Who We Are
A sermon preached by Jess Cook
Ginter Park Presbyterian Church
January 10, 2021
Matthew 2:1-12; Luke 3:1-22
“Like a pig in slop.”
Earlier this week, that’s how I described my excitement about preaching today. Like a pig in slop.
When Carla first reached out to ask me about preaching this week, she offered both last week and this week, and I specifically asked to preach today, on Baptism of the Lord Sunday. And while I knew Epiphany, which falls on January 6, could be observed on either Sunday, I asked to include it today. Though it’s a lot to try and work into one service . . . I love the sacraments, and the idea of preaching on Baptism of the Lord Sunday, when we share communion and pass out Epiphany star words, had me as excited as, well, a pig in slop.
When Doug and I began laying out the service together, I told him I’d planned for worship to be heavy on the sacraments, with a sprinkling of Epiphany.
However . . . when this week’s acts of domestic terrorism happened on Epiphany – the day on the church calendar when we celebrate the magi’s subversive and holy acts of resistance against a ruler whose thirst for power was so unquenchable that he lost his own humanity, I thought it best to reconsider that sprinkling of Epiphany I had envisioned.
Epiphany shines a light on the things we need to see – just as it did with the magi and, indirectly, with Herod. Though they were definitely wise, the magi were neither kings, nor, necessarily, all men. They were likely Zoroastrian priests, coming from Persia in search of a child promised by the prophet Zoroaster who, like him, would be born of a virgin, and whose birth could be foretold by reading the stars.Like the Jews, the magi were anticipating the birth of the true Savior, a king. In faith, they followed the star; and, upon their arrival they were filled with joy, and they shared their abundant gifts with Jesus. They celebrated the abundance offered by the birth of a child who would bring the powerful down from their thrones and lift up the lowly.
Herod, however, did not. When the magi came to him, he played it smooth, even though he was terrified. Herod knew that the promised savior, the one truly fit to lead the people, posed an imminent threat to his power. So he sent the magi on their way, hoping to make them accessories in his plot to kill this child, who to him was a threat. While Herod was determined to maintain his power no matter who he had to kill, the magi stayed steady on their path toward life, trusting their dreams and going home by another route.
Both of today’s stories give us pictures of what it looks like to follow life: give abundantly, share what you have, and treat one another fairly, with particular attention to those who are without. Above all else, honor the sanctity of life. It is hard not to see in these stories, and in so many stories where there is a struggle between those who maintain a stronghold over the lives of others, the stark contrast between a willingness to kill for something and the willingness to die for something.
After this week’s attacks on Congress, I re-visited the sermon I preached at Ginter Park in June of 2016, on the Sunday following the Pulse Nightclub massacre. At the time, I said I said I couldn’t begin to make sense of why tragedies like the shooting that took place in Orlando happened, or of what to say in the face of 50 people dead. This country’s wounds, I asserted, were far too deep to be healed by any sort of collective singalong moment. I wouldn’t give you any candy-coated rhetoric. It seemed, at the time, that we were all far too tired.
That was before a year when we watched for almost 9 minutes as George Floyd’s life was suffocated out of him under the boot of a cop. . . Before the names Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and Elijah McClain were called aloud in the streets, even as the lack of accountability for their deaths shows how little respect the state has given their lives. It was before a year when we saw rubber bullets fired at people protesting police use of real bullets on the bodies of too many Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color. It was before a year when we saw tear gas deployed on people refusing to to live another day under the gaze of monuments designed to disempower.
And it was before a year when we saw a sitting President of the United States encourage an act of domestic terrorism against Congress.
And I thought we were tired then.
I was caught, though, by my own words in the sermon I preached in 2016 – particularly that I said I couldn’t begin to make sense of why tragedies like the shooting that took place in Orlando happened. Reading my words from 2016 felt like I was hearing echoes of all the voices I’ve heard in the last few days, shaking their heads in disgust, confusedly saying “this is not who we are.”
I think we can all now now say with certainty that white supremacy is the reason for not only the Pulse nightclub shootings, but also for the acts of terrorism that took place on Wednesday. I can also say with certainty that white supremacy is the reason I said in 2016 that I couldn’t make sense of such a tragedy as the pulse nightclub massacre. I knew white supremacy was the root cause for the shooting at Pulse, but I didn’t say it. And that’s not because I was trying to further a white supremacist agenda, it’s because I was trying to be good – I was trying to water down the message so I didn’t ruffle too many feathers. You could say I had my toe in the waters of anti-racism, but I hadn’t jumped in yet. I didn’t yet realize how many ways white supremacy shows up; that just as it powers violent insurrections and policies that explicitly target Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color, white supremacy also fueled my own desires to minimize potential conflict. White supremacy tells me that in order to be good, I need to be smart in certain kinds of ways, that I need to avoid troubling the waters too much. White supremacy tells me that it is just fine to keep my toes in the water by the river, that I don’t need to feel the fullness of God’s love for me if it means saying something people will find hard to hear, or doing something that scares me. That was before I realized that sometimes love means saying the uncomfortable thing. Sometimes love is rude.
The truth is, state-sanctioned violence is as American as apple pie. Since the time my ancestors landed the Mayflower, among the first European settlers on the soil we now call the United States, this country has been led by a destructive sense of manifest destiny, fueled by a sense of self-importance that far too often blinds us, individually and collectively, to our interconnectedness.
In the midst of it all, we have become desensitized – to suffering, to death, and also to our own worthiness, our own belovedness. We have whitewashed scripture, twisted Jesus into a blonde-haired, blue-eyed figment of our imagination. We have created God in our own image. And still, God continues to reach out, to show us more and more of how far we are from who we were created to be. God continues to reach out in love.
How much more do we have to see before we let our hearts be turned?
I mentioned earlier my love of the sacraments. I’m not sure where this love began, but I know the older I get, the more I understand baptism and communion as fundamental tools in living together.
As acts initiated by Christ at key times in his life and ministry, our sacraments are intended to be meaningful to us in our daily lives, to be tangible. With communion, the elements of bread and wine (or grape juice) are intended to be simple, and relevant to our context. While we talk about the body and blood of Christ, we are invited to connect our own bodies and blood, to see our place at that table with Christ and his disciples 2000 years ago. In breaking bread at that Last Supper, Jesus asked them to remember not only him, but to remember what his life was about – that he refused to give in to any system, religion or government that tried to draw lines around who was beloved by God. He did this in his body – his human body, and he called his disciples to do the same.
Jesus wasn’t naive about the difficulty of what he was asking – he knew challenging any structure was hard, and would cause suffering, or even death. Yet, it’s what the disciples were called to do 2000 years ago and what we are called to do as people of God today. So not only when we break bread in church on Sunday morning, but any time we share a meal, we are called to remember the things Jesus did in his life – in his flesh and blood, and to continue the work in our own bodies. Not only that, but we are reminded and encouraged to be sharing meals within community, to carry the sacrament into our lives so that whenever we sit down together, we think of the power that comes in seeing one another and in letting ourselves be seen – not just on Sundays in church, but every day, around every table, with every meal.
As my friend Dawg Strong used to say in seminary: if you’re sharing a meal with someone, you’re gonna know who’s hungry.
Baptism is a sacrament many of us in the Presbyterian Church experience as infants. Each time we baptize a new person into a community we promise to nurture and teach them in the faith. We baptize infants as a visible sign that God’s grace is extended to us even when we do not have the ability to ask for it. Even when we do not have a concept of what grace is, it is extended to us.
I love the sacraments because, if there is one thing I am prone to forget, it is that I am worthy of love.
Sacraments are intended to be relevant because their meaning can be easy to forget. The day after Jesus broke bread with his disciples and asked them to remember him, they forgot him. We are baptized as infants as a sign of abundant grace, yet we step away and forget. We forget what it means to be God’s beloved children, and we forget that each of us is God’s beloved child.
I asked you to bring a small bowl or cup of water with you today. If you would, take a moment, and put your hand in the water. You can close your eyes if it makes it more comfortable. As you put your hands in the water, say out loud or to yourself.
I am loved.
I am loved.
I am loved.
When you leave today, I invite you to remember this whenever you interact with water (yes, I know that’s a lot of times – God’s love is as abundant as the water in the ocean and as the water in each of us.) When you wash your hands, remember that you are loved. When you shower, when step in a puddle, when your tears make puddles of their own. You are loved.
We remember our baptism to remember where we come from and who we belong to: a God who loves us and extends grace to us even when we cannot ask for it. We also remember our baptism to remember that we are part of a community. Just as we belong to God, we belong to one another.
We share a feast at the table to know where we are – to look at one another, to know who is hungry and who has food to share. We look at one another, we move through conflict with one another, and we trust God to be God.
We remember our baptism.
We see one another when we break bread at communion.
And the epiphany star guides the way.
Most of you should have received epiphany star words in the mail this week. I know we also have guests with us, so if you haven’t yet received your epiphany word, that’s ok – you can send me a message on Facebook, or an email at email@example.com and I’ll be sure and get one in the mail to you.
For folks who are unfamiliar with the practice, for many years, it has been a prayer practice at Ginter Park to hand out “epiphany star” words on the Sunday closest to January 6. Historically, these have been construction paper stars with gifts of the Holy Spirit on them – gifts such as faith, hope, simplicity, abundance, prayer, laughter – you get the drift. The words are intended to be a playful way to consider God’s presence within and among us – a focal point as we journey through the year, illuminating ways to connect with God and to look for God in our midst. (This year’s words obviously weren’t hand-written on construction paper stars, but were designed by Sanctified Art.)
The invitation is to see them as an invitation – to pay attention to where the Spirit is leading you. The star words, like many gifts of the Spirit, can often be interpreted a myriad of ways. I know for me, some years the words are obvious, while some need to be unpacked – some words stick around the whole year making little sense until the year is over (if even then). In 2019, my word was “voice,” and I remember thinking, as I was at the beginning of the year I anticipated being ordained as a minister, that “voice” was an optimistic sign, and a not-so-subtle one at that. Yet, it was also in 2019, that I began taking testosterone, and that, at 40 years old, I first began to hear a voice coming out of my mouth that sounded like my own. What I saw at the beginning of that year was a task; what I found at the end was a step into the freedom of being at home in my own skin for the first time in my life.
Prior to starting testosterone, I hemmed and hawed about it for a good number of years – listing out the pros and cons over and over again; and, looking back, I don’t even remember what the cons were, but the first thing on the list of reasons to try testosterone – every time – was the opportunity to feel more at home in my body.
I didn’t know ahead of time what a difference it would make to be at home in my own body, because I didn’t realize before how NOT in my body I felt. It’s like I never let myself ask the question of whether there might be another way. I didn’t know my freedom would come as much as it has – in hearing my own voice for the first time in my life. Sometimes it can be difficult to imagine our freedom; even more so if we don’t realize we are in a cage.
Friends, it doesn’t have to be like this. We can see a world where people are fed, where no one has to go to bed hungry, where justice is not punitive, where people can afford not just food and clothing and a home, but where they also have enough time for rest, and community, and family.
God is inviting us to be God’s hands and feet in creating this world together. But before we can do that, we’ve gotta be honest about who we are, and about where we are. And if we are unable to see the parallels between the systems that put Jesus on a cross and the systems that put and have kept Trump in the White House, if we cannot hear echoes of “my god, my god, why have you forsaken me” with every cry of “I can’t breathe,” I can tell you, it is our ears that need to be checked.
And we can only do that work if we stay grounded in God’s love for us. Because the work of the kindom does not end by naming the sin of white supremacy; it begins there. It means recognizing that just as Christ is called God’s son, so too are each and every one of us called God’s children and that our freedom is waiting.
It means recognizing that the kindom of God is upon us and we have all been invited to a bountiful feast. Our invitation is to say yes – yes to that holy feast and yes, will we share in it with each and every person we meet. Because we cannot share in that feast if we continue to ignore the suffering of our brothers, sisters, and siblings who continue to cry out, “See my pain. See my humanity. Let me live.”
The Spirit that was in him – it’s also in us. All of us. And it is a Spirit that is beckoning us forward with the question: do you want to live?
Do we want to live?
Do we want to live?