Baptism of the Lord, Year B
10 January 2021
I recently read a comment by a fellow photographer for whose work I have great respect. He is an artist much more than I will ever be.
I was disappointed by his comment. It was a commentary on how to deal with the pandemic and the argument that was advanced was the argument of Darwinism, “Yes, some people will die, but that’s how nature works.”
I am not denying the reality of death, I know that I too will die, but we are not talking about the old caribou being killed by the cougar, but we are talking about people created in God’s image. People who are someone’s parent, spouse, child, sibling, friend.
In our part of the country the management of the pandemic has been quite good, which is why the economic impact here has been less than in jurisdictions that operated with less caution. The irony is that those who who prioritized the economy over health are paying a much greater economic price than those who from the beginning saw the connection between the two. Which isn’t to say that the cost isn’t significant.
(The same, of course, is true for dealing with global warming and climate change. We can ignore it only at our own peril.)
But the problem with minimizing the pandemic by explaining it with Darwinism is that it leaves our responsibility toward one another out of the equation, and it is not actually Darwinism but Social Darwinism, effectively deciding that some lives are not worth protecting.
Today we celebrate the Baptism of Our Lord. Our reading from Mark begins with the entry of John the baptizer, but the gospel itself begins three short verses before with the words “The beginning of the good news.” Beginning hearkens back to the Book of Genesis from which our first reading is taken that begins with the words, “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth.”
The good news are so significant that creation itself points toward it.
It is strange that in all these years of being familiar with the Gospel of Mark, it has always struck me as peculiar that John does his preaching and baptizing away from the population centres and not in them. It always struck me as odd, because we would do the opposite, we would go to where the people are, the mall, the skytrain station, whatever.
But I always attributed this more or less to John’s charisma being greater than mine. I just couldn’t imagine that people would come a long way to hear me preach. I am not saying anything about my preaching, rather about how I perceive myself and ministry in general. It’s not about me.
But, of course, it wasn’t about John either. Did he not say that he wasn’t worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of Jesus’s sandals, or in the words of Eugene Peterson’s translation, “The real action comes next: The star in this drama, to whom I’m a mere stagehand, will change your life. I’m baptizing you here in the river, turning your old life in for a kingdom life. His baptism—a holy baptism by the Holy Spirit—will change you from the inside out.”1
Mark tells us that John’s message clearly resonated with the people, so that he could have preached in Jerusalem, because all the people came to him anyway.
Except, that he didn’t carry out this important ministry in Jerusalem because the One who was coming was going to change the world not from the centre but from the margins.
John is at the margins because Jesus ministry begins at the margins, because in Jesus God has moved the margins to the centre. The good news are not courtesy of the temple, or Herod, or the Roman occupational force, for their power is centralized and the margins barely exist for them.
Jesus was raised in the backwater, in Nazareth, so that Nathanael would say to Philip, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46)
It was after Emperor Constantine that Christianity became legal which paved the way for it to become the religion of the empire, so much so that down the road people were slaughtered for refusing to give up their old pagan faith. One of those sites where pagans were slaughtered at the hands of those who said to be acting in the name of Christ is not far from my hometown where Charlemagne slaughtered the Saxons..2
What becomes evident here is that once Christianity had become the religion of the empire, it became difficult to tell which was Christian and which was empire. And ever since the church has more or less been associated with the centre and not with the margins, which is where the ministry of Jesus not only begins but takes place in its entirety. The times when Jesus enters the centre of power, he is always met with hostility.
It turns out that a church that sees its virtues as believing propositions and fighting the king’s wars is often unable to hear and to see what happens at the margins. Charity is encouraged, however, the observation of Archbishop Dom Hélder Câmara of Brazil is still correct today, “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.”
You know that some of our clergy wrote and signed an open letter in support of the Provincial Chief Medical Officer and of our Minister of Health. The Richmond News covered the story with an article this past week. After I had spoken with Alan Campbell and Maria Rantanen who had come to take my picture, it dawned on me what was wrong with churches claiming a right to in-person worship during the pandemic and declaring it a human rights or charter issue.
The problem is theological. Those who insist in in-person worship focus on rights because they think in terms of entitlements, as a church aligned with power would. But by doing so they misunderstand that the mission of the church is not to demand rights and entitlements but to serve. And the way to serve during the pandemic is to do everything we can for the well-being of all.
You may have heard people say that we live in a post-Christian world. And I think that that is true. But it does not mean that you or I are no longer followers of Jesus, or that our faith is no longer life-giving. In fact, it may make it easier to discern the ministry of the church.
But what it means it that the church is no longer at the centre of power. The place of the church has shifted to the margins. We may regret that. I know I do at times. But it may not be such a bad place to be for that is where the ministry of Jesus took place and it is the place that Jesus occupied.
When we find ourselves closer to the margins, though we still carry much privilege, it may be a little easier for us to notice others who are on the margins, particularly as this relates to our relationship to the First Nations of this land, be they Wet’suwet’en, Mi’kmaw, Mohawk or Musqueam. We know that the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission needs our hands and hearts. That may be difficult for us, most of us who barely know First Nations people, let alone have First Nations people among our friends. But with God’s help we can learn.
Or think of others who are at the margins. A little before Kristen and I were interviewed by Stirling Faux, the director of SFU’s Autism and Developmental Disabilities Lab was interviewed. She remarked that people with disabilities are often forgotten and that is no different now. We can be people who remember because we believe in a God who remembers.
The good news of the Gospel is that it’s not bad to be at the margins because that is where Jesus is.
1 The Message