Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
Baptism of Christ
“In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee
and was baptized by John in the Jordan.” (Mark 1)
After the events of this week, I’m tempted to preach today on the Lord’s Prayer. That would be a nice easy dodge—but it’s not the way we as a congregation cope with things. We try to take on the world around us as it is, look it square in the face, and deal with it. So in that spirit, here goes.
When I was a chaplain intern at St. Luke’s Hospital in New York City, I had as a supervisor a salty old priest named Chaplain Hart. His greatest passion in life was the Metropolitan Opera, and he went almost every night of the season. He was also an unrepentant New Deal Democrat, so the morning after Ronald Reagan was elected president, he fumed in our daily staff briefing, “I never thought I’d live to see the day, when a second rate movie actor, would hold the same office as Franklin … Delano … Roosevelt!”
Now, whatever your take on Reagan may be, I think that after the events of this past week, we all know the feeling of wanting to start a sentence with those same words, “I never thought I’d live to see the day …”
And if you’re like me, those words quickly flow into another related sentiment, “I just can’t believe it.”
We commonly use those two phrases when something truly shocking or horrifying happens, as a way to express that we just don’t know how to take it all in, or how to make sense of it. But if you think about it, they are also phrases we use when something truly wonderful and glorious happens. We might say, “I never thought I’d live to see the day when I won the lottery. I just can’t believe it” (if such a thing ever happened!).
Think back, for example, to the story of Jesus’ birth, which we have just finished recounting in the Advent and Christmas season. I think you can feel that kind of speechless amazement running all the way through it: Mary hearing the angel’s message, Joseph and his troubling dreams, the shepherds and the choir of angels, or even the aged Simeon when Jesus is presented in the temple—none of them thought they would live to see the day of the messiah, nor can they quite believe what they are told.
And the fact that we use such similar words to describe our reaction both to what is truly horrifying, and to what is truly wonderful, is a convergence we ought to pay close attention to. For it is perhaps a sign that most of the time, we inhabit a pretty narrow band of human emotion. We don’t really want to know about the worst that is happening around us, and we really are a bit afraid of anything that seems too good to be true. As sentient creatures, we are programmed to seek the middle ground of equilibrium, and it keeps us stifled in a haze of denial. Yet the world is both much more violent, and more splendid, than we usually allow ourselves to be aware of. As David Brooks observed in a piece on the events of this week, “Human beings exist at moral dimensions both too lofty and more savage than the contemporary American mind normally considers.” (“This is when the fever breaks,” New York Times, 7 January 2021).
Weeks like this past one, however, have a way of lifting the veil off of human affairs, and they force us to confront the fact that much more is at stake, even on a daily basis, than our own coveted balance and tranquility. This week has reminded us that the peace which we so crave, is ultimately achieved only at the price of naming and then harnessing the energies of our highest principles, in order to resist the forces that strike against them. This was a week when ideals like “democracy” and “freedom” could not be taken for granted, but had to be actively defended, and such a week should remind us that our lives cannot simply be lived on a quiet plain, but that we must seek both the highest peaks and endure the darkest valleys. Life, to be lived at its fullest, has to embrace the whole. And values, if they are to be meaningful, have to be protected.
Unfortunately, one result of our natural reticence to embrace the whole range of human experience is that it encourages us to lapse into a dichotomous way of thinking, whose unacknowledged purpose is to preserve our own sense of moral stasis. Everything is seen in binary terms: You’re wrong, and I’m right. You’re prejudiced, and I’m not. You’re elitist, and I’m ordinary. You’re uneducated, and I am. You’re a socialist, and I’m an American. On and on it goes, back and forth.
But this is where today’s gospel comes into play. Think back to the story we heard: Jesus comes to the River Jordan, seeking to be baptized by John the Baptist who is preaching repentance. This is certainly rather odd, for Jesus would seem to be, among all others, the only one who has no need of such repentance. And so the puzzling question at the heart of this episode always comes up: Why? Why does Jesus want to be baptized, when he would seem to have no need of it?
In this particular week, when we have been made conscious of both the loftiest aspirations and the most savage resentments that are both a part of our human nature, Jesus in his baptism identifies himself--with all of it. By stepping into the waters of the Jordan, he steps into the messiness of what it means to be human, along with everyone else. The meaning of his baptism, you might say, is that there is no part of being human which cannot and will not be touched by his presence. His baptism sets the context for the rest of his ministry: nothing and no one will be off limits.
In David Brooks’ article, he went on to say, “This week wasn’t just an atrocity, it was a glimpse into an atavistic [or primitive] nativism that always threatens to grip the American soul.” It’s the same spirit, for instance, that had no qualms about the systematic attempt to exterminate the Native Americans; it’s the same spirit that self-righteously lynched African Americans with impunity; it’s the same spirit that only recently felt no compunction about separating immigrant children from their desperate parents at our borders.
But there was another spirit at play this week as well. It was a spirit whose voice came through the words of Representative Gabrielle Giffords, who was attacked ten years ago this week by a gunman outside an Arizona supermarket. Reflecting back on that event, she wrote, “All my life, I’ve studied President Lincoln. In the summer of 1862, just a few months after a cold and desperate wartime winter when his young son Willie died, and a few weeks before he gave the original Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln wrote to a faltering young cadet, Quintin Campbell. ‘Adhere to your purpose [he said] and you will soon feel as well as you ever did. On the contrary, if you falter, and give up, you will lose the power of keeping any resolution, and will regret it all your life. Take the advice of a friend, who, though he never saw you, deeply sympathizes with you, and stick to your purpose’” (“10 Years Ago, a Gunman Tried to Silence Me,” New York Times, 8 January 2021).
I think that, in effect, is the message that now comes to us through the baptism of Jesus: let your life take stock of and engage with everything, both the best and the worst of human nature. Then decide how you will stand firm for what is right; stick to your purpose; and your steadfastness will get you through. Amen.