Genesis 1:1-5; Psalms 29; Acts 19:1-7; Mark 1:4-11 January 10, 2021 – The Baptism of the Lord
Even Jesus came to be baptized. John the Baptist wasn’t sure he could add anything to the gift that God had sent into the world, “You should baptize me,” he said in Matthew’s account, but Jesus insisted that it be done that “all righteousness can be fulfilled.”
So it was done…and so it is today …right?
When we are baptized, we once again pass through the waters, as Israel did at the Red Sea as it was escaping from Pharaoh…from bondage to freedom… as Israel did when it crossed the Jordan from the wilderness to the Promised Land …as we all did when we passed through our mothers’ womb… from the all-embracing life…into this life.
The waters of baptism are a symbol of chaos. It is always changing in the river and changing the river…but it is always the same. You cannot step into the same river twice, they say, but our quest…when we do so…is to arrive on the other side.
We are changed by the river and we change the river as we cross. What was once a barrier has become a passage wat…to be explored…again and again.
We have crossed a river as a people this week. Something that was once unthinkable has become another chapter in the American story. January 6, 2021…the day of the Christian Epiphany…will join September 11, 2001, November 22, 1963, December 7, 1941 and July 4, 1776 as a date when our understanding of our place in the world…if not our world…changed.
All of those other dates brought us together. It remains to be seen what the outcome will be this time…we were on both sides of the change this time… with all of us claiming we were acting as Americans who were more loyal than those on the other side.
How do we sort this out? How do we all come to a common understanding of an event that we all witnessed together? We saw the same thing, but we saw it differently.
Our differences began with where we were brought up, who our friends and how we have come to look at the world. They have been deepened by a wealth of media outlets who want to appeal to different people and want to see different people running our country a different way…and most of all…want us to watch their channel.
We have always been that way and the many different ways we see things are as old as the Bible. Once again referring to the Baptism of the Lord as it is related in Matthew, the people come to John in great numbers.
He is a prophet and he wears a prophet’s simple garment, eats a prophet’s simple diet. He stands apart from the comforts everyone seeks… and gives himself to a simple message …as a simple message…from God.
He speaks to a nation that has been waiting for its deliverance…again… after centuries of oppression by foreign powers. He does not call them to violence. On the contrary, he calls them to repentance.
The Pharisees and Sadducees wear finer clothes, eat a richer diet and counsel the people to be orderly so the Romans do not take away the few freedoms they have left. They are rich. They must be right.
So they think. So many of the people think. If they think something else, they will be punished…as Jesus would one day be punished.
Two different points of view emerge from earnestly faithful people who share the same history…that points in completely different directions. History hasn’t changed that much. Each verse comes out different, but they rhyme, so to speak.
I went to law school in Washington, D.C. and my first year in law school I went back east with enough money to pay tuition, buy my books and live for two months.
Through a series of fortunate coincidences, I got a job as, perhaps, the last person who got a patronage appointment to the U.S. Capitol Police force. One day I was a civilian, and the next I had a badge and a gun and I was guarding the Senate office buildings from 11:00 at night to 7:00 in the morning.
Back then, we were such a secure and trusting people…even in the upheaval of the Vietnam era…that you could park your car…if you had a car…ten feet from the East front steps of the Capitol and walk in. No checkpoint. You are welcome.
On Wednesday, those were the same steps where you saw a mob…there is no better…no other…word for them …breach Capitol security and swarm into a priceless work of architecture, history and art.
Since 9/11, you had to go through checkpoints to get into the building and you had to be on a guided tour of no more than 8 people…or so it was the last time I did the tour with some of my Course of Study classmates.
They were awed to be in our citadel of freedom…our temple of liberty. It must have been like that…only maybe more so…for the people of Israel to walk into their Temple in Jerusalem.
They have cleaned the Capitol up since then. Places where you now see Members of Congress being interviewed on television was used as a place to put desks and file cabinets and bookshelves that one office or another no longer wanted.
They have scrubbed the marble exterior and shined the Minton tile floors so they gleam like sunshine on a clear lake on a summer’s day. Those tiles were laid in the Senate side of the Capitol in 1859. They are there now. May they be there for generations and generations to come.
It is far more magnificent today than it was when I did my rounds and got written up as a minor hero for finding a coffee pot that had been left on and might have started a fire in Senator Humphrey’s office.
My greatest fear in all of this is that the citadel is becoming a bunker.
Things are much better now, but they are also a lot worse. We have so much more now, but individuals today have the power to go on a rampage with automatic rifles or fly a jetliner into a tall building.
We have come a long way, but where has it gotten us? Are we happier? Do we get along better? Are we any more optimistic about our future together?
I have to say No, because…these days …we have also claimed the right to decide what is true and what is not…and we do it without talking to our friends and neighbors. We don’t need their opinion. We are a power unto ourselves.
We claim his power while we watch what one news service or the other tell us what the world is like. Like the flavors of milkshakes, we no longer have to settle for vanilla or chocolate…we can choose from 50 different flavors.
We have more power. Or maybe that power has us.
No wonder we are finding it harder to arrive at agreement. We have so many choices and we don’t talk through the choices with real human beings. We are becoming a nation of followers, not a nation of individuals showing the world that The People…not the monetized or militarized media…are the purest expression of righteousness …and the surest foundation of community.
We don’t have time…or we don’t take the time…to work through the options with our neighbors. We do what FOX or CNN or MSNBC tell us to do.
And it is even more splintered than that. We have internet outlets that each have their own view of the Good Life and how you will get there…what you have to believe to get there.
You and I are missing out on all the conversations that those who assaulted the Capitol and killed a Capitol Police officer last Wednesday are having with each other. They are on tick-tock or twitter or nick-nack…but it has been a long time since they have watched the 5:00 news on CBS or NBC.
They have left the community conversation we all used to have, and want the world to reshape the world in the image of the host of their favorite website…which you and I have never seen.
We have become as splintered as the people who built the tower of Babel.
I once shared this theory with a friend of mine and he readily agreed with me …then told me which website I should go to if I wanted to get the real truth. I didn’t tell him, but it appeared to me that he was encouraging me to go deeper into the swamp, not farther onto the Great Plains bathed in sunlight.
My last job in D.C. was working on the Senate Floor in the Senate Democratic Cloakroom during the Watergate summer of 1974. The only question then was “What did the President know and when did he know it?”
Then, if he knew early on and was in on a minor burglary, we implicitly assumed that he would have to resign and leave office.
When it became clear that he knew everything and he had known it from the outset, Barry Goldwater, the archconservative that was famous for saying, “Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice. Moderation in pursuit of justice is no virtue,” got in his Ford Mustang with an aviator’s instrument panel, drove down to the White House and told the President of the United States to clean out his desk and leave town.
Today, we know what the President knew. We know he invited the mob to town on the day the Congress would be certifying the Electoral College votes. We know that he talked to those people just before the Congress would be debating whether to accept the results or not.
We know that he then the mob up to Capitol Hill to arrive just in time to disrupt that proceeding…hoping they could change the outcome.
We also know that while all of this was going on, there was virtually no security …certainly not enough to hold back the tens of thousands of the President’s who would soon be breaching Capitol security, chanting “Hang Mike Pence.”
And we aren’t sure…four days later… what we should do about it. Times have changed…since 1974…but they haven’t changed that much since 33 A.D. when the Pharisees and the Sadducees and the Temple Priests would conspire to arrest…condemn… flog…scourge…and crucify the one man among them all who truly came in the name of peace…in spite of the fact that he had known all along…that the Jerusalem he was entering always rejected true prophets…and killed them.
He did not come…to the River Jordan or to Jerusalem…to do violence. He came to show that nonviolence is even more powerful than violence.
Your Rowdy Book Club read a book a few years ago by Walter Wink, a significant American theologian, called The Powers That Be. He put it this way:
“The command to love our enemies reminds us that our first task towards oppressors is pastoral: to help them recover their humanity. Quite possibly the struggle, and the oppression that gave it rise, have dehumanized the oppressed as well, causing them to demonize their enemies.”
He refers to this as “becoming the very thing we hate.” He goes on: “It is not enough to become politically free; we must also become human. Nonviolence presents a chance for all parties to rise above their present condition and become more of what God created them to be.”
In August of 1974, shortly after Watergate was over, Mike Mansfield became the longest tenured Senate Majority Leader in history. He had served in that position from January of 1961 to August of 1974… and he would continue to serve in that post until January of 1977…18 years. It is a record that is likely to last a long, long time.
Stan Kimmitt, the Secretary for the Senate Majority, arranged a surprise party for him in the Democratic Caucus Room and all the Senators came.
I can still remember seeing him walk into the room, realize that he had been had, and throwing his arms up in a gesture like, “You are my friends. Let’s all have a good time together.”
After what they had all been through together, everyone was ready to have a good thing to celebrate and Mike Mansfield was as unimpressed with himself as any of them…the perfect Passover lamb for their celebration of their passage from bondage into freedom.
Gerald Ford had been President for about two weeks then and he came to the party…his first trip back to the Hill since he had taken office. And he was as unimpressed with himself as Mansfield was.
And I can remember what President Ford said to commemorate the occasion. It was perfect, and I had the good fortune to be standing next to Senator Inouye from Hawaii as he said it…another person who was unimpressed with himself. Senator Inouye was also unimpressed with just about everybody…which was one of his most charming qualities.
President Ford, who had been the Minority Leader in the House stood next to the long serving Senate Majority Leader and said, “Mike Mansfield has proven today that nice guys don’t always finish last.”
It was then that Senator Inouye leaned over to me and said, “He’s talking about himself, too, you know.” I nodded and agreed.
Then he leaned over and said, “And he doesn’t even know it.” I nodded again.
Then he said, “And that makes it even better.” I turned and looked at him and he was smiling his most mischievous smile at me. I said, “Thank you!” a little bit emotionally.
And he said, “You’re welcome,” nodded, and walked away, a man who was content with himself and deeply pleased at what he had just witnessed.
It had been a terrible summer for everyone. Contention had been everywhere. Harsh words were being spoken by people. The White House had an Enemies List and there were many who were proud to be on it.
But it came down that day to one decent man celebrating another and it popped the bubble so many ways.
Somewhere along the way, the people had become the ultimate deciders of the outcome, and their elected representatives were happy to get away from claiming the other side was to blame, and to go back to work legislating solutions for the nation’s problems.
I can tell you that both Democratic and Republican Senators believed that Gerald Ford gave America its decency back and the Democrats were just as grateful to him as the Republicans… not just that day, but for a generation.
Is it too late to pray for that kind of a clearing of the air today? Are we past the day when the people can decide the big things that only The People can decide?
Are we all shackled to what we are being told by the media? Are we condemned to be the “Pluribus” in “e Pluribus Unum”…without any hope of becoming the “Unum”…together?
Have we given up hope of ever seeing the one coming whose sandals we are unworthy to untie? Can we forsake violence and embrace decency… truth, justice and the American way?
God, help us to become like the child whom you love…with whom you are well pleased..
O Lord, what is it that you want to do in the world today…through us… through me…this day? Amen.