Rev. Dr. Warner Bailey
Jan. 10, 2020
Our country has just lived through a moment of truth. Fomented and abetted by President Trump, the legitimacy of the election of the 46th President of the United States Joe Biden has been contested in the courts up to the Supreme Court, and judges and justices, both Republican and Democratic, have validated resoundingly the work of state and local election officials. “Stop for a second and think about how awesome this election was,” marvels The New York Times columnist, Thomas Friedman. He elaborates further:
“In the middle of an accelerating pandemic substantially more Americans voted than ever before in our history—Republicans, Democrats and independents. And it was their fellow citizens who operated the polling stations and conducted the count—many of them older Americans who volunteered for that duty knowing they could contract the coronavirus, as some did. That’s why this was our greatest expression of American democratic vitality since Abraham Lincoln defeated General George V. McClelland in l864—in the midst of a civil war.”
All day last Wednesday and into the late hours of the night, our democracy lived through what may turn out to be the darkest moment of truth we have ever experienced as a republic. What happened at the Capitol and the White House has been called many things: protest, the right of lawful assembly to present a petition, insurrection, riot, act of sedition. Looking at my television screen, I had the same feelings of revulsion and anger as I had when St. Stephen was vandalized and burned. I prefer to see what happened on Wednesday in all its surreal aspects as a crossroads, as a crux, as a moment of truth. Will this be the final death rattle of an era of extreme partisan politics and structural disparity between the rich and the left-behind? Will something better come of it? Or will the storming and desecration of the Capitol be the labor pains of the emergence of an America where the only thing that matters is who has power?
We all have our moments of truth, times when there is no more room for delay, dilly-dallying, and dissembling. Times when the options are clear and squarely before us, and we must act or face the consequences. Will we be changed for the better by this moment of truth?
It was to that kind of moment, that moment of truth, that the preaching of John the Baptist drew crowds into the chalk wilderness of the Dead Sea. It was a moment not unlike ours today, where options are clear and square, a moment to act or face the consequences. John held church in a barren, inhospitable, hostile place—the wilderness. People go hear John preach in a place where the old and familiar is wiped away and replaced by stark moments of exposure and the challenge to rise to the occasion.
The message of John is the opportunity for a new birth, a new chance at life. The demand of John is that you face into your moment of truth and confess that you need this new chance, this new birth of life. John preached a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The people who came to John faced into their moment of truth. They confessed that they were sinners and that they desired to put their old lives behind them. Their baptism signified their desire to wash themselves of their old lives, and they looked to God to free them from their pasts, by forgiving them their sins.
I can picture a line of people shuffling slowly toward John as he stands in the waters of the Jordan. In their moment of truth, they have pierced into themselves deeply and asked of themselves, “How have I measured up to what God looks at me to do and to be.” The answers come back at them: Screw-ups, losers, inadequate, pathetic. In their pain they cry out: Can I have a fresh start? Can I have a new chance?
But look, my friends, Jesus himself is standing in that line with a bunch of sinners. Jesus is there, not saying much to anybody, just shuffling forward for his turn. No one recognizes him, not even John who is his cousin! When it is Jesus’ turn, John looks him in the eye; they speak, but no differently than anybody else. Jesus goes down into the waters with the sinners, looking every bit like a sinner.
Here is his moment of truth: When Jesus went down into the waters, he showed us that there was enough sin to go around for everybody to come to their moment of truth. Loser, screw-up, inadequate, pathetic, deplorable. But that’s not the whole truth. Upon coming out of the waters, a voice from heaven proclaims, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” When Jesus heard, “You are my beloved Son,” he heard words that promised an intimate fellowship with his heavenly Father. Think of it! God promises intimate fellowship with someone who identifies with deplorable people. That means God promises intimate fellowship with us!
As the beloved Son, Jesus knows the heart of his heavenly Father. As the one who went down into the waters with John, Jesus knows our hearts and heartaches, too. Jesus brings together in his big heart the heart of his heavenly Father and our hearts and heartaches. Do you have any idea what that means for you? It means this: Jesus shows us how much his heavenly Father loves and cares for us, by how he, Jesus, is so touched in his heart by who you are and what you are going through. Indeed, what makes us so want to be a part of Jesus is how he can be so sensitive to us.
Baptism is your way of saying, “I want to be a part of Jesus. I confess that Jesus has found a place in his heart for me. The wonder of it all! The joy of it all! The awesomeness of it all!” When we remember our baptisms, we say again and again how grateful we are to be a part of Jesus and how grateful we are to be a member of Christ’s body, the Church.
When we remember our baptism into Christ, we remember that he opens his heart to bring us close to him. His sensitivity to us gives us the new-found ability to be sensitive to each other. Because of our baptism, Christians will stand out by our ability to be sensitive to the hopes and the hurts, the dreams and the depressions, the aspirations and the angers, the affirmations, and the aggressions of all of God’s children.
This election has been a moment of truth. It has shown us at our best and at our worst. Extremism tears up a republic. The inauguration of our 46th President Joe Biden is ten days away. More moments of truth await us; but they are not the either-or kind of moments of truth. They must be the both-and kind of moments of truth. Because of our baptism, we must insist on that.
Both finding a way to re-divide the pie and grow the pie. Both reforming police departments and strengthening law and order. Both saving lives in a pandemic and saving jobs.
Both demanding equity in education and demanding excellence. Both strengthening safety nets and strengthening capitalism. Both celebrating diversity and celebrating patriotism. Both making college cheaper and making the work of non-college-educated Americans more respected. Both high-fiving the people who start companies and supporting the people who regulate them. Both having an essential reckoning with white supremacy and understanding the other stories that people feel are driving their lives.
It is an awesome task to know when to support and when to resist, when to stand on principle and when to compromise. We will not always get it right or perfect. But if we stay close to Jesus who has opened his heart to us, we can always listen to our brothers and sisters and try again.