Then the angel showed me a river with the water of life, clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb. It flowed down the center of the main street. On each side of the river grew a tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, with a fresh crop each month. The leaves were used for medicine to heal the nations. No longer will there be a curse upon anything. For the throne of God and of the Lamb will be there, and his servants will worship him. And they will see his face, and his name will be written on their foreheads. And there will be no night there—no need for lamps or sun—for the Lord God will shine on them. And they will reign forever and ever. Revelation 22:1-5
I was a teenager, sitting at the counter in my family’s kitchen, grabbing a snack. My father came in the room and we began to speak as only and fresh-mouthed teen and his father do. I don’t remember how the conversation came up, but I remember the conclusion. My father got right in my face and said in no uncertain terms that if I ever came into his house with an earring or a tattoo, he would not let me back in. All ties would be severed from that moment and forever. I believed him, too. Uncharacteristically, I chose not to bring up the fact that he had a tattoo on his arm from his days in Vietnam. As a child, I remember staring at the dark green ink of the paratrooper’s emblem on his arm, wondering where and how that icon became an indelible part of his skin. That night at the kitchen counter just didn’t seem like the right time to mention it. So, being the oldest and ever obedient son, I have complied with his wishes, even after all these years. No tattoos. No piercings. My brother is a different story. I assume he got the same lecture. He promptly went out and got himself an ear ring and a tattoo. Nothing was ever said about it. He lived with my parents for years and years.
I remember talking to a teenager who had a tattoo plan. When he turned 18, he has going to get a tattoo of Yoda on his arm. That’s right, Yoda, the little green Jedi Master from the Star Wars movies. I think the teenager was hurt when I started laughing. I know, we need to support our teens’ fragile egos, but I couldn’t help myself. I pictured this guy as a 90-year-old, looking at the wrinkled ink blob on his arm, not knowing for the life of him what it was or how it got there. The teen didn’t see the humor in it.
If you get a tattoo that you don’t like, you can always change it to something else. Like Angelina Jolie and her famous tattoos. Angelina has gotten three different tattoos on her stomach, but one was a cover-up of another. She claims she used to have a blue dragon on the left-hand side of her stomach, the result a night of drunken fun in the city of Amsterdam. Apparently, she had no recollection of getting that tattoo and had the proverbial “How did that get there?” experience. Dissatisfied with the design, she chose to have it covered up with a large, solid black cross. Her second stomach tattoo is a Latin phrase that can be translated “What nourishes me also destroys me.” If I ever got a stomach tattoo, I would have it say, “Live without regrets.” But with my luck, someone would spell it wrong. I’d have a giant “Live without REGETS” on my chiseled abs for the rest of my life.
Here’s my question: are they crazy? My thinking was challenged about when I read a web article from Next Wave Magazine about Christians who wear body art as a means of spiritual expression. One Christian tattoo wearer had this to say:
Is it possible that in our pain we can worship God? As a society, we have been taught the road of least resistance is most desirable. But is this road most honorable? In our pain, we physically grieve the fall of humankind and turn to God, dependent and hopeful for a world to come-- beyond the physical limitations of death. We too share in the crucifixion of Christ. We too are able to touch the scars. In the mystical act of Communion, we share in his blood and body-- the eternal scars of grace.In today’s Scripture reading from Revelation we hear John’s final remarks about what heaven is like. Verse 4 struck me as I read the passage: Jesus’ name will be on their foreheads. As a sign of belonging to the kingdom, Christ will put his indelible mark of belonging on all who are his. In a sense, the citizens of heaven will be sporting spiritual tattoos which identify them as the children of God. This morning I’d like us to think about what it might mean to be tattooed by Christ.
I can’t get away from the idea of Baptism as I reflect on this passage. John writes about flowing water, fruit-bearing trees, and marked followers of the Lamb. You could say that Baptism is our spiritual tattoo – our mark of inclusion into the covenant community of God. Congregational theology teaches that Baptism is the sign and symbol of inclusion in God’s grace and covenant with the church. Baptism is the identifying mark signifying faithfulness of God, the washing away of sin, rebirth, being sealed by the Spirit, adoption into the covenant family of the church and new life in Christ. No matter how old you were when it happened, no matter what church on denomination did it, we recognize that Christian Baptism is a once and for all sign that you belong to Jesus. No ifs, ands, or buts.
So, Christians are marked people. It seems to me, however, that our baptismal tattoos don’t always but seem to make a big impact on us. And people outside the church don’t care much about them, either.
A sociologist noticed that this is a time of great spiritual hunger in our country, perhaps greater than ever before. At the same time the church is having less impact on people’s perspectives than ever. A growing number of people have dismissed the Christian faith as outdated and irrelevant. The researcher concluded that our failure is not the content of our words, but our failure to practice those truths. His research shows that professing Christians think and behave no differently than anyone else. The same numbers of Christians and non-Christians give to the poor and volunteer their time. The same numbers of Christians and non-Christians donate money to non-profit organizations and visit Internet chat rooms. Equal numbers of believers and non-believers watch reality TV. Both groups discuss moral issues and see themselves as good people who treat others as they want to be treated. And I found this very interesting: Christians are more likely to spend their money in lottery tickets than are non-Christians (38% Christian, 10% other faiths, 12% atheist and agnostic). The point is, if some one was to put the average Christian and the average non-Christian side by side, one would not be able to tell them apart by their day-to-day behavior.
If we wear the mark of Christ, shouldn’t others should be able to see it -- not as a physical mark, but as a set of behaviors that distinguish us as followers of Christ? God has given us the promise of a life that is new and fresh – a life of ultimate joy, holiness and peace -- and for some reason, many of us hang back.
Perhaps this situation is most painfully illustrated when we look at our covenant children. These are the people who have been baptized by this congregation. We have been given the responsibility of raising them in the faith. We are painfully aware that many of the covenant children of our church don’t continue in a life of community worship and service to Christ. It can hurt when we baptize our children and nurture them in the faith community, and when it comes time for them to make their own faith decisions, some of them wander away, unconnected from any kind of formal faith involvement.
This not only happens in our congregation. In the big picture, we can’t escape the slow and steady demise of mainline churches like the UCC. In a 10-year span, the UCC lost close to 230,000 of its 1.25 million members (1994-2004). The United Church of Christ has experienced larger percentage declines in membership and average weekly worship attendance than the other mainline denominations. Members of our covenant community are leaving the denomination in record numbers. Baptisms are way down from levels a decade ago.
Many people leave the church and go nowhere. These are our covenant children. They carry the mark of Christ. And many of them just leave and sink so easily into the patterns of the world.
My message today is, “Fear not!” We are not left without the consolation of the promises of God. Based on my understanding of Scripture and my father’s convictions about tattoos, let me offer two reminders.
First, tattoos are permanent. John reminds us that in the end, the name of Christ will identify the faithful forever. Jesus’ spiritual mark, imprinted upon us in Baptism, is permanent. It might seem to fade at times. The picture might get blurry around the edges. But the mark is still there. You all belong to Jesus Christ! He will not let you go. The work started in Baptism will be completed. You may wander away. You may take a vacation from following God, but you are never forgotten. God doesn’t say, “Oh, she’s hopeless. I guess I’ll just try harder and do better on the next one. You win some and you lose some.” If you’ve been marked by Christ, you belong to Christ. God’s faithfulness needs no renewal. Human faithfulness needs repeated renewal, but God’s faithfulness is constant and sure.
Secondly, tattoos are a choice. Tattoos don’t just magically appear on your skin by having casual contact with another tattoo owner. You have to make some effort to get one. The covenant of Baptism is the same way. Inclusion in the covenant is not automatic. It is not hereditary. Now I understand that many of you didn’t make the choice in your Baptism. For most of you, your parents made that decision for you. But you have a choice of how you live it out. It doesn’t matter if you chose the mark or someone put it on you before you were too young to know. It doesn’t matter if you were sprinkled, dunked, or sprayed. What matters is how you make good on the promises.
Celebrated preacher Fred Craddock tells of an evening when he and his wife were eating dinner in a little restaurant in the Smokey Mountains. A strange and elderly man came over to their table and introduced himself. “I’m from around these parts,” he said. “My mother was not married, and the shame the community directed toward her was also directed toward me. Whenever I went to town with my mother, I could see people staring at us, making guesses about who my daddy was. At school, I ate lunch alone. In my early teens, I began attending a little church but always left before church was over, because I was afraid somebody would ask me what a boy like me was doing in church. One day, before I could escape, I felt a hand on my shoulder. It was the minister. He looked closely at my face. I knew that he too was trying to guess who my father was. ‘Well, boy, you are a child of. . .’ and then he paused. When he spoke again he said, ‘Boy, you are a child of God. I see a striking resemblance.’ Then he swatted me on the bottom and said, ‘Now, you go on and claim your inheritance.’ I left church that day a different person,” the now elderly man said. “In fact, that was the beginning of my life.”
“What’s your name?” Dr. Craddock asked. He answered, “Ben Hooper. My name is Ben Hooper.” Dr. Craddock said he vaguely recalled his father talking about how the people of Tennessee had twice elected a fellow who had been born out of wedlock as the governor of their state. His name was Ben Hooper.
When people make good on their Baptism, we are encouraged to identify ourselves with the work of Christ. We bear God’s resemblance. We proclaim good news. We find the lost. We feed the hungry. We bandage the wounds of the world. We offer hope to those who live in fear. We wear the mark of Christ. Do you do it in shame, or do you wear it proudly? Do you choose to live for Christ daily, or do you hope that if you don’t call attention to yourself, maybe you will be able to hide your mark from others?
Listen to the questions asked at our Baptisms. I want to ask them to you, and as I do, I want you to think about what your answer is:
• Trusting in the gracious mercy of God, do you turn from the ways of sin and renounce evil and its power in the world?
• Who is your Lo Savior?
• Will you be Christ’s faithful disciple, obeying his word and showing his love?
• Will you be a faithful member of the church, share in it’s worship and ministry through your prayers and gifts, your study and service, and so fulfill your calling to be a disciple of Jesus Christ?
We, the church, wear the forever mark of Christ. In other words:
We take responsibility for our own actions and allow others to do the same.
We celebrate God’s faithfulness.
We proudly wear Christ’s tattoo and let the world identify us by the quality of our caring and the exuberance of our love. We remember that Jesus’ love will not let us go. So, we don’t give up on ourselves or others.