The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks; First Sunday after the Epiphany—Year B; Genesis 1:1-5; Psalm 29; Acts 19:1-7; Mark 1:4-11
It has been a bad week in the news—across the world and in the church.
The world has watched three days of terror unfold in Paris beginning with the attack on the headquarters of a French satirical magazine known for its over-the-top cartoons. In that initial attack, 12 people were gunned down, followed by two related hostage events on Friday that resulted in the deaths of 8 more—4 hostages, three attackers, and a police woman—20 people dead when it was all over.
A smaller part of the world has watched the story unfold around Episcopal Bishop Heather Cook, Suffragan Bishop of the Diocese of Maryland (Ok, polity lesson, the Diocesan Bishop has charge over a geographical area known as the diocese. A Suffragan Bishop is elected to assist the Diocesan Bishop in their duties. Bishop Cook was consecrated as the Suffragan Bishop of the Diocese of Maryland last September.) On December 27th, in the middle of the afternoon, Heather Cook struck and killed a bicyclist and left the scene of the accident, returning 30 minutes later. In the aftermath of the accident, it came out that she had a DUI in 2010. This past Friday, she was taken into custody and faces eight charges, including manslaughter, homicide by a motor vehicle while impaired by alcohol, failure to immediately return and remain at the scene of an accident involving death, and use of a text messaging device while driving causing an accident with death. The bicyclist was a man in his 40’s, married, two young children.
Both of these events are tragic beyond belief. Both have caused senseless death. Both of these events are complicated and raise layer upon layer of questions. My remarks today will be a little rough around the edges—not enough time has passed yet for me to have waded through all the adrenalin that swirls in the news cycle to get down to the heart of the matter; I haven’t prayed my way through them enough. Doggone, I am still processing the events from last August in Ferguson, Missouri. I don’t process fast. And yet, the world moves on, and a response is needed.
So, what are we going to do today? How are we going to respond? Well, we are going to baptize Elliot and Judson, and I can’t think of a more powerful action than that. This is no small thing we do today, and let me tell you why. Today, with water and the Spirit, we will baptize Elliot and Judson in the name of the Trinity and remind them that they are always in the flow of love, and that everything swims in that flow of love. We will anoint Judson and Elliot, and we will proclaim, “You are marked as Christ’s own forever.” We will imprint them with the cross, literally, we will mark it on their forehead, and in so doing, we say, “Elliot, Judson—dying and rising, losing your life and finding it, loss and beginning anew, falling down and starting again—this will be the pattern of your life; this is how you will make sense of things.” Today, we introduce Judson and Elliot to the True Self, to their True Self. Today, we say, “This is who you are—YOU are a son of God; YOU are Beloved; with YOU, God is well pleased.”
And then, and then, Elliot and Judson, we lay out a rule of life for you. We articulate the things we say “No” to—the prayer book calls them renunciations, those things to which we will not give our heart and our energy. We will not give our heart and our energy to “Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God”—that’s a whole lot of words to say but what we are talking about here are the cosmic forces of evil—that stuff that you sure know when you hit it but which is so hard to pin down. And we won’t give our heart and energy to “the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God”—that’s going to take us into the realm of all the ways that evil gets patterned into institutions and structures and systems. And we won’t give our heart and energy to “all sinful desires that draw us from the love of God”—again, a lot of words to say but here we are talking about those things in ourselves that draw us away from the God who has called us Beloved and from our awareness of our Belovedness.
And taking on these renunciations would be totally overwhelming, impossible, were it not for the fact that in Jesus, God has moved inside of our flesh, moved inside the reality of our lives; in Christ, God has knit divinity into every fiber of our being and life. This is the True Self, and from this solid place, we can move out with Christ, and in Christ, and through Christ, we can move in the Way that truly leads to life.
There are five vows that your parents and godparents will take today on your behalf, and which one day, if you choose, you will take on for yourself. They become guideposts to help us navigate the Way of Jesus.
- Continuing in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and the prayers.
- Persevering in resisting evil, and whenever we fall into sin, repenting and returning to the Lord.
- Proclaiming by word and example the Good News of God in Christ.
- Seeking and serving Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourself.
- Striving for justice and peace among all people and respecting the dignity of every human being.
And this is why what we do today is the most powerful action we can take today. Because these vows take us to a place that the world has such a hard time getting to right now.
In a world that says the newest thing is the best, we reach back to ancient wisdom. In a world that says you’re on your own, we commit to doing life together. In a world of never enough, we dare to proclaim that this simple meal of bread and wine and the real presence of Jesus can fill us full. In a world that is always plugged in, we unplug and rest in the presence and love of God.
Evil. Wow. We started this conversation last week when we looked at Herod’s barbarity, and this week, barbarity hit the news again. As followers of Jesus who have renounced evil in all its forms, we have to persevere in resisting it in whatever form it takes, starting with rooting it out in ourselves. But we can’t stop there.
- We have to resist the evil perpetrated by those who killed the cartoonists.
- We have to resist the evil that would take the Good News of Christianity or Islam or Judaism or secular humanism or any other tradition and turn it toward a murderous end.
- We have to call out the misuse of sacred texts that pull out one line to the exclusion of the rest of the tradition to justify violent acts that hurt and destroy the creatures of God. You can twist anything to an ideological end, but we have vowed to direct our words and deeds to a different end.
- We have committed ourselves to making the Good News of God in Christ known, which means, at every turn, we are seeking to make sure that people know that they are loved by God, reconciled with God, and that everyone falls inside that love, everyone.
- This also means that we have to call out anything that demeans any of those beloved of God which, by virtue of the fact that every human being is made in the image of God and bears the Divine Breath, is all human flesh.
- Should cartoonists be killed for exercising their free speech? Of course NOT; absolutely and emphatically NOT. But we also have to call out this coarsening of the culture that says, “I can say whatever I want no matter how offensive to another.” Am I for censorship? No. But by golly, we’ve got to call it whenever someone’s dignity is not being respected, and some of those cartoons published are not funny; they are offensive, demeaning, racist, and cruel. St. Paul got it right—we have rights to all kinds of things, but sometimes, we don’t exercise our right for the sake of a brother or sister. We have a hard won right to free speech, I get that, but if the exercise of that right denigrates something sacred to a brother or sister and disregards that most dear to their heart, well, how is that not just one more turn in the cycle of hate? I think we have to persevere in resisting that, too.
And repenting when we fall into sin? Whew. That’s the work before Bishop Cook now. But baptism also reminds us that she is more than her sin. She is more than even her repentance. She is a beloved daughter of God—that is who she is. As our Bishop, Bishop Taylor, said this week, “She is more than the worst moment of her life.” Her forgiveness by God is not in question, but forgiveness doesn’t erase consequences. No, it will be her acceptance of that forgiveness that will provide her the strength to face the consequences of her actions. Forgiveness is not a substitute for accountability. Repenting, naming clearly and without excuse the wrongs we commit, returning to Jesus—this is the way that we start to find our way out of the Good Fridays that we create; this is the pathway that will lead us out of the hell’s we traverse, and lead us toward life again.
Seeking Christ in all persons, remembering that our neighbor is a part of our own being, respecting the dignity of every human being. Oh, this is where it gets so hard. Jesus—the Word made flesh, the Incarnation—we just celebrated this at Christmas. God in human flesh. All flesh, all flesh is holy. We have to feel the pain of cartoonists who died, even if we cannot abide the cartoons they have drawn. We have to feel our connection to those who killed them, even if we cannot abide their barbaric acts of violence and terror. We have to feel the inconsolable grief of a family whose husband and father was ripped from them by the senseless choice of another. And we have to touch all those times in our own lives when we have made a senseless choice that has hurt another. And we have to challenge evil and resist evil, but we have to keep connected to the True Self that lives in you and in me and in every human being while we do so. Evil happens when we forget who we are, when we forget who every human being is. It is the self who doesn’t know that it lives in God, the self that doesn’t feel its connection to others, that feels so isolated and separated and cut off and afraid, it is that self that is capable of horrific acts. But the True Self is in there somewhere, and it is our task to keep reconnecting ourselves and others to that reality.
This week, Bishop Taylor closed his weekly reflection with this: “Let’s remember the words of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: ‘If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?’”
Elliot and Judson, today we are helping you to claim your tender Beloved heart and the Divine Love that pulses through it. Your life will not be easy—dying and rising—this is your lot. But to know the vastness of the Divine Heart that holds your own, to know your kinship to every human being, to know the mystery of this connection, to know the pain and glory that comes when you realize there is but One Heart—I wouldn’t want it any other way, not for me and not for you. Amen.
The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
January 11, 2015