Water, the stuff of life or dangerous high seas. The staff of life or chaos and death.
I find it fitting, and intriguing, that the story of Jesus baptism is paired in our lectionary readings with the first creation account of Day One in Genesis.
But let me get there with a story from my early childhood.
As a young boy, one of my favorite stories was about a little tug boat, “Little Toot.” Little Toot was the most rambunctious screw-up in New York harbor. Up to mischief of one sort or another. He had no sense of propriety. Just like boys my age. His father’s constant refrain, “Won’t you ever grow up?” Sounds like a parent, doesn’t it?
Well, the little boat finally goes one prank too far and is escorted by police boats out of the harbor and banished. Out there alone at night out on the high seas as a storm gathers itself. Soon waves are crashing all around. Lightening streaks the skies. Thunder deafens the ear.
Amidst mountainous waves, completely dwarfing the small tug, Little Toot spies a S.O.S. flare high in the sky. The story ends most satisfactorily as Little Toot rescues the distressed ocean liner and, as clouds part to sunshine, brings the ship safely into harbor to his father’s praise.
I had been given a record of this story. With all the terrifying sound effects of the raging storm and towering waves, that’s where my mind froze. In my imagination I can still hear the fog horn, the music swelling as Little Toot was lifted on one gigantic wave, only to plummet down the other side.
It may be that I identified our family’s dysfunction with Little Toot’s predicament. My father’s volatile moods and temper were that storm that crashed around helpless Little Toot. At most any evening meal, the tension in our family was like waiting for the first thunder clap of that story.
The raging seas of our family were always seeming to swamp me. Like Little Toot, I was tossed about in a storm of emotions beyond my comprehending.
As we look back on this disastrous past year and the chaos of our nation’s capital, it is no wonder my mind flashed back to this early childhood experience, to Little Toot.
The first act of creation is the construction of order out of the vast ocean of chaos. It is to set the limits of the sea. It is to establish the hours of day and of night.
“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep…”
That disordered void, that consuming darkness was often meal times at night.
That disordered void and consuming darkness has been our nation adrift in a sea of disease. Like that small boat in my children’s story, we have been buffeted about by forces beyond our control.
Help has never seemed more elusive or far off. Trump rioters roam the People’s House with flags of insurrection and sedition. Trashing the place. Never had our nation’s capital endured such disaster since the British burned the place to the ground in 1812. This, the doing of the most chaotic presidency in our nation’s history. CHAOS.
As the chaotic scenes flood in from Washington, D.C. equally distressing scenes flood in from our nation’s hospital emergency entrances. As President Tweet fulminates against a “rigged” election, his messages egging on the mob, images flash across the TV screen of utterly exhausted medical staff. The camera lens zooms in on long lines of ambulances in hospital driveways to unload patients for whom there is no room. Nurses scramble to find one more bed. Even gift shops and lunch rooms are repurposed to accommodate the sickest. Outside, beyond exit doors, are morgue trailers stuffed with the bodies of the dead. The hallways are utter disorder. Staff rushing to critical patients with IV lines and bottles as various monitors beep a cacophony of alarms. Doctors flipping frantically through charts of the newly admitted patients. Long lines out the front doors awaiting triage assessment. Who will live? Who must die? CHAOS.
And every Friday night on the PBS Newshour, Judy Woodruff presents a new roll call of those we’ve lost. Chaos, disorder, all around. Nurses and doctors in brief breaks cling to one another, shedding tears of exhaustion. Bereft of hope and comfort.
The politics of the nation well resemble the chaos of that hospital hallway and the ICU rooms.
The Black Lives Matter movement has devolved into communities of despair, the focus shifting from the rage at police killings of the innocent to hopelessness over the disproportionate toll communities of color have borne as a result of a legacy of our racist health systems of neglect. Disproportionate numbers of deaths have wracked minority communities and our reservations. CHAOS.
Our government seems incompetent to manage. Like that little boat in my story, we are buffeted about with no rudder. The great ship of state, America, has lost steam.
One woman, Kathy H., reflecting on the gross mismanagement of this disease, in desperation begs, “How can he have this much power to kill thousands upon thousands of Americans and not be removed or held accountable?” Another, “They have unleashed a Frankenstein monster on us.” The pandemic sea rages. Darkness engulfs patients and survivors alike.
And there is no leadership from Congress. “I object,” are the only words Senate leader Mitch McConnell can utter when considering a mere $2000 economic life saver of a stimulus package. “I object,” with those two words, millions more jobs are lost and hundreds more businesses closed. “I object,” the lines at food banks and soup kitchens lengthen. “I object,” and hope dies.
Yes, we had an election. But forty percent of all Americans refuse to accept the results. The federal prosecutor who filled the president’s mind with fantasy notions of fraud now now resigns in disgrace. The damage incalculable. His conspiracy fiction is the diet the mob storming the halls of Congress has feasted on. Too late for “sorry.”
In last-minute desperation Trump’s toadies concoct one scheme after another to overturn the election. Even at the late date of the counting of electoral votes in the combined House/Senate session. Legal desperation concocted out of thin air to force the vice president presiding over the session to toss the will of the voters. Is nothing sacred? CHAOS.
Chaos on a national scale as the waters of disorder threaten to drag our democracy in to the dark void of partisan rancor and mob rule. Militias descend on Washington, arming themselves to “protect” an election they consider stolen. Many throw up their hands in disgust, and switch the channel to reruns of “MASH” or “I Love Lucy,” as the mob ransacks our capital.
It is into these roiling waters, that, BY THE GRACE OF GOD, we are pulled to the surface, sputtering and coughing through our baptism. BY THE GRACE OF GOD, we are raised up into a community of healing, possibility and solidarity. This is not a private event. It is a joyous celebration of the entire Blessed Community of Life. Over the nurture of a lifetime, we grow into the promise of this sacrament.
Out of the darkness, LIGHT. Out of chaos, order and grace. And we hear the firm, strong voice Jesus heard, “You are my Son, my Daughter, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.” Yes, you are beloved of all that is holy.
This is the same summons to each of us at our baptism as we are welcomed into the company of the faithful: “You, Jane – You, Louise – You, Jesse – You, Judeo – You, Barbara. You — Hayden…. Yes, all – beloved daughters and sons, with each and every one of you — am I well pleased. Continue to grow into your baptism. No matter your age, the journey’s not over.
As a young boy, I remember being taken from our Sunday school class one morning and solemnly walked up the center aisle of this huge sanctuary with my brother. There the minister in a black robe said something and water was sprinkled on my head. I didn’t understand what it was all about at the time.
But as I grew into the community of faith, I began to know I had sort of a second family. This was a family grounded in peace and constancy, caring and dependability. Baptism is not some act of magic conjuring. It is not a spell cast out of the world of Harry Potter. Baptism is an act of incorporation into a spiritual reality, the outward manifestations are those same verities that build the Beloved Community of Dr. Martin Luther King. Water, Spirit, incorporation in the name of the Holy Trinity, it’s all a mystery beyond logical comprehension – a mystery one grows into over a lifetime. It is a recognition of a spiritual reality working as a peculiar treasure over generations of the faithful, and not-so-faithful.
I have had Spirit-filled mentors along the way who enlarged the promise of my baptism. By word and example, they were “Little Christs” to me. They were seeds of hope. By their steadfast persistence and belief in what I could become, they kept that hope alive, even when I had lost it.
“Weeping may endure the night, but joy comes in the morning.” And the light of that joy cannot be overcome by the darkness.
In the midst of the chaos of these last days and months, we have held on to each other. We have held on to the promise of America, as have faithful communities all across this nation – And we hold on until this land becomes “sweet land of liberty” for ALL our people.
We continue the work to strengthen and uphold one another. The House of Hope in both the Ohio Valley and San Bernardino continue paths forward as funding begins to materialize and a competent and loyal staff is recruited.
This great republic shall endure the chaos of the night. True and authentic patriots of both our parties will perform their duty to the Constitution of this nation. Republicans and Democrats stood fast against conspiracy theories and threats from a seditious president. They did their job to ensure that the will of voters prevailed. They barred the door against the raging mob.
WE HAVE SO MUCH MORE WORK awaiting us in the days ahead. The problems we face are legion: racism, voter suppression, a right-wing disinformation media complex, apathy, starvation and homelessness in our streets. AND not the least, a raging pandemic.
As we reaffirm our baptismal vows today, the bottom line is our pledge to respect the dignity of all persons. In that dignity we behold the Face of the Divine. This pledge is colorblind, non-partisan, transcending all artificially constructed boundaries. It is true for the native born and the immigrant alike – yes, even those without proper papers. It is true for young and old, abled and disabled, stretching across all religious boundaries, to include those who claim no creed as well.
That is the full meaning of our baptism into the Jesus Movement.
When this promise is fulfilled in actuality, when it is true for the “least of these,” we will have come as close as humanly possible to that Blessed Community, we will have seen in the face of Jesus. Amen.
January 10, 2021, The Baptism of our Lord
“Out of Chaos”
The Rev. Dr. John C. Forney
Genesis 1:1-5; Psalm 29; Acts 19:1-7;