Good morning. Today we celebrate the Baptism of the Lord—that’s why we have the baptismal font on the communion table. This is a reminder of Jesus’ baptism; his ordination into ministry, if you will. It’s a reminder of why God entered the created world in human form and it’s also a reminder of our own baptism. It’s a reminder that we are baptized into the life, the ministry, the death, and the resurrection of Jesus Christ, our Lord.
This was one of those weeks when I had a really clear idea of where my sermon was going—on Monday afternoon, no less! I was going to share a story about a time when I had a really cool plan, and it looked like all the pieces were falling into place, and then God said, “ah, not exactly.” All I needed to do was sit down and type it all out.
Then Wednesday happened.
I got a text from a member of this congregation. It read: “Turn on the news.”
I did. And I couldn’t focus on anything else, until 6:30, when we had our weekly prayer meeting. After that, I had a Zoom meeting for the new presbytery, but honestly, I couldn’t focus on that meeting. It seemed so silly, given the appalling images coming out of Washington, D.C.
I wondered if the sermon that I had planned to write would seem trivial, after the chaos that we all witnessed. At the same time, there was a part of me that wanted to stick with the original plan. It would have been easier that way. I had a lot of meetings last week. I needed to write and record a reflection for the annual Martin Luther King, Jr. worship service. Besides, I’m pretty sure that none of you stormed the Capitol Building on Wednesday. It’s not like I need to tell you that Wednesday’s violence was wrong.
Yet I couldn’t escape the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who said: “indifference to evil is worse than evil itself… in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.” Of course, even Rabbi Heschel’s words are subject to debate. In our society, no one wants to take responsibility for the bad actions of others. Nor can we all agree on what is evil.
This was also the case in Jesus’ day—the society into which Jesus was born was every bit as divided as ours. In previous generations, God had sent messengers to God’s chosen people, Israel. The prophets preached peace and reconciliation; they offered words of comfort to those who were afflicted and they challenged the authorities to do more to care for the poor, the widows, and the orphans. The prophets called for repentance.
Sometimes the people heard the message; sometimes they didn’t. Over the last several weeks, we’ve heard a lot of readings from the prophet Isaiah. In particular, we’ve heard the words of comfort that God spoke through Isaiah to the exiles from Jerusalem—the words that upheld them while they were captives in Babylon. We’ve also heard the words of encouragement that God sent to the exiles as they returned home from Babylon, only to find Jerusalem abandoned and the temple destroyed.
Eventually, the temple was rebuilt, but the restoration was incomplete. The exiles never truly reconciled with the Jews who remained in Judah during the period of captivity. Factions emerged among the people of Judah; factions that grew more divided and more polarized over the centuries. That was the state of things when God entered the created world in the person of Jesus.
Our reading today from the Gospel of Mark is notable for what it says and what it doesn’t say. Mark announces that this is the “beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” There’s no birth story. No details about Jesus’ human parents. Mark starts with a very matter-of-fact statement of the relationship between God and Jesus: Jesus is the Son of God. Period.
Next, we hear a quotation from the Book of Isaiah, telling us to prepare for the coming of the Lord, to heed the messenger that God is sending. And then we’re introduced to John the Baptist.
He must have been a frightening sight, John the Baptist, clothed in camel hair and eating wild honey and locusts. People came to him for a baptism of repentance, confessing their sins, the Gospel tells us.
This shows us that John the Baptist wasn’t part of the established religious order. He’s not doing this at the temple in Jerusalem or even in a synagogue in some small town. He’s on the banks of the River Jordan; he’s out in the wilderness. Yet his message resonates with many people—and he’s only the messenger! He’s not the Messiah; he’s not Jesus.
To put it another way, John isn’t there to reconcile the people to God or to one another. That’s the job of the Messiah; that’s for Jesus. And before Jesus can do any of that work, he needs to be baptized with the Holy Spirit. In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus’ past—his birth, his childhood—are not important. What’s important is Jesus’ actions: his ministry, his healings, his words. Yes, words matter; words spoken in public matter.
Also, relationships matter. This reading from the Gospel of Mark states it clearly: Jesus is the Son of God. Furthermore, Mark tells us that God is well pleased with Jesus—not because Jesus has accomplished anything, but simply because Jesus is the Son and God loves him. All of the work that Jesus will do and all of the words that Jesus will preach flow from that relationship.
We celebrate Jesus’ baptism today because we are baptized into that relationship with God. We are marked as God’s own; we are baptized into Jesus’ life, ministry, death, and resurrection. We believe that the Holy Spirit is present in the sacrament, and it is that same Holy Spirit that equips us to continue Jesus’ ministry of peace and reconciliation.
The chaos that we all witnessed on Wednesday should serve as a reminder of how much we all need to be engaged in the ministry of peace and reconciliation. I was appalled by what I watched. In the conversations I’ve had since that day, I’ve learned that people from across the political spectrum were also shocked and outraged by the actions of that angry mob. Many, many people felt violated by the actions of those who stormed the Capitol.
Behavior doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It would be easy to write all of those people off, to say the problem is one of individual bad behavior. But many of those people also claim to be Christians. It’s not my place to pass judgment on their faith, but I saw their actions. It doesn’t seem like they were there to act as peacemakers. It doesn’t seem like they were there for the work of reconciliation. I don’t know. I don’t know what was in the hearts and minds of those people. But I saw what they did. I would guess that none of them thought there was anything wrong with their actions.
Being a Christian is not simply about what is in our hearts or our minds. Being a Christian requires us first to listen to the Word of God; to listen to Jesus.
And then we are required to live into those words, to act on those words. We are called to be peacemakers. We are called to share God’s love for all of humanity.
Peacemaking isn’t what we hold in our hearts and minds; it isn’t some abstract idea. Peacemaking is the actions that we take to reduce anger and conflict. Peacemaking isn’t just keeping silent to avoid a political argument or staying out of an argument that other people are having. Peacemaking is an active process in which we engage with people, even when we have passionate disagreements.
If we don’t do this—as individuals and as the Church—then I fear that we will condemn ourselves to more events like we witnessed on Wednesday. I don’t see this ending well, so long as we continue to point fingers and blame the other side, the people who don’t think and act like we do.
But how do we do this?
This is a monumental task!
It’s too big for any person or even any single congregation. Jesus knows that this task is too big, yet he still calls us to this work.
I don’t have a simple answer here. I don’t have a five-point plan or a book for congregational study and discernment. What I can do is share some advice that I was given when I faced a crisis in my ministry: Do the next right thing.
In a crisis situation, we can get overwhelmed by fear. We fear that we need to fix all the problems, all at once, but we know that’s impossible. So, we end up paralyzed—even when we know some of the things that we need to do.
The way forward is to narrow your focus. Pick one of those things that you know is right—one and only one—then go out and do it. When you’re done with that task, do the next right thing. That’s it. Define a problem that you can solve, focus your efforts on that problem, only, and stay with that problem until you’ve completed the task at hand. And then move on to the next one.
This congregation includes people from every point on the political spectrum: Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and liberals, progressives and Libertarians. If we want to claim the name of Christians, if we want to claim the promises that were made in our baptisms, then we have to work to de-escalate these tensions and heal these divisions in our society.
As individuals, each and every one of us must search for the places where we can do the next right thing. And as the Church, we have to talk to one another. We have to work together to figure out where and how we mend these breaches. Our words and our actions matter. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Beloved, as you go forth into the world, remember that we are baptized into the life, the ministry, the death, and the resurrection of our Lord, Jesus Christ. Go forth and be instruments of God’s peace and love and reconciliation. Do not return evil for evil to any person, but know that we are all loved by God, and that we are called to reflect that love to everyone we meet. Go forth and be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, let all God’s children say, Amen!
 Abraham Joshua Heschel. “The Reasons for My Involvement in the Peace Movement.”