I have always been cautious to avoid preaching my opinion and have tried to stay focused on the gospel. When I strongly voice a particular interpretation of some passage, I try to tie it back to ancient, respected theologians or clearly state that this is just my personal understanding of a passage. I do not want followers or disciples of me. I want to help you become disciples of Jesus. I am trying to give you tools to do that, but like Jacob, you must do the hard work of wrestling with God yourself, and you may come away from that process limping. If you are not familiar with that story it is in Genesis 32: 22-32.
Considering the events of the past week, and in truth this past year, I am going on the record as saying that I oppose violence under all circumstances. I do so after close examination of the life of Jesus and his earliest disciples. Also, it is important to stand up for the truth and to protect others from harm, even if you disagree with them. How we do both, avoid violence and stand up for what is right is challenging and people have sacrificed their lives trying. Not wishing to put words in his mouth, I think this is the gist of what Bp Curry was saying in his recent address, though I would recommend you listen to his address yourself and draw your own conclusions. If you don’t know how to find it let me know and I will help you access it. I am not criticizing the need for law enforcement or the military, though I would hope deadly force is a last resort. I am aware that sometimes circumstances leave people with little choice and sometimes we are faced with choosing the lesser of two evils, it is a consequence of living in a broken world. Even St. Augustine wrestled with the idea of just war, but Jesus stopped Peter from defending him with a sword on the night he was arrested. Violence begets violence unless we stop the cycle.
Today is the feast of the Baptism of Jesus. Under normal circumstances I would be having us renew our baptismal vows in the context of the Eucharist. I am going to have us do it anyway, because right now I think it is important for us to remind ourselves of the commitments we made at our baptism and affirmed at our confirmation. If you have not received either of those rites, I invite you to examine what we are saying and if you can affirm the statements honestly, join us in repeating them. If not, ponder what we are stating and let me know if I can answer any questions you might have concerning them.
Rather than re-tell the story of Jesus’ baptism that we just heard in the gospel I want to go to our baptismal covenant and examine what they say before we renew our vows.
The first three statements of our Baptismal Covenant concern our belief in who God is. Do you believe in God the Father? Do you believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God? Do you believe in God the Holy Spirit? We are affirming the mysteries of the Trinity. Anglicans, which is what Episcopalians are – along with Roman Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants all affirm a belief in a Trinitarian God despite the difficulties in explaining the concept. There are sects that consider themselves Christians who do not hold the theology of the Trinity and this has been true since the beginning. The Apostles’ Creed read in Morning Prayer and the Nicene Creed read at the Eucharist come out of councils of the church within the first four centuries before divisions and schisms caused what we now call denominations. These creeds addressed and clarified the official position of the church concerning conflicting opinions about the relationships within the Trinity and the identity of the three persons of the Trinity. We are affirming the understanding of the early Christian church when we say these creeds and affirm these statements in the Baptismal covenant. There is one Sunday a year set aside to cover this theology and this could easily be a whole theological study class. If you have pressing concerns, please contact me and I will try to help.
The next question is “Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?” We are affirming that we will gather as a community on a regular basis for study of the scriptures, Eucharist, and prayer. This time of sacrificial fasting from the Eucharist to protect our congregations from the spread of COVID is being done so that we will be able to eventually gather in person again, as many as possible, still alive and well. It is just as hard if not harder on your clergy than it is on most of you. It is intimately tied to who we are as priests. However, we are doing everything we can to continue the apostles’ teachings and fellowship and the prayers. I also feel like I am “preaching to the choir” when I remind those that are here doing that which we are called to do, but I would hope you would reach out to those who for whatever reason are not with us. Stay connected and encourage them to participate as they are able. Let me know if there is anything I can do to help them get connected and participate.
The next question is “Will you persevere in resisting Evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord? Jesus took the Ten Commandments and reminded us that you do not have to physically kill someone to be guilty of murder, just hating them, wishing they did not exist is evil. Even the Ten Commandments themselves recognized that desiring what belongs to someone else to the point that you imagine what it would be like if it was yours and not theirs is a sin. This does not just pertain to stuff. It could also pertain to power and authority; it could pertain to friends and family. It is a sin of the heart that puts your desires above compassion for your neighbor and frequently leads to murder, theft, adultery – those more obvious sins against our neighbor.
Paul recognized that doing the wrong thing even for a so-called “righteous reason” is evil and sinful. He frequently reminds us – sometime subtly and at other times point blank, that all of us are guilty of sin. Before his encounter with the risen Christ, Paul was actively persecuting persons he considered to be heretics out of his passionate love of God and his religion. Jesus set him straight and not only his message, but his methods changed. Paul did not turn around and persecute the synagogue leaders or the Roman officials, but he constantly told people about Jesus, God’s love and the path to salvation offered by Jesus Christ. He did not allow personal inconvenience or even danger to stop him. He did not even allow a disagreement with Peter concerning church protocol stop him from sharing the Gospel as he understood it, which meant to everyone, Gentiles and Jews, men and women, the rich and powerful and the poor and powerless.
The next question is “Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?” Ghandi was once asked his opinion of Christianity. He said “I like your Christ. I dislike Christians. They are so unlike him.” To be a disciple means to learn from and emulate your teacher. This is one of the reasons Christianity stresses there are no experts in Christianity except Jesus. We are not called to become like anyone but Jesus. We can read about and analyze the actions of those we consider saints, but only for the purpose of helping us understand how we might emulate Jesus in our given circumstance. Back in the 70’s the initials WWJD become popular to decorate all sort of things. The concept was much better than the execution, but we should be thinking that every word that comes out of our mouth and every action we take should mirror what Jesus would do in the same situation. We are put in many situations that he did not encounter. The scriptures are not a step-by-step directive on life. They do give us some direct commands and some examples of how those commands have been well or poorly followed. We need to read, learn, and inwardly digest these stories striving to become of one mind with Jesus and self-aware enough to recognize when and how we have failed. We will fail, and we are called to repent – to re-think our actions and to try again over and over.
The next question is “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?” A common paraphrase of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount is what I grew up calling the Golden Rule “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” This is pretty simple when we are talking to children about not hitting or sharing a toy. It gets more complicated when we talk about people of different cultures learning to live together. Statements that assume that everyone thinks like you can be painful to others who do not. I have told people who made statements in a group like “I think we would all agree” to stop speaking for me. Gifting people with things we think they need rather than asking them how we can help them has been a problem in foreign mission situations for hundreds of years. Enabling destructive behavior is also not loving. There are some good programs and some horrible programs out there that have attempted to help us “Walk a mile” in the shoes of other people. Eric Law’s materials are the best that I have seen and some of you have seen me use them, but nothing is perfect. Being aware of other’s feelings, giving them a chance to safely voice their opinion, treating them with respect and dignity even if you disagree, and holding them accountable to treat you the same way, goes a long way toward keeping this vow.
Which leads us to the last one, “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?” We all have spheres of influence. Some of us have small ones, impacting the people in our family, the people with whom we work, perhaps the people in our social circle such as at Garden club or at the gym. Other people, like Bp Curry, have a much larger sphere of influence based upon their personalities and the authority people and institutions have given them. We each must strive for justice and peace within our own sphere of influence. We are not called to save the world, only Jesus had that calling. We are called to find ways, given our current sphere of influence, to bring justice and peace to those around us. I think we do this largely by respecting the dignity of every human being. I am repeating myself, but I can’t stress enough that this does not mean that we have to agree with or condone ideas and actions that we do not find acceptable, but we need to learn to listen to others, seeking understanding and realizing that other people think and feel the way they do based upon their own experience which will be different from our own. We need to use language to support our own opinions explaining to people that this is my experience and why I am making my choice, rather than call them names or criticize their beliefs or behavior. We need to be willing to treat other people with the same kind of respect we would want them to show toward us if the situation were reversed. Loving your neighbor is not enjoying their company. That is an added blessing when it happens. Loving your neighbor is desiring the best possible outcomes for them, even if it you must sacrifice something for that to happen.
At this time, I am going to ask you to renew your own Baptismal Covenant. Think about what you are saying and pray for wisdom to follow through with your vows.