Sunday, January 24, 2016

Our Church's Photo Album (1/24/16)

Our Church’s Photo Album
John Shuck
January 23, 2016

[Special thanks to Rev. Fran Hayes.  She is the pastor of Littlefield Presbyterian Church in Dearborn, Michigan.  I borrowed a lot of great information from her for this sermon!]

Today we are dedicating our new hymnal.  First a quiz:

Finish the lines of these hymns:

God of the Sparrow, God of [the whale]

Here I am Lord.  Is it I, Lord.  [I have heard you calling in the night]

I’m Gonna Live so   [God can use me]

Morning Has Broken  [Like the first morning]

You did pretty well.   These songs and many others are part of us.   They may be “heart songs” -- songs that have found a place in our hearts.   Here is the deal.  All of those hymns plus many others were unfamiliar to Presbyterian congregations before the 1990 hymnal.    Many of the songs that were new to us in 1990 are now favorites—heart songs.

Why do we need a new hymnal?  What is the matter with the old one? 

Nothing of course. There is nothing wrong with the old hymnal.  It served us for a generation.   There is nothing more wrong with the 1990 hymnal than there is wrong with the photo album you put together in 1990 of your family.  It is a great photo album.    It is great looking through the pictures of the family from 25 years ago. 

But since 1990, the family looks a little different.  The existing members have become a bit more mature.  Some are not there.  There may some new family members.   Good thing we didn’t stop taking pictures twenty-five years ago.    We have tended to grow fond of some of these new family members.    So we ought to take their picture with our cell phones and load them on our computerized photo album.  That was something we didn’t do in 1990. 

My mother has stacks of photo albums of photos she took  from the 1950s up until a few years before she died.    She also inherited albums from her mother and her husband’s mother.  When I made a family history book about 15 years ago, I took many of those old photos and reproduced them as well as new photos and made a new album.    I had to be selective.    In doing so I was creating our family’s story.  It is probably time to do that again.

In a similar way, the church’s hymnal of our larger Presbyterian family gets updated about once per generation.   We look different that we did 25 years ago.   We have grown.  We have changed.   Our photo album, our hymnal reflects that change.   

There is nothing wrong with our old hymnal.   There is something right about a living vibrant tradition that continues to re-create itself. Many of the hymns have become like our theology, less focused on beliefs and more metaphorical.   More hymns reflect our multi-cultural reality.   More inclusive in language.   More hymns focus on social justice.   These have been added over the years.

Singing has been part of our religious and spiritual practice since well the beginning of religion and spirituality.   One of the oldest texts in the Hebrew Scriptures is a song.   Miriam, the sister of Moses, sang a victory song after crossing the sea escaping from the Egyptians.    The Psalms are a collection of songs for worship.  

Likewise, music has been part of Christian worship since the church began.  One of my favorite Bible stories is of Paul and Silas singing hymns in jail.   They have inspired more than one protest movement.    

Throughout the medieval period, the Gregorian Chant was the music that shaped worship.    Mostly sung by choristers. 

Martin Luther gave the church an upgrade, in part by enlivening the music.  He took popular tavern tunes and put theological words to them.  When you think of it, you can imagine singing loudly “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” while waving your beer stein.    

Luther realized that people would learn their theology through music.  He wrote many congregational songs.   While Luther would allow any text to be sung in worship unless he deemed it unbiblical, Calvin was a bit more stern.  Only scriptural texts put to music were good for him, such as the Psalms put to music with no accompaniment.  

There are songs from our new hymnal from the Genevan Psalter of 1551, such as number #330, “Our Help Is In the Name of God.”    As Presbyterians moved to Scotland they formed their psalter, the Scottish Psalter.  An example is on page 168 “Within Your Shelter Loving God.”

Presbyterians sang metered songs from the Psalter until the early to mid 1800s.   Some branches still sing only metered psalms.     Other traditions were a bit more creative.     We have a number of hymns in our hymnbook created by Isaac Watts, the “Father of English Hymnody.”    #32 “I Sing the Mighty Power of God.” 

Presbyterians have since allowed Methodist heresy to make it in to our hymnals.   One of my heart hymns is by Charles Wesley, “Love Divine:  All Loves Excelling” is in our hymnal #366.   

The Second Great Awakening led to gospel songs.  Fanny Crosby and others made music for revivals and camp meetings.   We sing some of those such as “Blessed Assurance”,  “To God Be the Glory” and “Open My Eyes that I Might See.”

There have been seven hymnals in our stream of the Presbyterian Church in the United States.  The first was in 1831.  This was the church’s first move away from singing only psalms in worship.  

The next hymnal came in 1874 when the new school and the old school reunited. 

The next was a hymnal published during the heat of the fundamentalist-modernist controversy in 1911.
The next was the green hymnal published in 1933.

In 1955 the red hymnal was published following World War Two and the height of the Cold War about the time Southminster started.

In 1972, Presbyterians came out with the blueish gray Worshipbook.   That was about the time Jim Peterson arrived.     Jim was here for over a generation and the hymnal we have just finished using was published when he was here in 1990.    That hymnal came out when I was in seminary and was the hymnal that nurtured by own children.   

Since 1911, it has been about every 20 years or so, a generation, that the church feels the call to revise our “photo album.”  There is only so much room.  You need to add new pictures.  What to do with the old ones?  Some are keepers that you never want to lose.  Some were interesting for a time but they can be replaced.    When our Presbyterian family needs to update its “photo album” of hymns it wrestles with what hymns are our “heart songs,” that have been with us, what hymns are we as a new generation singing, and how do we put it together. 

The formation of this committee for the new hymnal began in 2004.  The new hymnal was published in September 2013.  None of the members of this committee, not one, is completely happy with it.   What that means is that no individual person agreed with all of the decisions of what hymns to include and what to leave behind.   Each of us would do better for our own selves in choosing our own favorite hymns!  This congregation could not create a hymnal for itself that everyone would like.   But, it isn’t about that.  It is about the breadth of songs that speak to our hearts.   It isn’t so important that I always sing my favorite heart song.  It is of more importance that I am in community with the person next to me who knows and loves  different heart songs.   If we each learn each other’s songs our hearts might be touched even more. 

This new hymnal has about 800 hymns.  Half of them are new, that is, that have not been in previous Presbyterian hymnals.   About 60% of the 600 hymns in the 1990 hymnal are in this new one.

The order of the hymnal is such that the saga of the Christian story is seen in its fullness, so as we sing the hymns we sing the theology of the church. 
Some songs will be new.  People write hymns every day.  Some will be from the global church.  These are hymns from different cultures.   These will have different rhythms.  They will help us recognize that we all are neighbors.

The first two hymns in our mini-hymn sing are from that 19th century American gospel tradition, “I Love to Tell the Story” and “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.”    I sang them growing up Baptist. You may have known them as well. 

“Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” has been made popular by Iris Dement and Alan Jackson.   They bring a little of the American South to the Pacific Northwest. 

For the rest of the worship service we are going to have a mix of hymn singing and a few poems.  I will make a brief introduction of the hymns as we get to them.   Get our your hymnal and let’s sing!


[Part 2]

Here are three new songs for our photo album. 

Our theology changes as we change.   One of the huge changes that have happened in the last 25 years is theological language for God.   Our metaphors for God reflect the variety of the human experience.  Thomas Troeger’s hymn, Source and Sovereign, Rock and Cloud, uses a variety of images for God.   These images shine a different hue on the traditional metaphor of the Trinity.

Glory to God is the title of the hymnal.  This hymn may be the hymnals’ signature song.   These words are the words of the angels to the shepherds sung to a Peruvian tune. 

This third song, Give us Light, Give us Life, Give us Peace, is a beautiful song from India.  


[Part 3] 

Inclusivity is a major theme of the new hymnal.  So the committee was intentional about including hymns that celebrated diversity and inclusion

The words to the hymn “For Everyone Born, A Place at the Table” were written by Shirley Erena Murray.    The hymn was ‘evoked’ as she put it “by the UN Declaration of Human Rights” and her involvement with Amnesty Internationsl.   She said “it should be sung at a spirited pace.”  

The second song, When Hands Reach Out and Fingers Trace” was written by Presbyterian minister Carolyn Winfrey GilletteThis hymn celebrates the breadth of human diversity and the variety of gifts and abilities through which God’s people serve the church and world.

The tune, O WALY WALY is a traditional English melody associated with the song "O Waly, Waly, gin love be bony.”  It is also well known in the Appalachian region of the United States.


[Part 4]

We take a final peek at our photo album with more new hymns.

“He Came Down” is  Christmas song celebrating the incarnation.  It is a traditional Cameroon piece.

“As the Wind Song Through the Trees” is another beautiful song by Shirley Erena Murray.  The music was composed by Lim Swee Hong  of Singapore.  He is the author of the book “Giving Voice to Asian Christians.” 

 “Heleluyan, We Are Singing” is a Muscogee hymn.  “Heleluyan” is the Muscogee (Creek) word for “Alleluia.”   This Muscogee hymn is a Trail of Tears song, a testimony that their Christian faith was more powerful than their mistreatment by those who took away their ancestral homelands. Revered and cherished, it remains the most popular Muscogee hymn sung in churches in Oklahoma.

The closing hymn, “Siyahamba” is Zulu for “We are Marching” or “We are Walking.”  This hymn from South Africa has been popular since the 1990s and now in the new Presbyterian hymnal.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Fierce Love (1/17/2016)

Fierce Love
John Shuck

Southminster Presbyterian Church
Beaverton, Oregon
January 17, 2016
Martin Luther King

When I speak of love I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response. I am speaking of that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life. Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality.
                                                                                               --Martin Luther King

“The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”   

That powerful statement of hope has been attributed to Martin Luther King.   But when King said it he was quoting someone else.   That someone else was Rev. Theodore Parker. 

Theodore Parker was a Unitarian minister.   He was a Transcendentalist in the school of thought of Ralph Waldo Emerson.   A graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Divinity School, he embraced higher criticism of the Bible.   He dismissed orthodox Christianity including the Trinity and the divinity of Christ.  He rejected the miracles, realized the Bible was filled with errors, and he thought that religion should be located in personal experience. 

He believed in the immortality of the soul.  He was a theist.   He believed that God was known through personal experience and intuition.  He was also a universalist.   He believed that God would lose no one.  He said that Calvinist Theology was “cruel and unreasonable.”   Most pulpits in Boston would not let him preach.  They didn’t consider him a Christian and his views lost him many friends.  

Nevertheless he found his voice and a place to share it.  In 1845 his supporters formed the Congregational Society of Boston and installed Parker as minister.  His congregation included such notables as Louisa May Alcott, William Lloyd Garrison, Julia Ward Howe, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.  It grew to 7000.  He died at the age of fifty from Tuberculosis just before the beginning of the Civil War. 

Parker was involved in almost every reform movement you could name.    An early biographer of Parker’s provided a list:  "peace, temperance, education, the condition of women, penal legislation, prison discipline, the moral and mental destitution of the rich, [and] the physical destitution of the poor."  He denounced the Mexican War and urged his fellow Bostonians to protest the war.   

No reform issue was more pressing for him than the abolition of slavery.   He urged people to violate the Fugitive Slave Law passed in 1850 that required the return of escaped slaves to their owners.  Many fugitive slaves were part of his congregation. He hid slaves in his own home.   He walked the talk.  He supported abolitionist John Brown who many had considered a terrorist.  He supplied money for munitions to the free states in the battle for Kansas.   

By the time he died in 1860 the abolition of slavery was in no way assured.   Yet he held on to hope and wrote:

"I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice."

That is the original quote.   Over one hundred years later when our nation seethed with inequality and hatred, when African-Americans faced daily humiliation and injustice in a violent, segregated society, 100 years after a Civil War that was fought over slavery, another preacher, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. reframed Rev. Theodore Parker’s hope in one simple sentence:

“The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”

Martin Luther King never thought the civil rights movement was about him.  He never pretended to have started it or to have birthed the theology that instructed it, or created the rhetoric that inspired it.    King knew and stated that he stood on the shoulders of those before him.   His speeches and sermons are filled with the wisdom of the ages.    Much of that wisdom came from the Bible.  Much of it came from thinkers and activists from a wide variety of traditions, including Theodore Parker.

I think King would be ambivalent about a national holiday that bears his name.   He would be in favor of a day, one day better than none, that calls our focus and attention to the struggle, the ongoing struggle for dignity, for racial equality, for nonviolent resistance to all forms of oppression, for the demolition of the military industrial complex, and for the reorienting of priorities toward the poorest of our citizens as opposed to the welfare of the wealthiest corporate elite.   

That is a lot to do in one day.

King might be in favor of at least one day of the 365 devoted to the incarnation of love.   This is not a sentimental love or an ivory tower theological love.   This is a feet on the street love, a pen to paper or finger to keyboard love, a chained to a bulldozer love, a fingerprinted and mugshot-framed love.   This is a standing up to bullets and bullies love.  This is a love that won’t take “sorry, this is just the way it is” for an answer.  

This is a love that knows the mocking and derision by those in power.    Love knows that arrogant smirk.  Love knows and feels the rage of injustice and Love knows the desire to lash out, to return evil with evil.   Love knows it.  Love feels it. Love feels the pain of rejection and humiliation.   Love hears the name-calling. Love understands that hopeless, small feeling.   Love knows that self-doubt.   Love feels the burn of shame. 

Love knows something else.  Love knows something far more powerful than the so-called powerful.    Love knows that it will last at the end of things.   Love knows as Martin Luther King put it that the choice is not between violence and non-violence.  The choice is between non-violence and non-existence.  Love knows that if the human species, this evolutionary experiment, is to survive for even another century it will only be because of Love.    Love is the energy of gut-wrenching rage at injustice transformed into actions of justice and reconciliation.  It is not Love unless and until it includes the enemy.     Love is a miracle.  Love is the miracle of the desire, in fact, even the justice for revenge, melted down and reshaped into a new creation.      

Martin Luther King didn’t invent this love.  He did bear witness to it.   But he wasn’t the only one by any means.   Of course.   He would be ambivalent to have his face, his name, and his birthday be the focus of something that is so much larger than him.    Yes, we need to know the history of the Civil Rights movement in the United States.   We need to know the events, and the dates, and people and places and to teach them to our children.   But this history is much more than what happened from 1954 to 1968.   We need to know that we are not today recollecting a series of past events.   This history is an ongoing story.   It is the ongoing witness and practice of scarred Love.

Love is not pretty.  It is not a red Valentine’s Day heart with a naked Cupid shooting his arrow.  Love is not a sentimental wish on a Hallmark Card.   Love is not soft music and a white light of escape.  Love is not a saccharine niceness that says, “Bless your heart” to your face then gossips behind your back.    Love is not a big church sign that says, “Everyone is welcome.”  Then when you go in you learn the unwritten rule.    You are welcome unless you are Black or Gay or welcome only if you are Theologically Correct or Politically Connected or Dressed for Success or whatever else you are not.    Love is none of that phony stuff.  

Love is a scar.     The central symbol of Love in the Christian tradition is the crucified Christ.   Despite many of its misrepresentations, it is the most powerful symbol I know of scarred Love.     The crucified and risen Christ symbolizes the truth of pain, injustice, hatred, violence, and humiliation, transformed into hope, dignity, new life, renewed relationships, joy, and possibility.    The image of the risen Christ bearing the scars of the cross is not there to beat up on us for our sins or to be morbid.    It shows us that the deepest pain and humiliation and hopelessness is not beyond hope.    Love is larger than any one life.

Scarred Love is seen anytime a person is able to take their pain and allow it to be transformed into a gift.    It is counter-intuitive.  You can’t tell people to do it.  It is not a commandment.   It is only Love when it is freely entered.  When a person could by all means keep and hold the pain and anger for a lifetime and by all rights never would be blamed for doing so, nevertheless, when she or he chooses and allows that pain and mistreatment to become something else, something reconciling, that is scarred Love. 

Emmett Till was a fourteen year-old boy.  He lived up north in Chicago and was visiting his cousins in Money, Mississippi.  The year was 1955.  He didn’t know the ways of the South and the unwritten rules that had been in place for generations. He didn’t know that his place as an African-American was to be silent.  He didn’t know about the importance of downcast eyes and moving to the side when a white person approached.    

He didn’t know it was more than a joke one day in a drugstore to act on a dare and talk fresh to a white woman.    “Bye Baby” he said to her on his way outside.   I am sure he thought that at most he would receive a stern reprimand for speaking disrespectfully to an adult.   

He had no idea that two white men would come to his uncle’s house, to the home of Mose Wright, and demand at gunpoint that he come with them for a ride.  He had no idea that getting in the car with them would be the last ride he would ever take.  

When they found his body at the bottom of the Tallahatchie River, scarred, beaten, and shot through the head, it was so disfigured that he was unrecognizable save for his ring.   In fact, one of the lame arguments of the defense was that his body was so disfigured it couldn’t be proved that it was Emmett Till.  

His mother, Mamie Till, decided to have an open casket funeral.   Photos were taken of his body in the coffin and they appeared in Jet Magazine.  She wanted the world to see what they had done to her boy.   

At the trial an all-white jury found the defendants not guilty. Emmett’s mother, Mamie Till, said she hadn’t expected anything different.    It was the way it was in 1955 in Mississippi.   In 1956, protected by double jeopardy, in a magazine article, the two white men who had been found not guilty, admitted to killing Emmett Till.

But Mamie Till said something else on national television.  She said that while nothing could be done for her baby that maybe if the world knew and if change could come, her boy wouldn’t have died in vain.   The murder of Emmett Till, and the injustice of the trial was another spark for the civil rights movement.     She travelled the country telling the story of her boy.   The story of scarred Love.

Her pain and the scarred body of her son could have been the end of that family’s story.   No one would or could blame her for that.   It could have been a quiet funeral.  She could have stayed away from the cameras.  She could have in her grief refused talk about her son, refused the hostile questions asked by the white press.    She didn’t.  You couldn’t command her to do what she did.  You couldn’t expect her to do what she did.  

Scarred love is not sentimental.   Scarred love is fierce love.   It is longer and larger than any one life, but it knows every life.   Love requires the greatest of courage.  Love is the power to tell our experience, to show our scars, and to trust that the scars are not the last word but an entrance to the eternal word. 

It is a word that rings true and will ring true.   In the midst of all the pain, love will endure. 

The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.


Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Fire and Spirit (1/10/16)

January 10, 2016
Baptism of the Lord Sunday
 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, ‘I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing-fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’ Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’   Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
Several years ago a friend wrote on my blog that she was going to be baptized. I told her it was dangerous business. Look what happened to Jesus. I am serious. I told her that once you are baptized, truth, justice, compassion, peace (Jesus kind of stuff) will make demands on you and gnaw at your conscience until you are dead.
This is point eight of the eight points of progressive Christianity:
Recognize that being followers of Jesus is costly, and entails selfless love, conscientious resistance to evil, and renunciation of privilege.
That to me is a pretty good definition of baptism. You may have been baptized as a baby or as a teenager or even an adult. You can even join a community, and never think a thing about it.
That is until one day you are reminded that baptism has something to do with how you will live your life. It is just a sprinkle of water on the head. There is no compulsion.
But, you know.
When there is injustice in the world and you want to turn and look the other way, you know that you have been baptized.
When you are given the choice between deception and truth, you can choose the deception, but you will know.
Baptism is a reminder that being followers of Jesus is costly, and entails selfless love, conscientious resistance to evil, and renunciation of privilege.
There is a liturgical tradition that I haven’t had much luck in implementing. I think the flower industry is too powerful. This tradition relates to funerals. It involves placing a white pall over the casket and nothing else. No flowers, pictures, ribbons, or bows. The white pall is a symbol that one’s baptism is complete in death.
I realize that I won’t have much say in the matter. But if any of you are around when I am dead, and my remains are placed in some box, just drape it if you would with a white sheet. It will signify that I have finished making trouble, and that my baptism is complete.
Today is Baptism of the Lord Sunday. The baptism of Jesus is recounted in the four gospels. Historical Jesus scholars say that amidst all the legends about Jesus in the gospels he likely was really baptized by John the Baptist.
The reason is because it was embarrassing. As the tradition develops about Jesus and he becomes more and more divine like and sin-free the story that he was baptized for forgiveness of sins became troublesome. Why would Jesus the sinless, perfect, son of God, need to be baptized?
Another problem is that if John baptized Jesus, then John was the leader and Jesus the follower. Historical Jesus scholars also suggest that Jesus was originally a follower of John the Baptist, then broke away and started his own movement.
The gospel writers covered over that tradition by attempting to explain away this baptism.
Scholars call this the Criterion of Embarrassment. It doesn’t make sense that Jesus would be baptized by John. That would make Jesus a follower of John and a person who needs a baptism for forgiveness of sin. It doesn’t fit the developing theology about Jesus.
Therefore, it likely was an historical event that was known and had to be spun, so to speak.
A plausible historical reconstruction is that Jesus, a human being like every one else, heard John’s preaching, wanted a baptism for forgiveness of sins and became a follower of John the Baptist. Later Jesus broke away from John and started his own movement.
When we finally get to the gospel accounts of Jesus, each goes to great lengths to explain away this embarrassing situation by having John the Baptist be a precursor, a subordinate, to Jesus.
We should take a moment and recall what happened to John the Baptist. He lost his head. He called out empire and its minions in regards to justice. John’s movement was about justice.
Jesus learned from John. He was infused with John’s passion. He took John’s baptism seriously and in his own movement, he felt the weight of that passion. I don’t think John’s baptism was just a baptism for forgiveness of sin, some kind of pious I am so miserable act. It was an act of passion and commitment.
Later, the gospel of Mark recounts this interesting scene:
James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, ‘Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.’ And he said to them, ‘What is it you want me to do for you?’ And they said to him, ‘Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.’ But Jesus said to them, ‘You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?’
Here baptism means more than being baptized by water or baptized for forgiveness. Mark, and I think this reflects the historical Jesus introduces something new about the meaning of baptism. Jesus uses this conversation to explain baptism.
When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, ‘You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’
Baptism has a danger associated with it. For Jesus, according to Mark, baptism is associated with giving one’s life. It is being different than the nations – the Gentiles. In the Jesus community, power is different. In the world as it is power is power over. You know how Caesar runs the world. In my world, says Jesus, things are different. Power is power shared.
Jesus says in effect, “Listen folks, if you want to hang out with me, you need to be baptized and drink the cup I drink. It isn’t about getting to heaven. It isn’t about getting privileges of membership. It isn’t about bossing others around.”
Baptism and the cup are symbols of danger. They are symbols of risk.
You want to be baptized? You may end up dead for it. I would advise against it.
Baptism is dangerous business.
It is not about assenting to creeds or to some sort of metaphysical philosophy. It is not a ticket to the afterlife or an expression of Christian superiority. None of that.
Baptism is first a sign that we are embraced and loved by Spirit, by Life, by God without conditions. I learned this from Presbyterians.
We spend our lives trying to justify our existence, to prove our worth, if we believe in God, to seek God’s favor. Presbyterians taught me this important truth:
There is nothing we can do to make God love us more.
There is nothing we can do to make God love us less.
Baptism is a sign of radical grace. The Divine Mystery that pervades the universe is within each of us. It is the humble recognition that before we know ourselves, we are known. If we forget that, we remember our baptism. That is the sign of that truth.
All religious traditions have a way of expressing that truth in some form. Baptism is the Christian way. It is not a symbol that separates us from other human beings, but connects us. It is the Christian way of saying we all belong. We all belong to each other, regardless of our religion, ethnicity, politics, status, whatever. When I remember my baptism I remember that I am a brother to every human being. Likewise, every human being is my brother or sister.
Secondly, it is a sign to live into that radical grace. As the eighth point of progressive Christianity states,
“…being followers of Jesus is costly, and entails selfless love, conscientious resistance to evil, and renunciation of privilege.”
Mary Oliver has an important poem that I have included in our communion liturgy for today. She concludes her poem with this line:
Love yourself. Then forget it. Then love the world.
I don’t know if she is Presbyterian, but that is good Reformed Theology. Baptism calls our attention away from ourselves so we don’t have to fret if we are good enough or cool enough or lovable enough. Yes. Love yourself.
The dove has landed. The dove has landed on you and the voice has pronounced the truth from the heavens:
“You are loved and lovable. You are the beloved.”
Now, get on with it. Accept it and love the world with passion and risk.
As I noted on my blog to the woman who was being baptized this Sunday that once you are baptized, truth, justice, compassion, peace (Jesus kind of stuff) will make demands on you and gnaw at your conscience until you are dead.
It was his baptism that led Martin Luther King to resist racism, poverty, and militarism with his mind, strength, and ultimately, his life.
It was baptism, that compelled Dietrich Bonhoeffer to return to his homeland in Germany and resist the Nazis, resist to his own execution.
It was baptism that compelled Rachel Corrie, a young Presbyterian woman to stand in front on an Israeli tank bulldozing Palestinian homes, and to lose her own life.
It was baptism that each day comforts the sick, feeds the hungry, offers a word and a compassionate embrace, cares for Earth, speaks up for the bullied, is grateful, laughs, weeps, seeks a deeper meaning, loves the world.
This baptism isn’t just a Christian thing. It is a Christian symbol for a human thing. It is a spirit of courage despite fear that infects people of conscience. Jew, Christian, Muslim, Humanist, whatever, catch the spirit of baptism when they allow their consciences to be raised and realize that they are being summoned to risk. To risk love.
Because of my baptism, I cannot look at the situation in Gaza and say it is not my problem. My baptism will not allow me to excuse myself from the violence by saying they are always fighting over there. I can’t get away with trite analogies or lame explanations that lay the blame on someone else. My baptism requires that I look into my own complicity. I have to ask to what extent do I as a citizen of the United States contribute to this situation of apartheid and the violence and injustice that apartheid inevitably produces? I must ask to what extent this apartheid contributes to my privilege.
While I cannot claim that my baptism gives me the answers, it compels me to ask the hard questions. My baptism calls me to seek and to speak the truth. More importantly, it calls me to hear the truth when I would rather find comfort in my illusions. Ultimately, it is a call to action. It is a call to incarnate in our own lives compassion, justice, peace, and love.