BAPTISM OF OUR LORD
Prayer of the Day: O God our Father, at the baptism of Jesus you proclaimed him your beloved Son and anointed him with the Holy Spirit. Make all who are baptized into Christ faithful to their calling to be our daughters and sons, and empower us all with your Spirit, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
“Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
He will not cry or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed he will not break,
and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice.
He will not grow faint or be crushed
until he has established justice in the earth;
and the coastlands wait for his teaching.” Isaiah 42:1-4
“This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Matthew 3:17
As 2020 dawns, so do the presidential primaries. Already we are hearing the shrill cries of the contenders for and the defender of the oval office seeking to make their voices heard in the street, in print, over the airways and through the internet. This promises to be a bruising season as all but one wick must inevitably be extinguished. While the no holds barred tactics and over the top rhetoric promise to make this election more abrasive and divisive than we have seen in recent years, the process has always been ruthless with a lot of bruising and quenching along the path to glory. About the only thing to be said for republican democracy is that it manages the will to power in such a way that we avoid assassinations, rioting and the sight of tanks in our streets-so far at least.
By contrast, the Beloved Son raises neither his voice nor a sword. His way of “establish[ing] justice in the earth” does not involve seizing the levers of power. For that reason, he need not trouble himself with raising funds, whether in wine caves among the well heeled or through appeals over the internet to the anonymous masses. He is content to travel dusty roads from town to town, trusting in the hospitality of strangers and preaching the good news of God’s gentle reign to whomever will hear it. That does not sound like a winning strategy. But if the cost of winning is breaking a few bruised reeds along the way and quenching a few embers struggling to remain lit, Jesus is not interested. Jesus understands that bringing justice to the coast lands cannot be accomplished by conquest or electoral victory. Jesus has no interest in ruling the world by force. He will conquer it by persuasive, persistent and undying love-or not at all.
It is easy in times like these for the church to be drawn into the shouting match between partisan interests screaming their moral imperatives, advertising their calls to action and asserting their priorities-much of which are cast in terms of the interests of the nation state in which we reside rather than the reign of God under which we are called to live. This week at a gathering of evangelical Christians in Miami the President of the United States declared to a cheering crowd that “God is on our side.” Whether that was meant to refer to his military strikes against Iran or his upcoming re-election campaign or both is anybody’s guess. Either way, it amounts to an equation of God with the nation and its leaders’ political agenda. As such, it constitutes an idolatrous nationalism that, to date, our mainline churches have been shy about confronting head on. Perhaps that is because we, too, have been drawn into the political fray in more subtle ways and have tied our mission a little too closely to the fortunes of the American empire.
I am not suggesting that churches ought to steer clear of politics. We could not do that if we wanted. But we need to enter into the business of politics with a very clear and sober understanding of what it is, namely, the art of the possible. In a democratic republic, government is designed to create a framework of laws acceptable to a diverse population made up of groups with similar, overlapping and sometimes conflicting interests. Legislators must understand that, in order to get their highest priorities enacted, they must put others on the back burner or sacrifice them altogether. They must sometimes agree to drop their opposition to laws they find objectionable in order to win the support of other legislators whose votes need to get their own legislation passed. Hopefully, this process will evolve into an adequate, if not perfect arrangement under which everyone gets enough of what they need to live together in a measure of peace. That’s the intent, anyway.
While the church is not indifferent to the shape of the civil structures under which we live with our neighbors, its mission is to proclaim the reign of God. God’s reign is not the product of political evolution, but the result of God’s revolutionary incursion on the planet by way of Jesus’s incarnation, death and resurrection. In view of God’s resurrection of Jesus and seating him at God’s right hand, the rule and authority of all other sovereigns is rendered relative, temporary and contingent. The church is therefore not at liberty to yield its ultimate allegiance to any government, national leader or political party. Thus, for example, disciples of Jesus are not at liberty to “soft peddle” racial justice even though it is regarded by many progressive politicians as the “third rail” of American politics whose very touch can render them unelectable. So while it might make sound political sense for a candidate for office to put issues like reparations to descendants of African American slaves on the back burner in the interest of defeating Donald Trump in the 2020 election, for the church to do the same would be a faithless betrayal of the Lord to whom the church owes its highest allegiance. As tempting as it can be to settle for the “possible,” the “achievable” and the “lesser of evils,” disciples of Jesus know that justice can never be subordinated or delayed in the interest of some “higher good.” “Behold, now is the acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation.” II Corinthians 6:2. In God’s view, there are no higher goods than justice, righteousness and peace-all of which must be had together or not at all.
The long and short of it is this: disciples of Jesus must enter into the political realm with a willingness to lose elections, accept failure of their efforts and live with defeat. Faithfulness, not efficacy, is the measure by which political involvement (and all other Christian endeavors) must be judged. That is because the reign of God is not a distant future hope to be achieved, but a present reality given to us as sheer gift. Our political involvement, then, consists first and foremost of witness to the reality of God’s reign and the imperatives it places upon us. If along the way we accomplish something in the political realm, so much the better.
In Sunday’s gospel lesson God lets us know in no uncertain terms that the beloved Son is none other than the one who whose ministry fails spectacularly with his arrest, his followers’ desertion and his cruel execution. Everyone Jesus healed eventually died of something else. His preaching was misunderstood by most, ignored by many and opposed by some. It doesn’t always seem that Jesus left us with much and often it seems we have very little to offer the world or each other. Our world’s wounds are so very deep and our efforts so very frail. I think about that as I walk the beaches of Cape Cod picking up discarded bottles, plastic bags and deflated balloons-even as Australian forests burn, the polar ice fields melt and my government opens up the regulatory floodgates to pollutants we have spent forty years cleaning up. I wonder as I peel carrots for our town’s community walk in dinner what real world effect I can possibly have on the looming threat of global famine. Most days it seems as though our acts of kindness and mercy amount to little more than a thimble full of water thrown at a raging wild fie. As in the words of the poet, it often seems as though we have little more to offer than a frail opportunity, a mere chance for a better tomorrow in some small corner of the planet.
In the weeks to come, Jesus will let us know in no uncertain terms that his followers can expect nothing less than what he himself experiences. Yet because God raised up the crucified one who staked his life on a kingdom of which we can catch only fleeting glimpses, disciples of Jesus persist with living into that kingdom, as futile and ineffectual as that might seem. They know that they are part of something bigger than themselves. For them, as for Jesus, God’s reign is more real than the “political realities” that constrain the workings of nation states. God in God’s limitless compassion and generosity, takes up our little offerings of kindness and mercy and puts them to work in God’s undying mission to redeem and make new God’s creation.
Live and Let Live
It must have been born out of time,
that wasp I saw fly across the room,
startled evidently when the clock began to chime.
Cooped up indoors it would surely expire
from hunger, thirst, or a swift blow with the newspaper
wielded by my mother-in-law in her ire.
Outside on this cold December night
it stood hardly a better chance,
the dead grass and flowers being shrouded in icy white.
No friend of these creatures am I,
having known their venomous sting,their malicious humming in the sky.
To this one misplaced stranger, though,
I felt a certain kinship, a bond between myself
and this insect, my natural foe.
Desperately, I hoped he would survive,
yet knew the odds were stacked against him
and could not imagine how he’d stay alive.
I opened the window and let him fly.
He disappeared into the black of night.
The wind gave fourth a mournful cry.
So often it seems the most we have to give
is a lottery ticket, a quarter to the homeless beggar,
the hope, the possibility, the mere chance to live.