First Sunday after Epiphany: The Baptism of our Lord
January 10, 2021
I stand before you today as many things: a husband, a father, an American, a follower of Jesus. Each of these identities informs me, influences me, and causes me to have a spectrum of thoughts, feelings, emotions, and beliefs. I am no one thing.
In preparing for this sermon, with this mix of ideas in my head, and when all our thoughts, feelings, emotions, and beliefs are running high, I decided to go back and read another sermon. It was a sermon given by Phillips Brooks, a priest in the Episcopal Church in the 19th century. In April 1865, he gave a sermon in the aftermath of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. Brooks reflected that in light of that event and indeed the whole Civil War, he could see that there had always been two Americas. Brooks says that all of that was a sacrament, an outward and visible sign of the inward and spiritual conflict that has gripped our country since the beginning. Brooks remarks that these two Americas, so pitted against one another, were always destined to come to violent conflict. He says, “the only wonder is that there was not more of it” (Addresses the Rev. Phillips Brooks, VI. Abraham Lincoln).
These words linger in our collective memory and they characterize the present moment. “The only wonder is that there was not more of it.” This portrayal of an American people sometimes at odds with one another and sometimes in companionship is not a partisan description. It is a characterization of a people tempered by time, by history, and by a shared geography; sometimes happily, sometimes begrudgingly.
And before we move any further, I want to acknowledge the obvious. In this parish church, we are not all one thing or all another thing. Rather, we are many; as is true, I’m sure, of your neighborhood, your workplace, and your family, as is true of mine. And so I speak to you today with both a sense of courage and trepidation, wishing not to stoke any fires, but rather to hope “that there will not be more of it.”
Now this sense of a divide, of a rending, of being torn is not only part of the American experience. It is part of the human experience. Tribe against tribe, nation against nation. It is also spoken of in holy scripture. Here in the Gospel of Mark, the Lord God tears open the heavens, God splits the skies at the baptism of our Lord Jesus. That word for tearing or splitting is where we get the root word for “schizophrenic,” a tearing, a rending, a splitting of the human psyche. This is the same word used to describe the tearing apart of the Temple curtain when Jesus is crucified (Mark 15:38). In the Acts of the Apostles this word is used to describe the effect of the apostles’ preaching. Paul and Barnabas preach the good news of Jesus Christ, and the people of Iconium are divided, split apart, torn, a schizophrenic slicing open of the community (Acts 14:1-7). Again, Paul drives a wedge, he tears apart the Pharisees and Sadducees during his trial before the leadership in Jerusalem (Acts 23:1-11). This is part of who we are and of where we come from – “the only wonder is that there was not more of it.”
So it was then, it is now with us. You know the names and places of our great divides. For those names are sacramental to us, they are outward and visible signs of our inward and spiritual conflicts – Gettysburg, Ford’s Theater, Selma, Alabama, and now the U.S. Capitol. So, in the immortal words of Martin Luther King, Jr., another man who tore us apart, we must ask, “where do we go from here?” How can we look back at this great rending, and indeed, all the great rendings of our past and have any hope for the future?
Again, we must go back to the holy scriptures. The people of the ancient world were divided by the apostles’ preaching, but from that chaos is born something new: the Church. And those who had once been torn apart – Jew and Gentile – are brought together in a new way, as followers of Jesus. The Temple curtain is torn apart; that tearing from top to bottom is a sacrament of God’s desire to be close to God’s people. The thing which represented separation is itself now separated. Here at the Baptism of our Lord, the skies are split open and the Holy Spirit descends as a dove, a public commissioning of Christ Jesus as “God’s Son, the Beloved, with whom God is well pleased” (Mark 1:11). And for the bread to be shared, it must first be broken (Mark 14:22). From the holy scriptures I take great confidence that with every tearing, with every fracture, God creates the possibility for something new to be born in the midst of that chaos. The path is never backwards, trying to reclaim some mythical past that never was. The path is always forwards, trusting in the Lord God who promises “to make all things new” (Revelation 21:5).
We must see this in our own history. From the crucible of the Civil War was born a new nation, with the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth amendments. Those two Americas that Phillips Brooks described did not come back together. No, they were remade into a different nation out of that chaos. Despite the upheavals, and the demonstrations, and the fire hoses of the 1960s, despite the ways those figures and events still tear us apart, we must also acknowledge that we have been remade since.
And now? What about now? As you all are aware, I am a historian, not a fortune teller. I have no prognostication on what is to come. But I do have an exhortation. Do not be afraid. Do not give into the chaos, into the disorder. Trust in the Lord God who gives new life and new hope even as we are being cut apart. “Seek the truth; come whence it may, cost what it will,” and do not give in to easy conspiracies and simple explanations (William Sparrow). Live with resolve, not despair. Live with “faith, hope and love;” live “with malice toward none and charity for all;” “do not repay anyone evil for evil” (I Corinthians 13:13; Second Inaugural Address, Abraham Lincoln; Romans 12:17). This is truly the time for the Church of the Living God to be the salt of the earth, the light of the world, so that all may look at us and see a people who commit to love and to “the dignity of every human being” (Book of Common Prayer, 305). So that the world may look at us and see a people who live together, despite our differences, because we know ourselves to be God’s beloved children with whom God is well pleased; well pleased not because we are right, not because we have fallen on this side or the other, but simply because God chooses to love us. I pray that the world looks at us, to see us rising out of the chaos of the baptismal waters, the chaos of the present moment, as a new people, a people of “grace upon grace”(John 1:16).
While I know my words do carry weight, I also know that my words here are not that consequential. I have very little expectation that my words can change anybody for I have found that it is hard to change myself. And like our society, tearing apart, we must acknowledge that we are being torn apart internally – by our sinfulness and by our holiness. Take a long look in the mirror, examine your souls, and you will see it. We must recognize the conflict within us. We must come to realize that what we see in the news is only a manifestation of what lives in our souls. “The devices and desires of our own hearts” compete against “the better angels of our nature” (Book of Common Prayer, 41; Abraham Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address). What we have is a problem of the human soul, and we cannot fix that. Only the power of the Lord God can fix us by tearing open the heavens, sending the Spirit of God, and proclaiming us as God’s beloved children. That is our only hope in the present moment and in all times.
Today some will think I said too much, and others that I have not said enough. I suppose even in that, we are torn apart. But after a week in which we all saw images we had never seen before and heard things we had never heard before, this sermon is what I have to offer – an exhortation to love, forbearance, hope, justice, and mercy in spite of all that tears us apart. And I pray that through our good works and faith in the Lord Jesus the generations to come might look at this conflicted time and say of us, “the only wonder is that there was not more of it.”