The Baptismal Way of Humility

It was my homiletics professor—that is my preaching professor, homiletics simply meaning the art of writing and delivering sermons—who reminded us of 20th century theologian Karl Barth’s advice to preachers: When you preach, keep the newspaper in one hand and the Bible in the other. While many of us no longer have a daily paper delivered to our doorsteps, the sentiment remains. Keep attuned to current events as you prepare and reflect and listen to God’s Spirit for a word from scripture for the people you serve. Do not miss applying the Word of God to the stories of the day, be they local or much further afield, because it will help us make sense of how God interacts with us in the world.

On a day like today if I were to ignore Barth’s advice you all’d wonder what was wrong with me.  How could I, during a week when newspapers and news programs and social media have all focused on what took place at our nation’s Capitol Building, simply disregard all of that and push on as if nothing had happened? And how do I as one studied in homiletics not turn this into yet another take on the events without also looking at scripture as well to help us make meaning? To allow our faith to influence and guide our understanding of those tragic events that took place on the Feast of the Epiphany.

Today we remember Jesus’ baptism by John at the Jordan River. John the Baptizer, Jesus’ cousin, came out from the wilderness proclaiming a baptism of repentance and forgiveness of sins. People flocked to him, confessing those wrong things that they had done and wanting to start in a new direction. I most appreciate Frederick Buechner’s definition of sin as that which centrifugally pushes God and others away. We remain in the center and—chasing after our own prideful ambitions—push others and God away avoiding being in relationship with them. John preached a simple sermon of making things right with God through the power of baptism. By being washed in the water and cleansed from that which has corrupted us so as to begin anew. Rather than steering clear of him, the people flocked to him.

John also told them that he was simply the opening act. That one was coming after him that would baptize with much more than water. He was more powerful than John could ever be. At some point along the way—we aren’t told how long John had been baptizing there, whether it was days or weeks or months—at some point Jesus himself came to be baptized. For him of course this wasn’t for the forgiveness of sins—remember, Jesus never sinned—but as a sign of both his humility and to signify the beginning of his ministry. As he comes up out of the water, Mark writes, a dove descended on him and a voice was heard proclaiming, “You are my beloved Son, with you I am well pleased.”

We won’t hear what happens immediately following this story until the First Sunday of Lent—Jesus is led by the Spirit to be tempted in the wilderness. Nor does our Lectionary ever have us read a very telling episode about John the Baptist and Jesus from the gospel of John following all this. In that scene, after his time of temptation in the wilderness, Jesus himself begins baptizing people. This rankles John’s followers some, and they want to get his take. “Rabbi,” they say to John, “he who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you bore witness—look, he is baptizing, and all are going to him.” John gently reminds them that he told them that he wasn’t the Messiah, rather he was the one sent before him. Then he tells them quite simply, “He must increase, and I must decrease.” With those seven words, John lays out for us what it means to follow Jesus. His is the way of humility and focusing on others. Our baptism into the life of Jesus reflects our own promise and desire to live in that way too. To have Jesus increase while our own egos take a back seat.

We are reminded of this each time we have a baptism here, and when we renew our baptismal covenant. In it, after stating the core beliefs of the Church, we promise that we will live through word and deed the Good News of Jesus. We proclaim that we will strive for justice and peace and respect the dignity of each person. And we commit to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves. In each of these promises, we desire to put others ahead of ourselves, to be in relationship with them and God. To have our own egos decrease as we lift up others.

Which is in turn the foundation of a thriving society. It was Mahatma Gandhi who is believed to have said, “The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members.” What we saw on Wednesday with the storming of the Capitol Building was the desire of a group of Americans to keep a man in power who simply lost a free and fair election. Reports suggest some among them sought to capture and lynch members of congress and the Vice President because they were certifying the election results that they did not like. Members of the rioting mob were photographed wearing or carrying symbols of oppression: a shirt referring to death camps, another with an acronym that stands for 6 Million Wasn’t Enough invoking the Holocaust, and of course, the Confederate Flag. A gallows was created on the grounds, as men with zip tie style handcuffs made their way into the depths of the Capitol Building looking for people to murder. All for a man who could not humbly accept the will of the voters of our democracy. This is not the way of Jesus.

More so, a number of people have commented on the striking difference in the actions of law enforcement against this group largely made up of white individuals compared to other gatherings primarily consisting of people of color. Much more aggression takes place in those settings. Racism and white privilege were on full display.

We as faithful followers of Jesus must denounce evil and those who seek to harm others, especially the most vulnerable among us. These actions are anti-Christ, and do not in any way reflect the gospel of Jesus.

Further, those who incited this riot, from our President to other members of Congress and those in the media, seek only their own power and control. They do not follow that way of Christ. One of the questions asked of those about to baptized and their sponsors at our baptismal liturgy is this: “Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?” “I renounce them,” comes the reply. While I would not claim that the individuals who participated in these egregious acts are the full embodiment of evil—I would argue none of us is ever pure evil or pure good—I do believe that they have been corrupted by the evil powers of greed, oppression, and hate, exhibiting a total disregard of human life and human decency. We should not hesitate to say this, and urge for their acknowledgement of this and for them to seek forgiveness with others and with God. As my seminary professor, Miroslav Volf, who writes extensively on forgiveness and reconciliation, put it, there can be no healing without true forgiveness. He wrote, “On [the] forgiver’s part, forgiveness entails condemnation of the wrong [being] forgiven; and for its completion, forgiveness requires repentance and restitution on the part of the one being forgiven.” There cannot be any form of moving forward toward healing if wrongs are not both condemned and acknowledged, and only then can reconciliation be found.

What then is our call? How do we respond?

First, I believe we must look in our own hearts and acknowledge the ways we have put our own egos above the needs of others. It is so much easier to call out this sin in other people without looking at our own interior lives. This is especially true when it comes to the privilege of those of us who are white. Racism exists in this country in far greater ways than we imagine. Subtle micro aggressions are felt by people of color and indigenous people every day. More acute aggressions happen regularly as well. The past year we’ve seen this more and more, and it was on full display on Wednesday. We must work to end this stain in our nation and world.

Second, we must denounce violence in all its forms no matter where it comes from. We are to be those who respect the dignity of every human being, full stop. Those who are more conservative or more progressive that harm others in any way are antithetical to the way of Christ. Each person on this planet is beloved by God, and we must expect that to be lived out in others—and especially our leaders—as well as in our own lives.

Third, we must continue to work for a just and peaceful world. We will not all agree on how we achieve this—some will want to create more jobs, others will seek to raise taxes on the wealthy, still others will seek this goal outside of politics entirely—but the aim for us and for our nation should be to create a world where all people can live in peace without regard to their “race, wealth, color or station” as our founder put it in the midst of the Civil War. We do this by befriending and listening to those who are different from us. 

Finally, we are called to pray. Jesus’ first action after his baptism was to fast and pray in the desert. Friends, our nation is divided, and broken. We are hurting. We are to ask for God’s help, and then listen to how we can respond. The way of Jesus is to bring solace and care. To be a balm for those who need it, and to stand with those who are poor, marginalized, and oppressed. That is the call for us who are baptized. To pray and then act for justice and peace.

As I said in my email on Thursday, I wish we could be physically present with one another on this day. To kneel beside one another—as people from different backgrounds and understandings, those who vote more conservatively and more progressively—and to find consolation by receiving the body and blood of Jesus. I can say with certainty, however, that even though we are not physically present at the table, Christ remains with us. That is both the promise given at Christmas, and also the reality of this season of the Epiphany. A light has broken into this world, and we all are drawn to that light.

May we know that deep consolation on this day, and may we fully live as those committed to others for their peace, justice, and well being. We are deeply beloved by God, and called to share that message in our world. Amen.

Photo Credit: Lawrence OP Flickr via Compfight cc

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