A Sermon for Sunday, January 10, 2021. Emory Presbyterian Church. The First Sunday After the Epiphany/The Baptism of the Lord Sunday. Psalm 29 and Mark 1:4-5, 9-11
Like many of you, I am still shaken by Wednesday’s tragic incident when white insurrectionists violently overpowered police and swarmed the Capitol building in an attempt to thwart democracy and a democratic process to usher in a newly and fairly elected president.
Five people, including a police officer, died and congressional leaders hid in gas masks under their desks before being evacuated from the chambers of the House and Senate. The racist Confederate flag was waved through the hallways, along with American flags and Christian symbols. One man proudly showed off the Nazi and white supremacists’ emblems on his upper body. Others wore shirts with the words: “MAGA. Civil War, January 6, 2021.” The phrase “Murder the Media” was carved onto a door. Windows were broken. Offices were desecrated. Property was destroyed and stolen. Gallows were constructed. Cruelty ran amok. White supremacy caused mayhem for several hours in the heart of our nation—fueled by incendiary rhetoric from the President, his personal attorney and an Alabama congressman.
This vile display ensued on the same day a black American and Jewish American won a historic Senate race in Georgia and two weeks before a Black-Indian woman is sworn into the country’s second highest office and the most diverse presidential cabinet in American history is established. And what unfolded in D.C. traumatized millions of Americans, especially Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC), who have experienced this type of terror one too many times throughout history.
The domestic terrorism at the Capitol will have a long-lasting impact on the nation’s psyche, particularly the youngest generations. It was a sobering reality to come home Wednesday evening from work and a doctor’s appointment to be asked nervously by my 7-year-old son: “Are we going to be ok? Are Trump’s supporters going to come to Atlanta and harm us? Is Trump going to attack us tomorrow?”
Though we assured both of our children that they were safe and protected, my wife and I carry a lot of worry and angst about the days ahead. We lament that society has arrived at this point, and we struggle with how best to respond to the hatred in this world.
What is God saying to all of us in this period of political upheaval and heightened calls for racial justice—which, by the way, is all happening during a pandemic which has resulted in 365,000 deaths in the U.S. over 10 months and is killing 3-4,000 people per day.
Over the last few days, I’ve been wrestling with what I should preach and fervently trying to discern God’s message for us in the lectionary texts for this Sunday’s worship.
My thoughts turned repeatedly turned to the New Testament reading and God’s response to Jesus being baptized in the Jordan River, which inaugurates Christ’s earthly ministry: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
As the declaration flashed in my mind, I couldn’t help but think that God is not too pleased with humanity. Though we are forever God’s beloved, as the sacrament attests, we have failed at times to live into our baptisms; we have not always fulfilled the baptismal promises to show kindness, compassion, humility, courage, hope, patience, mercy and love.
In baptism, God’s voice beckons us to turn away from our complicity with practices that cause brokenness and look toward the kindom of God that offers opportunities of healing and wholeness for all of creation. In baptism, we are clothed with Christ and invited to follow in the ways of Christ by working toward peace, justice, freedom and dignity for all people. Tragedies like Wednesday, January 6, reveal how people can forget their baptisms, dismiss God’s voice, and neglect opportunities to embody Christ in the world.
Anticipating that preachers would need inspiration for this Sunday, the ecumenical ministry group, Church Anew, shared wisdom from Protestant leaders about how to address the attack at the Capitol. In one essay, Dr. Raj Nadella, a professor at Columbia Theological Seminary, wonders what the prophet Amos—an advocate of justice for the marginalized—would say about the behavior of certain sections of Christianity whose weaponizing of religious symbols in support white supremacy ultimately caused the crisis in D.C. Professor Nadella writes:
(Amos) would ask Christians to focus more on addressing the idolatry of racism rather than on engaging in seemingly religious rituals. He would ask Christians not to engage in a form of religion that might cause them to be blind or indifferent to structural racism that treats armed White people attempting a coup much more gently than unarmed Black people questioning systemic violence, to paraphrase Jelani Cobb. If visible expressions of religion take precedence over commitment to justice, they run the risk of becoming substitutes for justice or even weaponized in service of injustice. …
Few progressive Christians would participate in anything remotely similar to the attacks in D.C. but the prophetic call for the Church is to consistently privilege justice over religious symbols. It is not enough to not actively contribute to the disease of racism. Any indifference to it or a failure to consistently enervate it invariably makes one complicit in it.
I am beyond proud of how the congregation of Emory Presbyterian has made a commitment to justice. I’m inspired by how members have been protesting for racial equity and equality twice a week on the church’s front lawn since June. I am heartened by the numerous responses we receive from motorists and walkers who pass by us, several of whom are African Americans who cheer our efforts and express their gratitude for how we see them and honor and respect their lives and bodies.
I am grateful for the leadership of the Session who approved the installation of a banner that reads: “We Believe Black Lives Matter. Do Justice, Love Mercy, Walk Humbly With Your God (Micah 6:4)” I am appreciative of the enriching discussions that have taken place in our year-long Anti-Racism Book Study and the concrete action steps that will come from that gathering.
The congregation is doing good anti-racism work and addressing the needs of the poor, along with many Presbyterian churches and people of faith across metro Atlanta and elsewhere, all of which gives me great hope. And we have to carry on.
In spite of the challenges plaguing us, and the catastrophes human beings cause, we have to continue our endeavors and create new ones. We have to keep laboring so that we can continue to birth something holy and beautiful. We have to take deep breaths and stay focused on the voice of God who tells us to keep pushing.
We who are white have to confront white supremacy and our complicity to systemic racism instead of becoming complacent and ignorant about the injustice that occurs around us. We have to break out of our comfort zones and insulated bubbles to care for those that society has pushed to the margins. As my friend and colleague, the Rev. Jan Edmiston expressed in a recent blog post:
If we forget what we saw with our own eyes and heard with our own ears and not address what made that happen on Wednesday, I believe we are displeasing the God who came to earth to show us a different way. Jesus addressed hypocrisy and injustice every day. And I believe he expects this of us too. … Those of us who are privileged and can pretend that white supremacy, abject poverty, rampant homelessness, and financial injustice aren’t real because they don’t impact us personally might call it conflict avoidance. But it’s also an affront to the God who created us to be in relationship with each other and especially with the vulnerable.
The psalmist proclaims that the voice of God is powerful and majestic, giving strength to the people and blessing them with peace. It’s that same voice that called out from the heavens at Jesus’ baptism and that calls to us now, stirring us to remember our baptisms and stand in solidarity with the oppressed.
The voice of God comes to us in a variety of ways, and over the years, I’ve discovered the value in stepping aside to make space for the powerful and poignant ways God speaks through others different from me.
In that spirit, I offer this profound video message from the organization Faith In Public Life, recorded on the day of the Capitol attack by renown author and activist Valarie Kaur. Kaur is coordinating the upcoming People’s Inauguration online event on January 21, for the purpose of “bringing communities together, tending wounds and beginning the labor of reckoning, reimagining and remaking our nation block-by-block, heart to heart—of recommitting to building a nation with liberty and justice for all.” 
(A slightly trimmed version of the video appears with the sermon. The full video can be viewed here):
In the upcoming weeks, months and year, listen for how God is speaking in your life and be encouraged that God’s voice will lead us forward together in love.