Citizenship

I once listened to a friend give a short spiritual auto-biography. He was the proverbial “man in full” – The Southern Edition. Good looking.  Charming.  Good company and fun for both men and women.  Beautiful wife and two lovely children.  From a family line whose name you would recognize if you lived in the environs of three states East of here.  He ended up with his picture on the front page of the Wall Street Journal eventually.

There was success, there was fun, there were cars and motorcycles and trips to the beach; there was laughter and drinks on the golf course, laughter and drinks on the fishing boat, laughter and drinks at the ball game; and sometimes there was just laughter and drinks; and sometimes there were just drinks, and drinking.

“Weightlessness.  Weightless,” is how he described himself.  And then he leaned forward and put his head in his hands, and shook his head.  “You know, that’s the hardest thing about it.  When it was good, it was really good . . . and when it was bad, it was really bad; and not just for me.  But for everyone around me.”

“I was just taking one step forward . . . and a heck of a lot more than two steps back.”

Though the balls of the good life were all up in the air, he still felt stuck in something.  He talked about waking up every few weeks feeling lost, exhausted, and a little sick.  “It was easier for me to stay on the roller coaster, than face life on the ground.” he said. 

There was too much momentum, too many balls in the air, too much make-up and pretending to simply stop and have a glance at real nakedness, in the clear light of day.  “I knew I should change, I wanted to change . . . or to be changed, but I was pinned beneath this weight,” he said.

He paused in telling his story, and I felt the heavens had opened a bit, he sat up, and said to us, “I finally just got sick and tired of being sick and tired.  I got tired  . . . of being sick and tired, and so I gave that weight to God.”

This friend made the journey that others have made.  He went to rehab.  He joined AA.  Slowly his erratic behavior and thoughts found their place on a map larger than himself, and God placed a compass in his hand.

His first great outing as a disciple was to join a prison ministry team; it hurt his business, he began to lose his previous largess, but found a community of real friendship.  With time he has become one of the most joyful and helpful people that I know in the real lives that others live.

Over the years the telescope turned around, and today he is known first as a Christian, a friend, a fellow traveler and sufferer, someone who comes calling in the name of Christ, and someone who is called upon because of the name of Christ.  I believe that he would say that only now he is truly weightless.

He once said to me, “Alston, I have learned something . . . I found with Jesus that I have a lot more coming out than I had going in.”

John the Baptist is out in the Wilderness, out from Jerusalem, helping the people who are sick and tired of being sick and tired.  John the Baptist is not so much returning to his family roots, the priesthood of Zechariah and the collegium; rather John is going farther back, to the wilderness voices of Israel’s deep past. 

Going back to Elijah, Elisha, those who wander the land, eat the fruit of the land, dressed not in the finer and processed fiber of sheep’s wool, but rather the more common and coarse camel’s hair, fastened with leather belts.  It’s the life of the spiritually pure, dressed in the sturdy clothing of those who work the land and day-labor.  John will not wear the wool of a sheep, “the lamb’s tunic,” in order to proclaim the coming of the lamb of God.  It is a sign of his humility.

As said by Cyril of Jerusalem, “John fed on locusts to make his soul grow wings.”

John lives a simple life, and he brings a simple message: repentance, turning around, changing direction in life, because God is nearer now than ever before.  John brings a simple and powerful offering of reorientation, of personal/individual and collective transformation. 

Clearly, there must be some resonance to John’s message, because many folks from the Capital, from the Jerusalem area, are coming out to hear him.

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.

I like to think that John has a medicine for their weariness, their own frustration with being sick and tired; a medicine for their lack of honesty about themselves and one another that only God can give. 

I am reminded of something Fred Rogers, Mr. Rogers, once said, “Life is deep and simple, and what our society gives us is shallow and complicated.” The medicine for things shallow and complicated that John brings is “Metanoia.”  Repentance. 

That change in life’s direction, sometimes great, sometimes small, a reorientation that creates the shift in the flywheel of our actions, intentions, and affirmations – perhaps our self-understanding/identity, that will eventually send the entire vehicle of our lives in a new direction.  Occasionally, when enough of these adjustments are made in enough lives, even whole peoples and cultures might see a new direction as well.

That walk with Jesus where we find we have a lot more coming out that we had going in . . .Metamorphosis – transformation. 

However, this transformation is not a magic trick; it’s not even a new idea among ideas.  It is more like a death and a rebirth.  It is more like a deep cleansing that might come with the sting of cold water splashed in the face of our self-delusions; something like the way I braced for the vaccine earlier this week – bracing ourselves in the face of our mortality.

It is something like being pushed under the water, holding our breath, and coming up breathing again; yet in a new way with a new purpose. We are immersed as our old, familiar, well-tended and curated, selves . . . we arise as a child of God who now walks by another road.

 The fact that Jesus goes out from Jerusalem and offers himself to John the Baptist is confirmation that Jesus believes in John.  It is confirmation that Jesus recognizes and honors the medicine, the deliverance, the transformation – the repentance that John is offering to individuals and the people; a life of transformation – perhaps finding that we have more coming out that going in . . .

During the events of the past week in our country, I find myself asking the question and meditating upon this notion: why would I expect a nation, a population, a segment of a population, to spiritually awaken beyond a point that I have not embraced, or arrived at, myself?  It reminds me of the bumper sticker: Be the change you want to see in others. Or on this Feast of our Lord’s Baptism – Be the Repentance that you expect to see in others. 

The events of the past week are tragic for our shared citizenry; what occurred was wrong. 

The definitive explanation and interpretation of these events will become a new battleground; with various outposts of temporal and otherworldly righteousness established on any number of available high places.  Thus is the nature of human events; thus the nature of our shared humanity.  Hurt, bruised, offended, the various parties retreat to various corners of self-determination; either preparing for another battle, or perhaps finding that they too are sick and tired of being sick and tired.

One of the old Christians, Cyril of Jerusalem, used to liken repentance to a snake shedding its skin, “For every snake puts off its signs of age by pushing through some narrow place, and gets rid of its old apparel by squeezing it off” . . . and he was speaking of all who would deign walk in the name of Christ; we are the snakes shedding our skins. We must break with our old nature and put on the new.

However, we will not walk the path of Metanoia without remembering that we do not get to “have” God without also “having” our neighbor.  We are shedding our skins together.

We will not find a pathway, we will not go home by another road, until each citizen, Christian or otherwise, discovers the truth that our desires for the highest and best use of our liberties depends upon the integrity and safety of those with whom we disagree, giving voice to their own vision of what is highest and best.  If we cannot grow sick and tired of being sick and tired, together, we must be prepared to live in a long, never-ending version of what we witnessed on The Feast of Epiphany, 2021, when our fragile experiment in American liberty was briefly put in the balance of fate.  A visible and sad experience of shared humanity in need of John The Baptist’s transformational medicine.

 In our fallen world that is yet to be fully redeemed, Cain is killing Abel somewhere, every day, all of the time.  Without external intervention, so it may remain. 

However in a world in which the “bat quol,” the “daughter voice” of God is breaking through the heavens and alighting like a dove, there is a medicine from another time, another place, a medicine from the world that is to be, that is breaking through the clouds and saying, “Shuv, Metanoia, Repent, let’s go home by another road together.”  Even on Wednesday afternoon this past week, the voice of John the Baptist is crying out in the Wilderness, “Prepare the Way of the Lord, Make His paths straight.”

The voice of God is forever offering a path of redirection:

         “God opened the gates of heaven and sent down his Holy Spirit in the form of a dove, lighting upon the head of Jesus, pointing him out right there as the new Noah, even the maker of Noah, and the good pilot of the nature which is shipwrecked.”  – Gregory Thaumaturgus. 

In lives that are shipwrecked God sends Jesus as the good pilot.

 While our shared citizenship may feel like a beautiful piece of fabric that has been torn, or that is unable to cover all those who would seek shelter beneath her, our citizenship in heaven is intact; it will never be adjusted or abrogated by those whose who, for a season, manage the temporal affairs of state. 

Jesus’ baptism, our baptism, is a mark made in eternity; regardless of how the heathen doth rage.  Heaven speaks on behalf of our leader, our advocate, our guide; regardless of what is shouted in the streets by those protesting that they are sole arbiters of the national vision.

In times of national uncertainty, I find it necessary to recall the certainty of my citizenship in heaven; and our Lord’s command that we walk in that citizenship in such a way as not to become stumbling blocks to those who do not yet believe.  I believe that our Baptisms become our compass.

 Divine citizenship, collective transformation, personal repentance, standing with Jesus on the banks of the river Jordan, listening to John The Baptist, is something the vicissitudes of this world will never breach.  The truth that we read and pray today is a doorway from temporal realities into eternal verities. 

And the one who opens that door for us, Jesus who becomes the Messiah, is the one who stands at that door for every human being, every citizen; Jesus is the only leader of a world whose destiny is true freedom and liberty.

Borrowing the words of an old Christian, Hippolytus, “Listen to the Father’s voice: . . . “This is my Beloved Son,” yes, none other that the One who himself becomes hungry, yet feeds countless numbers. 

He is my Son who himself becomes weary, yet gives rest to the weary.  He has no place to lay his head, yet bears up all things in his hand. 

He suffers, yet heals sufferings.  He is beaten, yet confers liberty upon the world.  He is pierced in his side, yet repairs the side of Adam.”

If it is “freedom” that we seek for ourselves and others, there is a leader, a “cause,” by which to find it; and He is standing on the banks of the Jordan River listening to John the Baptist offer the words of repentance and transformation in Baptism.

There is a story about the funeral of Leonid Brezhnev, the General Secretary of Communist Party from 1964 until his death in 1982.  The Cold War. Vice President, George Bush represented the U.S. at the funeral of Brezhnev. Bush was deeply moved by something he saw there. 

We must remember that Communist Russia during that time was very clearly atheist, secular, utterly convinced that religious realities were not simply foolish, but that they were dangerous – opiates of the people.  Being religious meant being a self-declared enemy of the State.  After a few generations of party rule, any form of religious expression, either collectively or individually, had become anathema and the invitation to suffering at the hands of “those who knew best.”

Brezhnev’s widow stood motionless by the coffin until seconds before it was closed.  Then, just as the soldiers touched the lid, Brezhnev’s wife reached down and made the sign of the cross on her husband’s chest.

She took a risk and offered her silent prayer in the last moment that she would be able to touch her husband.  She made the sign that we will make on the bodies of our own children; the sign that has been made upon us.  It is the sign of the promise.  It is the sign of the everlasting covenant. 

It is the sign I make on the forehead of baby before saying the old and true words:  “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism, and you are marked as Christ’s own forever.”

Please stand with me as we reaffirm our own Baptismal Covenant.

The Baptismal Covenant: Page 304

The Baptismal Covenant

CelebrantDo you believe in God the Father?
PeopleI believe in God, the Father almighty,
    creator of heaven and earth.
 
CelebrantDo you believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God?
PeopleI believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
    He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit
        and born of the Virgin Mary.
    He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
        was crucified, died, and was buried.
    He descended to the dead.
    On the third day he rose again.
    He ascended into heaven,
        and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
    He will come again to judge the living and the dead.
 
CelebrantDo you believe in God the Holy Spirit?
PeopleI believe in the Holy Spirit,
    the holy catholic Church,
    the communion of saints,
    the forgiveness of sins,
    the resurrection of the body,
    and the life everlasting.
 
CelebrantWill you continue in the apostles’ teaching and
fellowship, in the breaking of the bread, and in the
prayers?
PeopleI will, with God’s help.
 
CelebrantWill you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever
you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?
PeopleI will, with God’s help.
CelebrantWill you proclaim by word and example the Good
News of God in Christ?
PeopleI will, with God’s help.
 
CelebrantWill you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving
your neighbor as yourself?
PeopleI will, with God’s help.
 
CelebrantWill you strive for justice and peace among all
people, and respect the dignity of every human
being?
PeopleI will, with God’s help.

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