Delivered at Ames UCC on April 7, 2019
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie
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Today’s passage from the gospel of Matthew is commonly referred to as The Final Judgment. In it, we are told that the Son of Humanity will come to Earth as a king, dividing the good and the bad according to their treatment of the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the sick, and the imprisoned. On the right hand are sheep, who have done well. On the left are goats, who have not. Sheep get to go to heaven and goats are shuffled off to hell.
I am not a believer in a unique day of judgment, a singular returning of Christ that will result in a cataclysmic change, despite what this scripture says. Such a prediction does not resonate with my experience of God or my study of the whole canon of scripture.
Birth, death, and resurrection are cyclical, not linear as a final day of judgement would imply. The Christ is always being born, always being denied and made dead, always persisting, nevertheless.
Having said that, there is an extra-Biblical description of a second coming that feels wildly accurate to me. It is a poem by William Butler Yeats. It reads, in part:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Now, that is an apocalypse I can believe in.
In Matthew’s vision, there is no room for humanity as we are and as we always have been. Which is to say both fallible and occupied, body and soul, by God’s own self. The blanket condemnation in Matthew does not align with a God ever-present and well aware.
Yeats’ poem, though, feels painfully familiar. Right now things are falling apart, from sodden soils to norms for public behavior. Anarchy is loosed upon the entire word. I don’t need God to send anyone to hell; we are doing a perfectly good job of going there together ourselves.
Despite the number of times and myriad ways we as individuals and as a congregation, as with so many other individuals and organizations, have cared for the hungry, thirsty, foreign, sick, and imprisoned, it feels like things are falling apart at a greater and greater rate. The original goodness of creation feels all but lost.
Because remember that in the beginning, everything was good.
In the theological story we tell about the biological, chemical, astrophysical birthing of the world, we hear asserted that, in its emergence and evolution, it was divinely good. In the beginning God created light and it was good, then sky and it was good, and then the separation of land and water, also good.
In his beginning, Jesus walked from land into water.
Before he healed anyone, fed anyone, or taught anyone, Jesus walked out of the human construct of city life and all its walls into territory yet unmastered, unfettered, unbound. Good.
He found John, who might have been his cousin and who certainly was another prophet of God, dipping or immersing, or as it has come to us from the Greek, baptizing, people in river water. It was a ritual of metanoia, a change or return, as in re-turning back to God. Good.
Jesus asked for the same; John quaked with inadequacy; the veil between the sacred and the profane parted in adulation. Good.
So, so, so much good feels now so, so, so far gone. As will Jesus himself soon be in our worship season and study of this gospel.
In that week we mark Jesus’s last act of public ministry, his institution of what we call the Last Supper, his arrest and his death. It is a ritual of storytelling and worship that pushes us to confront where God might be when everything is going to hell right here on Earth.
When the power of the state is threatened by that of the people.
When friends and family find themselves no longer in agreement about the best way forward.
When it feels safer to deny our allegiances than to proclaim them.
When violent death overwhelms.
When the world as it is, is not as it should be.
In such a week, in such a time, we wonder if that Christic cycle of birth, death, and impossible life will really continue. We thirst for the confidence that doing good will even do any good any more.
And the river sparkles invitingly in response.
The river of life that flows through every land and every cell sparkles with an invitation to return, to re-turn to the great creative goodness of God.
Jesus did not have to begin his witness to God in her wet wildness; he might have been a bigger hit if he’d just gone right to the miracles, or better yet, to the toppling of empire.
But he did not and so we cannot.
We have, in this season of supremacist humanity and life-denying hubris, something more to learn, more to gain from the baptismal flow that connects us, through Christ, to creation.
What have we not yet heard in the promises we made at her font? What have we not yet affirmed about the promises that were made for us there?
There is no doubt that we must continue to do good. If the last week of help-seekers here at the church are any gauge, we have more need to do good than ever before.
But the test of that work will not be a goatish day of judgment, it will be in our genesis-like, generative days of wading. While, as Yeats writes, “the worst/Are full of passionate intensity,” our willingness to dip our spirits and our lives again and again into the waters—because we are willing to get as soaked in her mystery as the Christ himself—are what will mark our faith and, as Amos said, let it flow like a rushing stream.
I do not know what happens at baptism but I trust Jesus’s example that goodness begins there. So wade with me. Wade with me now and welcome L into the waters with us. Whether the world falls apart or not, her waters will hold us together always.
SACRAMENT OF HOLY BAPTISM
L, do you wish to be baptized today? Will you renounce evil and choose instead the freedom found in love of God and the guidance of the Holy Spirit? Do you profess Jesus Christ as teacher, guide, agitator, and scandalous presence? Will you reject oppression and evil and work for love and justice all the days of your life? And will you nurture your faith through prayer, worship, and service through this church or any church you may call home? If so say, “I do and I will with the help of God.”
Ames UCC, you now have promises to make. Will you nurture L’s faith through your own prayer, worship, and service through this church or any church you may call home? If so say, “I will with the help of God.”
Please rise in body and spirit for our affirmation of faith.
Do you have faith, which is hope, confusion, and certainty in God? If so say, “I have faith in God.”
Do you have faith, which is hope, confusion, and certainty in Jesus Christ? If so say, “I have faith in Jesus Christ.”
Do you have faith, which is hope, confusion, and certainty in the Holy Spirit? If so say, “I have faith in the Holy Spirit.”
You may be seated.
Bless, oh bless dear God this water as we bless you, the one and the many, that was and is and always shall be, world without end. Amen.
L, today I will baptize you in the language of your homeland as well as this land you have made home.
I baptize you en nome do Pai, do Filho, do Espírito Santo. In the name of the Creator, Christ, and Redeeming Power.
Thank you, God, for L. For the witness to you he gives this day and the reminder he brings that the veil between the sacred and the profane is thin indeed.
Ames, UCC, this is our sibling L, ours to love and to trust as he has loved and trusted us. Let all God’s children say AMEN!