by Drew Rindfleisch
Three days ago, fifteen of us with SOUL – Southsiders Organized for Unity and Liberation – stood trial for engaging in civil disobedience this last October. We demonstrated against the foreclosure crisis that has left millions of individuals and families without homes and in serious financial debt. Economic injustices continue as big banks and corporations have received over a trillion dollars in relief for the financial crisis they created. And, their affiliates like the Mortgage Bankers Association of America refuse to negotiate most of the home loans that are leaving families homeless and in poverty. In fact, this same organization is actually pushing more high-risk loans on to other families, specifically targeting Latino and African-American neighborhoods. When asked by police and bankers why he chose to get arrested that October day along with community activists, one Southside Pastor passionately articulated the religious nature of this issue, “So long as banks profit from pushing loans onto people they know will eventually go into foreclosure leading to homelessness and poverty, none of us can live in peace. Where there is no justice, there is no peace. No Justice. No Peace.” Rev. Grant and I led this group of people of faith singing songs like “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around,” and singing across our jail cells “This Little Light of Mine, I’m Gonna Let it Shine. Let it Shine, Let It Shine, Let it Shine.”
Since that day, I have reflected a lot upon my own call to ministry and the call of the Body of Christ in our current time. I suppose being escorted out in hand cuffs and put in a paddy wagon to spend the rest of the day in a jail cell will do that. It is difficult to wrestle with what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ especially when some Christians claim that not all of us who go to church on Sunday or follow Jesus are actually “saved, loved by God, or true believers.” Some religious authorities have even gone far enough to call people like Rev. Grant a communist, socialist, un-American, an agent of class warfare, and a distorter of the Gospel. While we say that sticks and stones may hurt our bones, but words will never hurt us; I know that some words can hurt more than others, especially if they come from people you love and respect. But, even words from human beings who don’t know us can hurt just as bad because they try to strike at the heart of our very being. But…whatever verdict we receive in April, I pray that my fellow sisters and brothers in Christ will remember that though the court determines our sentence, the court and even the influential religious authorities of our time do not determine our dignity and worth as human beings. That dignity and worth, which we affirmed in “This Little Light of Mine”, is tied up in something entirely different: baptism.
As Children of God who have been baptized in water through the power of the Holy Spirit, the Church teaches that God through Jesus Christ saves us. As Martin Luther wrote in the small catechism, baptism “bring[s] about forgiveness of sins, redeems from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation and new life to all who believe it, as the words and promise of God declare.” Baptism is the sacrament and sign that claims that God has saved. But even as this new birth through water claims that we are saved through Jesus Christ, baptism also reshapes our identity as God claims us as a somebody in this world.
In our reading today, we are told that the heavens are torn apart and the Spirit descends on Jesus like a dove during his baptism in the Jordan. To top it off, a voice from heaven declares, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.” Now, I am sure many of us are thinking, this couldn’t have happened just as it was written, right? A Spirit descending like a dove on a human being? A voice from heaven booming across the land declaring Jesus as God’s Beloved Son? I mean, if someone told us that today we would probably dismiss such a tall tale. But this experience of Jesus was real: so real, that Jesus was immediately driven into the wilderness amongst the wild beasts and tempted by Satan while the divine messengers—the angels ministered to him. In his baptism in the Jordan River, Jesus experiences the Spirit and is transformed—transformed from the somebody whom the world claimed he was, and the somebody he is before God, and will be for his followers.
You see, Jesus came from Nazareth; a town in the region of Galilee which was under Roman Imperial control and their client rulers. The military might of the Roman Empire ensured foreign-sponsored kings like Herod could remain wealthy and powerful while 90% of people lived at or below subsistence level. So 90% of people worked all day and barely had enough to survive, or were not able to make enough to feed themselves and their families while a small portion of Romans and their local allies lived in extreme wealth and luxury.
In the years leading up to Jesus’ birth, Josephus, the famous Jewish Historian of Jesus’ day, tells us that ordinary peasants around Nazareth rose up against their client rulers seeking an end to imperial control. However, the Romans responded with brutal violence and repression; crucifying two thousand people at Sepphoris, just outside of Nazareth; making an example of those who resisted the Empire. The new client rulers and the temple authorities in Jerusalem built up larger monuments and wealth for themselves extracting more resources and money from the already dispossessed and destitute peasants. Nathaniel’s question to Phillip in John’s gospel is not too far off: “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” How could someone from Nazareth, a Nobody in the eyes of the Roman Empire, possibly be the Beloved Son of God? How could Jesus, a worthless object of colonization and oppression preach evangelion tou theo—the gospel of God?
For the Roman Empire, and their colonized clients, there was no way Jesus could be the Son of God. They already had one: Caesar and this emperor of Rome had his own gospel. The term evangelion actually stems from the Roman military correspondence from the front-lines bringing news of victory and boosting morale throughout the military and social ranks of Rome. The gospel of Caesar proclaimed good news of peace throughout the “civilized world”: justifying the constant use of military force to subject people in Judea, Galilee, and other “foreign” lands for progress and regional stability. But this good news was based on a strict social hierarchy that placed male dominance above partnership and mutuality between women and men. This good news promoted child and spousal abuse at the hands of men and silenced women in society relegating sisters to their proper “Greco-Roman” place; the household. This good news profited the job creators of the Imperial economy through exploiting ordinary people in their economic vulnerability; increasing their debt and forcing them into slavery. At the end of the day, Caesar’s good news proclaimed blessings for those who collaborated with this unjust and violent order, and punished those who resisted.
However, through the waters of baptism, Jesus rises as the Beloved of God to resist and to risk. In that baptismal experience, the Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness and he too struggles to understand what this new identity and dignity means. Sometimes it can take us years to understand what happened when we were covered in water by God’s love as an infant. Sometimes that initial decision to get baptized as a teenager or as an adult doesn’t bring ultimately clarity in our lives, but becomes a life-long struggle to understand this broken and unjust world, and live out our callings amidst a new and unfamiliar community of sisters and brothers. Even though we were there, or maybe we still are in that wilderness of doubt, confusion, anger, isolation, fear, frustration, or even sadness, something calls us back to encounter God and our fellow human beings in our world and in this time.
Whether we were washed over at the font as a newborn, or submerged in a body of water as an adolescent or adult, God transforms us in our baptism. No longer are we enslaved to see our fellow human beings as competitors in the way to prosperity and wealth. Instead, God liberates us to see that we are no longer defined by those things; not by the possessions we might own, or the clothes we wear. We humans are not defined by how many people we oversee at our workplaces or the money we accumulated in our bank account. We in our baptism are not dignified by how masculine society wants us to act, or how feminine society expects us to be. We are not even dignified by the laws that we follow or the judgments of human courts.
Instead through an immersion in water, God reveals love for humanity. You don’t have to do anything to be more or less human; God dignifies you, and God is with you in your struggle. You are important and valuable beyond imagine. You are a created, beloved human being. This gift is a relationship with God which no person, no power, and no principality can take away. God claims you as the Child of God that you already are. This is our dignified baptismal identity, which I see being lived out here at Saint Luke’s.
This baptismal identity is lived out when a community reaches out through Elijah’s Pantry to feed over 600 families who would go hungry in Logan Square. This baptismal identity is lived out when we come together to make sure our youth throughout Chicago have a warm cooked meal at their crib and share a caring heart and smile, even if it’s just one evening. This baptismal identity is lived out when a congregation celebrates and honors the work of their former employee who gave years of service, and simultaneously extends a warm welcome to a new employee who will support the mission and ministry of Saint Luke’s. This baptismal identity is lived out when we join other congregations and community organizations like Community Renewal Society on the Northside and SOUL on the Southside to build a more just and equitable world that reflects the kin-dom of God here on Earth. God frees us to call politicians and job creators alike to deliver good jobs with good wages, quality schools and quality health care, critical funds for food programs and social services, and an end to the foreclosure crisis.
Here at Saint Luke’s, God calls us to live out our baptismal identity which frees us to live with dignity, even in the smallest ways. You don’t have to be a recording artist or a professional musician to praise God beautifully in this assembly, you just have to lift up your voice or you instrument to make a joyful noise. You don’t have to pray with a large and elaborate vocabulary to talk with God more honestly, all you have to do is say what’s burning your heart and soul; God wants to hear it because you are God’s child. You don’t have to stand up here, or wear a collar in order to serve and lead in this community, your daily life and commitment to love and serve the neighbor can be the Word of God proclaimed all in itself. And in the Body of Christ, You don’t have to be straight, you don’t have to have the correct anatomical parts, you don’t have to fit your gender role or box, and you don’t have to be rich or a certain color of skin to belong to this community because God calls all of us to praise, and pray, and preach in a priesthood of all believers. Through grace-filled water of life, God frees us to live with dignity for ourselves and for others. In this Spirit-filled reality and in this baptismal identity, we can sing with courage and confidence in the face of overwhelming powers, and in the face of overwhelming odds, “This Little Light of Mine, I’m Gonna Let it Shine. Everywhere I go, I’m gonna let it shine. My God gave dignity to me, and I’m gonna let it shine. Let it shine, Let it shine. Let your dignity shine.”