(A sermon given on January 16th 2011 at All Saints' Episcopal Church, Littleton NH)
In this morning’s gospel (John 1:29-42), we get another version of Jesus’ baptism.
I love talking about Baptism, but I’m not going to talk about it today, in part because I talked about it two weeks ago when we baptized Lila at the 10AM service. Also, Paul talked about it in beautiful detail last Sunday in his sermon.
The truth of the matter, however, is that Baptism hasn’t been on my mind this week at all. I know, from talking with many of you, baptism hasn’t been on your minds either.
Our vestry meeting ended Tuesday night with talk about the Arizona shootings. The Men’s Breakfast, the next morning, began with a similar conversation. At The White Mountain School on Thursday, Paul’s morning reading was on it as well.
When tragedy strikes, we are compelled to ask the question “why”, even though some part of us knows the answer will always be incomplete.
“Scripture tells us that there is evil in the world, and that terrible things happen for reasons that defy human understanding. In the words of Job, “When I looked for light, then came darkness.” Bad things happen, and we have to guard against simple explanations in the aftermath...what we cannot do is use this tragedy as one more occasion to turn on each other.”
I’m sure you’re not surprised to hear scripture quoted from the pulpit. But perhaps you may not be aware that I also just quoted the President of the United States.
The primary qualification in becoming President of the United States is gaining the support and, ultimately, the nomination of one of our two major political parties. This event usually shadows everything a President does in office. The other night in Tucson Arizona, at the Memorial event, President Obama did something rare: he transcended this qualification.
“I have come here tonight as an American who, like all Americans, kneels to pray with you today and will stand by you tomorrow.
There is nothing I can say that will fill the sudden hole torn in your hearts. But know this: The hopes of a nation are here tonight. We mourn with you for the fallen. We join you in your grief. And we add our faith to yours...”
President Obama was more preacher than politician that night. He lifted our hopes by sharing glimpses of those who died: how in their ordinary lives they were extraordinary people.
He also shared how people standing by overcame their fears and acted in the moment: the 20 year old intern who used his hands to control the Congresswoman’s bleeding, those who tackled the gunmen, and the woman who grabbed the extra bullet clip before the gunmen could use it.
After lifting our hopes with the goodness in the midst of destruction, he refused to blame anyone or jump to quick answers. That’s been well publicized. But what is also clear from the speech is that the President also gave us all something to do:
Yes, we have to examine all the facts behind this tragedy. We cannot and will not be passive in the face of such violence. We should be willing to challenge old assumptions in order to lessen the prospects of such violence in the future....As we discuss these issues, let each of us do so with a good dose of humility. Rather than pointing fingers or assigning blame, let’s use this occasion to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy and remind ourselves of all the ways that our hopes and dreams are bound together.
After all, that’s what most of us do when we lose somebody in our family -– especially if the loss is unexpected. We’re shaken out of our routines. We’re forced to look inward. We reflect on the past: Did we spend enough time with an aging parent, we wonder. Did we express our gratitude for all the sacrifices that they made for us? Did we tell a spouse just how desperately we loved them, not just once in a while but every single day?
So sudden loss causes us to look backward -– but it also forces us to look forward; to reflect on the present and the future, on the manner in which we live our lives and nurture our relationships with those who are still with us.”
If you cannot tell by now, I was really taken in by his speech. And I wasn’t the only one. Of course, you expect the usual supportive voices, but the positive reactions to the President’s speech has come from all sides. For example, John McCain wrote an op-ed for this morning’s Washington’s Post, saying:
“President Obama gave a terrific speech Wednesday night. He movingly mourned and honored the victims of Saturday's senseless atrocity outside Tucson, comforted and inspired the country, and encouraged those of us who have the privilege of serving America. He encouraged every American who participates in our political debates - whether we are on the left or right or in the media - to aspire to a more generous appreciation of one another and a more modest one of ourselves.”
Theologians have also reacted to the President’s speech as well. Diana Butler Bass focused on what she called “Four simple words. Four very spiritual words: ‘Gabby opened her eyes."
It was a great moment in Congresswoman Giffords’ recovery, that happened moments after President Obama left her room, and the news was first shared in the President’s speech. Butler Bass, however, points out the spiritual meaning:
“Giffords was shot at the beginning of the Christian season called Epiphany. The word, epiphany, means "manifestation," "revelation," or "unveiling." As it follows Christmas, it is the time of the year in which Christians consider how God has appeared to us, where God is seen, and how God is made manifest in the world. Epiphany, its primary symbol the star, is about seeing the light.”
Bass reminds us that the roots of Epiphany comes from the Hebrew Scriptures, fittingly since Congresswoman Giffords is Jewish.
“Abraham, Moses, Joshua, and many of the prophets experienced "epiphanies," where God appeared to them. Indeed, the Jewish festival of Hanukkah is an epiphany celebration--the light of God is seen here on earth. Early Christians borrowed the word epiphaneia from the Greek version of the Jewish Scriptures where it referred to the visible presence of God in the world....Indeed, the Christian season of Epiphany celebrates God made manifest to the whole world, that God was no longer a distant God or only the God of the ancient Israelites--but that God is, indeed, visible to all who open their eyes.”
This is the perfect time to share with you news that did not get much press. The President also issued a proclamation this week, declaring today, Sunday, January 16th, “Religious Freedom Day”, “...commemorating Virginia's 1786 Statute for Religious Freedom, in which Thomas Jefferson wrote that "all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion." The proclamation goes on to say “Though our Nation has sometimes fallen short of the weighty task of ensuring freedom of religious expression and practice, we have remained a Nation in which people of different faiths coexist with mutual respect and equality under the law. America's unshakable commitment to religious freedom binds us together as a people, and the strength of our values underpins a country that is tolerant, just, and strong.”
This fits perfectly into Butler Bass’s point. She writes:
“Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and Sikhs: we are all searchers following stars, looking for the presence of God in the world. Opening our eyes is a sign of life, one of the first things tiny babies do when after they make their way into the world. But opening our eyes also symbolizes of our common humanity--the search for love, meeting the healing looks of family and friends, God's presence in others, the light that shines throughout the world, and finding goodness in all the places we find ourselves along the way.
When we open our eyes, we will see light and beauty. We will see the caring faces of loved ones. But opening our eyes, we will also see suffering and pain and violence. We see the steady gaze of a loving spouse; we also see the sinister glare of a deranged shooter. Open eyes see both. And in all that we see, God's presence is somehow there. Comforting, healing: yes. But often seeing God is a call as well. A call to transform our world into God's vision for humankind. God made manifest in the world; we must manifest God in the world.”
How fittingly that all of this sets up as a vision for humanity: a dream if you will...a dream we are to especially remember tomorrow, and beyond.
“I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made straight and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.”
(Martin Luther King Jr., I Have a Dream, 1963.)