We Look to Understand Instead of Judge

When I sat down to write the first draft of my sermon this week, Trump supporters had just stormed the Capitol. They had been incited by Donald Trump in a speech minutes earlier, perpetuating the lie that the election had been stolen. They came to stop the certification of the President-elect’s victory, with Biden two weeks away from assuming the Presidency. NBC news had just announced that a woman who was shot had died. In the days since, we have learned much more: some of the protestors came prepared with Molotov cocktails and zip ties, the kind that can be used to handcuff people. They were chanting “Find Pelosi” the speaker of the House, and “hang Pence” after vice-president Mike Pence had refused to continue the lie about election fraud. They fatally beat a police officer with a fire extinguisher. 

In the days since, Republicans who long tolerated the racism, xenophobia, and sexism of Donald Trump and all his corruption, have objected to what happened; some have resigned. A few remain entrenched. The world has watched in shock. Many of us, I imagine, have felt relief for our relatively boring political scandal and relatively quiet, plodding government.  

And yet, let us all be wary of those instincts. 

This morning, we hear an excerpt from the book of Genesis, a description of God creating the world. Our first lesson ends with the creation of the first morning and the first evening, the first day and the first night, and all seems well and perfect. Of course, we know what is coming – or shall we say, who comes next. That’s us, arriving on the scene, possessing free will and self-awareness, and soon all is far from perfect. There is selfishness, and violence, and corruption; the snake in the Garden, claims a place in the world, where it tempts each and every one of us.

That snake doesn’t strike out of the blue; it slithers around, whispering lies and stoking fears. It tells us that if a little power feels good, more will feel even better. It distracts from standing up early against what we know is wrong, until standing up has no effect. It makes us feel shame, greed and judgment. In the last four years in the United States, those lesser qualities of humanity took root, and yet it started so much farther back. When good people failed to reach out to those who felt disenfranchised, to understand their needs and wants better. When smart people underestimated the appeal of belonging when you feel you belong nowhere. When people were willing to overlook or underestimate certain egregious acts because “it could never get worse.” We saw it coming, we can say now, but let us be very wary of the cozy comfort of hindsight.

Here in Canada we are far from perfect: we have our own complicated and perpetuated race politics, white supremacist groups exist here too, and an anti-science movement that rejects masks and vaccines appears to be growing. Being Canadian doesn’t make us immune to hubris: just this week, we had politicians and public health employees traveling to sunny holidays while telling the rest of us to stay home. We bend the rules, ignore hard truths, and justify bad choices, with the rest of humanity. We do it as a society, and we do it as individuals. The snake slithers among us as well. 

But into this same world, God sent Jesus, and this Sunday is the day of Jesus baptism; we hear in our gospel of the spirit descending upon him like a dove, a bird that represents peace. “You are my Son; the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” And, with that act from God, we are to understand that we are also beloved; we, who are imperfect, are also pleasing to God. Baptism is God’s embrace, a way of giving us a fresh start. 

We have a tendency to make our baptism a one-and-done event; but in fact, it is an embrace we are meant to receive each day. Our baptism may serve as a reminder that we are loved, and go out into the world loved; that the gospel has given a path not only to spread that love, but to receive it as well. If our baptism is an antidote to shame – even for the flawed, we are welcomed by God – the gospel is our shield against toxic fear, for it gives life meaning and purpose. Neither baptism nor the gospel have eliminated the snake from the world; but they protect us from its influence.

This week a question was posed to me: If we are called to love God, to love ourselves, and to love our neighbor, which of the three should we do first? Does the order matter? Indeed, I believe it does. The answer lies in the first day, in the story of our baptism. We love God first, and through God the gospel of the peace-giving dove.  When we love God, when we take in the gospel, we come to love ourselves, even in our brokenness, even in our careless anger, even when we mess up: for we are given purpose, and people with purpose come to know their own strength, come to feel pride in their accomplishments, come to love themselves. Such people, secure in their own acceptance, are able to turn their gaze outward to others, to fulfill the gospel. We are still imperfect, we still experience careless anger, we are still burdened by moments of shame and we still make mistakes; but those mistakes are more likely to be made in service to something larger than ourselves and that anger is more likely to fuel change and justice, rather than hate and violence. 

I like to think of it this way: Our baptism teaches us to live as if it is our first day. We wake free of wrongdoing, forgiven our past mistakes, beloved by God. Living as if it is our first day frees us from self-hatred and shame; it reminds us that God’s love – that true love – is not built on conditions, but exists without them; it simply is love.  By living as if it is our first day, we can love ourselves, and forgive ourselves. We can begin each morning as whole person. 

And yet the story of the life of Jesus reminds us that our last day matters just as much. Jesus on the cross on his last day, begs for humanity to be forgiven – his final act is a gesture of compassion towards his murderers. By living as if it is our last day, we may seek to fix broken relationships; we may offer or seek forgiveness, we may want the last words we say as the evening approaches to be good and kind ones so they are remembered well. We look to understand instead of judge.

One last thing: this coming week will have some hard news about the spread of COVID-19 in our communities, and what the next few months will look like. It may mean more restrictions, and more limits on the ways we can see one another even from a distance. I have been speaking to many of you over these difficult times, and we will continue to find a way to do so even if we have to be creative. 

Isn’t that the paradox of humanity: we are capable of such violence against each other, and yet such brilliant innovation and compassion? All that good in us comes from the principles that our Baptism and the gospel teach us: that we are people of value and purpose. Through the gift of our Baptism and the teachings of the gospel, we are granted clear mornings and quiet evenings. Let go of careless anger, and be calmed. Set aside your fear, and act. When you see a wrong, even a slight, lean on the better qualities of kindness and understanding. Now especially, we need those reminders. May we live then, as if it is our first day, fresh and full of promise. And may we live as if it is our last day, filled with purpose, and making it count.

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