Modeling our Better Angels: with God's help

Epiphany 1B
Mark 1:4-11

In the name of God, who binds us together.  Amen.

My heart has been very heavy this week.  As we saw images, on Wednesday, of American terrorists attempting to disrupt and overthrow the legitimate actions of government, I could only imagine two appropriate responses – tears or rage.  And I will admit, for myself, my response tended toward rage.  How dare anyone attempt to overthrow this government that, despite its many shortcomings, at least sets as its goals the ideals of liberty, justice, and equality – goals that we’ve never fully attained, but, by the grace of God, have bent toward.

And that bending has only ever happened at our own urging.  We’ve only ever moved closer to the ideals of liberty, justice, and equality because the people have demanded it.  We’ve worked to change laws – molding them closer to our common goals.  We’ve tried to change hearts and minds – spreading the wisdom that our ideals make us all better: not at the expense of any, but to the betterment of all.  That’s where my rage came from – from seeing an organized mob trying to impede the betterment of all simply because they didn’t get their way.  It’s infuriating, and it’s maddening to see that they’re hurting us all, and even themselves.

I’ve always resisted the interplay between worshipping God and honoring the state – it can get ugly and messy all too quickly – as we saw on Wednesday with rioters shamefully waving flags and signs emblazoned with the name of Jesus, and Evangelical Christian flags.  But it is easy to see how the two can get mixed up.  Christianity is a communal religion.  Just as our government is just an idea, that can only be perpetuated and perfected by people, our faith in Christ is little more than academic if it’s not lived in the people; we, who are the Body of Christ.

Of course, in our faith, Wednesday was also the Feast of the Epiphany – the first day after Christmas, and the day when we celebrate the wise astrologers who saw the birth of Jesus written in the stars, and followed those same stars to find him in Bethlehem.  And today, on the first Sunday after the Epiphany, we commemorate the Baptism of Jesus.  And in that commemoration we are called to reflect on our own baptisms – that covenant for living that unites us as the Body of Christ.

As all of this swirled in my mind, I kept going back to that Abraham Lincoln quote about our “better angels”.  I couldn’t exactly remember it, but I suspected it had something to offer these days when our “better angels” seem so imperiled.  So I looked it up.  It turns out that the quote that’s so often shared comes from his first inaugural address – a God moment where situations seem to conspire to help us make some sense, because so much of Wednesday’s activities happened on the stage where our next inauguration is set to happen in just a couple of weeks.  So I read the whole speech – to find the quote initially, but also to embed it in its own context.

Now, a lot of that speech is problematic in our modern ethic.  Really, a lot of it was Lincoln’s assurances that he had no intention of ending slavery, and that he knew that that was the real source of the bubbling tensions that were emerging in the nation at that time.  I cringed when I read his words about how the abolitionists should “slow down” and how there was no rush to change the laws.  I imagined the profound suffering of those who were enslaved, and tried to imagine the sting they might have felt if they’d hurt that there should be no rush for relieving their suffering.

But if you can move beyond the cringe-worthy parts that are so real and so pervasive through the document, there is some wisdom to be found – and some comfort for a time such as this.  One of the rich thoughts I found was about how our fighting never gets us anywhere – and certainly not in the greater scheme of things.  He said:

“Physically speaking, we can not separate. We can not remove our respective sections from each other nor build an impassable wall between them. A husband and wife may be divorced and go out of the presence and beyond the reach of each other, but the different parts of our country can not do this. They can not but remain face to face, and intercourse, either amicable or hostile, must continue between them. Is it possible, then, to make that intercourse more advantageous or more satisfactory after separation than before? Can aliens make treaties easier than friends can make laws? Can treaties be more faithfully enforced between aliens than laws can among friends? Suppose you go to war, you can not fight always; and when, after much loss on both sides and no gain on either, you cease fighting, the identical old questions, as to terms of intercourse, are again upon you.”

Wednesday night, rage and tears made sense.  But by Thursday morning it was time to find another way.  I still haven’t exactly figured out what that other way is, but I know it must be out there.  And I believe that the path toward that better way is found in our faith, and in the covenants we make before God and with each other.

“John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins…. ‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me,’ (he said) ‘I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’”

Repentance is a good place to start.  When we repent of the ways that we’ve failed ourselves and each other, our sins will be forgiven.  But even that isn’t enough.  We need the Holy Spirit.  We need God’s own intervention, and we need to open ourselves to God’s intervening.

We can’t truly separate from one another.  Even if we could, it wouldn’t truly solve our problems.  Eventually the fighting will have ceased, and much will have been lost, but the problems will still remain.  Instead, what we really need is to bind ourselves to one another.  To see the humanity more completely in one another.  That doesn’t mean we should accept the horrid actions we saw on Wednesday.  But it does mean we should model a better way.

In just a moment – we will reaffirm our Baptismal Covenant.  We’re not doing that because of the state of our nation – we’re doing that because that’s one of the ways we ritually remind ourselves of what it means to be a Christian throughout the year – it just so happens that today is a day when that’s called-for.  It’s another one of those God-moments when situations conspire to give us what we need.

Like John the Baptizer suggested, first we start with repentance.  We reaffirm our renunciation of evil and renew our commitment to Christ.  But we know there’s more.  We turn around, but then we move away from where we were wrong.  We start by saying what we believe.  At last, we talk about how we intend to live out that faith.

×        We will live out the faith we’ve embraced by worshipping together. 

×        We will live out the faith we’ve embraced by trying to do right, but with the full knowledge that sometimes we will fail.  So when we fail, we promise to turn around and come back again. 

×        We will live out the faith we’ve embraced by inviting others into it – and not just with our words, but with our actions. 

×        We will live out the faith we’ve embraced by seeing that Christ isn’t just in us, or in our friends – but that the truth of Christ lives in everyone, and that we see it most fully when we don’t let ourselves be divided. 

×        And finally, we will live out the faith we’ve embraced when we seek the best for each other, and when we look for the best in each other.

Living this way won’t change the terrors we saw on Wednesday.  It won’t even keep us from seeing the terrors that we’ll see someday in the future – from those same people, or maybe from some other people on some other occasion.  But living this way will change us.  It will make us more ready to see the humanity in others.  It will make us more prepared not to become like those people that sparked our rage and our tears.  It will make us models for a better way.

Abraham Lincoln ended his speech with that quote that initially took me down this road.  He said, “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

Our nation, without people of conscience making it so, is little more than a set of ideals that we strive toward.  Our faith, without our own better angels, is little more than rote words that beautifully depict an ideal, yet do nothing to achieve it.  These words we say matter.  But only if we make them matter.  Make them matter.  It’s the only way to survive the rage and the tears that come from living in a broken world, and it’s our only hope for healing the brokenness.  Amen.