Ripped Apart

Rev. Dr. David D. M. King

Baptism of the Lord
Mark 1:4-11

I wasn’t planning to preach at all today. Like last Sunday, our District Superintendent, the Rev. Wendy Woodworth, provided a sermon for those of us in the Cascadia District to use this Sunday. She preached and recorded it about three weeks ago. A lot has happened in the last three weeks. More specifically, a lot has happened in the last 4 days. Our nation has suffered a shameful attack on our democracy. And I can’t let it pass today without trying to make some sense of it.

I know we don’t know each other very well. I’ve only been the pastor here for a little over six months, and for all of that time we’ve been in a COIVD quarantine. I haven’t met most of you. Most of you haven’t met me. We haven’t had any conversations around the tables in the Fellowship Hall. We haven’t had the chance to hear one another’s stories.

So I’m not sure whether it has come across to you in the last six months, but I am not a prophet. I am not an activist. I am not a provocateur. I am no John the Baptist. By temperament, I’m quite conservative. I am a rule follower. I don’t like making waves. I don’t like being confrontational unless I absolutely have to. I am not a radical.

And so, I generally try to stay out of partisan politics. I have my political beliefs, and they are important to me. But in general, I don’t think that someone has to agree with me politically in order to be a faithful follower of Jesus.

It’s not that I think religion and politics shouldn’t mix. I absolutely think that our religious convictions should guide our politics. When I am considering a political issue, the first thing that I try to think about is the message of the Gospel. I don’t always succeed in following it. Jesus constantly seems to prove himself to be more radical than I am, and I often have a hard time keeping up. Jesus can be rather annoying that way.

But I try not to assume that the way I interpret the Gospel in the political world is the only right way to interpret the Gospel. So it’s not that I will never bring up issues that might be political; I will. But I prefer to stop short of saying that Jesus wants you to vote this way, or Jesus wants you to support this person and reject this other person. There is certainly a role for people who can take those kinds of bold stands. It’s just not a role that suits me very well. Like I said, I’m not much of a prophet. And so it is with some discomfort that I try to preach what the Word of God is saying to the church today.

This last Wednesday—on the Feast of the Epiphany, when Christians celebrate that Christ was revealed to Gentile astrologers who found him by following a star—on that holy day, a violent mob attacked the US capitol to try to overturn the results of a free and fair election. I think Republican Senator Mitt Romney described it pretty well. Here’s what he said on the Senate floor, just hours after the attack:

“We gather today due to a selfish man’s injured pride and the outrage of his supporters whom he has deliberately misinformed for the past two months and stirred to action this very morning. What happened here today was an insurrection, incited by the President of the United States. Those who choose to continue to support his dangerous gambit by objecting to the results of a legitimate, democratic election will forever be seen as being complicit in an unprecedented attack against our democracy. They will be remembered for their role in this shameful episode in American history. That will be their legacy…

“For any who remain insistent on an audit in order to satisfy the many people who believe that the election was stolen, I’d offer this perspective. No Congressional audit is ever going to convince these voters, particularly when the President will continue to say that the election was stolen. The best way we can show respect for the voters who are upset is by telling them the truth. That’s the burden, that’s the duty of leadership. The truth is that President-elect Biden won this election. President Trump lost.”

The President, seemingly unable to cope with his loss, has nursed a false narrative that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from him. That false narrative has led to dozens of failed court challenges, the intimidation of state election officials, and eventually to a violent insurrection with the goal of toppling the duly elected government of this nation.

It was claimed that votes in several US states were somehow fraudulent. It was claimed that millions of ballots were illegally cast in these states. In particular, the Trump campaign has objected to votes in Georgia, particularly in and around Atlanta. They have objected to votes in Pennsylvania, particularly in and around Philadelphia. They have objected to votes in Michigan, particularly in and around Detroit. You don’t have to be much of an expert in demographics to notice the pattern. Many or most of the votes being objected to are votes being cast by people of color.

The attack on the capitol this week was a white supremacist attack. It was an attack intended to take power away from the majority and to put it in hands of people who look like me. How can we know that? Well, there was the presence of the Confederate Battle Flag, of course. That tends to be a clue. But there’s also the fact that a number of the rioters pictured in the Capitol are known white supremacists. Many others were wearing markers of white supremacist organizations.

Living in Forest Grove is a bit of a surreal experience for me. I was born here 41 years ago. I lived about ten miles from here for the first 12 years of my life. I learned to swim at the Forest Grove Aquatic Center. I performed at the Theatre in the Grove. My favorite park growing up was Rogers Park, just one block away from the church building. But I hadn’t been here much since we moved away in 1991.

People ask me how I like living in Forest Grove. I often respond that the inside of our house is really nice. Honestly, we haven’t seen much more than that. We’ve walked around the neighborhood, keeping at least 6 feet away from all of our neighbors. I’ve been to the grocery store. I’ve gotten take-out at some local restaurants. I’ve been to the doctor and the dentist. Before I had my concussion in August, I rode my bike around the countryside in all directions. But I wouldn’t say that I have a good sense of what Forest Grove is like. And of course, the rest of my family is even more in the dark, since they didn’t have the benefit of growing up around here.

On our very first weekend living here, I saw something that I didn’t expect to see. It was 4th of July weekend. Twice that weekend, once while riding my bike on Pacific Avenue right in downtown and once in the Safeway parking lot, I saw cars that had large flags mounted to them. I’m always a bit annoyed when I see full-sized American flags mounted on cars, because it’s a violation of the US Flag Code. Remember I said I was a rule follower I don’t like to see the flag being disrespected by being displayed improperly. But that wasn’t what struck me on this weekend. What struck me was that both of the full-sized flags I saw being prominently displayed on cars in Forest Grove were Confederate Battle Flags. That was not something I expected to see in this town. And it was an interesting reintroduction to the area where I was raised.

You know, when I was a kid, one of my very favorite TV shows was the Dukes of Hazzard. The show follows the adventures of cousins Bo and Luke Duke, who always seem to be getting in trouble with the law in the fictional Hazzard County of Georgia. Of course, anyone who’s seen the show knows that the main character isn’t Bo or Luke or Daisy, or any person at all. The main character of the show is a car. The main character is a 1969 Dodge Charger named The General Lee, in honor of the famous confederate general. It is decorated on its roof with the Confederate Battle Flag. It’s horn plays the anthem of the Confederacy. As a kid, I never thought of that as being in the least bit problematic. The show took an image of white supremacy, the flag of a treasonous rebellion bent on maintaining slavery, the banner flown at lynchings and cross burnings, and made that symbol of racist violence look tame, ordinary, just as American as apple pie. After all, they were “just some good old boys, never meanin’ no harm.” The show isn’t overtly racist, but it is certainly a lesson in white privilege. These good old white boys flout the law and resist arrest multiple times in every episode, but they never seem to face any consequences. I don’t think it would have been quite as believable if the Dukes were black.

That flag looks a bit different to me now. Especially when it is flying in my home town, where I live with my three children, all of whom are people of color.

For quite some time, white people like me have been able to stare directly at the evidence of white supremacy and yet fail to see it. Like the prophet Jeremiah says, we have eyes but do not see. We have ears but do not hear. The evidence was there all along. Many white folk were shocked by the killing of George Floyd. I don’t think many black folk were surprised. They were horrified, but not surprised. Because they’ve seen it before. The difference for white folks is that we have been trying very hard not to see. It took irrefutable video evidence to make us believe.

I think I understand what President-Elect Biden means when he says, “The scenes of chaos at the Capitol do not reflect a true America, do not represent who we are.” He means that the rioters do not represent the highest ideals of America, that they do not represent what makes America great. But I think what he says is misleading. Because that streak of white supremacist violence has been with us from the beginning, and it has been a part of us throughout our history. Even when we have not had eyes to see it or ears to hear it, it has been there.

There were a lot of flags at the riot on Wednesday. Of course, there were lots of American flags. And there were lots of Trump flags. I saw a couple of rioters trying unsuccessfully to take down one of the American flags flying at the Capitol and replace it with a Trump flag. Many waved Trump flags flying overtop of American flags.

But one particular flag caught my attention. It took me a while to figure out what it said. I had to do a little research. As it turns out, the flag reads, “Jesus is my savior. Trump is my President.” However, not all the words on the flag are the same size. In fact, there are two words that much bigger than all the others, so that from any distance at all, the flag simply reads “Jesus Trump”.

This morning we heard the story of Jesus’s baptism as told in the Gospel of Mark. Jesus comes to the noisy prophet out in the wilderness, the one who has been calling on people to repent, to turn away from their sin. Jesus comes, and he is baptized along with everyone else. And at the moment that Jesus is coming up out of the water, Mark tells us something very strange. Jesus sees the heavens being torn apart. The Greek word is σχιζομένους, from which we get the words schism and schizophrenic. Ripped apart. Torn into pieces. Jesus saw the heavens being ripped apart. He sees the Spirit coming down to him through that tear, and he hears God’s voice naming him as God’s beloved Son. In that moment of rending, Jesus receives his identity and he is marked for mission.

Baptism is still important to us today. It is one of our two holiest rituals, one of only two sacraments that we celebrate. Just as is was in John’s time, it is a call for us to repent of our sin. Just as it was for Jesus, it is a marker of our identity as beloved children of God. Just as it did for him, it marks us for mission.

In a few moments, I’m going to invite you to join me in reaffirming our baptismal vows. Nearly every Christian community uses some version of these words when they baptize. When I was working in a Lutheran church, I learned a slightly different version. “Do you renounce the devil and all the forces that defy God? Do you renounce the powers of this world that rebel against God?”

We have a somewhat more updated version in The United Methodist Church. But before we reaffirm these words together, words that many of us can recite by heart, I think we need to take a moment to notice the details.

The first question I’m going to ask you is this: Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin?….

And the second question I’m going to ask you is this: Do you accept the freedom and the power God gives to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?….

When Jesus was baptized, he saw the heavens ripped apart. Today we are seeing our nation ripped apart. And in this moment of rending, can we find our identity, as Jesus found it, in our baptism? Can we find our identity as beloved daughters and sons of God in those baptismal vows, in those baptismal promises? Can we accept the freedom and the power that God gives us? Freedom and power, not to build ourselves up, not to claim special privileges, not to take back what is ours from those other people we think have no share in the American dream, no! Freedom and power for what? To resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves. That is what our baptism expects of us. That is the work that children of God are called to do. That is the mission of those who claim Jesus Christ as Savior.

May we be visited with the Spirit of God this day. In this moment of rending, may the Spirit of God descend upon us. May it remind us who we are, and whose we are. May it give us the strength, the humility, and the courage to exercise our freedom and our power as God would have us do. To resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves. This is the way. Amen.

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