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Wade in the Water

I’m on the board of The Beatitudes Society and we recently gave our annual Brave Preacher Award to Alison Harrington, Pastor of Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, Arizona. She preached the following sermon, “Wade in the Water,” on January 9, the day after the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and many others in Tucson. —Alexander

“A light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” For weeks we have boldly proclaimed this scriptural truth about the coming of Jesus Christ into the world. But in spite of our faithful proclamations, it may seem for many of us that yesterday the light went out and plunged us into the darkness of grief, anger, and despair. How soon it seems that the joy, the peace, that surrounded the birth of our Lord is shattered by senseless violence, making us question whether Christ’s coming into this world has made any difference at all. In light of the horrific shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and many others, in light of the senseless murder of Federal District Court Judge John Roll, Gabe Zimmerman, Dorwin Stoddard, Dorothy Morris, Phyllis Schneck, and nine-year-old Christina Green, we may ask, “What good is the coming of Christ into the world—the Prince of Peace—when violence continues to reign?” The question of where God is in the midst of pain, evil, and suffering is not easily answered. But today I would like to suggest God is on the banks of the River Jordan.

This morning Christians all over the world celebrate the Baptism of Our Lord, and in light of yesterday’s events my first impulse was to change my text. Surely this is not the morning to preach on baptism! I was sure I needed to find a text on peace or civility. But the more I thought about it, the more I was convinced that if there was ever a time to remember our baptism, it is this morning.

On the banks of the River Jordan, Jesus inaugurated his ministry with a powerful act of solidarity with humanity. He waded into the waters of the River Jordan, the murky waters of the human condition, and he was not just sprinkled with those waters, but he was fully immersed in the waters of sin and brokenness, and emerged from those waters with a clear identity and a clear mission. He emerged the beloved Son and began his ministry of inclusion, love, community, and, above all, the peaceable kingdom of God. When Christ wades deep into the waters of the Jordan he demonstrates his solidarity with us. By going down deep into the Jordan River he says that he will suffer along with us, weep along with us, and struggle along with us. And so to say that this morning Jesus is on the banks of the River Jordan is to say that he is in the ICU of UMC, he is in the homes of those who are grieving, he is right here with us, and it is even to say that he sits in a jail cell with a disturbed and troubled 22-year-old.

Jesus’ baptism does not just have significance for our understanding of God’s loving solidarity with a suffering world, but it also has significance for us as well. Last fall David Gambrell, associate for worship in the office of Theology, Worship, and Education for the denomination, was speaking at the Peacemaking Seminar at Ghost Ranch. In that talk he urged those gathered to remember their baptisms. He said, “When we are washed in the water of baptism, we are immersed head-to-toe in danger, in death, in the suffering of the world.” He continued, “Those who have been baptized have no excuse to ignore those who suffer—baptism is an act of bathing in their tears.” But he also reminded participants that believers are also redeemed and given new life in Christ. Gambrell continues, “there is no flood, power, prejudice, war, injustice, border, institution, disaster, or stigma that can separate us from the love of God in Christ. In baptism, God’s favor shines on us in order that we might proclaim the year of God’s favor and the time of liberation.” We’re called to announce that the time for justice is now, Gambrell said. “Baptism is the source of every Christian’s calling. And this is especially true for peacemakers, who are called to share the water of life with a thirsty world.”

This morning we need to remember our baptism and so remember our call to be peacemakers.

We need to remember that in baptism Christ’s identity as the beloved child of God becomes our identity. We, each and every one of us, are beloved children of God, but before we can truly hear that voice from heaven calling us by name, we must have the courage to wade into the waters and recognize that we are broken people in need of forgiveness; only then can we emerge from the waters to hear the voice of God calling us “beloved.”

I had an interesting experience this past fall when I was invited to Gabrielle Giffords’ office, along with other faith leaders, to discuss the immigration crisis. At one point she asked us what we thought needed to be done in light of this issue, and I knew right away what I thought: that we can no longer allow flat-out lies to dominate the public discourse, and that we needed to courageously tell the truth. But just as I was about to raise my hand, I remembered that only a few months before, I had said something untrue about Gabrielle at a press conference that we held here at Southside. Once I realized that my statement about her was untrue, I was mortified, prayed the press wouldn’t grab that sound bite, and lost a lot of sleep. Giffords’ deputy director Ron Barber, who was shot yesterday, called me the next morning, and I profusely apologized. But I had never had the opportunity to apologize to her. So here I was sitting in her office, wanting to condemn lies and promote the truth, and yet I had found myself guilty of the very crime I was condemning. So I had a choice: stay silent, or ask for forgiveness and then speak my truth. It’s not easy to ask for forgiveness in a room full of politicians and pastors, but I was so convicted in the importance of speaking the truth in public discourse that I had no choice but to first admit guilt and ask for forgiveness, which I did, and she was of course very gracious.

I tell this story to say that while we are no doubt called to proclaim peace within our city, we need to first do some confession of our own. We need to be courageous enough to admit that in little ways each one of us paved the path from the shooter’s home to Ina and Oracle yesterday. I will confess that the hate that I have in my heart for Joe Arpaio could pave a path of destruction to the moon. But now is the time to do our best to see the beloved-ness in each and every person—and call them into recognition of that beloved-ness so that they too might see the beloved-ness in others. If we want to move forward as a community we must begin by wading in the waters of confession, knowing we will emerge with a voice loud from heaven saying, “You are my beloved child, in whom I am well pleased.”

What a blessing it is that on this day, when we are reeling from tragedy and from the pain of our city, we are ordaining and installing new elders and deacons. If ever we need to be reminded that we are called to ministry, it is today, when we are more keenly aware that our world has yet to be fully redeemed. And it is with this awareness that we are reminded that we are all called to be partners with Christ in building the kingdom of God. As we ordain and install new elders and deacons, as we remember our baptism, we remember our calling to be peacemakers in this world, to be living waters in a thirsty world, to be builders of the kingdom of God.

We confess that this morning we may find it a bit difficult to say boldly, “A light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” We say it now with a shaky voice and maybe even a shaky faith, because we are aware that though the darkness did not overcome it, the darkness is still present. Yet in the midst of this darkness we remember our baptism, and we remember that we have been called the light of the world. In this midst of this sorrow we remember our baptism, and we remember that we are called to bind up the broken-hearted. In the midst of this anger, we remember our baptism, and we remember that we are to search for beloved-ness in our enemies. And though our voices shake a bit, still we shall proclaim, “A light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” Beloved brothers and sisters, remember your baptism and be thankful. Amen.

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