When Christ Rises, We Rise
Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; January 10, 2021
Baptism of the Lord
I had a sermon prepared—all ready to preach—but then Epiphany came. January 6, 2021 a day that will live in infamy as the day insurrectionists attacked the Capitol of the United States of America—not the capitol of some developing country—but the Capitol of the United States. In the months leading up to this horrific event that left five people dead and our democracy gravely wounded, I have wept and prayed, just as you have, I daresay. Often, I have shaken my head at some unimaginable event and remarked in disbelief, “This is not who we are.” But Wednesday, I had a startling epiphany. This is who we are. We are a nation that is broken, though I hope, not beyond repair.
This week we witnessed our democratic process interrupted by extremists, rioters, who erected a noose outside our Capitol building. A noose! A symbol of hate. Through this and the actions that followed: scaling the Capitol wall, breaking through locked doors, endangering the lives of elected officials and essential staff, creating such a dire situation that Congress and the Vice President had to be rushed to safety, and traumatizing every one of us through the images we saw playing out across our screens—all of this—all of it was the culmination of propaganda that has permeated news and social media outlets for months and months. Fact has been turned into fiction and hate speech has turned us into haters.
And if the battle over our democracy is not enough, we are in another battle against a virus that is killing us by the thousands. Thankfully, vaccines have been developed and are on the way. Until they reach us, scientists continue to repeat the mantra that the best way to slow down the virus is to wear a mask, wash your hands, and practice social distancing. But people far and wide have refused to follow CDC guidelines. Why? Some are convinced that the science is fiction. Others are of the belief that their individual rights are of more value than the rights of those in the larger community. For Christians, such behavior is a clear response to Jesus’ command to love our neighbor as ourselves. And the response is, “Absolutely not, but thanks for asking.” Then, there are stories of health care workers who are being called liars, who are being berated and disrespected and for what? For risking their own lives to save even those who are convinced the virus is not real. Fact has been turned into fiction and hate speech has turned us into haters.
In all the chaos and confusion, it would be easy to give up hope, except for the baby born in Bethlehem long ago into the humblest of surroundings. Stargazers, seekers of wisdom from other lands, see a light—a bright, shining star—and they follow it to the Child. They bring gifts, but imbued by his light, the gift they receive is far greater. The child grows and becomes a man—fully human—fully divine. When it is time for the Son of God to begin his ministry, into the waters of the Jordan River he carries the weight of the world. He, who is without sin, carries our sin into life-giving waters—all of our sin—our nationalism, racism, sexism, agism; our greed, prejudice, jealousy, and hatred—he takes it all and he buries it there in the water. Then, when Christ rises from the water, we rise with him and we are forever changed.
As believers baptized into Christ’s love, we recognize, we must recognize our brokenness. And, considering recent events, it behooves us to also consider the role we have played in our national crisis. For you see, as followers of Jesus, no matter how much we love this great land of ours, if we love our country more than we love God, we sin. If the flag means more to us than the cross, we sin. If we trust the almighty dollar more than we trust Almighty God, we sin. If we are more likely to give up Jesus than our political party, we sin. If we help disseminate falsehoods that grant evil more power instead of boldly speaking truth to power, we sin.
I grew up in the hills of Appalachia to a hard-working, dirt-poor, dysfunctional family. To say my future looked dismal is an understatement. Yet, through the grace of God, throughout my life doors have opened to me— doors that would lead me to opportunities beyond my wildest dreams; doors that would lead me to a family of my own (dysfunctional in our own special way). I am grateful to be a citizen of the U.S.A., but I am also a citizen of another land—another kingdom—the Kingdom of God and that is the citizenship that I treasure most. Proof of my citizenship does not come through a social security number or a photo ID or a passport. Proof of my citizenship comes through the way I live.
As citizens of the Kingdom of God and of these United States of America, I am convinced that we are at a crossroads marked by two symbols: a noose which is a symbol of hate and a cross which is a symbol of the power of love to conquer hate. The path of hate leads to more hate. But through the Cross, the love of Christ is put on display for every nation of every people of every time. And with love as our guide, nothing is impossible. With love, it is not impossible to speak truth to power; it is not impossible for the church to play a crucial role in helping our nation heal; it is not impossible to learn to listen to one another instead of judge one another; it is not impossible for every child of every race and background to have doors of opportunity opened for them just as they have been opened for most of us.
The path of love—that road less traveled—is not easy. But love can serve as a magnet to pull us toward God and toward our neighbor. The magnet of love can propel the church into a brighter future. Too often, though, the church has been a part of the problem rather than part of the solution. We have spoken words of love inside the church building but love is not what we have shown to the world. Surely, if this pandemic has taught us anything, it is that the church is not a building. The church is baptized believers. The church is us. So, if we go out into the world to spout words of hatred, the church goes out into the world to spout hatred. If we promote evil, the church promotes evil. If we belittle those who do not look like us or worship like us or speak our language, the church belittles those who do not look like us or worship like us or speak our language. If we scorn the LGBTQ community, the church scorns the LGBTQ community. If we fail to acknowledge the immense value of every man, woman, and child—regardless of skin color, the church fails to acknowledge the immense value of every man, woman, and child—regardless of skin color. We are the church. We are the sons and daughters of God. We are the brothers and sisters of Jesus and we are called to continue his work of love in the world.
This past Wednesday, on the day marked as the Epiphany of the Lord, we witnessed horrible actions perpetrated by citizens of our nation. It was a sad day, but a gift has sprung up from our tears. The gift is an invitation—an invitation to consider the question I posed in a sermon last year: WWJBD? What would John the Baptist do? John the Baptist was not Jesus, but he knew who Jesus was and his life’s purpose was to point seekers to Jesus. I am a Minister of Word and Sacrament. I am not Jesus, but I know who he is, and I know how to reach him. Here, I will lead the way: “Holy Son, Holy Father, Holy Spirit, Three-in-One, I bow before you with all the humility I can muster. You are the creator of the universe. You are the giver of life, faith, hope, family, community, and abundant resources for the good of us all. Oh God, I confess that I have been more interested in my good than in the good of others. Though you created me in your image, I have acted in ways that have tarnished your image. In my arrogance, I have assumed that my story within the beloved community is the most important story. I have assumed that my education and life experiences are all I need to decide what is right and what is wrong. For my journey, I have selected guides who think like I do or who have become what I want to become. Along the way, I have failed to consider other voices—the voice of the black man, the voice of the brown woman, the voice of the migrant worker, the voice of the gay teen, the voice of the Native American, the voice of the bi-racial child, and the voice of every American who is trying their best to find truth in a time when falsehoods are easier to come by. So many voices have been silent to me. Forgive me for not listening. Forgive me for not paying attention. Forgive me for caring for me and mine while ignoring thee and thine. Hundreds of times, thousands of times, I have prayed alone and with others: Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come; thy will be done. Thy will be done. I have prayed these words, but I have not always meant them. Sometimes, what I have really meant is MY will be done. My will! Lord Jesus, I long to be like you. I yearn to live with love and compassion as my guides. When I witness people, who are living in fear and acting in ways that are harmful to our democracy, I want to see them with your eyes. I want to see them with love instead of anger. Cleanse my heart. Inoculate me with your divine love. Help me see the other. Help me hear the other. Help me love the other. Help me recognize that I am the other. You are my only hope. You have given me the gift of life. In gratitude, I give my life back to you. May it rise before you as incense, as an offering of praise. In the precious name of Jesus, and in the power of the Holy Spirit, I pray. Let it be so. Amen.
(Let us keep silence.)
*Cover Art “The Baptism of the Lord” by Ira Thomas from Catholic World Art