From the Epistle of the Day: “You know you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your ancestors, not with perishable things like silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ…you have been born anew, not of perishable but of imperishable seed, through the living and enduring word of God.”
Last Sunday morning, gathered around our font, in a picture perfect sacramental moment, we welcomed Cora, Truman and Jack Peter into the Body of Christ. These newest Christians, with their wide eyes and unfurrowed brows, their wrinkle-free skin and open innocence — take those of us who’ve lived our share of life into a place of hopefulness and joy. We get near enough to their innocence to imagine a time when we were innocent as well.
Water gets splashed. Chrism oil gets smeared. Smiles are wide throughout the congregation. Sounds of spontaneous joy erupt all around. And we forget. We forget that the gift of new life in the waters of baptism comes at a price — a price we’d prefer not to think about. Before the water of baptism is poured out into the font, the blood of Jesus was poured out upon the cross.
Last Sunday evening, while we gathered around our televisions, a different sort of picture came into focus. We listened as we were informed of the death of a man whose diabolical scheming has haunted us for nearly ten years. Throughout these years we’ve watched him taunt us all — with his fanatical rants and weathered face, with his ever-present gauntness and his embodied hatred. We were certain we were looking into the face of evil incarnate. Thousands upon thousands have suffered immeasurably as a result of the works of his hands.
Shots were fired. Some of them found their mark. Mission accomplished. Evil thwarted. Target neutralized. Killed. Dead. One life ended. Justice served — at least, that’s we have been told. But then, almost instantaneously, we began seeing other pictures — pictures of our fellow citizens cheering, shouting, laughing…giddy with joy. Partying over the death of a man. People rapturously reveling in the bloody details of the death of someone we no longer considered human, but merely a “thing” — the very symbol of the Terror this nation’s leaders say we are at war against.
Baptized into the peaceable kingdom, Cora, Truman, Jack Peter and all of us must learn how to remember we are not defined by our nationality — rather, we are identified by a mark — the mark of the cross inscribed in our foreheads — “You are sealed with the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.” Baptized into the peaceable kingdom, we are set apart — called to be different, called to make a difference, called to respect the dignity of every human being — even the human beings we believe are inhuman. Even those human beings we so readily dehumanize for our own self-interested purposes.
Let me be clear. This sermon is not a lament for Osama bin Laden. This sermon is a lament for those of us who share the Resurrection life of Christ and who sometimes lose our way. In the midst of a world of Sin and Death we can easily forget who we are and whose we are. Rather than witnessing to the gift of eternal life, we become fixated on the enactment of death — death as a means of revenge and retribution; death as a means of exerting power and control; death as a way of life, which in the end does not set us free, but only tightens the chains of our bondage.
Earlier this week, I received a letter, in which the author asked, “Where are we headed? Where is this nation headed? Where or what are our foundations?” These are heartfelt questions arising out of a moment of distress and confusion. I share some of the concerns of the author.
As I’ve thought about my own response to those questions, I’ve found myself returning, over and over again to the scriptures and what I understand to be our foundational story as followers of Jesus. If the Christian Gospel teaches us anything, it reminds us, over and over again, that God refuses to play by our rules. The Power of the Almighty will not bomb us into submission and forcibly make us love our neighbor. The God we worship is the God who shows us power, not through shock and awe, but through the awesome shock of a man bleeding and dying in apparent weakness, in a cursed fashion on a cruel cross. A Superpower has its missiles and tanks and ships and planes. God chooses the power of a Body broken and Blood poured out.
The God we claim to worship is the God who works, time and time again, through the poor and the lowly, the weak and the marginalized, the cast downs and the cast offs. The mission of the Church — the mission of each one of us as constitutive parts of the Body of Christ — isn’t to figure out how we can leverage our power as a voting block to get our will done. Our mission is to pray for God’s will. Our mission isn’t to figure out how to make everyone in this country behave in a particular way. Our mission is to figure out how we are supposed to behave.
But what good will that do, Gary? Aren’t you simply advocating for us to keep our religion separate from our lives? Absolutely not! I am challenging all of us to figure out how to embrace our story as the Baptized — the followers of the Crucified God. I pray moments like these won’t drive us to the helplessness of despair or drive us to simply fire off flurries of e-mails to our elected representatives. I pray that times like these will drive us to the Scriptures — to search the Word of God for a Word from the Lord.
And I pray that as we search those Scriptures our hearts will burn. Burn with anger for the evil and injustice in this world. Burn with sadness for those who are caught in the crossfire and who are innocent victims. Burn with pain for our losses. Burn with compassion to be instruments of healing. Burn with fervor to share the Good News in a world filled with Bad News. Burn with resolve to act like the people of God — people who extend hospitality to strangers, people who embrace one another in the midst of our differences, people who encourage each other in moments like these when we are simultaneously full of emotion and empty from the intensity of it all.
We are called, dear friends, not to despair, but to hope. We are called to be the witnesses to the peaceable kingdom — the kingdom where the only sword drawn is the sword of righteousness and the only power known is the power of love. We are called to be the emissaries of this new way of living. A way that is marked by the cross. A way in which the old life is drowned in baptism and we are raised to new life in Christ. A way where Death does not have the last word. A way where Death is assassinated by the Resurrection.
To the powers of the world, our tools don’t look like much. Some words. Some water. A broken piece of bread and a sip of wine. How, for Christ’s sake, do we intend to make any difference at all in our war on the terror of Death with such wimpy weapons?
And that, sisters and brothers, is the point. God uses weakness to thwart the powerful in their tracks. God leverages our skewed ideas of justice to open our hearts to mercy. God points us toward new creation even when we are hellbent on destroying the present one. God offers us glimpses of the Good News of Resurrection, not in a gleaming, glittering other-worldly ghost of a man, but in the unassuming power of a simple meal. The gifts of God for the people of God.
Come to this Table, dear people of God, feast upon the sacrament of grace. Be reminded of the hope implanted in you at Baptism. Let the tears flow. Feel your hearts burn. Embrace each other in the bonds of fellowship. Christ, the Crucified One, Christ the Risen One is among us — and nothing — no power in this world or any other world can tear us away from his love.