January 14, 2018: May God’s words alone be spoken, may God’s words alone be heard. Amen.
This Sunday, we are celebrating the baptism of our Lord Jesus Christ. Yes, a week later, because we transferred the Feast of the Epiphany to last Sunday, and moved this to today. Why didn’t we just skip over it and use today’s text (which, by the way, we will skip next week to get us back on track)? Because the baptism of Jesus tells us so very much about him, but most especially – about us – who we are, and what our baptism means for us, and for the world. It is a big event.
Now, there is some other big event coming right around the corner. Of course, I would like to think that you all immediately thought about next week’s Annual Meeting of the Parish – right, of course you did. But maybe just a few of you thought of that other big event… the Super Bowl. Yes, that yearly tribute to Madison Avenue – oh, and there is also a football game that is played too.
Big sports events and advertising seem to go together like pancakes and maple syrup. “Flip on the [TV] during the NFL [divisional] football games this weekend and you’re likely to see a bunch of commercials touting a variety of next-generation SUVs –[those truck/car hybrids that everyone drives these days]. Each ad looks about the same — “attractive people” load up their oversized 4×4 to head out over some terrain negotiable only by Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep, throwing up dirt and gravel all the way. The automotive action is usually followed by an image of the same folks setting up camp, or jumping into a kayak, or dangling off a rock – [with nary a hair on their head out of place]. Looks like fun — looks being the operative word here.
The truth is that only about 5 percent of SUVs are ever taken off-road, which means that you’re more likely to see a Range Rover at Starbucks, for example, than anywhere near a mountain lake. For most SUV owners, the look and the possibility of one day actually locking in the four-wheel drive are worth the extra bucks in the purchase price.[While many SUVs are now coming in more “green” versions with higher miles per gallon, there are still some that fly in the face of common sense given our current environmental crises. [And so,] one can understand why some SUV owners feel they need to explain themselves – [I mean,] why have four-wheel drive, [with the shameful gas mileage it gets] if the only dirt those four wheels will ever touch is the fringe of the kids’ soccer field?
But wait! Thanks to a new product, SUV owners don’t need to put up with either the guilt or the critics. With “Sprayonmud” [I did you not] they can create the illusion that their SUV has, on more than one occasion, been baptized in mountain mud. For a mere $14.50 per quart-sized bottle you can buy actual mud to spray on your vehicle in order to make it look as though you’ve just bumped back from a wild ride in the wilderness when, in fact, you’ve been merely hiking through the aisles at Costco…
Now, we can assume that anyone willing to shell out [big bucks] to gas up a pricey vehicle whose mileage is measured in single digits will have no problem paying for mud. Real off-roaders, though, know that the best mud is free and generally available. Their vehicles wear that mud as a badge of honor, marking them as adventurers. Fake-mudders mark themselves as, well, fakers. To be real you [have to get your truck dirty].” The same can be true of our lives as disciples of Jesus Christ – a life that begins in baptism.
The story we heard this morning is one we all know, right? Jesus goes to the river Jordan, where his cousin John is baptizing his followers – preparing them for the One who was to come. Jesus, the One John was preparing the way for, came to the river to be baptized himself. As he rises out of the river, the sky is torn open, and the Holy Spirit descends on him in the form of a dove. The voice of God proclaims Jesus to be God’s beloved child.
Now, as you know already, we are in the season of Epiphany – a time when we are shown who Jesus is… who we are. And so this baptism of Jesus raises an important question about what this event means – for Jesus, for us – or put another way, as St. Paul, in the passage from Acts that we heard today asked… “Into what then were you baptized?”
And the answer then comes from the verses we did not hear today, but follow these – that immediately after he was baptized, Jesus went to the wilderness to prepare – mentally, spiritually, perhaps even physically…then, without hesitation – he began the life he was called to live and started his ministry. He got to work – the real work of his life – and it wasn’t going to be easy and tidy. We know it was anything but that for him and for those who followed him.
You see, baptism isn’t this clean-you-up-so-you-can-be-all-shiny type of thing – not for Jesus, and not for us. Baptism is an anointing by the Holy Spirit, by God, to get not just our hands dirty – but every bit of ourselves messy. Why? Because life, an authentic life in Christ, is messy, and complicated, and sometimes even dangerous. Maybe there is some symbolism in the river Jordan being as muddy (and now polluted) as it is. While the water in our font is clear, the effect of baptism isn’t for us to live a clean, tidy life, hearing the gospel, but not living it. That’s about as real as those SUV drivers pulling up to the local city bistro with fake mud sprayed on their car and clean boots from the latest LL Bean catalog. What is the point? It is meaningless, and inauthentic.
What’s the point in baptism, if we do nothing with the gospel – that radical, life changing, table over turning, expectation exploding good news? There is no point in it – without living it.
Right now, God needs us to rise out from our baptismal waters, and anointed by the Holy Spirit, and spiritually prepared here, to get to work, because the tide of hatred and oppression is rising up threatening to drown us all in its wake. It seems lately that on any day ending in a Y, the news resounds with a cesspool of unimaginable inhumanity, which becomes a clarion call to those who follow Christ. Like many of you perhaps, I had a long day Thursday – worshipping with the children of our nursery school, meetings, and several pastoral visits. When I finally arrived home late that night – exhausted emotionally and physically – I stupidly turned on the TV news and was horrified to hear our President had made heinous comments that by now shouldn’t surprise us coming from his lips, having heard and experienced his racist and misogynistic behavior before, but still it was shocking to hear. Now, I am going to say a word that shouldn’t be said from the pulpit, but I do not want to water down the horrible statement our President made, or tidy it up to make it presentable, as our TV networks are required to do by the FCC. We need to hear it, and so I beg your indulgence this time – because as I said before – life is messy and our faith, like Jesus, will need to walk right into the dirt – right into the darkness, and not shy away from it. Our President referred to Haiti, El Salvador, and some African nations as “shithole countries”? Unimaginable. But, he went a step further – he added that we should get the Haitians out, and he’d rather see more immigrants from countries like Norway.
You don’t have to be a genius in geography to get the message – browns & blacks bad, whites good. I have said this before, and I will say it again, this isn’t about Republicans or Democrats. I have worked in Washington DC with both parties, and there are no perfect people on either side. This is NOT a political issue folks – this is a moral one!
You know, they say that the President has the largest bully pulpit. Well, I have a pulpit too, and I am going to use it. And you know what? You have one too. You – all of you can stand up and preach the gospel, and our pulpits aren’t for bullying, but for preaching love, peace, justice, and hope – and then following up our witness by our actions in the world.
Folks, it is time to step into our pulpits and out in the street, because this, my friends, is the latest in those pivotal moments when we must choose. Where we must take a stand. Where it is unacceptable to just turn the TV off and hide. Where statements like “regrettable” or “I don’t think that way,” are considered enough. These are blatantly racist comments coming out of the leader of our country. Words matter. Actions matter too.
Silence now makes us complicit, and it is deadly to us all. Silence in the face of oppression, in the face of marginalization – makes our life in Christ one of cheap grace. Silence is not an option, when Christ is being crucified again in the marginalized. No person, or country, can ever be considered with such hatred, bigotry, and disregard as we have witnessed of late. This is not who we are as a nation, and most especially who Jesus called us to be. It is even more appalling that this all comes on the days before we celebrate the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Dr. King is often quoted as having said “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” But the truth is that this is a paraphrasing of something that is even more powerful. What he actually said was this:
“Deep down in our non-violent creed is the conviction there are some things so dear, some things so precious, some things so eternally true, that they’re worth dying for. And if a man happens to be 36-years-old, as I happen to be, some great truth stands before the door of his life–some great opportunity to stand up for that which is right.
“A man might be afraid his home will get bombed, or he’s afraid that he will lose his job, or he’s afraid that he will get shot, or beat down by state troopers, and he may go on and live until he’s 80. He’s just as dead at 36 as he would be at 80. The cessation of breathing in his life is merely the belated announcement of an earlier death of the spirit… A man dies when he refuses to stand up for that which is right. A man dies when he refuses to stand up for justice. A man dies when he refuses to take a stand for that which is true.”
Dr. King lived and preached the gospel of Jesus Christ, and he was killed for it. He would likely say that he lived longer because of it, as he would have killed his soul to do nothing at all. This is true for us all.
Our faith dies whenever we stand silent.
Our baptism is rendered meaningless whenever we do not act.
Our world becomes darker whenever we refuse to be the light of Christ.
As was made clear in the passage from Genesis today – darkness may always be here, but it is light that God brought into being. God’s light. Christ’s light. Our light.
We can, and we must, act, speak, and be that light now, because we too have been anointed with the Holy Spirit in no less a way than Jesus. In baptism, we died to a life that not only does not walk in love, but that remains silent in the face of hate. When we stand idly by in silence when others of our brothers and sisters around the world are marginalized and oppressed, we deny who we are as baptized members of Christ’s body. We become Peter outside in the courtyard denying him, turning from the cross of the crucified to hide in the shadows.
To be sure, it isn’t easy stuff – this baptism – this life. It wasn’t for Jesus, and it won’t be for us. It requires courage. Courage we have, and sometimes do not even realize it. Courage that requires a choice to be made if we are to live authentically a life of any meaning. Courage we get in Christ.
Dr. King put it this way: “Courage is an inner resolution to go forward despite obstacles; Cowardice is submissive surrender to circumstances.
Courage breeds creativity; Cowardice represses fear and is mastered by it.
Cowardice asks the question, is it safe? Expediency asks the question, is it politic? Vanity asks the question, is it popular? But conscience asks the question, is it right? And there comes a time when we must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but one must take it because it is right.”
Now perhaps you are thinking, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a powerful and talented prophet. That is very true. But often we then begin to think – I am not he. I can’t make the kind of difference he did. What can one person – me – what can I possibly do?
Bishop Raymond Hunthausen had an answer to that. He was the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Seattle, the last living person to have participated in the Second Vatican Council, and his life is a gospel witness of its own, but I want to share with you a story he once told that speaks to what one person is capable of doing. The story he told is this:
“Tell me the weight of a snowflake,” a coal mouse bird asked a wild dove. “The weight of a snowflake,” answered the dove, “is nothing more than nothing.” “In that case I must tell you a marvelous story” said the coal mouse. “I sat on the branch of a fir, close to its trunk, when it began to snow — not heavily, not in a giant blizzard — no, just like in a dream without any violence. Since I didn’t have anything better to do, I counted the snowflakes settling on the twigs and needles of my branch. Their number was exactly 3,741,952. Then the next snowflake dropped on the branch — “nothing-more-than-nothing,” as you say — and the branch broke off.”
Having said that, the coal mouse bird flew away. The dove, since Noah’s time an authority on such matters, thought about the story for awhile, and finally said to herself: “Perhaps there is only one person’s voice lacking for peace to come about in this world.”
“Perhaps there is only one person’s voice lacking for peace to come about in this world.” Dr. King, I suspect, would agree with that wholeheartedly, for he lived this truth his whole life. It’s ironic then I think, given this story the bishop told, that there is, among supporters of this president, a slur that is sometimes tossed at those who would stand against the bigotry, hatred, and violence that he has inspired – they call them snowflakes. Snowflakes. Obviously they never heard this story, have they. Well, I for one will proudly claim my snowflake status, and I pray you all do too, because together we snowflakes can break a few branches of our own.
Together we can break the branch of injustice.
Together we can break the branch of violence.
Together we can tear down the whole damn tree of hatred.
And in its place, in its place I promise you, we will plant the roots of love, peace, generosity, and respect, that will branch out to feed this hungry and thirsty world for generations to come.
We can. We must.
For if we do not, we are nothing more than Christians with no real mud splattered over us from our work in the world.
If we do not, we are dead already, and so is our faith.
For the audio from the 10:30am service, click here:
 —Keith Wagner, St. Paul’s United Church of Christ, Sidney, Ohio, bright.net/~coth/heavenly.htm. Retrieved August 10, 2005.
Rev. Diana L. Wilcox
Christ Church in Bloomfield & Glen Ridge
January 14, 2018
Second Sunday After the Epiphany
Baptism of our Lord (Transferred)
1st Reading – Genesis 1:1-5
2nd Reading – Acts 19:1-7
Gospel – Mark 1:4-11