Sermon preached for Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church on Baptism of the Lord Sunday.
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, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
The original gist of my sermon for this Sunday was this: “people are good, because God made them that way.”
And then… this week happened. And that message became a lot harder to preach.
Have people seemed good to you this week? Because I’ve had my doubts.
As I watched the TV in horror on Wednesday while a mob of entitled extremists breached our nation’s capitol, I found myself repeating a single mantra like a security blanket: this isn’t who we are. This isn’t who we are. This isn’t who I thought we were.
It’s a mantra that was taken up by politicians of all stripes in their response to the attacks. This isn’t who America is. This isn’t how we do things. This violence, this arrogance, this mob rule by intimidation—this isn’t us.
And yet, on Wednesday, it was.
It was a group of American citizens who smashed in windows and looted property from our capitol building this week. And they believed what they were doing was right; was patriotic; was necessary; was good. Many of them were spurred by the words of the Holy Scriptures I just read. Some of them carried banners with the name of our savior, our Jesus, flown right next to the hateful flag of the Confederacy.
I wish this weren’t us. But it is. It has been for a long, long time.
And I want, so, so, so badly to condemn.
I could, you know. I’m angry, and I’m heartsick, and I have rants inside me waiting to come out. But I’ve deleted them from this sermon, because I’m not here to speak my words. I’m here to speak God’s words, as far as my human ability will allow.
And those words are much, much harder. Because as much as I want to toss fire and brimstone from this pulpit, today’s lectionary passages are drenched in the waters of grace.
God creates the world, and calls it good. Delights in it. Christ models for us what happens in baptism, when we are named and claimed as God’s own beloved.
It is hard to reconcile, the news of this past week with the truth that the world is good. Hard to see any goodness at all in what has transpired—not just the attack on the capitol, but the conversations that have followed. The finger pointing, the conspiracy theories, the ended friendships, the broken relationships, the fissure that runs right through 244 years of American history, between ideals of liberty, and realities of oppression.
Especially when every voice claims they are doing the right thing, the good thing, even the holy thing.
How are we supposed to say the world is good, when we cannot even agree on what being good means?
I was saved this week by wisdom from someone who has wrestled with believing in goodness when the world is racked by evils. Archbishop Desmond Tutu heard, in his role as chairperson of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the stories of brutality and pain inflicted on Black citizens during South Africa’s apartheid policy. And beyond just hearing stories, he saw first-hand the shattered skulls of women and children strewn across a sanctuary floor after ethnic genocide in Rwanda. Across the world, he has seen the viciousness that humans unleash on each other when we have convinced ourselves that we are the arbiter of goodness.
His daughter, the Reverend Mpho Tutu, faces the same atrocities on a smaller scale. She works with women who have survived intimate violence—girls as young as 8 and women as old as 80 who carry pain as horrifying as the stories that make the news, but carry it alone and unknown. And yet, her faith persists. Together, Desmond and Mpho Tutu wrote a book called “Made for Goodness.”
“We know all too well the cruelties, hurts, and hatreds that poison life on our planet,” Archbishop Tutu said in an interview. “But my daughter and I have come together to write this book because we know that the catalogue of injuries that we can and do inflict on one another is not the whole story of humanity, not by a long measure — as I hope you will see and as you no doubt know in your heart. We are indeed made for something more. We are made for goodness.”
Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.
We are made for goodness. But we make choices that distort that goodness; choices that render it useless to the world. What good is our goodness if we do not show it?
Our gospel scene today begins with a crowd of folks who have come to repent. I don’t know how John got them to do that. But somehow he convinced these Galileans to look inside themselves, and see where they had superimposed their own notions of goodness over God’s true goodness.
And by some miracle, they do. They repent. They take a deep look within, and they start to let go of all the false-goodness they’d been holding like a weapon against the world. They let the truth do its work in them. They let the Spirit do its work in them. And they go marching raw and scarred and vulnerable into the waters of grace, and let themselves be recreated into the people God meant them to be.
I wonder if we have that courage. I wonder if we have the courage, to look inside ourselves, at our outrage, at our smugness, at our shock, at our divisions, at our secret sympathies, at our refusal to understand other points of view, at our white-knuckle grip on our own image of ourselves as good people, as not like those people, and let the waters wash it all away.
This is the work, the challenge, and the miracle of repentance: we cannot tap into God’s goodness until we wash away the false pretense of our own goodness.
To tap into the goodness God placed inside us is to recognize that our goodness does not lie in our skin color, our nationality, our ability to win at the polls, the number of likes on our social media posts, the number on our bathroom scale, or even—and this hurts to say—our professed religion. To tap into the goodness God has placed inside us is to live out God’s goodness—a goodness that creates worlds of justice, truth, mercy, and love.
We have to give up believing that we are good because we are American, or Democrat, or Republican. We have to give up believing that we are good because we are clever, or sophisticated, or persuasive. We have to give up believing that we are good because we wear cross necklaces or can recite Bible verses. We have to give up believing that we are good because we use the right catch phrases and run in the right social circles. And for the actual love of our God, we have got to stop believing that we are good because we are white.
We are good because God made us. We are good because God claimed us. And we can live out that goodness by living the life of Christ, who came without force or battle slogans, who preached words of mercy and compassion, who died not as a martyr to some self-righteous cause but so that no one else would ever have reason to think they were not fully and completely loved.
Friends, we were made for goodness. That was the end of my original sermon, and it is still truth, even battered and tested this week. I believe with all my heart. We were made for goodness, and God has not given up on us.
“We are fundamentally good,” Desmond Tutu says. “When you come to think of it, that’s who we are at our core. Why else do we get so outraged by wrong? When we hear of any egregious act, we are appalled. Isn’t that an incredible assertion about us? Evil and wrong are aberrations. If wrong was the norm, it wouldn’t be news. Our newscasts wouldn’t lead with the latest acts of murder or mayhem, because they would be ordinary. But murder and mayhem are not the norm. The norm is goodness.”
We were made for goodness. Made to be close to God and to each other.
The world has seen horrors and hatred before. The waters of baptism keep flowing through it, scrubbing blood stains from carpets and sin stains from souls, offering us a new world, a new way, and new hope for tomorrow.
Despite it all, we were made for goodness. With our courage, and by the grace of God, we can let that goodness shine.
*Quotes from “Desmond Tutu, Insisting We Are ‘Made For Goodness.” NPR. March 11, 2010. https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=124539592