, and love to everyone.
God is faithful, God is forgiving, God is good, and God is love. Always remember these things and just as it was proclaimed to our ancestors in faith in what’s called the Shema in Deuteronomy, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” These are words that Jesus spoke as well. Love God with all you have and all you are. It doesn’t mean that everything will be easy, but it does mean that in your faithfulness to God, you will find peace, hope, and meaning to your life. It is my prayer that your life will move from the baptismal font into the world, knowing and remembering God, for God remembers you.
Earlier this week, your Mom shared a picture of your baptismal gown along with these words: “As Joel prayed over his son in 1902, I don’t think he could have imagined the wonder of the world into which his great-great-great grandson would be born, but I am grateful for his faithfulness.” Today, Zechariah, you are not only clothed in the linens of generations past. You are clothed in the love, hope, peace, and joy of your parents, grandparents, family, friends, and church community. You are surrounded by the great cloud of faithful witnesses of your great-grandparents and their parents before them. You are washed in the water of baptism. You are covered in the love and grace of God who goes before you, beside you, behind you, and within you, that you may always remember you have been claimed by the grace of God and named a beloved child of God.
God remembers, which means that God puts us back together, God re-members us throughout our lives. Just as God has always done, God will always be present and will always be remembering us, so my son, always remember God throughout your life. From this moment to your last breath, may you breathe in the gift of grace and the fullness of life, may you receive the peace that only God can give, and may you live a life of love, so that others will see the faithfulness, forgiveness, goodness, and love of God. May you always remember God, for God remembers you.
With love, dad.
Scripture Readings for this Sunday:
Deuteronomy 6: 4-9
4 Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 5 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. 6 These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. 7 Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. 8 Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. 9 Write them on the door frames of your houses and on your gates.
Luke 1: 67-79, Zechariah’s Song
67 His father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied:
68 “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel,
because he has come to his people and redeemed them.
69 He has raised up a horn[c] of salvation for us
in the house of his servant David
70 (as he said through his holy prophets of long ago),
71 salvation from our enemies
and from the hand of all who hate us—
72 to show mercy to our ancestors
and to remember his holy covenant,
73 the oath he swore to our father Abraham:
74 to rescue us from the hand of our enemies,
and to enable us to serve him without fear
75 in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
76 And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High;
for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him,
77 to give his people the knowledge of salvation
through the forgiveness of their sins,
78 because of the tender mercy of our God,
by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven
79 to shine on those living in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the path of peace.”