The Rev. Canon Paula Clark
Let us pray.
May we remember who and whose we are. Amen.
Good morning. Thank you, Dean Hollerith, for the honor of preaching on this day when we remember the baptism of our Lord, and as I transition from the Episcopal Diocese of Washington to the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago. Standing here, I am humbled and remember many of the heroes and sheroes who have preached in this very Canterbury pulpit, those on whose shoulders we stand through our baptism. The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Bishop Jane Holmes Dixon, Bishop Barbara Clementine Harris, and especially the sixth Bishop of Washington, John Thomas Walker, who baptized and confirmed me 47 years ago, on the same day. I remember Bishop Walker as a man of unselfish devotion and passion for justice who treated all people equally, whether preaching in the church or testifying before Congress or praying and protesting in the streets of DC.
I’ve tried to model my own ministry after him, and today I give God thanks for Bishop Walker’s legacy and his example. As the people of God, we need to connect with those foremothers and forefathers who have gone on before us. For by doing so, we remember who and whose we are. In today’s gospel, we remember Jesus’s baptism. And I am convinced that Jesus’s baptism was his inauguration into his public ministry. Jesus was ushering in his teaching and healing and life-giving and loving ministry that what eventually lead him to the shame of Calvary and the glory of the resurrection. How terrifying it must have been for Jesus that day, when he presented himself at the Jordan River. Nevertheless, God came to Jesus at his baptism to encourage and remind him who and whose he was.
Our gospel says, as Jesus was coming 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.”
God exhorts Jesus to remember as he embarks on his public ministry, that he is God’s son, the beloved. In whom God is not just pleased, but I would dare say proud. Nevertheless, Jesus’s ministry would not be easy. It would be challenging, treacherous and dangerous. Indeed, just as Jesus was finishing and going out of the water, he was sent into the wilderness to be tested by the devil for 40 days and nights, right after God had proclaimed his love for him and encouraged him. Likewise, God exhorts us and continually reminds us who and whose we are, God’s beloved children, and invites us to embark on a ministry of love, compassion and reconciliation, no matter how challenging, treacherous or dangerous that might be.
For the last few months, I’ve been reading, praying and journeying with the great African American mystic theologian, preacher and prophet Howard Thurman. As I’ve been immersing myself in Thurman’s writings, I’d forgotten that many of his most powerful pieces were written in the midst of World War II, at a time when Jim Crow was pervasive and black Americans were being lynched, brutalized and disenfranchised at every turn. It has been amazing to me how resonant his writings are during this time, especially in 2020, and now 2021. While preparing this message, I found Thurman’s remembrance of his own baptism. When he was turned down by the deacon’s board,(Can you imagine Thurman turned down for baptism?) and grandmother demanded that they allow him to be baptized. And after being baptized, Thurman’s grandmother made sure he always remembered who and whose he was, a beloved child of God, and recounts that his grandmother insisted that her grandchildren understood that their lives were a precious gift. Thurman says, “Often grandma would gather us around and tell us a story that came from her life as a slave. Once or twice a year, the slave master would permit a slave preacher from a neighboring plantation to come over and preach to his slaves. The slave preacher followed a long tradition, which has hovered over the style of certain black preachers, even to this day present time. It is to bring the sermon to a grand climax by a dramatization of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. But this preacher, when he finished would pause, his eyes scrutinizing the face of every congregant. And then he would tell them, ‘You are not slaves. You are God’s children.’
When my grandmother got to that part of her story, there would be a slight stiffening in her spine, as we sucked in our breath. When she had finished, our spirits were restored.”
After the harrowing events of 2020 and the horrific events at the Capitol this past Wednesday, we need to remember who and whose we are so that our spirits can be restored and we can reset and embark on the ministry of love that God places before each of us. Indeed, our ministry in 2021 will be challenging, daunting and dangerous. We are still in the midst of a worldwide pandemic. Last Friday, over 367,000 people in the U.S. died from COVID-19. 10.7 million people were unemployed, and 7.3 million people were not even counted in that number because they wanted to work but were not able to actively seek employment. Also as of last Friday, nearly one in five adults with children, lacked sufficient food to feed their families. And one in five renters were not caught up on their rent. Of course, these dismal statistics affect children and women most in this country and Black and Latino, Latinx, Hispanic and indigenous families are disproportionately affected by COVID-19 and its economic and societal effects. Moreover, we are suffering from the dual pandemics of COVID-19 and the U.S’s original sin of racism, both of which have been brought into stark reality on our televisions, on our telephones and on our tablets. We saw the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, a black jogger shot down by father and son vigilantes. We saw George Floyd tortured and killed at the knee of a Minneapolis policemen. We read about EMT, Brianna Taylor, killed in her bedroom after having slept, by the Louisville police officers who came, knocked down her door and killed her in a spray of bullets. And in December, we heard about Andre Hill who was gunned down by a police officer in Ohio, just holding his cell phone in a garage.
Moreover, last Wednesday on the Feast of the Epiphany, we witnessed the horrific takeover and sacrilege of the U.S. Capitol, that monument to democracy that was built by the blood, sweat and tears of enslaved people. I was devastated, but not surprised, by the riotous display of white supremacy I saw on Wednesday afternoon. I’m praying for the families of those who were injured and those who lost their lives in the melee, particularly Capitol police officer Brian Sicknik. My heart breaks for those families and my heart breaks for those who valiantly defended our Capitol, but were overpowered. However, after participating in the protests at St. John’s Lafayette Square on June 1, 2020, in response to George Floyd’s murder, and witnessing the violence that was rained down on our clergy, our parishioners and a whole bunch of people of conscience in front of our church, for a presidential photo op. I have no doubt that if those were Black Lives Matter protestors last Wednesday, scaling the Capitol and breaking through gates and windows to enter its hallowed halls, their blood would have been rolling down the steps and onto the Capitol grounds. We have to face the grim reality that Black, Brown, Asian and indigenous people do not enjoy the promise of liberty and justice for all that others do. We, the church, have to understand this is the underbelly of America, and we must hold our leaders and each other accountable.
In spite of the devastation we experienced over the last year, friends, I have hope. I have hope because I remember who and whose we are. We are the beloved children of God, and all of us who live under the banner of God’s love are challenged today to pick up are the cross of Jesus and follow him in his ministry of love, compassion, equity and justice. I remember the love, compassion and sacrifice being exhibited by millions of Americans who are frontline workers in the midst of this pandemic. Of people who are collecting and giving food, clothing, supplies and money to their neighbors and the millions of people who are standing up and speaking up against injustice.
God is calling us to reset and renew our resolve to love God and our neighbors, no matter their political persuasion, economic status, color, sexual orientation or country of origin. God is calling us to live into our belovedness, that belovedness bestowed upon us at our baptism. One way we accomplish this is to continue to confront, repent of and wash away the sins of hatred, bigotry, arrogance and greed. And we’ve got to put on the garments of faith, compassion, inclusivity and most important, love. Our belovedness requires that we love God, our neighbors and ourselves. That’s the great commandment. As the beloved, we cannot grow weary in well-doing and we must continue to stand up for justice, stand up for the disenfranchise, stand up for peace in our streets and in the hallowed halls and places and spaces that we encounter, and most important in the world. Being the beloved of God requires us to love as God loves, to see each other as the beloved children of God, and that means we look with the eyes of love and compassion, even on those with whom we disagree. The divisiveness, the hate, the violence we see in our country is symptomatic of our inability to love, pray for and listen to those who differ from us. We have to remember who and whose we are. We are the beloved children of God. And if we live into our belovedness, loving as God loves, then the heavens will be torn apart and we will see and hear God say, “You are my child, the beloved. In you, I am well-pleased.”