Sermon Archives

A Mid-January Morn

Rev. Daniel A Smith
Sun, Jan 13

Readings: Isaiah 43: 1-7 and Luke 3: 15-17, 21-22

            Friends, welcome once again to this “Baptism of Jesus” Sunday. Truth to tell, this is one of my favorite Sundays in our liturgical calendar. Here’s why. By now, our holiday trees, lights and decorations are down (if only to take advantage of curbside recycling). Our Happy New Year greetings have faded. Our wondering aloud or in journals what the year will bring gives way to more mundane reflections. By January 13th or so, we are contemplating a release from the pressure of resolutions, whether we made them or not. Admittedly, you can see how short a half-life I have on my resolutions! In any case, we tend to resume many of our daily patterns and routines. I love this Sunday in part because we enter it with fewer expectations and, if we let the Spirit and scripture and music do their work in our hearts, we can leave with a profound and surprising gift. For here, in our texts especially, is a lasting reminder of God’s ongoing resolve to refresh our spirits, restore our souls, and remind us what God is doing in creation, no matter what our limited view may be. I wonder if you can hear it too, if you can feel it, and not only in the fabulous music that Issa, Marcia and Nola are bringing us this morning,

 We heard it in those remarkable lines that Lexi read. “But now thus says God who created you...Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.” We heard it again in the words that the Spirit imparts to Jesus. Knee-deep in those cool waters of the Jordan, he hears: “You are my beloved child, with you I am well-pleased.” 

 If we can let these words wash over us, or maybe just give us a gentle splash in the face, there is a kind of refreshment here. Like an underground channel, like a mountain or spring, it carries God’s everlasting resolve to love us, to redeem us, to welcome us, to honor our unique names and our dignity! But first, consider for a moment who is standing next to Jesus, and why they are there. Earlier in the chapter when John first comes on the scene, we learn that John offers “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Jesus joins those first century Palestinians in a ritual that at the time was considered an act of humble contrition. Jesus joins with the unclean, joins them in profound solidarity with their remorse and regrets, their need for a fresh start, their need to be washed, cleansed, forgiven and freed of their human tendency to sin and grow separate from God, from one another, and from their truest selves. And, at the exact moment when Jesus embodies his solidarity with broken humanity, God’s sweet, sweet Spirit descends upon Jesus like a dove and says, “You are my Beloved!”  As I’ve preached before on this Sunday, the story of Christ’s baptism is one that lifts up our ‘dual yearning’  to be human, to be just one of the crowd, warts and all, and to be unique, to be special, to be loved, distinguished and dignified, as we are, because God made us and we are hers!  

 If nothing else, perhaps we can find in God’s resolve here, and in God’s words, a refreshing rejoinder to the kind of resolve we’ve been encountering out of Washington lately. Yesterday marked the longest government shutdown in U.S. history. Furloughed federal employees, including TSA agents and Coast Guard families right here in Boston, are still showing up to serve and yet they are also showing up at local food banks, dipping into college and retirement savings, going into debt or worse, all because of an utterly infuriating political showdown about building a wall at our borders.

 Trump says, “Keep them out!” In Isaiah, God says, “Gather them in.” Did you hear that astonishing contrast in our text? Granted, the version in Isaiah is somewhat tribal. God is speaking to the diaspora of Jews who have been scattered and is willing to give other nations —Egypt, Ethiopia and Seba— in return for them. Scholars have inferred these may be mere allusions to already expected Persian conquests or perhaps symbols of far, far away of places, the point being God is God and God can do whatever she wants. Still, the message of in-gathering from all corners is compelling. “Do not fear, for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you;  I will say to the north, ‘Give them up,’ and to the south, ‘Do not withhold; bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the end of the earth--everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.’” 

 Several weeks ago, near the end of a session within my spiritual director’s office, we came to a conversation about regret. I told him I wanted to explore more with him what a spiritual practice of regret might look like. We weren’t just talking about my project, mind you, about collective recognition of regret about long-unchecked patterns of inequality. There was more of a personal dimension to our discussion. At the very end of the session he said something that has stayed with me. Perhaps recalling my recent travels, he said to me, in essence: “Think about the Berlin Wall! There wasn’t a war nor single event that led to its being torn down.” He said “it came down because both sides were able to recognize within themselves and within each other that both sides held dignity and both sides held regret.” Think of God’s promises of redemption, “I will redeem you” coupled with the lines, “and you are precious.” Think of John’s baptism of repentance coupled with “You are my beloved.”  As we have now turned the corner of the new year and return to our routines, patterns, and maybe some of those pesky vices too, isn’t it a sweet and refreshing thing to hear this message that God sees both our regrets and our dignity, that God holds them both and still comes to us, still comes seeking us to meet us and gather us in, ever trying to break down those walls that would separate us from our truest selves and from each other?

 The mechanistic, utterly colonizing, wall building, instincts of this nation did not begin and will not end with Trump. These seemingly impenetrable walls between North and South, East and West, liberals and conservatives, Dems and Republican, even our internal barriers, won’t come down until both sides are refreshed and restored through something like a baptism of repentance. The walls won’t come down until both sides can recognize that we humans can and must hold our regrets and our dignity at the very same time, in a solidarity that crosses every boundary and in a pride that celebrates the inherent worth of every person. 

 As most of you know, we’ve recently been examining our almost 400 year history of inequality, our slaveholding and colonizing ways, that have kept countless thousands locked in four walled cells, that have doubled-down on party lines and national borders! 

 As evidence that we’ve just begun to do this work, at least for me, I discovered only this year in my research what the name of the land on which we are standing was originally called. Not Newtowne, as our colonial settlers first called it. As Wendy Warren writes, when “Captain John Smith, already famous for his encounter with Pocahontas, wrote his treatise on New England[,] Smith’s “Description of New England” offered prospective investors a seductive tour of the northeastern coast of North America; even his rhetorical flourishes showed colonizing tendencies. His dedication entreated Prince Charles, heir apparent to the throne, to “change [the region’s] Barbarous names, for such English, as posterity may say, Prince Charles was their Godfather.” Charles seems to have listened. Thus for Europeans did “Accominticus” become Boston,  and “Aumoughcawgen” become “Cambridge.”

 Aumoughcawgen!  Have you ever heard that name for this land which existed long before the days of the Puritans and Pilgrims?

 In the introductory note to his 1975 Pulitzer-winning book of poetry, called Turtle Island, Gary Snyder explains what our broader land was called and what many Native American and First Nations people still call it. He writes:

 “Turtle Island—the old/new name for the continent, based on many creation myths of the people who have been living here for millennia, and reapplied by some of them to "North America" in recent years. Also, an idea found world-wide, of the earth, or cosmos even, sustained by a great turtle or serpent- of-eternity.

 A name: that we may see ourselves more accurately on this continent of watersheds and life-communities-plant zones, physiographic provinces, culture areas; following natural boundaries. The "U.S.A." and its states and counties are arbitrary and inaccurate impositions on what is really here.

 Snyder continues:

 [These] poems speak of place, and the energy-pathways that sustain life. Each living being is a swirl in the flow, a formal turbulence, a "song." The land, the planet itself, is also a living being—at another pace. Anglos, Black people, Chicanos, and others beached up on these shores all share such views at the deepest levels of their old cultural traditions—African, Asian, or European. Hark again to those roots, to see our ancient solidarity, and then to the work of being together on Turtle Island."

And allow me to share one of his poems before I close:

 

Ah to be alive

on a mid-September morn

fording a stream

barefoot, pants rolled up,

holding boots, pack on,

sunshine, ice in the shallows,

northern rockies.

 

Rustle and shimmer of icy creek waters

stones turn underfoot, small and hard as toes

cold nose dripping

singing inside

creek music, heart music,

smell of sun on gravel.


 I pledge allegiance

 

I pledge allegiance to the soil

of Turtle Island,

and to the beings who thereon dwell

one ecosystem

in diversity

under the sun

With joyful interpenetration for all. 


To be alive to this refreshing vision on a mid-September or a mid-January morn! To be alive and awake to this vision amidst the wilderness of our inner lives and struggles, amidst that tension between regret and dignity, even amidst the profound chaos of this turbulent time with its talk of building walls, this is what I believe God is calling us to. As with the sprinkling renewal of our own baptismal vows that happened here for many us last Saturday evening as part of our Epiphany celebration, may it awaken and enliven our world-weary spirits to a new light and hope that God promises. May it set us knee deep in that ever flowing stream of God’s everlasting pledge to love us and gather us in ‘that all may be one.’  Even now, as we are “singing inside” that “creek music” and “heart music,” may we too experience the sweet Holy Spirit’s resolve to celebrate our dignity and diversity and may we ourselves revive our pledge to live accordingly!

 

There's a sweet sweet spirit in this place

And I know that it's the spirit of the Lord

There are sweet expressions on each face

And I know that it's the presence of the Lord

 

Sweet, Holy Spirit

Sweet heavenly dove

Stay right here with us

Filling us with your love

 

And for these blessings

We lift our hearts in praise (hearts in praise)

Without a doubt we'll know

That we have been revived

When we shall leave this place

Please pray for the victims and their families who were terrorized at the Chabad of Poway Synagogue in California.

Please attend the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization (GBIO) Healthcare Assembly on May 29 from 7 until pm. The location is TBD, and will be announced soon.

To address institutional racism, please call your state representative and Senator, and ask for abolishment of mandatory minimums in sentencing. Ask them to contact the Joint Committee dealing with this legislation. For more background on this...