I will, with God’s help

I will, with God’s help

April 21, 2013
Stina Pope

Sitting before us today in stark contrast is baptism and Boston. That is to say, life and death. They are both about life and death. One of the things that I have heard over and over from Boston is about the people who ran towards the terror to help. Never mind what had happened or what might still be there, this was life running in towards death, denying death, defying death, claiming life, choosing the light over the darkness of the mind that created the monstrosity. The number of people who ran in to help made the rest of us proud, and hopeful, and reminded us that the light will always overcome the darkness. Darkness cannot overcome the light.

Then there is baptism. When we think about baptism, we usually think about babies and pretty clothes. We don’t think so much about what is going on with the symbols of baptism. The water is a symbol of many things. It is the reminder of the birth water that kept us safe until we were born. But it is also the place where we die. With our little bit of pouring water on the head, we have lost the symbolism that we go down into the water to die to our old selves, in order to rise up to a new life in Christ.

Baptism is one of the two sacraments that everyone agrees is a sacrament in Christianity. The other, of course, is the Eucharist. Baptism is the symbolic joining the family of God, and the Eucharist is the symbolic eating together as a family. There are other sacramental acts, places where we as a group specifically call on God to be present, like weddings, ordinations and the like, but they are not seen as being as critical.

Both baptism and Eucharist are taken from Jewish practice. Converts to Judaism are few, but those that do are taken to the mikvah, the ritual bath, and there go through a ritual cleansing. Other than the invocation of the Trinity, it is not significantly different than our baptismal rite. The Eucharist is taken from the “meal of friends” or the Passover meal, that’s a debate, but the whole concept of a ritual meal was well established for the Jews who started following the Way of Jesus. When Jesus said: “Do this in remembrance of me,” they understood exactly what to do. They simply incorporated the new practice into the old one they knew.

Then we look at the readings for today, and one of them is actually the hymn we sang at the beginning. The Lord is my Shepherd. One of the wonderful things to do with the 23rd Psalm is to pray it, using someone’s name. The Lord is Landyn’s shepherd, and because of that, Landyn will not want. This psalm is often heard as a psalm of comfort, but it is much more than that, much more. It gives us much to work with in this time of terror.

“I will fear no evil, for you are with me.”

The Psalmist is clear that there is evil, and it causes much damage. However, we do not have to live in fear. Why? Not because the government or military is there to protect us. They can’t. But God can. It is the core of our faith that we claim one God and that all trust belongs to that God. When trouble comes, we often forget this, and the Psalmist reminds us, only God is worthy of our trust.psalm 23

“You spread a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil. My cup overflows.”

Our first impulse is to fear when there is trouble, and our second impulse is to go for vengeance. The Psalmist is clear that there are people who wish him harm. There are “enemies.” However, the impulse towards vengeance is turned by the deep awareness of grace. It redirects the energy that would have been used for retribution towards thanksgiving and joy. What we have here is an alternative worldview. Reactive violence is shunned in favor of a process which integrates the faith tradition instead of allowing the matter of what to do with the enemy to be determined by the secular sphere, as is so typical in our society. The reflective moment of thanksgiving before the impulse to vengeance and acting on that impulse creates a space that opens up prospects for personal and social transformation, including that of the enemy. Such a moment is as needed today as it was the day this Psalm was written.

My psychology teacher in graduate school showed us how learning to stop for only a few seconds allows us to change our reactive behavior. We need to do this. Our reaction to terror over the last twelve years has been a disaster. We bought the idea that a hard-hitting, world-remaking, “shock-and-awe” response was going to get us over our fear and punish our enemies. The church cowered in the shadows, mostly afraid to speak up in the face of widespread public clamor that something had to be done. And now, after all the application of force, the loss of human rights, and the shortcuts with the Constitution, there is widespread dissatisfaction with all those efforts, as well as the awareness that, not only are we not any safer, we’ve actually made things worse in the world.

It is essential that we get our response to this most recent outrage right. We in the church need to lead, if not society, at the very least ourselves, which we can start doing by living up to the claims and calling of our own texts. We have responsibilities both to God and our enemies which transcend whatever electrical charges are currently emanating from the reactive, reptilian portion of our brain. This time, rather than blending in and going along, we as the church need to lead society by reframing in our own faith and life this present terror in terms other than those which appear in the tunnel vision of crisis.

So what can we do, really? Here is what Bp Steven Charleston offers us: “What do I have that can best serve humanity in this time of our need? When I first thought of that question I was a bit humbled. What can I offer? Not much. I have no influence or authority, no wealth or connections. I feel a deep need in the lives of those around me, but what can I do for them? Then it came to me: I can be happy. I can walk through life without complaint. Even if I hurt, I can smile. I can seed laughter out into the world, the simple joy of being privileged to take another breath. I have humor to spare, and hope in abundance. How about you?”

Remembering the simple joy of being privileged to take another breath. Sharing our joy, our humor, and our hope. All of us can do these things. But it also means that we refuse to do other things. I can refuse to complain. I can refuse to live in fear. I can refuse to despair. My brother-in-law has decided to try the practice of answering the question: How are you? with the answer: Being grateful. I now use that as part of my email signature, and am trying to remember to say it instead of saying “fine.” Calling ourselves to the practice of gratitude is the beginning of inviting others to join us.

Another thing we can do is this: We can act like family, like the family of God. As we gather today to formally receive Landyn into the household of God, we remember what it means to be family. We can act like Christians, loving each other, and loving our enemies, and forgiving those who hurt us. We can pay attention to the 5 questions of the Baptismal Covenant, which ask us to do certain things. Perhaps the most important one is asking us to strive for justice and peace, and to respect the dignity of every human being. Not the ones we like, but every one. Because we cannot do this alone, we ask for God’s help. And we are in this together. We say: I will, with God’s help. But that “I” is only understood as functional within the larger group.

This is something we have forgotten in this society. We have this great and mistaken idea that we can do things by ourselves. We need each other. Even our families of origin are not sufficient. We need to be a conscious part of the household of God. And then we need to remember that those who are not conscious of being a part of that household still belong to it. The drug-addict son on the street who has dissolved into a shell of himself is still loved by God. The over-achiever daughter on her way to a six-figure income is still loved by God. Desperation comes in many forms, and so does love. It does not matter if they remember themselves as beloved children of God, always welcome to come home, it is simply true, for them, and for us.

As we baptize Landyn, remember that you are also beloved, and feel that love. Then remember that God loves those “others” as well, including those enemies who wish you harm, including those who set off bombs. Is there some way that you can take a few seconds when you are attacked, just a few seconds, to remember that love, which is extended to both of you, and because of that love, shift your response?

It is not an easy thing to consider. But it opens the possibility of really changing the world.