First Sunday after the Epiphany – The Baptism of our Lord – Mark 1:4-11, Acts 19:1-7
Last week, some of you may remember, I ended my sermon by asking this question: Will we, in 2021, be different from and better than how we were in 2020?
There’s not much about the first ten days of 2021 that suggests we will. I think it’s still an open question and, I hope, still a possibility. But after the events of last Wednesday and the assault on our nation’s capitol I’m just not so sure we will be.
I know the usual responses. “That’s not who America is. We’re better than that.” “That’s not how I believe and I do not support that kind of behavior.” “I wasn’t there. I didn’t do that.” “It was the work of an extremist element or a fringe group.” “It’s the fault of Republican leaders.” “It’s the fault of Democratic leaders.” “That doesn’t represent me or my politics.”
I know the usual responses because I’ve heard them over and over through the years. I suspect you have too. I know the usual responses because I’ve sometimes said them. Maybe you have too.
I truly hope that’s not who you and I are, that we don’t participate in or support that kind of behavior, and that it doesn’t represent us or what we believe. But denial, distancing, and blaming others are not enough. That does not make us different from or better than how we were before.
As I reflect on the events of last Wednesday I keep going back to words from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, words that I’ve quoted to you before:
“Few are guilty, but all are responsible.”1
“All are responsible.” That includes you and me.
Every time something like this past Wednesday happens we trot out the usual responses and say our prayers, but nothing changes. Change will begin only when we take responsibility for actually being different from and better than how we were before. And that’s about our baptism. Through it “we are reborn by the Holy Spirit” and “raised to the new life of grace.”2
Baptism is a declaration and reminder that we already are beloved sons and daughters of God. It’s not meant to change God’s mind about us. It’s meant to change our minds about ourselves and one another. It’s more than a day in our life. It’s to be the way of our life. It means letting the waters that were poured over us on a particular day flow through us every day – the waters of love, compassion, justice, forgiveness, and healing. Baptism is a call, awaiting our response. It’s an open door to a new life different from and better than the old one.
What does that look like and mean for your life today? What is your baptismal responsibility after the events of this past Wednesday?
I hope you know that I am asking about more than only what happened this past Wednesday. That day is, however, a backdrop to everything I am saying. And so are a hundred other days just like it. In a sermon about baptism, how can they not be?
- How can we close our eyes and ears to the sights and sounds of violence and injustice anywhere when we, in our baptismal vows3, have promised to “strive for justice and peace among all people?”
- How can we say we have no need of or concern for certain people or groups when we have promised to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving [our] neighbor as [ourselves]?”
- How can we talk about and treat one another as we have been when we have promised to “respect the dignity of every human being?”
- How can we not let the gospel inform our political beliefs and actions when we have promised to “proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?”
- How can we abdicate our responsibility to God, one another, and our nation, when we have promised to “persevere in resisting evil, and whenever [we] fall into sin, [to] repent and return to the Lord?”
There’s only one answer to those questions. We can’t and we shouldn’t. And if we are, maybe we need to ask ourselves the question St. Paul asks in today’s epistle (Acts 19:1-7): “Into what then were you baptized?” Because whatever it was or is, it’s not a baptism “in the name of the Lord Jesus.” It’s in the name of someone or something else.
Here’s the thing, Paul was asking that question of disciples, believers, people who followed Jesus and claimed him as their teacher and the Lord of their life. That highlights for me three things:
- How easily and quickly our baptismal waters can dry up;
- How tempting it is to immerse and wash ourselves in someone or something other than “the way, and the truth, and the life” of Jesus; and
- How necessary it is to return to, tend, and renew the waters of new life.
What does that look like and mean for your life today? What is your baptismal responsibility after the events of this past Wednesday? “Into what then were you baptized?”
In just a few minutes we will renew our baptismal vows and I hope we will let those questions and the promises we make wash over us. I hope we will hear them call us to new life and more life, for ourselves, one another, and our country. And I hope we will answer that call.
Will we, in 2021, be different from and better than how we were in 2020? I really don’t know. But I now believe there is a prior question to be answered: Do we, in 2021, want to be different from and better than how we were in 2020?
1. Abraham J. Heschel, The Prophets (NY: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2001), 19.
2. Book of Common Prayer, 306-308.
3. Ibid., 304-305.
Peace and reconciliation committees in every town might help. We have a hard time not feeling righteous anger, but they thought they were patriots, doing what the president they revere asked them to do. They did not think of themselves as domestic terrorists. We have to undo the language of ostracism, and begin to recognize how to build inclusion into our speech. We have to stop the violence. The best thing about Wednesday is that the police were not expecting violence, even if that was almost criminally naive. Otherwise it could have been a massacre, which would be even harder for us to soften our hearts around. And the legislators who used the law in such a self-serving and profane way to try to take power for themselves politically at the expense of the country must be removed from office. Self-serving is NOT what we want in our public servants.
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Thank you Martina. I also think if we want to stop the violence around it must begin by stopping the violence within us – the violence in our hearts, thoughts, words, and actions.
Peace be with you,
I strive daily to be the better person but often fail due to the politics that threaten us and our civil liberties , including the church. I also find myself striking back at people that say they are Christians yet proclaim an extreme hatred for our president. How can someone carry so much hate for a person they only know through a media they watch or listen to. Don
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I sure understand the struggle you identify. I think those difficult circumstances are the places in which our baptismal vows ask us to look at ourselves and find a deeper center from which to respond.
God’s peace be with you,
Thank you for sharing this word – I was particularly struck by your comment in the context of social attitudes and actions: “Baptism is a call, awaiting our response”, as well as the idea of “baptismal responsibility”. This weekend I have also been reflecting on the idea of “responding” to our baptism https://buildingbiblicalbridges.home.blog/2021/01/09/isaiah-55-baptism-and-the-word-not-returning-to-the-lord-empty/
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Andrew, while baptism is often thought of as a relationship or something happening between God and the baptized person I think it is also about what a relationship and what is happening between people (the baptismal call and responsibility). One is on a vertical axis and the other on a horizontal axis. Baptism is at that intersection of the two and has a cruciform shape.
God’s peace be with you,