Kent M. Organ, Interim Pastor
Texts: James 3:1-10; Matthew 5:21-24, 12:35-37
American political discourse has become increasingly coarse and damaging to “the dialogue that ought to be at the essence of democracy.” Scorn and derision have become “the common coin of political argument.” This past year, much of that has come from the highest level of government.
It was one thing for a Presidential candidate to engage in ridicule and name calling. But it didn’t cease after January 20. Critics were dubbed “Cryin’ Chuck Schumer,” “Jeff the Flake,” “Liddle Bob Corker” and, of course, “Pocahontas.” Then there are also “Leakin’ James Comey,” “Sleepy Eyes Chuck Todd,” more recently “Sloppy Steve Bannon.” But most dangerous of all, there is “Little Rocket Man.” Contempt breeds contempt. And so, we now hear as retribution words such as “fool,” “idiot,” “unhinged,” and “crazy.”
Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis once wrote that “Our government is the potent, the omnipresent teacher. For good or for ill, it teaches the whole people by example.” What are we being taught in this acrimonious time?
Now, the acrimony didn’t begin with the current Administration. Think of the divisions and hostility during the Clinton, Bush, and Obama years. We wonder, where is all this heading for us as a people? This Martin Luther King Memorial weekend is a propitious time to think about this – and, here in worship, to do so Biblically and theologically.
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Clearly, in a democratic society, we need to learn how to deal with differences. They are here to stay. As our society becomes more pluralistic – racially, ethnically, religiously – the need for understanding and tolerance increases. In politics, in education, in economic spheres, even in the church, issues will continue to be before us to which we bring different experiences and perspectives. But the encounters can be constructive; they need not be destructive, barbarous. Our ability to deal civilly with one another is crucial to the preservation of community.
What’s at issue is not so much the substance of the debate, but the manner in which we conduct it; not the solutions to be reached, but the way in which we come to them. I think the Christian understanding of the human condition can make a contribution.
All of us, we believe, are made in the divine image; all of us share a common humanity, and have enormous potential – which argues for respect. Yet all of us are flawed – we see things from our own limited frame of reference; we act from mixed motives – and that argues for humility. An attitude of respect toward others, and of humility about the correctness of our own position, would go a long way toward restoring civility. It’s an attitude Christians ought to be able to bring to discussion and debate, whatever our view on the issues at stake.
As citizens and as Christians, we should take seriously what both of today’s lessons emphasize, that the absence of civility is anything but a trivial matter. Jesus essentially equates incivility with murder in his “You heard it was said…. but I say to you” teachings. We have seen all too often incivility leading to murder. Jesus virtually equates attitude and act. Words can kill, he says. Abusive language can inflict mortal wounds on the mind and soul and heart of another person. Apparently, we don’t get away with telling God, “It was just talk; it didn’t mean anything.” The way we talk – even the way we think – is an indication of the way we live. Jesus says, “You will have to give an account for every careless word you utter.”
And the Book of James issues a warning about the harmful effects of uncivil language which one contemporary translation renders this way: “It only takes a spark, remember, to set off a forest fire. The careless or wrongly placed word out of your mouth can do that. By our speech we can ruin the world, turn harmony into chaos, throw mud on a reputation, send the whole world up in smoke and go up in smoke with it.”
As Christian citizens, we can refuse to use disrespectful, hurtful speech, which is where violence begins. We can refuse to participate in the language of divisiveness, of the demeaning of character and demonizing of foes. We can insist on civility from those in the media, in politics, in sports, in schools – and in the churches.
We can examine our own behavior, review our own habits of speech. Every one of us contributes daily to either the barbarism or the civility of our common life. We speak respectfully or we ridicule. We tell and listen to bigoted jokes, or we don’t. We gossip or we don’t. We spread rumors or we won’t. We express our opinions with humility or with arrogance. We speak disparagingly of people of another race or religion or life-style or political party, or we refuse to do that.
I want say something about the means available to us when we have differences. And, specifically, I want to caution about the reactive use of social media. Have you had this experience? Someone does something that makes you angry, and so you fire off a retaliatory email, or text message, or Tweet. And what happens is that instead of reducing the tensions, what you did is: you escalated them. Oh, the damage we can do. So, please, be careful with the temptation to knee-jerk texting and emailing. Remember the old-fashioned counsel to “count to ten.” Calm down. Think about your feelings. May pray about them. Sleep on it. Then consider responding – best in a face-to-face conversation. Know what I’m talking about?
Those of us who are parents and grandparents, teachers in school or in church, leaders of Scout troops or coaches of teams – we can engage in what Theodore Parker Ferris called “basic training.” Training in things such as: consideration, courtesy, kindness, listening, telling the truth, caring about other people, including those whom you don’t really like.
Aristotle expected that it was too much to ask people to be good. About the most that could be hoped of ordinary people, he said, is that we learn and teach good habits – the habits of decency, respect and kindness, the habits that fashion a civilized, civil person.
Or consider Jesus’ belief that what comes out of us is what is inside of us. “The good person brings good things out of a good treasure, and the evil person brings evil things out of an evil treasure.”
Stephen Covey emphasizes this inside-out approach in his Seven Habits: Start with the self, he urges. Even more fundamentally, start with the innermost part of the self, which is your character. The inside-out approach says that if you pay attention to what goes in, you don't have to worry so much about what comes out. Which is no small part of what the church is here to help us with.
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This weekend we celebrate the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. Part of the legacy Dr. King left us which warrants celebration is his example of civility. Issues mattered to him, and he fought hard and long for racial justice, for integration, for the poor, for the end of the Vietnam War, among other things. In doing so, he was often the target of incivility, of verbal abuse on the streets of Skokie, of physical violence – he was punched, he was stabbed – of unjust imprisonment. He endured relentless death threats. But, remarkably, he did not descend to the level of his adversaries. In the face of violence, he practiced non-violence. Confronted with attacks against himself and his people, he responded by persistently calling on this society to live up to its ideals. He serves as an example of how to engage the issues, fight hard for what you believe, and yet do so without degrading, dehumanizing, or demonizing those who disagree.
To Dr. King, it was at the heart of the Gospel to recognize that love could really change a situation of conflict. That was the purpose of aggressive non-violent action in Selma, Birmingham, and elsewhere: love reaching out toward the oppressor, love forcing negotiation. He was not naïve about the persistence and power of evil. But his evangelical Christian faith insisted that even the most hardened sinner runs the risk of being converted. He really believed that ruthless Southern sheriffs and politicians were sheep who had strayed from the fold. And that however powerful evil is, love is more powerful still. Said Coretta Scott King, “He refused to lose faith in the ultimate redemption of humanity.”
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There was an unusually public, unusually positive and bipartisan meeting at the White House last Tuesday. A made-for-TV event, certainly. But hopeful, in that the topics were DACA and immigration reform. But two days later there came that unbelievably racist vulgarism about wanting Norwegians to immigrate, and not people from “s---hole” countries. So here’s my take-away. We, as Christian citizens, can’t merely wait for public figures to do what is right on our behalf. We mustn’t sit around in hopes that Washington – or Springfield – will do justice and love kindness for us. That kind of apathy is no way to honor the legacy of Dr. King.
Because, friends, we each and together have important roles and responsibilities. So join me, please, in our striving, consciously and intentionally, to reflect and express – in the living of our days – the civility of Jesus Christ.
– With thanks to Eugene Bay, David Broder, Martin Marty and James McClendon
Sunday, January 7, 2018
Trinity United Church of Christ, Deerfield
Kent M. Organ, Interim Pastor
Text: Isaiah 42:1-9; Mark 1:4-11
“In those days, Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.” According to Mark, it is this incident that constitutes the beginning of the good news. It’s the beginning of his Gospel. There, in the muck and mud of the Jordan River, is where it all begins: the miracle of grace, the manifestation of God’s love, the ministry of reconciliation through Jesus Christ our Lord. It all begins with John’s baptism of Jesus.
It’s not only Mark who says so. Each of the Gospels makes the Jordan River the place where it all begins. True, in the other Gospels there are preceding events. But all four agree that the baptism of Jesus is the moment when he begins to fulfill his destiny.
We are naturally curious about the earlier years. We wonder about the influence of Joseph and Mary. What did Jesus learn from them about their faith tradition? What was his experience of God as a child, as a teenager? How did he arrive at his sense of vocation? Aside from one story – about the 12-year old’s visit to the Temple – we know next to nothing about any of this. These were the silent years. Fred Craddock says, “You don’t hear roots growing. They had to be silent years.”
All we know is that, one day, Jesus put down his woodworking tools, took leave of his family and his hometown, and went out into the wilderness where John was preaching “a baptism of repentance.” There, Jesus joined all the others who were responding to John’s preaching. Along with them, he also waded into the river and was baptized.
The question is, why? We ask, because John’s baptism was for the forgiveness of sins. What was Jesus doing in that crowd? What did he have to repent of?
That he was there – in the Jordan, undergoing baptism – is something even the most skeptical participant in the Jesus Seminar does not dispute. The reason being that no believer would have made up this story. The Savior of the world submitting to a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” is a little embarrassing. And the Gospel writers are nervous in telling about it. According to Matthew, John the Baptist was reluctant, saying he needed to be baptized by Jesus. He went through with it, Matthew says, only because Jesus insisted. Luke makes as little of the event as possible. The Fourth Gospel is so defensive about Jesus’ sinlessness that it doesn’t explicitly say that he was baptized. It just says that John saw the Spirit descend on Jesus like a dove, but neglects to mention that Jesus was standing waist-deep in the Jordan River when it happened. Mark seems the least embarrassed, but even he has John proclaim of Jesus, “…I am not worthy to… untie the thong of his sandals.”
So, what are we to make of Jesus’ baptism? In spite of their discomfort about it, why do all four Gospels insist that Jesus’ baptism is where it all begins?
Here’s what I think. Jesus went out to where John was baptizing because the time had come for him to respond to God’s claim on his life. John was baptizing at the Jordan – the very river boundary which, when the children of Egypt came out of the wilderness, they crossed to enter the Promised Land. Many Israelites, during this time, were seeking a renewal of their peoplehood. What did it mean to serve God together in this world? Where had they failed? What was required of them now? Galvanized by the witness of John, the people returned to the place of their beginnings in a new land: to the Jordan. It was like going back to Ellis Island to start over, at least to get a glimpse of the Statue of Liberty to remember what our peoplehood is all about. Friends, a pastoral interim can be something like this, as we’re seeing. It is an opportunity to step back and remember: Who are we? Why are we here? What is it that God wants us to be, and do? Getting in touch with our Christian identity, and our unique calling.
So, of course, Jesus went there – to be baptized – identifying with all who recognized the need to start over again on a more faithful path as servants of God in this world.
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The Baptism of Christ, observed today in churches around the world, witnesses to Jesus’ solidarity with and compassion for all of us who come on a Sunday morning, just as our ancestors went to the Jordan River. They went, and we come, with a multitude of aspirations and anxieties, with our failures – individual and corporate – in what we have done and not done. The Baptism of Jesus was then and is now the sign that Christ saves us not by shouting instructions from the safety of the shore, but is down in the mud with us, joining us in the sorrow of repentance and the joy of a new beginning.
What would have constituted sin for Jesus would have been for him not to have been baptized – to turn away from his destiny, to refuse to be Emmanuel, “God with us.” But he didn’t refuse. He didn’t separate himself from us with our questions, our failures of will and of nerve, our failures to do the good we know. He went down to the Jordan and joined us. His baptism is a luminous sign that he is truly one of us. Which is why Mark calls it “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”
What was not obvious then, but is now is how his baptism marked the beginning in another sense. It launched him on a ministry that would take him from the Jordan to the poor, to lepers, to the tables of social outcasts, public sinners, to the weak and powerless, to those who are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and finally – on Calvary – to a convicted criminal at the place of his execution, His baptism, in other words, is the beginning of a journey that will lead Jesus to the cross where, as Paul declares, “For our sakes [God] made him to be sin who knew no sin,” and where, as the Philippian hymn says, “Though he was in the form of God, he emptied himself, taking the form of a servant.”
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The account of Jesus’ baptism belongs to the season of Epiphany. Epiphany means “manifestation,” “disclosure.” What Jesus’ baptism discloses is who he is – the beloved Son – and what he does, as the beloved Son: he becomes one with us. In the end, his identification with us and his commitment to us will take him to the cross. But it begins at the Jordan. From that act of solidarity, it was almost inevitable that the time would come when, as Paul puts it, God would prove God’s love for us in that while we were sinners Christ would die for us.
Baptism is where it all begins – not only for Jesus, but also for you and me. That is to say, our journey of faith begins at the baptismal font. It is there that we first know the grace of God in Christ. It is there we are first shown that our lives are not our own. “In baptism God claims us, and puts a sign on us to show that we belong to God.” Like Jesus at the Jordan, at the font we are given our identity: “See what love God has for us,” we are told, “that we should be called children of God, and so we are.” At the baptismal font we not only learn who we are, we learn what we are to do – we are given our vocation. “By water and the Holy Spirit… we are joined to Christ’s ministry of love, justice and peace.”
For us too, baptism is where it all begins. It’s where God first says to us, “You belong to me; you are loved by me. Stop worrying about whether that is true or not, and start learning to follow the way my Son shows you. Stop fretting about who you are – you are my beloved! Get on with the life I have called you to live, and with the work I have given you to do.”
Each year, on this Sunday, we at Trinity are encouraged to renew our baptism vows. Why so often? Why – every year? Because it is easy to forget to whom we belong. Are we primarily Democrats, or Republicans? White Sox fans, or Cubs fans? Caucasians, or members of the human race? Americans, or citizens of the world? Here, today, we remember – and attest – that fundamentally, we belong to God, the God we know in and through Jesus the Christ. Which tells us important things about those other belongings of ours.
Baptism is where it all begins. For Jesus, it’s at the Jordan River. There he begins to fulfill his destiny as Emmanuel, God with us. For us, it is at the font. That is where we re-begin our life-long journey as God’s own.
- With thanks to Gene Bay, John Burkhart and Barbara Brown Taylor
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