Chaos, Sin, the Deep, the Cyclist and the Bishop

Photo Credit: X2N via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: X2N via Compfight cc

1st Sunday after the Epiphany, The Baptism of Jesus — Based on Genesis 1:1-5

The beauty of space captivates me.  Anytime a news story about the vast expanse of interstellar space appears online, I’m hooked.  Like the one this week about the double star Eta Carinae which is hidden behind a dust nebula that the pair created.  What’s fascinating for scientists is that bright flares have been sent out by these stars which may signal a change in their stellar winds and ultimately lead to a supernova.  This double star is 7,500 light years away, so we’re safe on earth but it will be a tremendous light show if it happens in our lifetime.

Equally as fascinating to me is this simple truth: we know more about space than we do about the ocean depths.  NOAA—the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration—claims that as of right now we’ve only explored 5% of the waters in the world’s oceans.  Much of the deep waters of the sea are deep enough to stack the Washington Monument on itself 20 times over—some 13,000+ in depth.  The deepest part of the Pacific Ocean is measured to be 36,200 feet below the surface of the water.  That’s over a mile higher than Mt. Everest if it were turned upside down.  The amount of pressure on your body there would equal what you’d feel if you were holding up 5 jumbo jets by yourself.

And so when the beginning of Genesis declares that the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, it is not hard to imagine the chaos churning underneath when a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.  In the beginning when God created something of the earth existed, but complete and utter turmoil ruled.  So God’s first acts within our world bring redemption.  God’s ordering of the tumult ushers in new life as the Spirit of God broods over the deep.

This work of God’s Spirit is remembered in the Methodist prayer used when consecrating the waters of baptism: “Eternal Father: When nothing existed but chaos, you swept across the dark waters and brought forth light.  In the days of Noah you saved those on the ark through water. After the flood you set in the clouds a rainbow.  When you saw your people as slaves in Egypt, you led them to freedom through the sea.  Their children you brought through the Jordan to the land which you promised.  In the fullness of time you sent Jesus, nurtured in the water of a womb. He was baptized by John and anointed by your Spirit. He called his disciples to share in the baptism of his death and resurrection and to make disciples of all nations.”  The water of baptism brings redemption to us, God brings order to the chaos churning from the work of sin in our lives in the deepest parts of our souls.  God’s Spirit, through the water of baptism, sweeps over us bringing order.

I am not surprised that John’s baptism included a confession of sins.  As most of us know, confession, while difficult, is good for the soul.  When we do something that is destructive to us or our relationships, guilt can pile on—like the force of 5 jumbo jets pressing down on us—making us miserable.  Pandemonium can reign, one bad decision leading to another.  Through all of this, as Frederick Buechner puts it, the force of sin pushes others away centrifugally, we become more and more isolated in the mess of despair.

Two days after Christmas a bicyclist in Baltimore riding in his designated lane, Thomas Palermo, got hit from behind by a driver, who then panicked and fled the scene.  Thomas, a 41 year old father of two, flipped off his bike crashing into the windshield.  He sustained life threatening injuries and succumbed to them after being transported to the hospital.  The driver of the vehicle, according to reports, came back to the scene twice, 20 minutes later which led her to flee again, and then 45 minutes later when she stayed to accept responsibility.  The only reason I know anything about this story is because the driver happened to be the recently consecrated Suffragan, or Assisting, Bishop in the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland.  Bishop Heather Cook told officials she was in shock and therefore left the scene; her vehicle sustained such significant damage that it wasn’t as if she didn’t know she had been involved in an accident.

In the days immediately following, reports came out about an incident in 2010 where then as a priest Cook had received a DUI.  While much speculation took place about this in conjunction with this recent tragedy, it wasn’t until Friday of this week that we learned that Bishop Cook had indeed been driving drunk when she hit Thomas—registering nearly 3 times the legal limit on tests—and had been texting as well.  We’ll never know if Heather had stopped and contacted authorities whether Thomas might have survived.  We only know that she didn’t, and her actions did not reflect the expectations many of us have on our clergy to be the presence of Christ in times of crisis.  Bishop Cook was immediately put on administrative leave, and presentment charges leading to her dismissal as a cleric have been filed with the Presiding Bishop’s office.  Today she’s in a jail cell awaiting the process of justice in the courts. 

While there is much I could say about this, I only want to say two things regarding this, echoing our own bishop here in Massachusetts who responded to a question about this earlier this week.  First, the Diocese of Maryland put out a statement early on regarding Cook’s previous DUI.  In it they told us that the bishop’s search committee had learned about this earlier DUI, but felt certain that Cook was fit to serve.  They wrote: “One of the core values of the Christian faith is forgiveness. We cannot preach forgiveness without practicing forgiveness and offering people opportunity for redemption.”  While I agree wholeheartedly—I couldn’t serve as a priest if this weren’t true—this statement released a few days after the incident didn’t help given that a man lost his life, and it appeared as if there was already a call to offer forgiveness to Bishop Cook again.  While forgiveness and second chances do happen, the reality of accountability and significant repercussions do not instantly melt away.

Secondly, as someone who is descended from a line of alcoholics—three out of four grandparents, and both of my parents for parts of their lives—I can only say, “There but for the grace of God, go I.”  While never drunk—my family’s history is too much of a painful thing for me to give in to the siren call of excessive alcohol consumption—I’ve certainly been distracted while driving by electronics or fiddling with the radio.  I will not cast stones at Bishop Cook, but I will call for accountability and for the improvement of the  process we use in selecting clergy and bishops.

But even in the midst of that, most importantly I am struck by the tragic loss of Thomas Palermo, a man just a couple of years younger than me who had many joys in his life yet to experience, especially with his wife of seven years, Rachel, and their children Sadie who is 6 and Sam who is 4.  I am struck by the ever present real consequences of sin and the damage it inflicts on so many.  I hope you will join me in remembering with your prayers all those whose lives are in ruins due to this situation.

And while I certainly pray that none of us experience such things, I know all too well the way sin brings tragedies in other ways.  I’ve seen how anger clouds the vision of people who are unable to see the image of Christ in another person and they seek to destroy them.  I’ve watched as a wandering eye has led to the destruction of the sacred trust in a marriage.  I’ve helped others pick up too many pieces of shattered bits from their lives due either to their own indiscretions or those of loved ones.  Sin leaves chaos in its wake, and it is no respecter of persons.

But just as the Spirit of God hovered over the deep at the beginning of time, so God’s Spirit longs to sweep across the deep within us bringing order to our chaos.  We are, all of us, deeply loved by God no matter the depth of the disease within us.  God wants nothing more than to lead us on the journey to fullness of life, longing for us to come to our senses and recognize the need we each have for God’s ordering of our lives.  There may very well be consequences to our past actions that we must face and seek to make ammends, but new life can only begin in this way.

Today as we reaffirm our baptismal covenant, may we each recognize how stunning it is to be loved by this God who created both space and the ocean depths, who brought about life in our primordial history, and who longs for all of us to be freed from sin’s snare.  May we remember Thomas and his family and Heather and her’s too, along with those whose lives have been damaged by the sin in our hearts.  And may we find renewal as God’s Spirit moves in us.  Amen.

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Very insightful Phil. Thank you.