Scripture: MARK 1:4-11
It has been a week, has it not. Come to think of it, maybe we should say it’s been a year. Or maybe a decade, or a century. Or maybe it’s been a thousand generations of lifetimes. Sometimes the fragility and tenuousness and ugliness of the world just leap up and slap you in the face. This was one of those weeks. Or years. Or maybe it’s always this stark and painful, and it’s only at a moment like this that we really see it.
This past Wednesday, January 6, was—it’s easy to forget—the feast day of Epiphany. In the early centuries of the Christian church, Epiphany was the second most important day on the calendar. Only Easter—God’s conquering of death—was more central to Christian life. Epiphany was, and is, the day on which we celebrate that God isn’t just some distant, celestial, ethereal being, far removed from flesh and blood, but that the Holy One is made manifest to you and me right in the midst of our everyday lives.
And then along comes that fateful Wednesday just past, and rather than an appearance of Christ next to us on the couch or at the lunch table, we are horrified by a desecration. Across our screens comes news that the U.S. Capitol building, that magnificent citadel of deliberation and democracy, is being overrun by marauders, by a mob intent on mayhem and destruction. Hardly the image of Christ settling in to ordinary lives. Hardly an obvious manifestation of the presence of God.
And if you’re like me, you were perhaps reduced to tears by the rampant violence, the wanton recklessness, the craven callousness of a crowd with little but insurrection on its mind. How had we come to this, that the peaceful transfer of power that we Americans have come to take for granted had devolved into such disorder and chaos? Weep, America: your common life is fragile. Weep, body of Christ: your blessed body is broken.
We weep for all sorts of reasons. We weep, in part, because a bastion of democracy has been breached and desecrated, and we are reminded how tenuous are our nation’s ideals. We weep because a day like this past Wednesday testifies to the light years’ distance there is between hugely differing visions for what this nation can and should be.
Among so much that trampled our sensibilities this week, one thing that stood out in bas relief was the unfathomably vast distance between the conviction, on the one hand, that the voting in November’s election was conducted with procedural integrity, and the contrary conviction, on the other hand, that that election was besmirched by untoward trickery that befouled and compromised its accuracy. How is it possible for people who see the world so differently to live together in peace and with a common sense of purpose?
For me, and perhaps for many of you, what I see, as I look back at the election, is laws and procedures followed as close to a “t” as possible; what I see is numerous first counts and recounts and hand counts matching nearly precisely; what I see is election officials of both major political parties agreeing that, whether they liked the results or not, the election had come off largely without a hitch; what I see is judges of all political stripes, including the U.S. Supreme Court, again and again validating various contested states’ election results. And when that is what I see, it is perplexing and discouraging to be confronted by others so utterly convinced that a mysterious conspiracy rigged and defrauded and stole the election from the one they see as the rightful victor. The divide saddens me. And the apparent disregard for standards of evidence and truthfulness makes me frustrated and angry. How could we ever reconcile two such different ways of seeing things? So I lament.
Nor is that all. After Wednesday’ events, I lament, yet again, what it must be like to be a Black person in this culture. How is it that the summer’s unarmed and largely peaceful demonstrators protesting the gruesome ferocity inflicted on George Floyd and Breonna Taylor were dealt with in far more brutal ways, and with far more fire power, than were the mobs descending on the Capitol on Wednesday? And yet again, tears flow. I lament.
Nor is that all. Our president has muddied our waters with countless untruths, not the least of which have been his assertions about the results of this fall’s election. And in a brazen escalation of his convictions, on Wednesday, he incited violence among a number of his followers. To point this out in church is not at all to fall victim to partisan politics, as some of you may now be wondering. Esteem President Trump’s policies all you want—that’s not what we’re talking about here. But when the results of a legitimate election are constantly called into question, and when sedition is encouraged among followers, to call that out is not to play partisan politics. It is to refuse to acquiesce to a sub-standard notion of integrity to which no follower of Jesus should fall victim. To call such behavior into question is, after all, to find common ground with Republican Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska; with Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina; with Republican Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah; with Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska; with Republican recently departed Attorney General William Barr; and with Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. As Sen. McConnell himself said in affirming the election results, “This election was not unusually close . . .. If [it] were overturned by mere allegations from the losing side, our democracy would enter a death spiral” (https://www.mcconnell.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/pressreleases?ID=A30EB06B-61CD-4A14-BD5A-25F5A2730142). To challenge the behavior of the president is not to play partisan politics. It is rather to label as unacceptable, by a professed follower of Jesus, the telling of untruths and the act of inciting a crowd to violence.
There’s a lot that happened this past Wednesday that is totally reprehensible. A clear indictment of the violence and the untruths and the racism so prevalent that day is, as followers of Jesus, entirely in order. As disciples of Christ, it is utterly appropriate for us to speak truth to power and to call out demeaning and destructive behavior.
That said, though, on this day in which we remember and celebrate both the baptism of the One who is at the heart of our faith and our own baptisms, something is amiss if we castigate and judge only others. Because I do not want to be misunderstood, at the risk of repeating myself, I want to emphasize again that awful things happened on Wednesday and those who perpetrated such wrongs must be held accountable by the law and by us who follow Jesus.
That said, though, you and I are missing something crucial if we leave here with the conviction that it’s just “those others” who have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (cf. Romans 3:23). Without excusing any untoward behavior, could it really be true that countless others mar our common fabric, but you and I are beyond reproach?
Much as I would like to believe that at one level, at another level I know it cannot possibly be true. When John the Baptizer first shows up on the scene in Mark’s gospel, he proclaims “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (1:4). Helpfully, in The Message, the word repentance is rendered as “life-change.” When we’re baptized, and when we take in the fullness of that baptism, our lives are indelibly reshaped. In receiving holy grace, we acknowledge our shortcomings—all of us. We turn away from our faults and errors—all of us. We turn over a new leaf—all of us.
Eager as I may be to resist it, it’s not just “those others” whose lives are to change. A thorough conversion, a full-bodied discipleship, is offered to, and expected of, me, as well. Now you and I didn’t storm the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday. We didn’t shatter windows and doors to get in. We didn’t destroy property and put our feet up on desks and scream epithets at those we perceived to be out to get us. But I can never get away from the fact that I am part of a society in which such viciousness finds space to thrive. There are two major tendencies we human beings have in which we miss out on a biblical and faith-based way of understanding our failures and shortcomings.
In the first place, you and I can be extremely myopic about sin. I inevitably think your sins are worse than mine. Yours may seem like a travesty. Mine are always understandable. When you’re mean to someone, I can easily jump all over your callous cruelty. When I’m mean to someone, though, maybe it’s because I’m upset that my car was just dented in the parking lot, or my child gave me the cold shoulder. When you’re acting possessively, you’re being a selfish jerk. When I hoard my cookies, though, it’s because I may feel just ever-so-slightly needy today. Your sin almost always looks worse to me than my own.
Not only that, but our second misapprehension is that we live in such an individualistic culture that we tend to think of sin as something that individuals do wrong, you in your way, I in mine. Seldom, though, do we take note of sin as transgressions we commit together. You may lie to your spouse, I may cheat on my taxes, and we conclude that those are your sins and these are my sins. We tend not to take in that much of what eats away at society is the common shortcomings we share. We tend not to take in, as Martin Luther King so eloquently put it, that “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.” Your sin is tied up with mine, and mine with yours.
So when a mob scales the walls of our nation’s central symbol of democracy, we are all, in some way or other, implicated. I will say again what I feel a need to keep saying, because you are not to leave worship today with the misapprehension that the preacher thinks all sins are equal: those who breached the Capitol this week have committed an egregious wrong and need to be held accountable. That said, though, we are still all complicit, in some manner or other, with the ways in which our world fails to live up to the majestic vision of God. You and I, too, sin and fall short of the glory of God. And unless and until we own up to that, we are living in a kind of self-delusion.
Without letting armed insurrectionists off the hook, we might all, for example, be well-served by attempting to understand where their rage comes from. What sort of pain or loneliness or despair lies underneath that fury? Again, this is not to excuse. And it is not, for example, to claim that any such pain discovered in the lives of the marauders is the equal of Black people who have long been treated as sub-human. It is only to say that, when a whole segment of the populace goes as apparently off the rails as Wednesday’s Washington bandits have, something has gone profoundly wrong. There is apparently a deep sense of alienation, a feeling of having been left behind. There can never be any real healing until we understand what has gone so wrong. Again: hold marauders and their inciters accountable. At the same time, though, pay attention to what has come so thoroughly undone. In what ways has our economy failed us? In what ways has our education system let us down? In what ways have our social services and workplaces and traditional media and social media and families and churches allowed the fertilization of such apparently unmoored conspiracy theories and such untethered “alternative facts” and such chilling disregard of democratic procedures and the common good? We have all played a part in a world which sometimes seems to be coming unglued. So a life-change, a repentance, is what’s called for—by all of us.
When the gospel of Mark begins the good news of Jesus with the conviction that wholeness is intimately related to life-change, to “repentance”—of everybody, not just the ones we think of as the “bad” people—then an extraordinary premium is put on those two truths we mentioned earlier: that my sin is not inherently more benign than your sin. And all our sin is intrinsically connected, in such a way that the sins of one are ultimately inextricable from the sins of everybody else. That may sound grating in a culture as individualistic as ours. But the biblical theme that we are inextricably intertwined is one that calls to us with compelling power. Our worship theme this Epiphany is that, if we’re to be true to God, we may sometimes, or even often, have to try new ways of being. We may have to go “home by a different way” (Matthew 2:12). The same old ways of living no longer work. If we’re to be true to God, we’ll be hard-pressed not to try something new.
My challenge, and it may be yours, as well, is that I am beckoned to love people with whom I wildly disagree. Not to freeze them out. Not to dismiss them. Not to relegate them to some fiery hell. Neither, of course, am I to let them off the hook. But my deep challenge is to love them. To hold them. To treasure them. And to be for them the grace of the Jesus who is coming to us constantly. My great challenge is to receive the Spirit that infuses all of us at our baptisms, and, by that power, to let the love with which God loves me shine brilliantly in the world, such that all people know the power and fervor of that love—such that they, too, know they are beloved, such that they, too, know that God delights in them.
It has been a week, has it not. Wrongdoing has in some ways broken our collective heart. And while we rightly deepen our resolve to brook no transgressions among leaders or mobs, the week is incomplete if we don’t also take stock of the call that comes to all of us: to acknowledge that we all fall short, to receive the Spirit’s love that is the only thing that can save us, and, in that recognition, to join Howard Thurman in his marvelous charge to this and every era:
When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To bring peace among brothers [and sisters],
To make music in the heart.
That, dear friends, is both the Spirit’s gift to us, and also Her call to us: in a broken world, that we not tolerate evil, that we be accountable for our own failures and shortcomings, and that we take in God’s boundless assurance that we are all chosen and adored, that together we might be radiant agents of that healing and grace. May it always be so.