So it is customary, in the lectionary that we follow, that every year on the Sunday after Epiphany we observe the Baptism of Our Lord. Every year, like clockwork, on a Sunday in early January, churches around the world read the story of Jesus’ baptism and many congregations are forced to endure yet another generic sermon about the merits and meaning of the sacrament. Be advised, my friends, that I had just such a sermon brewing in my mind for all of you this morning. But then Wednesday happened, and I thought, ‘well there goes my sermon on baptism.’ I spent several hours on Wednesday night attempting to discern what scripture I might use this morning to lead us in our time of reflection together. Until I finally realized that perhaps it was in fact a sermon on baptism that was required after all. What better time for us to be reminded, I thought, of the promises that were made at our own baptism? What better time to be reminded just how it is that our baptismal promises call us to respond in times just like these?
Before I go any further, perhaps a little reminder is in order as to what our baptismal vows actually say. Now the vows I am about to share come from the UCC, and so I recognize that there might be some differences in these vows compared to what some of us remember from the Catholic church, for example, or other denominations. But as it turns out, despite some small variations, the vows of baptism are actually quite similar from one denomination to the next. So here is the basic gist of what we have promised as baptized Christians: to endeavor to follow in the way of Jesus Christ and to be his disciples, to resist evil and oppression in all its forms, to show love and justice, and to witness to the word and work of Jesus.
So let’s start with the Way of Jesus that we endeavor to follow. How do we respond to Wednesday’s events in a way that is faithful to “the Way?”
I think we have to start by being honest with ourselves about what really happened on Wednesday. This was not just any old protest that got out of control. Wednesday’s events were a tragic demonstration of the kind of chaos and destruction that can come about when truth takes a backseat to power and when those who know the truth don’t bother to stand up for it because it doesn’t serve their interest. The events of Wednesday didn’t have to happen, but they happened because far too many people have turned a blind eye to the truth for far too long. I hope that many eyes have been opened.
Speaking of opening our eyes to the truth, it must also be noted that Wednesday’s events were a display of white privilege unlike any we’ve seen in a very long time. We have to ask ourselves how it is that armed individuals were able to storm the capital so easily, and with such impunity, when a black woman can’t even sleep safely in her own bed, and a black man can’t even go running in his own neighborhood? The undeniable answer is, they were white. There was a remarkable difference
between how the capital police and national guard were deployed at the Black Lives Matter protest in D.C. several months ago and how they were utilized this past Wednesday. For some of us, we watched the riotous mob storming the capital in disbelief, asking, “how can such a thing happen here?” But I have to tell you that there were many people of color for whom images of an angry white mob was nothing new or surprising. Christians should be reckoning with and wrestling with all of this right now.
We must come to terms with the history of white supremacy in this country
and work to defeat it. We must come to terms with all the ways we’ve turned a blind eye to our own privilege, and work to reverse it. Following the Way of Christ in this moment requires a prophetic kind of honesty with ourselves and others when it comes to these hard truths. Indeed, if we aren’t honest with ourselves about the sins of our past and present, I fear we will be doomed to repeat them.
The next promise of our baptism is to resist evil and oppression in all its forms. Now it may seem like hyperbole to some for me to say that what happened at the capital on Wednesday was evil, but I do think that when it comes to the lies that ultimately led to the violence that we witnessed there was certainly corrupt intent in the hearts of many leaders who were willing to do whatever they could to hold onto some semblance of power, even if that meant they did NOT resist in the face of what they knew to be blatant lies. Now of course, we’re not lawmakers, we’re just regular people, so how do we resist in the face of such violence and deceit? I think a good place to begin is actually to follow the advice of the apostle Paul in his letter to the early church in Rome. “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good,” Paul says, to a group of people facing much worse threats than us. To not let ourselves be overcome by evil means not letting ourselves get sucked into the cycle of blame, fear and vengeance. We have to resist the urge to dwell in the dark woods of fear and despair because Christ has called us to be the light of the world. We can’t let ourselves be overcome by the evil and corruption that we see around us. We must instead remain centered in the peace and love of Christ. We can’t foster hatred in our hearts, even for the most villainous characters in this story. To resist evil, in this kind of situation, we must absolutely speak truth to power, wherever and however we can, and we must work to hold our elected leaders accountable. But we must do both of those things, not with anger, fear, or hate in our hearts, but with humility and love, not seeing ourselves as better than anyone else, and recognizing that we are all part of an interconnected whole. The pain that we inflict on others, no matter how much we feel they may deserve it, we also inflict on ourselves. But the love and grace that we share with others, and the mercy and compassion that we show to others, helps smooth a constructive path forward for everyone.
Another way in which we resist evil and oppression is by staying true to the next of our baptismal promises—to show love and justice. We resist evil and oppression, and we show love and justice, by not letting the malicious actions of others distract us from doing the work of the body of Christ. And so we continue to do the work of feeding the hungry and sheltering the homeless. We continue to love our neighbor and advocate for justice. We continue to bind up the brokenhearted, and tend to the poor and the sick. We continue to listen for the cries of the marginalized and stand in solidarity with them. In the words of St. Francis, wherever there is hatred, we sow love, and where there is despair, we sow seeds of hope. In the face of violence, we become instruments of God’s peace. In other words, we resist evil by continuing to do good and by continuing to be the hands and feet of Christ in our world.
Finally, our baptismal vows call us to witness to the word and work of Jesus. There is a lot that we could say about this. But in the interest of time, I’ll try to be brief. To witness to something means to show the truth of it. And so if we are to bear witness to the word and work of Jesus, we must show others, through our words and our actions— indeed through our very lives— the truth of Jesus’ teachings and ministry. We can only do that, however, if we are endeavoring to follow those teachings ourselves. And I mean all of them— especially the really really hard ones, like loving and praying for our enemies, or not judging others, and not holding ourselves up as better than them. Witnessing to the work of Jesus means following in his footsteps—working to heal division rather than stoke it and reaching out across divides rather than helping to dig the trenches between us.
There is so much more that can be said about all of this. We’ve only just scratched the surface. But I want to close this morning by going back to something I said earlier— Christ has called us to be the light of the world. We are called to be bearers of the light. We are called upon to show others a path forward when a path forward seems impossible, because we know that nothing is impossible with God. Our task, as disciples of Christ, is to inject more love and light into the world in whatever small ways that we can. Our task, as followers of the Way, is to counter the politics of anger and cynicism with a commitment to the politics of hope and possibility. Remember what we proclaimed on Christmas Eve, just a short time ago— that there is a light that shines in the darkness and the darkness shall not overcome it. Well friends, that light was born in us this Christmas. We are the bearers of that light, and therefore, we have a solemn responsibility to bear that light wherever and however we can.