Sermon for Sunday, January 10th, 2021. The Baptism of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
So let me make some things clear right out of the gate this morning:
Baptized Christians owe their ultimate allegiance to only one King: that is the Lord Jesus Christ. We may recognize the authority of our earthly leaders, we may show them respect, we can and should pray for them, but the moment that that water hits your head, you belong to Jesus and you become a subject and a citizen of God’s kingdom.
Baptized Christians owe their ultimate allegiance to only one country: the kingdom of heaven. We may be proud of our own homelands, we can and should celebrate our culture and our accomplishments, we may work for and pray for the country we live in, and sometimes we may even have to fight for our earthly kingdoms, but make no mistake…Saint Peter is not checking passports at the pearly gates. When you reach the gates of God’s kingdom, it is not going to matter what earthly kingdom you were born into, or which earthly king you served.
But were you born into God’s Kingdom? did you serve the heavenly king?
Christians have a higher allegiance than to just the principalities and powers of this world, but that does not mean that we can just divorce ourselves from the responsibility of serving and caring for the earthly kingdoms we are born into. In fact, if we actually believe that Jesus is the way and the truth and the life; if we actually believe that he is the incarnate son of God, whose birth we just proclaimed a couple weeks ago; if we actually believe that his way is THE way, and that he wants us to spread that message to the world; if we believe these things, then we have a sacred calling to show our fellow citizens on this earth, a better way. We have the responsibility, as citizens of God’s kingdom, to serve as ambassadors of that kingdom.
Now this earthly country we live in is pluralistic. There is no state church here; there is no state religion. I think that is an amazing thing. Because not only does it give me the freedom to worship my God as my beliefs and convictions dictate, but also it means that I get to live side by side with people that don’t know Jesus, or don’t believe in God, or worship God completely differently than I do. We all get to live among the heathens and the agnostics and the atheists, and faithful people who worship God differently than we do. Living with people that don’t worship the way we do, and don’t think the way we do, can be frustrating at times, but how else are we going to spread the gospel if we never interact with, or talk to, or deal with, or live beside people that are different than we are? And if we want to draw people to Jesus, if we want to invite people into citizenship in God’s Kingdom, then we need to make sure that our neighbors and fellow citizens in this world, in this country, can see in us a way of life that is worth imitating. We have a sacred calling to do better, to be better, and to hold ourselves to a higher standard. It is not enough to sit at home in smug contempt and wonder why the rest of the world just doesn’t see things our way.
Show them a better way. Make a better argument. Tell a better story.
Christians love to complain about people not going to church anymore. Well here is my not-so-spicy take on that: if we did a better job of actually living the values we profess, if we did a better job of actually showing people Jesus and if we were better ambassadors of the Kingdom of Heaven, we wouldn’t need to worry about church growth, because the churches would be packed. People would see in us, something worth imitating. Something attractive. People would want to know more about this God that we worship. But if you pray to Jesus on Sunday and act like the devil the rest of the week, then nonbelievers are going to be rightly suspicious about this so-called faith of yours.
Show them a better way. Make a better argument. Tell a better story. That is how the Church, that is how God’s Kingdom grows.
Now, in this church, most of us, in addition to being citizens of God’s kingdom through baptism, are also citizens of the United States of America. We are a mixed group of people here. I think one of the strengths and beauties of this parish is that it is made up of very different people with very different opinions and backgrounds, and yet the same faith. There are very few places in our country anymore where Democrats and Republicans actually sit side by side and breath the same air, but we manage to do it here. I think, and I hope, that it is because we believe in something greater than party loyalty, something greater than national loyalty even. We believe in loyalty to Jesus Christ and his kingdom. That doesn’t mean that we necessarily have to choose between loving God or loving our country, not at all. What it means is that our love for both Kingdoms should compel us to proclaim to one the glories of the other. If we truly love the United States of America, then we need to proclaim to it, and continue to proclaim to it, the vision that Christ has shown us of his kingdom. We need to show our fellow citizens, with love and respect, the better way that we have been shown. We need to make better arguments and tell a better story. No earthly Kingdom or country is ever going to be perfect, just like no human being, save Jesus, is ever going to be perfect, but we can all strive to be better.
I don’t think anyone here would dare accuse me of being a partisan hack in the pulpit. I do my level best to keep the focus here, in this space, on our citizenship in heaven. It annoys me greatly when preachers talk about politics and party platforms as if they were the gospel. But if we expect people to take us seriously when we talk about Jesus, then how we behave as Christians and citizens in the public sphere matters. What we say matters. How we act matters. People are never going to believe you when you talk about the truth of the Resurrection if everything else you say is a lie. There are plenty of opinions and issues that faithful Christians AND good citizens may sincerely disagree about; God doesn’t belong to a political party; but that doesn’t mean that God has no interest in how we conduct ourselves in our earthly kingdoms. Make no mistake, God is watching us.
I do not think that it is a partisan statement to stand here and tell you that what happened this week in our nation’s capital was disgusting and a travesty. On so many levels. It was beneath us as a country. While our nation has never been perfect, we know that, we have been better. We can do better than this. And I say “we” very intentionally, because while the blame for what happened this week may not be equal for everyone (I’m not saying that at all), but we have collectively, over time, allowed our national discourse to descend to this level. While I think that individuals need to be held responsible for their actions, I also think that we have a collective responsibility to each other. So what I say, I say to Republicans and to Democrats: We have all stopped trying to persuade and evangelize others and now it is all about winning through the power of force and not the power of persuasion. We have stopped talking to each other and we have stopped listening to each other, and that is on all of us, not just the angry mob that stormed our capital. We can do better than this.
The worst part of it all, is that so many of the people that participated in Wednesday’s debacle, most of them I would say, call themselves Christians. Now I certainly am not in a position to know who will be in and who will be out come judgement day, only God can do that. But I can say that we Christians, regardless of our political affiliations, need to hold ourselves to a higher standard than our neighbors and fellow citizens. It doesn’t matter if someone else did something wrong before, that doesn’t give us license to do it. Pointing to what other people have done wrong, never excuses your own wrongdoing. Yes, I know that Christians have done far worse things in the past; we have been worse, but we have also been better. We need to do better. If we claim to be following Jesus then we need to be looking to him to set the standards we will follow. We need to show others that truth and decency and integrity matter to us. We need to show people how to disagree without demonizing. We need to do better, so that others will look to us and wonder, what is it that allows these people to act and live differently than everyone else? Our actions as citizens of this country matter, because they have the power to point people to Jesus.
Today, we celebrate the baptism of Our Lord, and we remember Jesus, at the very beginning of his ministry, heading out to meet John the Baptist at the Jordan river. I think it is interesting that the very first act of our Lord’s public ministry was an act of repentance. That is what baptism is first of all, it is a ritual of repentance, a washing away of sins. Our Lord, who knew no sin, still chose to do this before he did or said anything else. In Mark’s Gospel, this is the first time we see Jesus; not in the manger, not with the wise men or the star, that is in the gospels of Luke and Matthew, but in Mark we first see Jesus down by the river, walking into the water with a bunch of desperate people that really want to start over. For Christians, your entry into the Church and into the body of Christ still happens by participating in this ritual. Even the newest little baby, who we may not think has had any occasion to sin, still is made a part of God’s holy family through an act of repentance. There is no other way…it is almost like repentance and being a Christian are intimately linked in some way…like you can’t be one without the other. That’s just it…the Christian life begins with an act of repentance: owning your own sins and your own failures, not pointing the finger at someone else, but knowing and understanding that you are prone to making mistakes and that there is no way out of this cycle without God’s help. That is where Christianity begins, with an act of repentance, and repentance must be a way of life for Christians; not a one-time act, but constantly approaching, God, our neighbors and our own thoughts and actions with humility. Confessing our sins and failures is a life-long act for Christians, but God doesn’t leave us there. Jesus doesn’t leave us to drown in our failure, but draws us back up out of the water and gives us the Holy Spirit and a chance to live our lives differently. You see, I think some people have the wrong idea about repentance. The devil wants you to think that repentance is just about feeling guilty all the time, or beating yourself up, or thinking that you are worse than everyone else. No. Repenting doesn’t mean that you are worse than everyone else, it means that you recognize that you are no BETTER than everyone else. The devil wants you to think that repenting means you are weak, because he doesn’t want you to discover the Holy Ghost power that comes through repentance. In our scriptures today we are reminded that baptism carries with it the gift of the Holy Spirit. When we participate in that act of repentance we are given power, from God, to live differently. We have to learn to draw on that power.
We have to draw on that power right now, because our country needs to witness people whose lives have been truly changed and transformed by God. Our country needs Democrats and Republicans who will stand up, as people of faith, and say that honesty, integrity, decency and truth matter. We need to hold ourselves to a higher standard. We need to show people a better way; persuade people with better arguments; and inspire people with better stories. We can do this. God has given us the power to do this. Our country needs us to do this…because although no earthly king or kingdom is ever going to be perfect, our country, and the world, now more than ever, needs a witness to the one that is.