I don’t normally post sermon texts, because I don’t think they make for good reading. But some people have expressed interest after I publicly narrated my decision to scrap my Sunday sermon in light of Saturday’s shooting, and after the advice of Diana Butler Bass.
So, then, here it is. As always, feedback is appreciated.
On a normal Tuesday night in April, 1999, I popped in to see some friends, Dave, Debbie, and Alistair. Dave and Debbie lived in a small flat on the protestant side of the Springfield Road in West Belfast, right next to the Methodist church where Dave was the pastor and where I was serving as a short-term mission volunteer in the church’s cross-community children’s and youth programs.
I’d been there since the previous September, and Dave and Debbie’s place had come to be something of a hideout for me; Dave was also an American, tall and good-humored, with a very useful Bruce Sprinsteen cd collection, and Debbie was a walking showcase of Northern Irish wit and charm and hospitality.
Alistair worked with Debbie at a community-based organization that helped teenage boys who had got mixed up in the protestant paramilitary organizations that ran the neighborhood. Alistair was good with these kids, because he’d been one of them. He was involved in paramilitary violence by the time he was 14, and he’d served 13 years in prison for murder. When he was 17 he carried out a hit job on a local catholic man. He shot the man through the front window of his home.
Alistair unfolded this story to me in pieces over the many weeks in which I had got to know him that year. Our conversations were clipped little things, because Alistair used an economy of words and studied your reaction to his words very carefully. Once he invited me to watch with him a video of a tv special in which he’d been featured describing his crime. But more than that, he also talked to the interviewer in the show about his time in prison, his conversion to Christianity and an ethic of nonviolence, his admiration for the Dalai Lama.
[Interesting sidenote: while trying to find the title of that television special, I made a startling discovery: in 2009, Alistair’s story was dramatized in a film called “Five Minutes of Heaven,” which won two Sundance Film Festival awards. Alistair was portrayed by none other than Liam Neeson.]
Alistair, Debbie, and Dave were some of my closest friends that year. I dropped in to see them that Tuesday night just like I had several Tuesday nights before. But that Tuesday was April 20th, the day that a shooting massacre was unfolding at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, mere miles from where I’d grown up. It was on the news when I walked in.
Alistair broke the news to me, and I will never forget my surprise at the toll the things he was describing were taking on him. He seemed baffled. He stared at the floor and shook his head. And when he looked at me his eyes didn’t have the look of a hardened criminal well-used to shootings, but of a devastated human absorbing the blows of human brutality.
On days like yesterday, the sheer brutality of humanity can take your breath away. Hearing news of a shooting rampage in a public parking lot, one that targeted an elected official and killed a nine year-old girl and a federal judge, your shoulders sag and your head drops. Maybe you cry.
But if you’re like me and you follow every piece of information and speculation the moment it’s published, those sagging shoulders presently become fortified with righteous indignation. Because one moment you learn that Representative Giffords was one of several Representatives targeted with gun crosshairs on a map of vulnerable congressional districts published by a conservative political action committee.
The next minute you watch the shooter’s YouTube channel. The videos there are weird, and they feature anti-government slogans.
Then it’s reported that the judge who has died recently allowed a multi-million dollar civil suit to proceed that was brought by illegal immigrants against Arizona ranchers.
You read the Pima county sherriff bemoaning Arizona’s morph into a “mecca for prejudice and bigotry.”
You grit your teeth and clench your fist at the obvious nastiness of it: politically-motivated gun violence fanned by prominent conservative politicians.
Well, the intervening hours muddy that picture substantially. There still a lot that we don’t know, but it seems pretty clear that Jared Lee Loughner isn’t a right wing crusader taking orders from Tea Party demagogues. He’s mentally ill. He’s a 22 year-old kid who’s been kicked out of classes at the local community college and rejected by the army.
We’re back, then, to the sagging shoulders and the bowed head, the posture of . . . of what? Grief? Anger? Confusion? Yes, all of those things. But also, let us pray, of repentance.
Jesus came to John at the Jordan to be baptized by him with his baptism of repentance. Repentance, as in “Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven has come near,” and “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance.”
Repentance? This is Jesus. This is the one who, as John has been telling everyone, “Of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke,” the one who is more powerful than John, who is coming after him, who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire, who’s winnowing fork is in his hand, who will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary, but who will burn the chaff with unquenchable fire.”
Repentance? That seems to be the Baptizer’s thought. “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”
Jesus’ baptism, it seems to me, is as much about a posture as it is anything else. And it’s not the posture we necessarily want from a savior. Contrary to John’s press releases, it’s not a posture of power. It’s not a posture of threshing and gathering and judging and burning, at least not now.
Now it’s a posture of repentance. Which means it’s a shoulder-sagging posture of really being human and really absorbing the terrible things that humans can do. Really feeling the weight of human violence as something for which you share culpability and something against which you must struggle every day, even if costs you everything.
If we don’t know how to feel and how to comport ourselves in the light of yesterday’s events, we could do a lot worse than Jesus’ example at the Jordan.
Yet repentance is not resignation. A posture of repentance doesn’t lead to despair, but to action.
One of the things that we should hear in Matthew’s description of what goes on here at the Jordan is an echo of Isaiah 42, the text that Angel read a moment ago, which is the first of several “servant songs” found in the second part of Isaiah. Those songs address the people of God in exile in Babylon, having been crushed at Jerusalem by an invading army and forcibly moved across the desert to a foreign capital. To those exiles, Isaiah’s words are a reminder of who they are and to whom they belong, despite what their present circumstances assert: “I am the Lord,” God says in verse 6. “I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you.”
For Christians, Isaiah’s words of hope strike a resonant chord as well. When Jesus’ comes out of the water and the skies open and a voice says, “This is my son, The Beloved, with whom I am well pleased,” we hear an echo of “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights.” Christians have always seen Jesus (to varying degrees) in the person of God’s servant described by Isaiah.
So the description of the servant’s work is particularly relevant: he will bring forth justice to the nations; “he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth;”
“I,” God says to the servant, “have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.”
This is the work given to God’s “servant.” This is the work that shapes Jesus’ life and ministry, inaugurated here at his baptism: open blind eyes and bring out prisoners from life’s dark dungeons. There’s nothing resigned or hopeless about that.
Alistair now works with victims and perpetrators of violence all over the world. He helps people tell their stories to one another and so discover a common humanity and brokenness and strength in one another. Northern Ireland, South Africa, Kosovo, the Middle East: he’s worked with groups in all of those places. He lives every day with an intimate awareness of his own capacity for violence, even as he works to bring healing and justice to those blinded and imprisoned by the violence that continues to stalk humanity.
This is the paradox of faith. If we are to be Jesus’ people today, then we have to do two seemingly contradictory things at once: struggle against violence and evil, even as we practice a posture of repentance.
We have to struggle–really struggle, like, scratch-and-claw struggle–against attitudes and laws that tend to bloodshed even as we resist simple assignments of blame. We have to write elected officials and march in favor of gun control even as we confess out loud to God and one another the violence lurking in our own hearts. We have to advocate for a more civil public discourse even as we give up uncharitable ways of talking about people who’s opinions infuriate us.
John would have prevented Jesus from submitting to anything like a baptism, which would affiliate Jesus with repentance and the human need for God’s help. John wanted half of Jesus. The scratch-and-claw half.
But John needs–we all need–all of Jesus. Which is why Jesus prevails upon him, “Let it be so now.” May that be our prayer, and may we, like John, relent to Jesus’ posture of repentance and take it up ourselves. For it is proper, Jesus says, in this way to fulfill all righteousness.
To fulfill all righteousness. Let it be so now. Amen.