Saturday, February 18, 2017

Sermon for February 11, 2017

Orienteering100: Compassion is our Compass

 Let your compassion come to me that I may live, for your law is my delight.
Psalm 119:77

Since the election, psychologists report that their treatment agenda now includes addressing a palpable and perpetual societal angst. The trend seems made up of sadness, grief, fear, anger, frustration, and pronounced worry about societal catastrophe. I’m there myself. I find it very easy to feel lost these days? As I watch the news, as I talk to friends and members in the community, I feel like the path ahead is overgrown and impossible to find. But what do we do? Do we sit down and accept our fate? Do we find a point of light that will always help us find our way?

When I saw a kid in the scouts, we used to do something called orienteering.  We were given a map and a compass, with a few reference points and clues, and we raced along unfamiliar terrain to reach a sequence of checkpoints. There was no path. It was entirely up to the team to find the way through the forest. In order to choose the best possible route, orienteers look at the characteristics of the terrain and make quick decisions as they race to the checkpoints. I need some spiritual orienteering right now, because I feel like I am racing in uncharted territory, pulling the weight of the world without a map and compass. I feel like I cannot find the fixed reference points I counted on before. Where will we find those reference points? Today I want us to think about a tool we have to help us find our way. In orienteering 100, we all need to get out our compass and figure out how to use it.

Margaret Mead, the great anthropologist, was asked, “What is the sign of civilization that you have discovered that gives light and life to a culture?” The person who asked the question thought maybe she would say, “Well, it was when we discovered a clay pot that someone formed and molded.” Another would’ve thought, “Well, maybe it was a fish hook. That’s when civilization took hold, or maybe a grinding stone, an example of a larger way to be fed.” But Dr. Mead said something that took everyone off-guard. She said, “The first sign of civilization that I know anything about is a healed femur.” That’s the big bone that sits above the knee. “When we discovered that there was a person whose femur had healed we knew that someone else had taken care of that person, that that individual could no longer hunt or gather, and so someone else had to do those things for this individual, and because of that must have been a community spirit.”  It was, she said, “the burgeoning of compassion in civilization, and compassion is the evidence that a society is becoming a civilization.”

I love that! Compassion is what makes us advance as a civilization. Compassion is what begins to identify us as sophisticated creatures. Compassion is what gives direction to our lives. Compassion is our compass.

And compassion is in short supply. Compassion literally means to suffer with another. I’ve noticed that some people seem to think that compassion should be qualified. Conditional Compassion is an American way of thinking. We’ve been taught there are limits to compassion –only those who deserve help should get my attention. The word "deserving" masks an ugly philosophy, an idea that certain people (and certain people only) have it coming. They deserve whatever happens to them. And this attitude is ultimately based on nothing more than irrational double standards. Take for instance the idea of the “deserving poor” in our welfare debates. The deserving poor are those who are poor through no fault of their own, either because of illness, accident or age, or because there is no work available for them. The undeserving poor are perceived to be poor because of laziness or personal problems like addiction. American society has decided that the undeserving poor don’t deserve much help. We are told that we must be willing to step away and let those who have dug their own hole suffer the consequences of their misconduct.

When we set up dualities like deserving and undeserving, it leads to questions about entitlement and rights. Are both the deserving and undeserving entitled to medical care? Are both the deserving and undeserving to food and shelter for their children?  Do both the deserving and undeserving have a right to experience well-being and safety? Are we entitled to find work? To earn money and to keep the money we earn? Only when we learn to manage this balance between our own needs and those of others can we have genuinely satisfying, intimate relationships with other people.  Only when our compassion directs us to rethink who’s in and who’s out, who gets care and who does not, only then do we begin to find our way.

The Chinese are among the first people to have a recorded history of using a compass for navigation, on land and on sea. These first compasses relied on a natural magnet—a lodestone—to point in a consistent direction to set one’s bearings. The Chinese words for lodestone literally mean “loving stone.” Apparently the French word for magnet also means loving. It has to do with the power of attraction. Our compass of compassion is a magnetic force that guides us through the influence of attraction along the path of love.

Here’s what I think. I think I should not have to decide whether someone is worthy of my compassion. My compassion is too important for that. Compassion is my compass. Compassion points me in the right direction when its offered unconditionally and without judgment.

Here is where it gets really hard: To have compassion we must believe in the ultimate goodness of human nature -- to believe, as Anne Frank said, “that people are really good at heart.” We have to decide to love above all else — above our egos and pride, above our own fears and insecurities, and above our own hatred and hostility. We must fight the urge to lash out, even when there are truly legitimate reasons to do so.

I am trying to view the current political situation as a symptom of an ailing society. We as a collective force, must treat the illness. In order to treat the illness, we have to listen to all segments of society as they describe their symptoms. Some of those symptoms may be real. Some may be delusional. No matter what, we can take the opportunity to learn something from each other. Our politics, our media, even our churches are full of vitriol. We must never go there. No name calling. No swearing at those with whom we don’t agree. No ratcheting up arguments. No mockery. We make a commitment not be complacent and to never be silenced. But we can be reformers and revolutionaries and still listen with compassion and respond to faulty logic with kindness and respect.

I am all for acts of public resistance against those who seek to solidify their authority by obstructing the rights of others. We must speak truth to power. I also heed the warnings of both our historical political commentators and our spiritual ancestors: revolt and resistance that serves the motive of the individual ego can lead to violence and set up the resistors to become tyrants themselves. Today’s revolutionaries may become tomorrow’s dictators. Only when resistance springs from a commitment to the salvation of the other are the most courageous acts of solidarity born.

In The Compassionate Life, His Holiness the Dalai Lama helps us understand the nature of compassionate resistance. “Genuine compassion is based not on our own projections and expectations, but rather on the needs of the other: irrespective of whether another person is a close friend or an enemy, as long as that person wishes for peace and happiness and wishes to overcome suffering, then on that basis we develop genuine concern for their problem. This is genuine compassion.”

Ego-driven resistance feeds polarization. Other-driven resistance disarms it.

Can I show compassion without condition or restraint? Even if it means being taken advantage of? Even if it means giving of that which I value? I confess, those are difficult questions for me to answer. I have deep anger and fear right now. I must resist the enemies I make in my own heart if I want to resist the hate in the world. I must resist violence without becoming violent. I must resist the ceaseless din of division by re-connecting and listening deeply, on the most local level, to the voices of struggle and pain in my community.

Compassion is my compass. I must use it to help me move in the right direction, courageously.

Courageous Compassion means loving everyone, touching the pain without first mapping out the consequences; embodying love in action to those who offend us, to those who have hurt us, and to those who don't deserve a second chance (or a third or fourth); turning the status quo upside down with a commitment to love; confronting unjust family systems, religious systems, and economic or political systems that offer great gifts to insiders while pushing others to the side. In Christ's Reign, there are no insiders. No outsiders. We are all one nature, one flesh, one grief, and one hope. If we fail to love, we fail in everything else.

Over the next weeks, I will train my heart to listen to people at the grocery store, at the gas station, at the gym, at the office, in the neighborhood, and the people I see as I’m stuck in traffic. I will give myself permission to be inconvenienced by their pains. I will let myself be moved by compassion that is free from any strings. Who knows, these small acts of other-centered love might just feed an uprising of peace when each of us becomes engaged compassionately in our community and our world.


Sermon for February 5, 2017

Orienteering 100: Finding the Morningstar

I, Jesus, have sent my angel to give you this message for the churches. I am both the source of David and the heir to his throne. I am the bright morning star. Rev. 22:16

I can’t find my car anymore. It’s a new thing for me lately. I park somewhere in a large lot, like a mall, I go inside to shop, and when it’s time to go home, I can’t remember where I parked. I know the general vicinity where I parked, but it takes me a while to locate my car. The other night I was at the mall, and I could not find my way out of a department store. I knew about where my car was parked, but I could not find the door I entered the mall through. I ended up just going outside and walking the perimeter of the mall until I found where I parked. If it happened just once, I’d say it was a fluke. But, since it’s happened four or five times over the past two months, I think something is going on. I don’t think its dementia. I think it’s a crisis of awareness. Lately, my mind is such a blur. I am so distressed by the news. So outraged. So confused. It’s taking up my mental bandwidth. When I park somewhere and walk away, I’m in such a fog, I don’t stop and get my bearings. I don’t notice any signposts or landmarks. I’m so focused on doing the next thing, I’m not stopping to mark where I am at the moment.

It is easy to feel lost these days, isn’t it? At times it feels like the path ahead is overgrown and impossible to find. But what do we do? Do we sit down and accept our fate? Do we find a point of light that will always help us find our way?

When I saw a kid in the scouts, we used to do something called orienteering.  We were given a map and a compass, with a few reference points and clues, and we raced along unfamiliar terrain to reach a sequence of checkpoints. Sometimes we did it with all of our camping gear packed into sleds, pulling our way through the snow. There was no path. It was entirely up to the team to find the way through the forest. In order to choose the best possible route, orienteers look at the characteristics of the terrain and make quick decisions as they race to the checkpoints.

I need some spiritual orienteering right now, because I feel like I am racing in uncharted territory, pulling the weight of the world without a map and compass. I feel like I cannot find the fixed reference points I counted on before. The words of Dr. King come to mind when we said, “The world is all messed up. The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land. Confusion all around.”

Where will we find those reference points? How will we find our way? When shadows fall and navigators need to find the way home, we search the skies. Only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars.

Before compasses or sextants guided travelers, celestial navigation steered humanity across unimaginable distances from city to oasis, from island to island, from port to unknown shore.  Greek and Phoenician pilots, Viking navigators, Bedouin caravan leaders, Polynesian wayfinders: they marked the passages of sun and moon; they measured the time and speed of their travel, and they watched the stars. I think we have a story about that somewhere in the Gospels … Wise men who come from the east, following a star, searching for a new king.

Ancient navigators did find their way. They followed constellations across vast stretches of night into the safety of harbor and oasis and home.  When we feel lost, overwhelmed, when the currents of life seem too strong and deep, when the confusing spaces are too vast and intimidating, what will guide us across the tides and troubles of an impermanent life into harbors of hope and sanctuaries of compassion?

“Only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars,” said Dr. King. He went on in his sermon, “I see God working in this period of the twentieth century in a way that [people], in some strange way, are responding -- something is happening in our world. The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today, whether they are in Johannesburg, South Africa; Nairobi, Kenya: Accra, Ghana; New York City; Atlanta, Georgia; Jackson, Mississippi; or Memphis, Tennessee--the cry is always the same--"We want to be free." He preached that sermon the day before he was killed.

Only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars. How do we know that this is true? How do we know that God is at work even when things go from bad to worse?

The hope Dr. King preached didn’t come from nowhere. He didn’t wake up one morning and have a dream. He learned how to dream from African-American churchwomen. They cared for one another. They raised each other’s children, provided meals for the needy. They created communities of mutual aid; they ate together and cooked in each other’s kitchen. Communities of and care were the birthplaces of the Civil Rights movement. It took lots of work, lots of patience, lots of messy relationships. But it exploded into a movement of hope. It only happened with lots of love and lots of time.

In these times, it is easy to be discouraged. Disappointment, anger, and confusion are understandable—often reasonable—responses to the challenges we face. But we must do all we can to fight the slide into hopelessness. The year 2017 is not 1968, or 1860, or 1776. Our moment to protect and pass along the torch of justice is unique. But we must remember that the greatest threat we face is not terrorism, or environmental crisis, or nuclear proliferation, or the results of an election. The greatest threat is hopelessness. The greatest threat is not getting lost, but giving up.

If we are to overwhelm the forces of inequality and injustice—if we are to find our way, then we need to find hope. Not unbridled optimism, but realistic hope. It’s messy. It’s hard. It takes a long time. But we have each other. And we have our faith as a community of care. When we feel lost, when we can’t find our way, when we are disturbed, or confused, whether we are frozen with fear or our attention is split in a dozen directions, here is one thing we know; here is one thing we can believe in; here is one thing we can set our hopes on: the celestial marker that directs our way is the love of God for us and the love of God through us. We look to the Morning Star. We fix our steps on Christ.

The challenge is that sometimes the shadows feel so overwhelming, and the fog is so thick, it’s too hard to find the light. Someone has to point the way.

Author Robert Louis Stevenson, who was very ill as a child, recorded a childhood incident in his diary. He was seated by a window at nightfall, watching lamplighter light the streets below. His nurse came into the room and asked him what he was doing. “I’m watching a man poke holes in the darkness,” he replied.

That’s us, CCC. That’s us, Church. We are lamp-lighting people who punch holes in the gloomy night.

At CCC, I am convinced we punch holes in the shadows by showing the world what love looks like. We point to the Morning Star through our compassion. On the cover of the bulletin, you will see a logo we developed to help remind us of this. Thanks to Mark Thiel and Judy Cox for creating this design. There’s a lot going on in the image. First, notice the interplay between the words compass and compassion. We remember that at CCC, compassion guides us to Christ, our true north. If you look at the northern point of the compass, you will see a cross -- a reminder that it’s Christ who guides the work of the church, and that compassion is possible even in the midst of the worst pain. The words “compass” and “compassion” are connected to three concentric Cs. CCC is a place that can help us redirect our lives through acts of compassion and reminders of hope, always --  in all ways -- to Love.

We proclaim, no matter who you are, no matter where you come from, you are welcome here. We find our way to Christ by welcoming and including all people in God’s love.

A rabbi is said to have once asked his students, “When can we know that the night has ended and day begun?” “Is it the moment when you can tell the difference between a sheep and a dog?” asked one student. “No, said the rabbi.” “Is it when you can see the difference between a fig tree and an olive tree?” asked another. “Not that, either,” said the rabbi. “Then what is it?” asked the students? The rabbi answered, “It is the moment when you can look at a face never seen before and recognize the stranger as a brother or sister. Until that moment, no matter how bright the day is, it is still night.

For those who languish in the doldrums of a pervasive, shared disappointment, let’s look into the face of the other. Let’s learn to recognize the light of Christ in people around us. Let’s learn to become familiar with the Morningstar shining in the eyes of the stranger.

For those who have lost their bearings and can’t find the way, the heavens are telling the glory of God, and the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork. Day to day pours forth speech and night to night declares knowledge. We can train our eyes to see what only shows up at night. In disappointment, let there a discovery. In calamity, let compassion be the compass. Only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars.


Sermon for January 15, 2017

Then Jesus Turned
The next day [John] saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, "Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, 'After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.' I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel." And John testified, "I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, 'He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.' And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God."

The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, "Look, here is the Lamb of God!" The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, "What are you looking for?" They said to him, "Rabbi" (which translated means Teacher), "where are you staying?" He said to them, "Come and see." They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o'clock in the afternoon. One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter's brother. He first found his brother Simon and said to him, "We have found the Messiah" (which is translated Anointed). He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, "You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas" (which is translated Peter). –John 1:29-42
Jesus has just been baptized in the Judean wilderness. As I mentioned last Sunday, by allowing himself to be baptized by John, Jesus identifies himself as a revolutionary who will overturn the current religious and political order and launch a new reign of peace. The Roman Emperor is not the only son of god in town any more. There is a new Son of God, whose reign is symbolized with peaceful animals. The dove of the Holy Spirit rests on him. Jesus is the Lamb of God who rescues people from domination.

The idea of a lamb of God goes back to Moses and the Passover. Remember all those plagues from the Book of Exodus? In the Passover story, The God of Israel keeps trying to convince Pharaoh to let the people of Israel go. Just when we think Pharaoh is going to give in, he changes his mind. So God sets up a final, terrible plague. All of the firstborn children across Egypt will die, with one provision.  All Israelites who smear the blood of a lamb on their doorway will be saved when the angel of death comes. God provides a way for the firstborn to live. A lamb of God will set Israel free from their slavery in Egypt. From that day forth, a lamb will become a symbol of freedom.

Fast forward a few centuries. The people of Israel are in bondage to a different empire. Rome oppresses Israel with violent military occupation and heavy taxation. The Jerusalem Temple system is in collusion with Rome, using religious law to keep people poor and obedient. Fresh from the waters of baptism, the Lamb of God will once again set people free from captivity. John the Baptizer says, “Look, this is the one I was talking about. This is the one you’ve been looking for. He is the Lamb of God. He has come to deliver you. He is the true Passover Lamb.”

The next day, two disciples of John the Baptizer call out to Jesus, “Hey Teacher, where are you staying?” Pay attention to what happens next. Does Jesus keep walking -- “Sorry, guys, I can’t talk right now. I got a revolution to get to”? Does Jesus ignore them – “I don’t have time for this right now . . .”? No, two men ask Jesus a question and Jesus does something quite amazing. The text says he turns. Jesus turns.

The author of the gospel uses a Greek word that means to physically turn or spin around. But it can also mean a change of heart -- to change or convert (στρέφω). The act of turning has the power to redirect a person's destiny.

Jesus turned.  Here’s why these two words are so astounding to me. We usually think of conversion as something we do.  But, right here, the embodiment of God redirects his energy to these young men. Jesus interrupts his destiny He turns. Abraham Heschel once wrote, "No word is God's final word. Judgment, far from being absolute, is conditional. A change in [one’s] conduct brings about a change in God's judgment." I wonder if that’s happening here. The mission changes direction.  Jesus reveals a God of process. The plan is not set in stone. It unfolds with each step. With each stop. With each turn.

Jesus turned. He changed direction. He reminds us that it is part of God’s nature to turn.  God hears our pain. God sees us in our most desperate places. God feels our throbbing aches when we lose hope. God does not say, “Hey, life is tough and then you die. Suck it up buttercup.” God turns. God seems willing to change directions to join us – to enter into the dust of our lives and ask, “What are you looking for?”

God changes. I have come to believe this as a part of my own faith. Many Christians want to deny that God actually changes. They say God is immutable. In other words, part of what makes God “God” is that God never changes. Some say God’s complete lack of change is what makes God, God. God’s will is the same, yesterday, today and forever.

I have come to believe something different. God changes. God adjusts. God turns. God’s experience of the world is constantly shifting and growing. Each moment of our lives has a wealth of choices and possibilities. God’s aim for us is for each of those moments to be filled with wholeness and beauty. But God does not what we will choose to do in each of those moments. God only knows the possibilities. When we turn away from God, we limit what God can do in our lives. But when we turn towards God, God turns even more to us. The future is open, and God is present in every moment, seeking the highest possibilities for each and every creature.

Turning, conversion, change – these are all ways of stepping out of the way we’ve always done it, so we can live into God’s greatest hopes for us.

If I am right, if God turns for us, then can we turn for others? The general problem with turning is that while Jesus shows us how God turns for us, many of us refuse to do the same. The risks are too high. The costs are too great.  It takes too much sacrifice. Another way to talk about turning is the word “repentance.”  And repentance is not part of the normal order of things.

I hear some of this struggle in John’s Gospel. Jesus turns and asks the two young men, “What are you looking for?” They answer with another question: “Where are you staying?” Literally, “Teacher, where are you remaining?” The same Greek word for “stay” is repeated five times in this passage alone. Remain. Remain. Stay. Stay. Stay. The word can actually mean a few things: stay, dwell, lodge, rest, settle, endure, persevere, abide, and indwell. Dwelling is not the same as turning, right? Staying has to do with basking in God’s presence. Turning involves facing God’s future. Staying has to do with stillness. Turning involves movement.

These two young men who question Jesus -- they want to know about staying. They want to remain until they are sure what they are getting into.

Jesus turns.

Our tradition sings about these movements.
“Abide with me, fast falls the eventide.”
“To turn, turn will be our delight, Till by turning, turning we come 'round right.”
Shall we abide in God or turn and change direction? When should we stretch out in the hammock of God’s love and when should get up and follow the invitation to go where God is going and do what God is doing? There is a time and a place for each. It takes a lot of listening, and practice, and failure to learn when to remain and when to change.

If we are looking for social change, then we can’t just stay, remain and abide. We can’t have revolution without turning. There is no justice without changing and repentance. There is no peace without a change of heart. Turning, conversion, change – these are all ways of stepping out of the way we’ve always done it, so we can live into God’s greatest hopes for us.

I’m reminded of this lesson as we remember the dream of Martin Luther King Jr.  Dr. King helped America begin to reject injustice by turning to non-violence. In 1963, Dr. King actually had his marchers sign a pledge of non-violence. Have you ever seen this? It says the following:
  1. As you prepare to march, meditate on the life and teachings of Jesus
  2. Remember the nonviolent movement seeks justice and reconciliation - not victory.
  3. Walk and talk in the manner of love; for God is love.
  4. Pray daily to be used by God that all men and women might be free.
  5. Sacrifice personal wishes that all might be free.
  6. Observe with friend and foes the ordinary rules of courtesy.
  7. Perform regular service for others and the world.
  8. Refrain from violence of fist, tongue and heart.
  9. Strive to be in good spiritual and bodily health.
  10. Follow the directions of the movement leaders and of the captains on demonstration.
Here is my two-sentence paraphrase: Change is in the air. Turn to God’s non-violent will, and God’s non-violent will circle back to you. 
Nonviolence is based on the conviction that the universe is on the side of justice. Turning, conversion, change – these are all ways of stepping out of the way we’ve always done it, so we can live into God’s greatest hopes for us.

As Dr. King reminded us, we can turn from hateful words and physical attacks and judge people on the content of their character rather than the color of their skin.

We can turn from the burden of hate or revenge and express anger in ways that lead to peaceful give and take.

We can turn towards others and listen carefully, especially to those with whom we disagree.

We can turn towards those who have hurt us, and offer forgiveness.

We can turn away from wasteful lifestyles that consume the earth’s resources and turn towards sustainability.

We can turn away from entertainment that makes violence look exciting, funny, or acceptable and cultivate healing relationships.

We can turn from fears of inadequacy, and turn towards courage: Courage, to confront violence and injustice wherever we find it … Courage to challenge prejudicial jokes or remarks … Courage to challenge the purveyors and sponsors of violence … Courage  to stop gin violence … Courage to fight for the new frontiers of equality, whether it be transgender rights in the workplace, food security for those who are hungry, or health care for all, religious freedom for those whom we fear… Courage to put into practices the words and example of Dr. King, "to meet physical force with soul force." 

It all begins with a change in direction. A change of heart. Jesus turned. So can we.

Loving God, you sent Jesus to show us how to turn and live nonviolently.  Jesus, you turned listened carefully to everyone. You turned and cared about the feelings of others.  You turned and forgave those who hurt you. You turned and paid attention to the people no one else cared about. Jesus, send us your Spirit to help each of us be truthful whenever we speak, loving whenever we act, and courageous whenever we find violence or injustice around us. Amen.


Sermon for January 8. 2017

Ready for the Revolution?

Jesus then appeared, arriving at the Jordan River from Galilee. He wanted John to baptize him. John objected, “I’m the one who needs to be baptized, not you!”But Jesus insisted. “Do it. God’s work, putting things right all these centuries, is coming together right now in this baptism.” So John did it. The moment Jesus came up out of the baptismal waters, the skies opened up and he saw God’s Spirit—it looked like a dove—descending and landing on him. And along with the Spirit, a voice: “This is my Son, chosen and marked by my love, delight of my life.” Matthew 3:13-17, The Message

The waters of baptism are subversive waters.

To subvert something is to overthrow it, but by indirect means. Subversion is not a frontal assault; it's a stealth campaign. The prefix, sub, means "from below" and -vert comes from the Latin for "to turn." So to subvert something is to turn it from below; to churn; in other words, to twist things upside down.

The waters of baptism are subversive waters. If we dive into today’s text a little, we can see it. We can sense just how revolutionary baptism can be. To see it, we need to take note where Jesus’ baptism takes place – in the wilderness. Not in the city. Not in the center of power, but in the desert – the fringes of society. It’s where the social protesters and agitators led their followers in the first century – into the wilderness. John the Baptizer’s choice to gather his followers and preach in the wilderness means that he is churning some protest. The story carries an upside-down symbolism. By giving up their old ways and getting dunked in the Jordan river, John’s followers declare that God’s true power is emerging on the margins of the society.

And then comes Jesus, joining the protest on the banks of the Jordan in the wilderness.

When I read Matthew’s version of Jesus’ baptism, I can’t help but to think of the connection of three words:

            The word repent, which literally means “to turn around.”
            The word baptize, which means, “to submerge”; to plunge under.
            The word subvert, which means “to turn upside down.

To read John and Jesus’ revolutionary story correctly, we need to prepare for these three actions: we turn around; plunge into our own waters; and then prepare to turn the world upside down. Let’s think about each of these a little bit more.


Repent comes from a Greek word that indicates a change of mindset. When we repent, we turn around and go in another direction. Turning around creates a new way of relating to the world. Both John and Jesus opened their public ministries with this word: “Repent. Change your hearts and minds. The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” At the wilderness waters of the Jordan, Jesus affirms repentance as part of the revolution.

The traditional understanding of “repent” means to turn away from personal sin. I’m wondering, in this case, if repent also means to turn away from political and religious systems that exclude and dominate others. If John the Baptist were here today, he might say something like this: “Your country has become a rival with God. Your political system, regardless of your political party, has allied itself with God’s rival. Your religious systems, which crave the influence of political power, have allied with God’s rival. But I have good news. God is inaugurating a new realm that’s not part of your current government; it’s not part of your religious system; it’s not controlled by your political parties. This realm will have a leader, and that leader will be the child of Almighty God. To be part of this new realm, all of your affiliations with the present world system must be completely severed. You must leave them behind. Come down here into this water, repent. Turn away from your ties with this world order.”

I think Matthew’s Gospel was written for early Christians who needed encouragement to keep the revolution going. Christians were viewed as radical outcasts . . . dangerous people who betrayed the existing government. They claimed to be part of a new nation, not bound by geographical boundaries and geo-political governments or theocracies, but by their baptismal identity in Christ. You can see how this would be threatening. The Roman Empire won’t be able to tame this revolution for another 300 years through some subversion of its own.

When we become followers of Jesus, we make the choice to walk down a different road than what many of those around us are walking. For those on the wilderness banks of the Jordan River, being part of the God movement called the Kingdom of Heaven means turning away from a world order that rules through war, fear, taxation and manipulation. When Jesus lets John baptize him, it is an attempt to overthrow the dominance of the current religious and political system. It’s not a revolution with weapons and warfare. It’s a change of hearts and minds. It’s an insurgency of inclusive love that begins with repentance. It’s a public declaration by people who want to turn away from the old order so that God to do something new.

In our day, does baptism mean anything at all? For many people, baptism is neither powerful nor significant. It can feel like a worn initiation ritual of a bygone era, or an antiseptic event that’s been streamlined for the sake of convenience.  When we baptize our babies, we don’t often think about how we are inducting them into a revolution of love.

As I mentioned earlier, the word baptize literally means to submerge. In some ways, baptism is a death warrant. For Jesus and John, it was a literal death warrant. Submersion in the waters of baptism was an act of defiance that put old-order authorities on notice. Christians later talked about baptism as a way to put the old self to death so that a new self could emerge. We sometimes call death the great equalizer. Death comes to everyone, regardless of social status, race, gender, or life circumstance. Baptism was viewed much the same way. Everyone is equal in the waters of baptism. Racism, classism, sexism, ageism and homophobia are signs of the old ways that needs to die away. Those destructive behaviors need to be submerged and drowned in order for a new way of living to emerge.

Baptism breaks down the social walls standing between us. It can be seen as an act of civil disobedience. Baptism submerges us into a community that is broader than any nation state or religious system, uniting us with a message of inclusion, justice, and compassion.

Subversion is another kind of “turning” – not turning away but turning upside down.  I’m guessing that many of us are not comfortable with this idea. Most Christians rarely consider themselves subversive.

The spiritual, “Wade in the Water,” reminds me of the subversive, world-flipping message of the gospel. Some say that the song was written as a signal to runaway slaves. Wade in the water means, “Use the river so the hounds can’t trace you. Tonight is the moment for flight; move swiftly; the reaction will be fierce.” Now that’s a subversive way to help people!

Based on the reflections of Walter Rhett from the blog BlackHistory360, I want to offer another interpretation. Rhett says that runway slaves did not need a reminder to wade in the water to throw off their scent. They already knew that well. The spiritual, “Wade in the Water,” sings about how to practice faith. Part of the real subversion of the song is that enslaved Americans took the religion of slaveholder. They made Christianity their own and reinterpreted it. Make no mistake, “Wade in the Water” is about freedom, but it’s about inner freedom as much as it is about legal or physical freedom. Enslaved Americans could wade into the water to find that watertight place that could not be controlled by any human master. In the spiritual, if you want to find yourself, the first step is to walk into troubled waters.  You meet hardships with courage and steady faith. Gather now and get ready so that you will be delivered by the gifts of grace that spring forth in wicked times. “Wade in the Water” is more than instructions for running away, which only a small number of border state slaves were able to do. It is a dramatic story of God’s ability to restore and redeem.

As the new church year begins, we here at CCC are going to wade into some troubled waters. Over the next few weeks, we need to prepare to see the values we promote put to the test – values around race and culture, class and identity, privilege and power. This is our time, CCC, to promote social righteousness with focused intensity, because a tidal wave is coming. I read that a tsunami, triggered by an earthquake can race across the ocean at speeds of 600 mph or more. A tsunami can pass under a ship without those aboard the vessel noticing, yet when it hits shore, it inflicts terrifying damage. To help detect these destructive waves, NOAA has deployed a phalanx of sentinel buoys that pick up acoustic signals from the sea floor.  Although there are thousands of buoys, along with thousands of land-based stations around the world and more than 50 environmental satellites orbiting the globe, all providing millions of data sets, most of these cannot yet “talk” to each other.

Right now, the early warning system of justice has been sounded – a tidal wave of troubled waters is close at shore. Let’s not be caught off guard. If that wave hits with the wicked force we fear, its swirling, murky current will expose our fear, make us run away from one another, seek to separate us, and keep us from becoming a beloved community. The way toward living into our anti-racism commitments must pass beneath waters of white supremacy that block civil rights with dams of injustice. The way toward full inclusion of our LGBTQ community must pass beneath rapids that will seek drown recently-won rights. Women’s health rights, which we thought were finally unassailable, may very well be swept away in a current of defunding. If we want to find ourselves, the first step is to wade into troubled waters. Wade in the water. Wade in the water, children. It may be ferocious. It may be filthy. It may be fearsome Wade in the water, God’s a-gonna trouble the water. 

Our gospel compels us into the water, sounding the alarm around issues of race and gender, worship and spirituality, witness and mission, sin and salvation—all scary stuff.  We may be tempted to distract ourselves by turning inward on each other — to ignore the hurt rampant around us. We can rise up by going under. We submerge and subvert in order to carry out Jesus' revolution. Repentance. Baptism. Subversion. Revolution. In other words, let’s be the change we want to see.


Sermon for January 21, 2018

How Far Would You Go? 1 Samuel 17 I had a sermon all ready to go today. It was a NICE sermon. You would have felt really good about i...