January 10, 2021

Feast of the Baptism of Jesus

Go to the River

GOSPEL

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.” Mark 1:4-11
SERMON

The eternal Word, through whom all creation came to be, the Word that took the flesh of Mary His mother and became one with us in the fullness of our humanity, the Word who in the course of His ministry spoke of Himself as the Way, the Truth and the Life, in this morning’s gospel narrative leaves the comfort of home and makes his way to the River Jordan to be baptized by John. Though He was without sin, He identified with us, even here, that He might show us what is essential for our wellbeing and salvation. We cannot be made whole and we cannot become holy, as God is Holy, unless we acknowledge our sinfulness, repent of our sins and make our way to the river.

Truth was so very important to Jesus. There is no Way without Truth. There is no Life without Truth. Truth is what gives both a person and a community integrity and an authentic identity. Truth is what gives tomorrow its possibilities for overcoming today’s limitations. Truth is the only way forward. Truth alone is able to sustain any life to be deemed worth living.

The mythological personification of evil to whom we have given the name Satan has, for good reason, been branded the Father of Lies. The serpent to whom we are introduced in the garden, is presented as a lying snake. The devil who tempts Jesus in the desert shortly after His baptism, spins one lie after another. If God is truth, then the “ungod” must be the lie.

While we have always had to live in what can be seen as a sea of lies, during these last four years that sea has grown to be an ocean. This flood of deceit has been enabled by an unregulated social media which has provided a readily accessible platform for the propagation of lies. Fact checking has become a full-time business, but it really cannot keep pace with the minute-to-minute publication and dissemination of what is simply not true.

And we know that once a lie is told and finds a welcoming and receptive home in a person’s mind and heart, it is near to impossible to evict it. Some people actually maintain that the Holocaust did not happen. Others are convinced that global warming is not real. As there are holocaust deniers and climate change deniers, seventy two million of our neighbors not only believe that white supremacy should be protected and sustained but would go so far as to believe that it reflects God’s will. Among the flags in evidence at Wednesday riot was one that bore both the name of Jesus, who is the Truth, and the name of the poster child of lies. It is hard to get much more blasphemous.

Words matter. Words have consequences. On Wednesday, one of the false narratives, the one about a rigged and stolen election, mounted an ascendancy and brought fear and death to the Capitol and greatly troubled the souls of millions of others. Thousands of marauders rallied with their leader and after he fired them up, they marched on Capitol, broke into the congress, and interrupted the ceremonial confirmation of the election results.

In the process, the space was vandalized, a number of people were injured and at least five were killed. These rioting representatives of the seventy two million who voted for their failed and deceitful leader; and the deceitful congressional whores who maintain their fealty to him even as he lies on a daily basis in practically his every utterance and tweet; and those, among these whores, who engaged a futile, last ditch effort to have the lie prevail, commanded center stage in an ugly display that captured just how much the words of lying lips matter and the dire consequences that will necessarily follow as day follows night.

White supremacists, so called Christian nationalists, and fascists of all persuasions depend upon lies. Lies are the fuel that provide the energy that ignites the passion that results in mayhem, destruction and death. We can face this evil. Name it. And excoriate it. And we must do this every time is raises its ugly face, speaks its treacherous deceit, and moves people to engage as those did on Wednesday evening.

But is there not a bigger and incredibly more difficult challenge that needs to be recognized and addressed? Yes, there are the obvious lies embraced by these obviously deplorable others.

But are there not so many other lies that we share, even with them, and hold as absolutes? False myths about ourselves as a people that we embrace as truths. Stories that we tell ourselves about our goodness as a people that have no grounding in actual reality. A history that we teach our children about our exceptionalism as a nation.

The adjective GREAT, as we apply it to ourselves, is not an attribution that is of recent birth. It has a long history.

Does not the self-inflating and self-congratulating rhetoric that we embrace about ourselves mask the paucity and smallness of the way we actually live with each other and engage the world? When will we ever realize that we are never greater than our sinfulness, and be willing to confess the truth that our sin is indeed great? When will we go to the river to be cleansed?

Growing up in Brooklyn, I attended a catholic grade school and high school. In that environment I was spoon fed both the porridge of American exceptionalism and of Roman Catholic exceptionalism. As I was brainwashed into believing in the greatness of this nation, I was also brainwashed into believing that the Roman Church was the “only true church”.

As to the latter, it took years to appreciate that the only communion of the genuinely faithful, is that communion that doesn’t necessary gather in one place or even under one ecclesial name, and in some instance not even under any religious title.

Rather it is that network of minds and hearts that subsists beneath and across all those visible, identifying distinctions, and knows a union and communion that transcends time and space, and seeks to live the Truth that God painstakingly and patiently reveals to those willing to acknowledge and embrace it as their own way of being in the world, no matter what the personal cost.
Truthful myths and stories do give our lives meaning. They tell us who we were, who we are, and who we will be. However, contrived tales and false narratives disguise who we were, who we are, and ensure that we will be no different in the future.
Getting back to public forum, think about it. What are some of the lies that can be identified and that we can name as some of the untruths that glue us together?
The myth of American greatness is deeply rooted in falsehoods and forgetfulness, in intentional historical amnesia and obfuscation.
Liberty was not the founding American impulse; genocide was. Our story begins, does it not, with the carnage of indigenous peoples and is not captured in those Hallmark drawings of settlers and native-born sharing the first Thanksgiving meal?
The blessing of God did not secure this nation’s prosperity. The forced labor of slaves did. Slavery did not end with the Emancipation Proclamation, as we were taught, but simply morphed into systemic expressions of the same, that retain their ability to subjugate and oppress people of color even until today.
The founders were not committed to a republic or a democracy. They were committed to a racialized plutocracy led by propertied white males, that is, wealthy white males.
Economic socialism is not of the devil, as we have been made to believe it to be. Free market capitalism, operating without conscience, is the spawn of Satan and the servant of demon greed.
The myth of trickle-down economics is a lie. How else can it be explained that in the wealthiest nation in the world one in six children go to bed hungry every night, 600,000 live on the streets, and 30 million more cannot afford essential health care. Economic socialism is, in truth, the financial paradigm proposed by the gospel.
Democratic politicians are willing to delude themselves and us into believing that they have achieved a victory against their more obviously selfish and self-serving Republican counterparts, and a victory for working people, by raising the minimum wage to $15 and hour. The truth is that the present cost of living demands nothing less than a $25 an hour wage to actually end, at least at this moment, the pay check to pay check enslavement of workers.
And there is the lie told to our children that military service is a noble calling for the sake of protecting the freedoms we enjoy and extending these to the wider world.
The truth is that since the end of WWII, this country has actually engaged nearly all of its military actions to advance its own economic and military hegemony in the world and not in defense of freedom. South of the border we have trained death squads and supported the dictators they serve, to insure the protection of American business interests in the region.
It is no accident that veterans commit suicide at the rate of 22 per day. It is difficult, in the extreme, to face and own the truth that your maimed and broken body or soul is the hapless victim of a bill of goods you were sold and a deadly lie you were fed, and not the badge of honor that the system would have you make it.
Is it by accident that the very same system does not provide adequate care and support for veterans as a matter of justice? In a great nation would charitable programs like the “Wounded Warrior Project”, which itself proved to be less than honorable, be needed to make up the difference?
All this being said, of course there is a measure of good to be found here and some among us have even risen to the level of greatness, but whatever the good or the great, it is a bold-faced lie to paint the whole with the broad brush of greatness.
For our sins are many and they are indeed great. The lies by which we live are many and they are indeed great. As to our being exceptional, it might be said that we have been exceptionally sinful. Tomorrow will only be different than today is we commit to going to the river.
May we find the faith and the courage to face ourselves, and the new honesty that the present moment requires, and begin to live into the truth that would set us free, rather than continue to seek shelter in the lies that comfort us as morphine does a terminal patient.

The Rev. Frank J. Alagna.
January 10, 2021