“Go Another Way”
January 10, 2021
This is a strange week to be guest preaching. We don’t know each other, though as a girl I sat in your pews with my grandparents and as a college student I found my home at UPC and PCM in the sea of Carolina blue. But still, we don’t KNOW one another.
And it is a hard week to speak in generalities and from a distance. The events in our country have cut too close to the quick for that.
I live in Washington, DC with my husband and our 2 year old son. We live 13 blocks from the Capitol. It was a scary day here. I’m filming this on Thursday afternoon, and it is all still very fresh.
What I want to tell you is that I love the church. I love the people who make up the church. I love your particular church. And I am trying my darnedest to figure out what it means to follow Jesus in these days.
In that spirit, I want to share with you what it has been like for me over the last 24 hours and the wrestling with God and with this text and the knot in my stomach as the sirens went on relentlessly and we heard an occasional boom and try to make sense of what is happening.
Listen to this scripture from the Gospel of Mark, chapter 1.
4John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
9In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
Every day, as I take my 2 year old Huw to his child care center we play I-spy and the Capitol is always on the list. By mid-afternoon Wednesday, when the scene at the Capitol moved from a rally to an assault on democracy and we witnessed — for the first time since the Civil War — a non-peaceful transfer of power, my husband and I went pick our son up. On our way home, Huw spied the Capitol and asked to go to see it. We often walk by; the architecture impressive even to the toddler set. Yesterday, we attempted to explain that we couldn’t go to the Capitol. And we were met with our child’s confused series of “why?”
What would you have said? Many of you probably had similar conversations with your children over the last few days.
I found myself telling Huw things like, “It isn’t safe today.”
“There are people at the Capitol who are really angry. They are being mean. They are breaking things.”
“Well, they are listening to people who are not telling the truth and it’s making them mad.”
“Well, some of them believe that because of their white skin they are better than other people. And we know that’s not true. People with all colors of skin are beautiful and should be treated with respect.”
Huw said, “They are bad people.”
Like I always do in response to good/bad language, I said, “No people are bad people. They are being mean and making bad choices.”
And I thought to myself, “is that really true? Are there no bad people?”
I teach this to my child all the time.
I profess that all people are created in the image of God, are fearfully and wonderfully made.
I preach that none of us are outside the bounds of God’s ability to redeem.
And yet. This week we witnessed an armed insurrection of the US Capitol by our fellow citizens. This wasn’t an accident. It didn’t just get a little out of hand. It wasn’t just a crazy fringe, as much as I want to believe it was.
This has been stoked and shaped by the rhetoric of the current administration that has consistently demeaned people — particularly minorities and women. It has been blatantly racist. It has not been concerned with truth or morality or norms of leadership and governance. It is also the failure of other elected leaders to stand up to it.
Please hear me clearly: I DO NOT say this out of partisanship. I say this out of DEEP DEEP concern for the common good of our people and the flourishing of our country.
What hits me DEEPLY in my gut is that if the scene had been a different one yesterday — if it had been black Americans or brown Americans or Muslim Americans who showed up armed and shouting seditious slogans at the US Capitol, the bloodshed would have been sinfully higher.
We have seen that disparity in my city over the last eight months of Black Lives Matter protests. There has been a significantly different level of force and rhetoric deployed to stop the racial protests than what we observed yesterday.
I give thanks that yesterday’s fatalities and injuries were not worse. And yet I am DEEPLY troubled by this double standard.
Our colleague Andrew Connors — whom you met at Meg and Jarrett’s installation at UPC — reminded his congregation yesterday that our democracy owes a great deal to “Presbyterian beliefs about the potential abuses that occur when power is built up in any one individual. Those concerns, which shaped the very structure of our constitutional government, grew out of our faith tradition’s realistic view of human beings – that we are all less than perfect, prone to misuse power and therefore need to be limited in our ability to achieve anything through unilateral means. Power must be shared and mediated across our differences. This is the basis of democracy. Though we have never reached its perfection, our best reformers have always pushed us to stretch further toward its promises.”
Are there bad people? No.
But we are not perfect.
We are prone to sinfulness.
We all too easily become the evil we deplore.
And this puts us right onto the banks of the Jordan River and the wild prophet John the Baptist, offering a baptism of repentance.
John would probably be quite comfortable preaching this week. He was big on judgment. He was radical and steadfast. He preached about water and fire and broods of vipers. I am much less comfortable preaching judgment. I’d much rather find the good, seek compromise, create productive ways forward.
What scripture teaches us over and over is that judgment is part of God’s promise to us. In order to arrive at God’s promised day — when God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven — some things will have to go. Fear, hatred, bigotry, lies, self-righteousness violence. These things will not survive in God’s promised day.
What this scene between John and Jesus at the river offers us is the good news that this judgment doesn’t come from a spectator up in a cloud somewhere pronouncing right and wrong, sinner and saint. The judge arrives on the river bank to be baptized. He gets right down into the water with us. He doesn’t have to. What has Jesus done that needs forgiveness? But nonetheless, here he is, just as wet and waterlogged as the next person. And in so doing Jesus transforms what it means to be judged.
John’s message of baptism is of repentance. The Greek word for repent is metanoew. We often translate it as repent but it means “to turn around, to go another way.”
I must admit to trembling a bit to suggest repentance is what we need. One image that haunts me from the Capitol lawn on Wednesday is a woman marching through the crowd with her sign, “Repent! Get ready! Jesus is coming!”
This is not what I mean. I don’t mean fire and brimstone, Jesus is coming to judge and you might be left behind. And if I understand the text, this isn’t what Mark meant in writing these words. And it’s not what John the Baptist meant. If I understand the text, repentance means a radical acknowledgment of God. To change one’s mind, to turn around toward Jesus. To go another way, toward God’s promised day, as a follower of Christ. Because of God’s grace.
And some things will have to go. Fear, hatred, bigotry, lies, self-righteousness, violence. These things do not come from nowhere. They come from us. They will not survive the turning. They will not survive in this new way, in this promised day. Jesus doesn’t judge from on high. He gets in the water with us.
As I think about repentance in our world today it is really, really tempting to point my fingers at other people. To be sure there are some who need to be called to account. And I pray those who gathered in my city peaceably this week to support the president and today say they are upset by the violence committed by their fellows are thinking very hard about the company they keep and the ramifications of their actions.
But there is also looking in the mirror. What IN ME needs to go another way? When have I spoken when I should have been silent or been silent when I should have spoken? Where have nice folks like us been collectively willing to find gray areas, explain away, and ignore the parts of our common life we find ugly because we like some particular policy or because it did us some particular good, or because it simply didn’t affect us?
The NEXT Church National Gathering this March is a call to the common good. Church folks just like you will join online from around the country for keynotes, worship, and workshops that will ask us — as Jesus followers — to examine when and why and how we dismantle what is sinfully crafted. We will bless God and God’s good creation in the midst of the rubble. And we will piece together anew, what is to be in that promised day.
I hope you will join us as we look in the mirror and ask:
Will we build, with our Lord, the carpenter of abundant life, the cornerstone of healthy communion?
Will we build churches, communities, hospitals, schools, laws, housing codes
And a generation of believers that honor the God of justice and mercy and love
as we strive together toward the Common Good?
Will we go another way?
Some among you are being ordained and installed into church leadership today. Some of you are being confirmed into membership in the church of Jesus Christ. All of us are followers (or trying to be) followers of Christ. Dear God, we need a baptism of repentance; we need to go another way. The world needs it. Our souls need it.
Last night, as I was putting Huw to bed, he asked me to tell him the story about the day Jesus was born. I started to tell the story of the census and how Joseph and Mary had to travel to Bethlehem there was no room for them and he interrupted and said, “Mama, I want you to say the part about the news.”
I think it was then that I realized my jaw had been clinched all day. That my head was hurting from the ceaseless sirens and all the uncertainty.
“Mama, I want you to say the part about the news.”
My eyes shone as I told him that an angel appeared to the shepherds. And they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you Good News of great joy. For you and all the people. Today, in David’s town, a savior is born. Christ the Lord.”
My friends. In the chaos and fear of this week, in the deep brokenness that we see in our common life, I bring you good news of great joy. For you and all the people. A savior is born. Because of him, we can go another way.
 Bell, Rob. Love Wins. New York: Harper One, 2011.