Epiphany 1 + January 10, 2021
On Thursday afternoon, I participated in an online seminar, an online conversation about the two vaccines (Moderna and Pfizer) now being deployed across New Hampshire and the Northeast. Public health officials were meeting with community leaders to sketch out the process, and what it means for churches, synagogues, mosques and clergy across the state. After Wednesday’s riot at the Capitol, Thursday’s seminar restored some hope for me, reminding me of the smart, committed public servants who approach complex needs with compassion and intelligence. In New Hampshire at least, the public health community is working hard and working together to do everything they can to make the vaccination process work for all our communities and for all our neighbors. And I’m glad for that. Government works if we care about governing.
But there was an interesting moment, kind of a tense moment, along the way. When a public health official—an epidemiologist, I think—discussed the state’s concern for communities of color here, who are disproportionately infected by COVID, disproportionately hospitalized and disproportionately killed by the disease. Right here in New Hampshire. And across the country and the globe, to be sure. COVID-19 lands hardest and most devastatingly on communities of color. All kinds of reasons for it. But the data are clear.
In response, then, this state (like other states) is directing a portion of its early vaccine supply to particular places, to particular communities, to those neighborhoods where people of color are especially vulnerable to the disease and its most dire impacts. In other words, the epidemiologist said Thursday, they’re withholding portions of the supply from the rollout itself, so that they can strategically assign those supplies to communities of color in New Hampshire. And this is where things got tense.
Because we all know how serious things are right now. And we all know how desperately our friends and neighbors and churches and synagogues are for these vaccines. We’re ready. We’re anxious. We want so badly to protect ourselves and those we love most. So when a state official talks about withholding (and I’m pretty sure that was her word), when she talks about withholding portions of that early supply and directing doses that might show up in your doc’s office or mine to clinics in Manchester or community centers in Nashua, to communities of color—well, all of a sudden, the issue of racial equity, the question of racial justice, the matter of how much black lives matter gets pretty real pretty quick.
Change, meaningful change, is going to require some sacrifice, some risk, and indeed some loss in America. Racial justice, meaningful racial justice, is going to require this too. And that’s a conversation we haven’t really had, or at least not to the point where it reveals and invites our own sacrifice, not to the point where it reveals and invites our own risking and losing and letting go. I’m not sure that epidemiologist on Thursday’s call knew that she’d touched the third rail, but that’s where she’d taken us. And I could see it in the eyes of clergy, community leaders, thoughtful people across the state. Are we ready for the hard work? Are we prepared for the sacrifice?
Which brings us to the Jordan River. And to John the Baptist. And to Jesus who’s wading now in the waters, who’s joining Miriam and Moses in the Red Sea, who’s taking on all the risk and all the sacrifice of his people as he commits to liberation and the kingdom of God.
Baptism, you see, whether Jesus’ or ours, isn’t a solitary moment in a solitary life. There’s no doubt – in the story George has read – that heaven’s light shines on Jesus in the Jordan. There’s no question that he is personally and powerfully claimed by that light, and energized by it. But most importantly, baptism joins Jesus – at the very beginning of his ministry; it joins him to the community preparing to sacrifice for the kingdom of God, the community preparing to love at great risk, the community preparing to follow Miriam into the Red Sea’s liberating and renewing and transforming waters. Baptism is a sign of God’s intention that we live together, and worship together, and serve together—in communities risking love, and risking justice, and risking transformation. And that’s risky business.
So it’s no great surprise, if you read along, that the very next thing that happens in Mark’s story is that the Spirit drives Jesus out into the desert to think all this over. To wrestle with the implications, the consequences of his baptism. The light, the love, the dove at the Jordan: all of this is real, all of this is God’s promise. But is Jesus ready, is he prepared for the confrontation with bigotry that awaits? Is he ready, is he prepared to speak truth to power and love to the loveless? Is he ready, is he prepared to lose things that really matter to him?
All of this is going through my mind as I’m listening to Thursday’s conversation about vaccinations and communities of color and withholding doses so that particular communities have a shot of getting through this pandemic. All of this is going through my mind as I’m sifting through the shocking images of Wednesday’s riot in Washington: and the disorienting realities of rage and bigotry unleased in the Capitol itself.
Racism is an evil in our midst. My friend Gordon Rankin has named this so clearly, so prophetically this morning. Racism, bigotry, white supremacy itself: these are menacing evils in our midst. And I appreciate the way Gordon has reminded us that the people themselves, the rioters, the MAGA crowd itself: they are not inherently evil. That’s not what we’re talking about. But the powers and principalities revealed on Wednesday, on horrific display in a crowd, repeatedly incited by a President who’s a stranger to love: these powers and principalities are evil indeed. And stand in contradiction to the gospel of love we preach and the democratic practices we honor as a diverse community of faiths and traditions.
And here’s what this means for us, I think.
We are called, as a community of faith, as the Body of Christ; we are called to resist evil. Not to hate evildoers. Not to pretend that we don’t struggle ourselves with our own intentions and choices. But we are called to resist evil – in prayer, in community, through service and lovingkindness and discipleship.
In the most ancient baptismal liturgies of the church, believers are asked to do just this. You don’t often hear this language in the United Church; but if you attend an adult baptism in the Episcopal Church or in the Lutheran Church, odds are pretty good you’ll hear just this as believers step forward and pastors invite their testimony.
The first couple of questions are predictable: “Do you believe in God the Maker of all things? Do you believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God? Do you believe in God the Holy Spirit? Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship?” But then this question: “Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?” This week that’s the baptismal question that ought to animate our energies and stir our discerning hearts. “Will we persevere – together, in communion, as a church? Will we persevere in resisting evil?”
And I think that kind of question – that kind of discernment – is a key piece of Jesus’ own baptismal moment, his own baptismal experience. Like Miriam and Moses before him, Jesus senses a profound and personal call to confronting the enslavement of his people, to speaking loving truth to Pharaoh’s armies, and leading his people into new paths of service and freedom. Like John the Baptist, Jesus hears God’s call to repentance, to a radical reshaping of his life, in response to God’s immeasurable grace and passion for justice. “Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?” It’s a loaded question. But it’s a baptismal question. And one we all might wrestle with in a week like this one.
And again, I’m so grateful to Gordon for reminding us that we’re not called to hate, we’re not called to meanness, we’re not called to see our brothers and sisters as inherently evil. No matter how crazy they made us this week. That’s not what resistance means, that’s not what it looks like. Instead, the people of God are invited to resist the powers and principalities that have been unleased among us – through corrupt political leadership, through generations of unchecked white supremacy, through our own fears, to be sure. We’re asked by God – and by our baptismal commitments – to resist these spirits through lovingkindness, through service and compassion, and through faithful and daring sacrifice. We will be changed by our resistance. It always works that way. We will be transformed in spirit and in community. And Jesus the Christ will join us every step of the way.
And friends, this takes me back to Thursday’s meeting and the matter of vaccinations in New Hampshire. Yes, communities of color have been disproportionately ravaged by this disease. We know this. We see this. It’s always been this way. Let the church be the one to say: We must sacrifice something to address systemic racism. We must sacrifice something of our own privilege, something of our usual exceptionalism, we must all sacrifice something to heal this ages-old sin, this generations-old evil in our land. To move forward toward that light, to anticipate reconciliation and justice and a beloved community of all races and peoples – we will risk new arrangements, even arrangements that challenge assumptions and privileges we have lived with and benefited from for centuries. Assumptions and privileges that are baked in – for most of us, that is – that are baked into our sense of who we are and what we deserve.
You are loved, the Spirit says to Jesus in the Jordan. You are so loved, that I call you mine. And I call you to serve me and risk loss and sadness for the healing of the peoples and the reconciling of the nations. Friends, maybe that’s just the gospel for us this week. We too are loved. We too are loved. That’s the Spirit’s song this morning. You are loved, and I am loved, and we are all beloved together. And that kind of love – divine love, gracious love – calls us to set privilege aside and embrace unity and justice. That kind of love – divine love, gracious love – calls us to risk and to sacrifice so that all our sisters, all our brothers, peoples of all races and nations, might know wholeness and joy and equity in this land. Baptism is joy, no doubt. And baptism is our summons to new life. So let us begin.