Some of you may know the comedian Emo Philips. He told this story about twenty years ago. He was walking across a bridge, and he tells the story like this:
I saw this guy on the bridge about to jump. I said, “Don’t do it! don’t do it!” He said, “Why not? Nobody loves me.” I said, “Well, God loves you. Do you believe in God?” He said, “Yes. I believe in God.” I said, “I do, too. Are you a Christian or a Jew or a Muslim?” He said, “I’m a Christian.” I said, “Me, too! What franchise?” He said, “Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Baptist, or Southern Baptist?” He said, “Northern Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist, or Northern Liberal Baptist?” He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist, Great Lakes Region, or Northern Conservative Baptist, Eastern Region?” He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist, Great Lakes Region.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist, Great Lakes Region, Council of 1879, or Northern Conservative Baptist, Great Lakes Region, Council of 1912?” He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist, Great Lakes Region, Council of 1912.” I said, “Die, heretic!” And I pushed him over.
It’s a funny joke, funny because it gets at the reality of religious division. Not only is the world divided into hundreds of different religions, each with their own beliefs and rituals and pathways to the divine and understandings of this world, but even within religions there are deep divisions. Christianity is a great example. Just three hundred years after Jesus died, Christianity had become the official religion of most of Europe and North Africa, but there were problems. Church leaders couldn’t agree on the exact wording for the creeds, those texts that are supposed to lay out exactly what Christians believe about God, and about who Jesus was and what his birth, his life and ministry, and his death mean. There were also cultural and language divisions, with folks from Southern Europe not always being able to communicate effectively with folks from Eastern Europe. And so the church split in two. The eastern church became what we know today as the Orthodox church, and the western church became what we call the Roman Catholic church. A thousand years later, and more divisions happened, this time with folks leaving the Roman Catholic church and forming what became the Lutheran church in Germany, the Reformed church in Switzerland, and our own Anglican church in England. The divisions continue today: more new denominations and new churches were formed in the 20th century then in any time in history, and our own Episcopal church continues to divide itself over various issues.
All of this has some sobering implications for churches like ours. According to the Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project, about one-fifth of the U.S. public - and a third of adults under age 30 - are religiously unaffiliated today, the highest percentages ever in the Pew Research Center polling. There is some hopeful news, however. Two-thirds of religiously unaffiliated adults say they believe in God, more than half say they often feel a deep connection with nature and the earth, while more than a third classify themselves as “spiritual but not religious, and one-in-five say they pray every day. Most of them also think that church and other religious institutions benefit society by strengthening community bonds and aiding the poor. But despite all that, 88% of religiously unaffiliated adults say they are not looking for a religion that would be right for them. Why? Overwhelmingly, they think that religious organizations are too concerned with money and power, too focused on rules, and too involved in politics. And I can add from my conversations with my friends who for the most part don’t go to church that they find all of our theological disagreements and arguments about what the bible really means confusing and unappealing.
There is some comfort, then, in our reading from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, which seems to show that disagreements in the church go back almost to the very beginning. First, a little background. Paul was not one of Jesus’s disciples; in fact, he never met Jesus, but despite this, probably no one else had a greater influence over how the early church grew and what the early church looked like. You probably remember the famous story about Paul. Originally, his name was Saul, and he was an important Jewish authority who spent his time persecuting those Jews who were following the teachings of Jesus, persecuting those very first Christians before they even called themselves Christians. One day on the road to Damascus, on his way to persecute another group of Christian leaning Jews, Paul as an experience of the divine. A light from heaven flashes around him, he falls to the ground, and he hears a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Saul asks, “Who are you?” and the voice replies, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. Now get up and go into the city and you will be told what you must do.” The men traveling with Saul are speechless; they have heard the sound but they couldn’t see anyone. Saul gets up from the ground, but when he opens his eyes, he can’t see anything. The men have to lead him by the hand into Damascus. After three days, the Lord sends Ananias to lay his hands on Saul, and something like scales fall from Saul’s eyes, and he can see again. He gets up, is baptized, and from then on he is known as Paul. Paul spends the rest of his life traveling around the northern Mediterranean, from modern Turkey to Greece to Italy. He comes to a city, cities like Galatia, Thessalonica, and Corinth, sets up his shop as a tentmaker, gets to know some folks, and starts a church. These churches are very small, probably ten to twenty people, and they meet in people’s houses. Once Paul has instructed them and is confident they’re ready to go it alone, he moves on to another city. But he keeps in touch with these churches through letters, and it is those letters that we have today in our bibles, letters Paul writes to the churches he founded in various cities across the Mediterranean. These letters give us some insight into the issues that the early church faced, as well as let us know what Paul and the early church thought was most important about their faith, and most important about Jesus. They don’t give us a perfect picture, because we only have one side of the correspondence: none of the letters the churches wrote to Paul have survived, all we have are his responses.
The letter we read from this morning was written to the church that Paul founded in Corinth. The first nine verses of the letter, those right before our reading, are sort of boilerplate introductory language. He wishes the church Grace and peace from God from the Lord Jesus Christ, and gives thanks for them. And then he launches into the point of letter. Brothers and sisters, he writes, I appeal to you by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose. This of course tells us that there were disagreements and divisions in the church at Corinth. Most of this letter will be Paul’s attempt to mediate a number of arguments that have broken out in the church in Corinth, and this first one seems to revolve around baptism. Paul had baptized some of the folks at Corinth, and then it appears that some more people were baptized by Apollos and by Cephas. It’s not clear exactly what the issue is, but most likely people have been arguing about whose baptism takes priority, was it better to baptized by Paul or by someone else. Paul reminds the church that they are not baptized in the name of Paul or Apollos or Cephas, but in the name of Jesus.
Baptism was important to the early church because from the very beginning, baptism became the way one officially joined the church, the way one became a Christian. Baptism was originally for adults, and generally followed long period of instruction and reflection, maybe as long as a couple of years. Then, during the season of Lent leading up to Easter, you received even more intensive instruction and engaged in spiritual disciplines like prayer and fasting. Finally, at the long Easter vigil the night before Easter morning, you were baptized. You were asked a series of questions: Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God? and Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Savior? There would be a large body of water, either outside in a river or stream, or inside in a large pool. You would be taken down into the water and the bishop would literally push you down under the water, symbolizing your death to your old life. And as you came out of the water, it was as if you were sharing in Jesus’s resurrection from the dead and being born again to your new life as a Christian.
For all the ways the Christian church has figured out how to divide itself into various denominations and factions, nearly every Christian church practices baptism. What is even more astonishing perhaps is that for the most part we all accept baptisms from other churches: you don’t have to be baptized again because you decide to switch from the Lutheran church to the Episcopal church or to the Roman Catholic church. Some churches practice adult baptism today, but for the most part, Roman Catholic churches and mainline Protestant churches like ours practice infant baptism. This morning we will baptize Aria Grace Romeo. The questions that we would ask Aria if she were an adult will be answered on her behalf by her parents and godparents. They will promise to help bring Aria up to be a good and loving person, and we will promise to do everything we can to support her. In a few years, when Aria is a teenager or a young adult, she’ll have the opportunity and the choice to confirm these promises for herself.
Now, I suspect there is a wide range of beliefs here this morning about what baptism means, about who God is, who Jesus is, about what this life means. Maybe none of this makes a lot of sense to you. Maybe some of the language of the baptism service is foreign or uncomfortable for you. I want to say I think that is okay: I have spent most of my life feeling uncomfortable with a lot of things we say and do in the church. But the reason that I’m still here, and the reason that I wanted to be ordained and become a priest in this church, is that the Episcopal church is a place that welcomes questions and doubts and even disagreements. I’ve had parishioners I would call faithful Christians tell me that they’re unable to say the creed without feeling like a hypocrite or holding their fingers crossed behind their back. I know other faithful people who find it very hard to believe some of the things they think all Christians are supposed to believe. But in spite of this, they’ve found a home in the Episcopal church, and I’m thankful for that. So if you’re in that boat, if you’re not sure what you think about all of this, there is a prayer at the end of the baptism service which I wonder if you might find useful. After Aria is baptized, we will pray that God will give her an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love God, and the gift of joy and wonder in all God’s works. This is one of my very favorite prayers, and expresses for me the hopes I have not only for Aria, but for all of us. I pray that God will give us inquiring and discerning hearts, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love God, and the gift of joy and wonder in all God’s works. Amen.
In America, we seem to have a sort of fascination with con artists. Two of the films nominated for best picture this week, American Hustle and The Wolf of Wall Street feature main characters who are con artists. American Hustle tells the story of political corruption in New Jersey and the way two con men play all sides against each other; The Wolf of Wall Street stars Leonardo DiCaprio as a smooth talking Wall Street broker who convinces people to buy worthless stock. Or if, like me, you haven’t been to a movie in awhile, think back to classic movies like The Sting with Robert Redford and Paul Newman or Elmer Gantry with Burt Lancaster or The Music Man with Robert Preston. You can probably add to this list yourself, movies whose ‘heroes’ are really scoundrels, and yet we root for them anyways. Walter McDougall, an historian at the University of Pennsylvania writes, that “far from despising flimflam artists as parasites or worse, American popular culture habitually celebrates rascals as comedic figures.” He says that we do this because con artists, despite their vices (like lying and stealing), represent many of the virtues that Americans aspire to. Con artists are independent and typically self-made. They don’t have to kowtow to a boss. They succeed or fail based on their own wits. They exemplify, in short, the complicated nature of American capitalism, which, as McDougall argues, has depended on people being hustlers in both the positive and the negative sense. In “The Financial Page” column this week in The New Yorker, James Surowiecki puts it like this: “The American economy wasn’t built just on good ideas and hard work. It was also built on hope and hype.”
Surowiecki points out that to raise money to start a business, you’ve got to sell an imaginary future--a dream. Unless you already have a great deal of money, you have to convince other people, people with money, to give you money so that you can buy the materials you need to make a product which you then hope to sell to make more money. Before building a single car, Henry Ford had to persuade his major supplier to take stock in lieu of cash, because he didn’t have the money to pay for thousands of dollars’ worth of parts. The stockholders, in effect, believed Henry Ford’s dream that he could build cars that people would buy, and that he could make a handy profit selling them. Sociologist Alex Preda writes, “Talent for persuasion is key: after all, the public must be convinced to part with their money on the basis of the simple promise that an idea will yield profit in the future.” Successful entrepreneurship involves hucksterism, the ability to convince investors and employees that they should risk their money, their time, and their effort on you. Like a con artist, you’re peddling optimism. The tantalizing combination of risk, hope, and hype provides both the capitalist’s formula for transforming the world and the con artist’s strategy for turning your money into his money. As Mel Weinberg, whose life provided the model for American Hustle said, “It’s my philosophy to give hope...That’s why most people don’t turn us in to the cops. They keep hopin’ we’re for real.” Both the capitalist’s and the con man’s are dreams of a sort, one the American dream of making good through your good ideas and hard work, the other a dream of an easy path to quick riches. Both dreams captivate our imaginations.
Dreams and dreamers are scattered throughout the bible. In Genesis, we read about Jacob, a scoundrel and a con man if there ever was one. After cheating his brother out of his inheritance, Jacob flees for his life. He stops to rest for the night, and taking a stone for pillow, he lies down to sleep. He dreams of a ladder set on the earth with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God ascending and descending on it. Then God stands beside him and says, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” When Jacob wakes up, his life is transformed. He believes he will be able to return home one day in peace, he vows that the Lord shall be his God, and he pledges a tithe of all he has and all he will have to the Lord.
Dreams figure prominently in Matthew, the gospel most of our gospel readings come from this year. Just before Christmas we heard about the angel appearing to Joseph in a dream to tell him to not be afraid to take Mary as his wife, for the child conceived in her was from the Holy Spirit. Later, an angel again speaks to Joseph in a dream, warning him to take his family to Egypt to escape Herod, and a couple of years later, once again the angel speaks to Joseph in a dream, telling him it is safe to come home. A couple of weeks ago, we heard about the dream the wise men had warning them not to return to Herod after they have found the baby Jesus. These dreams in our sleep are familiar to us, of course, whether we dream of ladders and angels and God or if our dreams are harder to understand. Freud suggested that our dreams come from our subconscious will, our subconscious desires, and you’ve probably spent time trying to figure out what your sleeping dreams mean, what you’re trying to tell yourself, or what a particularly bizarre dream might mean.
The bible has waking dreamers as well, day dreamers who spend a lot of time imagining how the world might be a different place, dreamers who ask “What if?” These day-dreamers are called prophets, and they lay out a vision for how we should live according to God’s dream for the world. The book of Isaiah is a collection of these dreams, these prophecies, and our reading this morning is sometimes called a song of a suffering servant. It’s not clear exactly who is speaking, but whoever it is is not a popular person: they are deeply despised, abhorred by the nations, the slave of rulers. But none of that matters. The prophet-dreamer says, “The Lord called me before I was born, while I was in my mother’s womb he named me. He made my mouth like a sharp sword, in the shadow of his hand he hid me; he made me a polished arrow, in his quiver he hid me away. And the Lord said, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.” The speaker protests that they’ve tried their best, but nothing has worked, they have failed. God says, in effect, “Never mind. You will not only restore the nation of Israel; you will be a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” Our Christian tradition sometimes understands this suffering servant through whom God brings salvation to be Jesus; whether that’s what Isaiah has in mind really doesn’t matter as much as the basic message of the passage: God works through the unlikely person, God works through the outcast and the downtrodden, or as Martin Luther puts it, God carves the rotten wood, God rides the lame horse. No vessel is too humble to carry and no tongue is too weak to proclaim the word of God.
On the night of January 27, 1956 in Montgomery, Alabama, Martin Luther King, Jr. couldn’t sleep. He was twenty-seven years old, fresh out of seminary, with a wife and young children. Just seven weeks earlier, Rosa Parks had refused to give up her seat on a city bus to a white passenger. King had become the leader of the boycott when the other black ministers had hesitated, knowing how dangerous and difficult it would be. And it was proving to be just that. The night before, King was removed from his parked car for going 30 mph in a 25 mph zone, he was arrested and briefly imprisoned before the police and mayor became frightened by the crowd that gathered outside the jail. King’s day had been filled with all the many details of the boycott, encouraging those who had to find alternate means of transportation to get to work, reassuring the other leaders who had received death threats. Taylor Branch tells the story in his book Parting the Waters. “Late that night, his mind was turning over as he lay in bed. Coretta had fallen asleep. The phone rang again. “Listen,” said the caller, “we’ve taken all we want from you. Before next week you’ll be sorry you ever came to Montgomery.” King hung up on the angry voice. Hope of sleep receded further. He paced the floor awhile before giving in completely to wakefulness, which drove him to the kitchen to make a pot of coffee. The phone never stopped ringing, and King never knew what to expect, whether a hate filled white caller, or black caller with a kind inquiry about his arrest, or a black caller complaining about the carpool or needing help. It was overwhelming. There was no idea nor imaginable heart large enough to satisfy all of them, or to contain them. Before coming to Alabama, he’d had a limitless potential to think anything was possible, but all that was constricted by hard reality. King buried his face in his hands at the kitchen table. He admitted to himself that he was afraid, that he had nothing left, that the people would falter if they looked to him for strength. Then he said as much out loud, praying “I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.” As he spoke these words, the fears suddenly began to melt away. He became intensely aware of what he called an “inner voice” telling him to do what he thought was right. Such simplicity worked miracles, bringing a shudder of relief and the courage to face anything.”
You know the rest of the story after that dark night of the soul for Martin Luther King. A couple of days later, his house was bombed, but he continued on. The death threats continued, he was attacked and stabbed, but he continued on. A year later, the Montgomery authorities caved and the boycott was over, but King was not done, he continued on. He traveled the country tirelessly, speaking out for civil rights. King was a prophet and dreamer in his own right, and fifty years ago he took the podium on a hot, humid August day on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The details and pressure of organizing the March on Washington had been overwhelming, and he hadn’t had much time to think about what he was going to say. He’d been speaking for several minutes when Mahalia Jackson, the great gospel singer, urged him to “Tell them about that dream.” And King said, “I say to you today, my friends, even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up, live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all people are created equal.” I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia children of former slaves and the children of former slave-owners will be able sit down together at the table of fellowship. I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” On and on he took the refrain, “I have a dream,” finally quoting the prophet-dreamer Isaiah: “I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low. The rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight. And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.”
Martin Luther King’s dream did eventually begin to transform our country, even if he didn’t live to see it through. His dream inspired his followers and generations not yet born to work for justice and freedom for all. The sleeping dreams of Jacob, Joseph, and the wise men shaped and changed their lives. The waking dreams of the prophets continue to inspire and encourage us to live in the image of God. I have come to believe that nothing changes, not in our community or our country or our world or even in our own lives without someone first having a dream. Our church is here because twenty years ago this community dreamt of a future here in Hilton. We’re still here because a couple of years ago we began to dream of a church that worked to make life better for seniors, young people, and our wider community. Each one of us represents the hopes and dreams of our parents and our grandparents and their parents and grandparents before them. So, on this day before the Martin Luther King holiday, a day we remember a great dreamer, let’s take some time to reflect on our own dreams. What are your dreams for yourself? For your family? For this church? For our community? For our country? What is your dream for our world? You probably saw on the way into church the wonderful trees that Eileen Henion painted on the sanctuary doors. In the bulletins are leaves for us to write our dreams on, and then after worship we’ll put them up on the trees, as a way of speaking our dreams out loud and sharing them with each other. As our dreams transform those bare tree branches may they also begin to transform our lives, our community, and our world. Amen.
I read a review in the New York Times of a new book about cats by John Bradshaw, called Cat Sense: How the New Feline Science Can Make You a Better Friend to Your Pet. As an aside, I should explain that in the past I would have ordered the book immediately from Amazon, but one of my new year’s resolutions is to cut back a bit on my book buying habit, for financial and storage space reasons. So, using those “if...then” statements I talked about last week, I came up with these: “If I read about a book I want to buy, then I will get online and put a hold on it at the public library,” and “If after getting the book from the library and reading it I still want to own it, then I will order it from Amazon, assuming I’m not already over my monthly book budget.” So far, it’s been working, but it means I haven’t read the book yet.
Anyways, John Bradshaw’s book Cat Sense relies on his 30 years as a biologist studying animal behavior. The starting point of his analysis is that cats are still essentially wild animals. They wandered into our lives when we first started to store grains, because the grains attracted mice, which in turn attracted the cats. Unlike dogs, which we domesticated from their wolf ancestors, cats for the most part have not been bred for a purpose. They sort of cohabitated with us, catching mice and taking advantage of whatever other food we might try to entice them with in exchange for a little companionship. That is still the case today. Our population of so-called domestic cats is maintained in a semi-feral state because of our wide-spread practice of neutering. About the only males available for domestic female cats to breed with are the wildest and least people-friendly tomcats who have escaped into the feral cat population: 85 percents of all cat matings, Bradshaw writes, are arranged by cats themselves, meaning with feral cats.
As a result, when cats interact with people, they have to rely almost entirely on their natural social behaviors, which are not especially highly developed. Unlike dogs, cats don’t naturally get alone very well with one another. The strongest social bond in the cat population is between a mother and her kittens. Kittens purr as a signal to their mothers to stay still and feed them, and they knead their mother’s belly to keep the milk flowing. Some of their other behaviors, such as grooming and rubbing up against you, are signs that a cat is treating you as another non-hostile cat. An upright tail is a greeting sign between cats, and “is probably the clearest way cats show their affection for us,” Dr. Bradshaw writes.
Finally, there’s the cat behavior of killing small animals and bringing them into the house. I’d always heard that this behavior was either the cat’s attempt to teach us to hunt, or to feed us, but Dr. Bradshaw says that is not the case. Cats bring their prey into the house, he says, basically to keep it safe. They know there are other cats around, and once they’ve killed a mouse, they don’t want another cat to get it, so they bring it inside. However, once the cat has taken their catch into their house, they remember that canned cat food tastes so much better, and so the freshly killed rodent is dumped on the floor.
None of this is to say that cats aren’t intelligent. You may have heard about the study published about a month ago at the University of Tokyo. Two researchers studied twenty house cats in their own homes. They waited until the owner was out of sight and then played recordings of three strangers calling their names, followed by their owner, followed by another stranger. They analyzed the cats’ responses to each call by watching how their ears, head, and tail moved, whether their eyes dilated, and if they shifted their paws as if getting ready to move. The cats reacted to all of the sounds, and they reacted a bit more to the sound of their owner’s voice, but they declined to move when called by any of them. In other words, cats can recognize their name, and recognize their owner’s voices, but basically, they don’t really care that much. Bradshaw concludes that cats view us as a combination of a mother-substitute and a larger, non-hostile cat.
Now, I’ve lived with cats my whole life and none of this comes as a huge shock to me. You’ve probably heard the saying, “One day I hope to be as good a person as my dog thinks I am.” Few cat people I know would say something similar about their pet. You’ve also probably heard things about the differences between dog people and cat people, dog people are friendlier and more outgoing and cat people tend to be more aloof and standoffish. It’s all part of being human, I think, that we try to define and understand ourselves and others by all sorts of outside characteristics, what pets we have, what sports we enjoy, whether we live in the city or the country, and so on. Of course, none of these things are ultimately very important, but I think because of this tendency we have, it is the wisdom of our church’s lectionary, our annual cycle of readings from the bible, that every year on this first Sunday after Epiphany we remember Jesus’s baptism. Baptism is central to our identity as Christians, and our practice of baptism comes from this story of Jesus’s baptism. The story of Jesus’s baptism was very important to the early church, and I can say that because there is a version of this story in each of the four gospels. All four gospels have accounts of Jesus’s death, but only two of the gospels, Luke and Matthew, give us any details about Jesus’s birth. Only a handful of Jesus’s sayings and parables can be found in all four gospels, and only a couple of the miracles, a healing or two and the feeding of the crowd with loaves and fishes, appear in all four. The account of Jesus’s baptism in Matthew that we heard this morning is really a very plain account, without a lot of details. Jesus comes to be baptized by John in the river Jordan. Matthew has already told us about John, this strange guy out in the wilderness wearing clothing made of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist. He eats locusts and wild honey, and he says, or probably yells, to anyone who will listen, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” And people do come, crowds of them from Jerusalem and all around Judah, walking out into the desert to the river to be baptized by John. John baptizes them, dunking them in the river as they confess their sins, and sending them on their way with a clean slate, a new chance, an opportunity to start over.
When Jesus shows up, however, John hesitates; in fact, Matthew tells us he doesn’t want to baptize Jesus at all. Rather, he says, “I need to be baptized by you!” Now this is all before any of Jesus’s public ministry, before he starts teaching and performing miracles, before he gathers the disciples around him. He’s just the barely grown-up kid of Mary and Joseph, that carpenter. Matthew doesn’t tell us why Jesus goes out to the desert. Maybe he’s heard about John and he goes with the crowds to see what all the fuss is, or maybe he’s bored at home and needs a break from his father teaching him how to build furniture, or maybe he’s gotten into a little trouble, he’s been hanging out with the wrong people, and he wants to get a fresh start. And I don’t know what John sees in Jesus that gives him pause, but it must have hit him pretty hard. Maybe Jesus is one of the few people who doesn’t flinch when John reaches out to touch him, who doesn’t hold his nose because of the way John smells. Maybe Jesus is one of the only people who doesn’t look sheepish or uncomfortable there on the bank of the river when he asks to be baptized. Or maybe John is taken by the way Jesus looks him straight in the eyes without blinking, straight through his eyes right down to his heart, in a way that almost says, “I know who you are, John, I know all the good and all the bad things you’ve done, and it is all alright with me.” In any case, Jesus insists, and John baptizes him with the others. And Matthew tells us that as he comes up out of the water, Jesus sees the heavens opened up and the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And he hears a voice from heaven, saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with whom I am well pleased.” And from that moment on, Jesus is on a new path. He’s not just the son of a carpenter, he’s not a kid with some rough friends and a bit of a past, he’s not a young man trying to figure what to do with the rest of his life. After hearing those words, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with whom I am well pleased,” Jesus retreats to the wilderness for a period and prayer and contemplation, and then begins his ministry of teaching, healing, and reconciliation.
Another way we know that this story of Jesus’s baptism was important to the early church was that from the very beginning, baptism became the way one officially joined the church, the way one became a Christian. Baptism was originally for adults, and generally followed long period of instruction and reflection, maybe as long as a couple of years. Then, during the season of Lent leading up to Easter, you received even more intensive instruction and engaged in spiritual disciplines like prayer and fasting. Finally, at the long Easter vigil the night before Easter morning, you were baptized. You were asked a series of questions: Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God? and Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Savior? There would be a large body of water, either outside in a river or stream, or inside in a large pool. You would be taken down into the water and the bishop would literally push you down under the water, symbolizing your death to your old life. And as you came out of the water, it was as if you were sharing in Jesus’s resurrection from the dead and being born again to your new life as a Christian.
There are still some churches that practice adult baptism today, but for most part, Romand Catholic churches and mainline Protestant churches like ours practice infant baptism. The questions are the same, but they’re answered on the baby’s behalf by the parents and godparents. The water is sprinkled on the baby’s head, but the symbolism of dying to your old life and rising to a new life with Christ is still in the prayers we say over the water. And with that, we hope that the baby is started out on a path to be a faithful, caring person who will grow up knowing that she is a beloved child of God, and that God is well pleased with her. Because most of us cannot remember our baptism, we have days like today in the church year when we are reminded that we were baptized, that we are beloved children of God and that God is well pleased with us. This I think is important, because unfortunately the reality for many of us is that we don’t hear that message enough. If you are fortunate, you had parents who regularly told you in various ways that you were their beloved child and that they were well pleased with you. If you are fortunate, you have had a spouse and family and friends who have told you that you are their beloved and that they are well pleased with you. If you are fortunate, when you look in the mirror, you see someone looking back at you, a person that you love and that you are well pleased with. But this isn’t the case for everyone, and it isn’t the case for any of us all of the time. Parents are human and aren’t always at their best. Relationships go bad for all sorts of reasons. Even the most successful and confident people struggle sometimes with their self-esteem. In times like those, it can be a blessing to remember that when we were baptized, our family and friends and the whole church, said that we are a beloved child of God, that God is well pleased with us, and that their very highest hopes went with us.
I read this week about the football team at Gilman High School in Maryland. At the beginning of each practice, the coach Biff Poggi asks the young men on behalf of his coaching staff, “What is our job?” The players respond, “To love us.” Then Coach Poggi asks the players, “What is your job?” to which they respond, “To love each other.”
The coach continues, “I don’t care if you’re big or small, huge muscles or no muscles, can barely play football or you’re the star of the team. If you’re here, then you’re one of us, and we love you. Simple as that. The rest of the world will always try to separate you,” the coach says. “That’s almost a law of nature. The rest of the world will want to separate you by race, by socioeconomic status, by education levels, by religion, by neighborhood, by what kind of car you drive, by the clothes you wear, by athletic ability. You if let that happen now, then you’ll let it happen later. Don’t let it happen. If you’re one of us, then you won’t walk around putting people in boxes. Not now. Not ever.” I don’t know if that coach is a person of faith, but I know he gets it: he’s telling those young men that they are beloved children of God, and that God is well-pleased with them.
We are human beings, created with the tendency as the coach says to put ourselves and other people in boxes. This week, I wonder if we might try this experiment. In the course of our day, can we say to ourselves about the people we meet, “You are a beloved child of God, and God is well-pleased with you.” Can we figure out ways to say to our family and friends, “You are my beloved, and I am well-pleased with you.” Can we remind ourselves when we look in the mirror that we are, each of us, a beloved child of God, and that God is well-pleased with us. Amen.
Picture this scenario, which hopefully none of you has experienced during the wintery weather of the last few days. You’re at home watching a good movie you’ve never seen before. Just over halfway through, as you’ve become thoroughly engaged in the film, the power goes out. You look out the window and see your neighbors’ power is out as well. You call RGE to complain and you’re told that engineers have been dispatched. It’s dark in the house, so you stumble about, using the glow from your mobile phone display to guide you. The flashlight it turns out needs new batteries which you can’t locate, but you find the candles and matches. Soon, your home is lit by a soft glow. You’re irritated and feeling a bit out of sorts, because you were totally engaged in the film.
After a few minutes, you get up and make your way to the bathroom. You walk in, and your hand goes to the light switch and flips it on. You stand there, confused, wondering why the lights haven’t come on. Then, you snort at your own silliness and stupidity. Not only have you looked out of the window to check that the power outage covers the area, but you’ve phoned RGE, you’ve found the flashlight and candles, but here you are: still trying to the turn on the light. There’s worse yet to come, however, because two hours later, still waiting for the power to be restored, you go into the bathroom again. Your hand reaches up and flips the switch again, and again you stand there dumbstruck, wondering what could possibly have been going through your mind. The answer, evidently, is: absolutely nothing.
Jeremy Dean, in his book Making Habits, Breaking Habits: Why we do things, Why we don’t, and how to make any change stick, describes this scenario to illustrate how much of our behavior is governed by habits, habits that are so ingrained that we’re unaware of them. The book caught my attention this week because of my annual attempt to come up with some New Year’s resolutions that might make my life a bit better, and I hoped it would contain some good advice on how I might get control of my compulsive checking of eMail and Facebook, get back into the swing of regularly exercising, eat a little better. Jeremy Dean is a psychologist who helps people break bad habits and create new ones, and his book is both depressing and helpful.
First, the depressing part. As the power outage scenario illustrates, much of our behavior is governed by habits that are so ingrained that we’re really unaware of them. In some ways, this is good news: if we had to think about every action of the day, think about turning on light switches, for instance, or exactly what drawer the knife is in and where the peanut butter is when we want to make a sandwich, or how to turn the key in the car ignition or signal that we’re going to make a left turn, we would literally be overwhelmed by all the mundane activities of our day. The autopilot function of habits helps us navigate our lives and have some spare brain power for higher functioning.
The bad news about habits, however, is that they are very, very hard to break, and very, very hard to create. You’ve probably heard the idea that a new habit can be created in 21 days. So, if you just go to the gym, everyday, for 21 days, you’ve created a habit that will stick with you. Jeremy Dean refutes this false idea in his book, recounting study after scientific study that shows created new habits takes on average 66 days. The 21 day idea is popular for self-help books because it seems manageable, but in reality, it doesn’t work that way. Breaking habits is equally difficult, because they function on a sub-conscious level. Something happens, a trigger, and we respond the way we have been programmed, without any thought or consideration.
Dean does have some hopeful news, however. He offers some practical exercises to help create new habits. The first exercise is called WOOP, standing for “Wish,” “Outcome,” “Obstacle,” and “Plan.” First, you write down your Wish, the habit you want to achieve, say exercising regularly or checking email or Facebook less often. Then, write down the best Outcome of the new habit, such as feeling better, or being less distracted and more productive. Next, write down the Obstacle or Obstacles you are likely to face, like not wanting to get out of bed to go to the gym on a cold morning or how easy it is to get online. Finally, make a specific type of Plan, called an implementation intention. This is critical, Dean writes, because if you simply resolve to get fitter or be kinder to your spouse without specific behaviors and specific situations you are much less likely to succeed. Dean advises coming up with specific “If...then...” plans. For instance, “If I’m about the check Facebook, I will stand up and go get a glass of water instead,” or “If, I feel myself becoming annoyed with my spouse, then I will think of something nice to say to them.” Starting with small and easily manageable “If...then...” plans creates a good chance of success, and a base that can be built on as you continue to work on created good new habits. And it is better if the your plans involve action, rather simply not doing something. For example, “If I feel hungry, then I will eat an apple,” is more likely to work then “If I feel hungry, then I will remember that chocolate is not good for me.”
Jeremy Dean’s book is full of exercises like this, but I want to pass along just two more. Breaking bad habits usually requires us to become more aware of what we’re doing and why. Jeremy Dean recommends carefully examining and even meditating on our bad habits in an effort to discover exactly what our triggers are and what the rewards are, the triggers and rewards that are often subconscious. Finally, Dean suggests that exploring the context of our bad habits, where we are when we do them, who we’re with, what we’re thinking, etc. Our environment can cue up our habits in ways we’re are completely unaware of, and in fact, in ways which work against our goals and intentions. He relates an experiment led by social psychologist John Bargh. Participants were split into two groups and little rick was played on them. They were asked to unscramble five words and make a four-word sentence (discarding one of the words and re-ordering the remaining four). For example, they were given things like: “he it hides finds instantly.” It dosn’t take too much imagination to discard the word “hides” and come up with “He finds it instantly.” For half the participants the sentences were just to keep them busy, but for the other half there was a secret message. The sentences had lots of words which stereotypically are associated with old people; here are few: “old, lonely, grey, selfishly, careful, sentimental, wise, stubborn, courteous.” Apologies to folks who are more mature, but this test is designed to elicit stereotypes, so it has to be crude. After they finished the test and thought the study was over, that’s when when it really got going. Researchers timed how long it took each participate to walk the 9.75 meters from the table they’d been sitting to the door. Those who were fed the old-related words took on average a full second longer to cover the distance than those who hadn’t had the stereotype activated. What had happened in people’s minds was that they were reminded about the idea of being old, and their subconscious caused them to move slower, regardless of their actual age or physical ability. In this case, age was all in the participants head, and it had been put their without them being aware of it. Our context, our environment, the people and places and things around us shape our lives and our habits in subtle but important ways.
As I studied our gospel reading for this morning, this very very familiar Epiphany story, I found myself wondering how the three kings were shaped by their contexts and by their habits and how their were changed by their encounters. Except of course they aren’t really kings: the hymn we’ll sing in a few minutes calls them kings, but Matthew says they are magi, which is usually translated as magician or sorcerer. Matthew also doesn’t say there are three of them; the number of magi comes from tradition. Matthew doesn’t say where they are from or what their names are (the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow gave them the names Melchior, Gaspar, and Balthasar). I imagine they had their lives pretty well figured out. One has a little shop where he sells herbs and potions for various ailments, or to make your neighbor fall in love with you, or to just help you sleep through the night. Another travels here and there, setting up a tent and charging fifty cents to tell your fortune by reading the lines on your palm. Another spends his mornings teaching undergraduates ancient languages and his afternoons in the university library studying fragments of old parchments, trying to get a sense of what life was like long, long ago. He sometimes stays late into the evening, telling his complaining wife that he needs to finish writing this book so he can get tenure. They can pay their bills, support their families, even put a little aside for retirement. But at the end of the day, after the kids are in bed and it’s time to blow out the oil lamps, none of them can quite shake the feeling that something is missing, that there has to be more to this life than the daily routine. This feeling keeps them up at night, and they sit on the front porch, looking up into the sky, trying to dream up a new life, trying to figure out where they’ve gone wrong.
And then one night, they, each of them in their own city, see a star, a new star that wasn’t there the night before. And such an odd sort of star: it seems to be beckoning them, calling out to them. And when they shake their heads and tell themselves that they’re crazy, it actually seems to get even brighter. They finally force themselves to go to bed, and they get up and have breakfast go to work. But the following night the star is there again. This time it moves a bit to the west, and then comes back, winking at them. The magi think they’re going crazy, but by the third and fourth nights, they’re sure they aren’t imagining it. They ask their neighbors, who all scoff at them saying, “No, of course we didn’t see a star - we were in bed sleeping like normal people.” After about a week, the shopkeeper decides to put a sign up in his window letting people know that he’s “Gone fishing” and he’ll be back in a few weeks. The fortuneteller sells his tent and with the money he gets, he buy a mule. The teacher decides it’s time for a sabbatical. I don’t know what they tell their wives and children as they pack up, but I can’t imagine they were fun conversations. They set out west across the desert, each traveling at night so they could follow the strange star. Eventually they meet up, and it takes awhile for them to admit to each other that they are following a star for reasons they can’t quite understand, but once they do, the journey becomes a lot more fun. They talk about what the star could mean, where it could be leading them. After awhile, one of them suggests that the star must be announcing the birth of someone pretty important, and just as he says it, the star bounces up and down in the sky, almost seeming to nod in agreement, so that is that.
Finally the star leads them to Jerusalem. They walk around the city asking everyone “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?” Most people pretend not to hear them. Some laugh out loud; one looks at them with pity and presses coins into their palms. One day, they ask an important looking man, a priest with a long beard and flowing robes. When he hears their question, he looks at them sharply and says, “There’s no child who has been born king of the Jews! Herod is the king of the Jews!” They keep walking around the city, but the priest goes immediately to the palace and tells Herod about the odd encounter. Herod doesn’t like the idea of another king one little bit: he has trouble enough keeping the peace as it is. In spite of what the priest told the magi, Herod really isn’t a king. He’s called King, but he works for the Romans. As long as he keeps the peace, the Romans mostly leave him alone, but it’s not an easy task. The people hate the Roman soldiers, they hate paying the Roman taxes, they hate money and statues with Caesar’s face on it with the sacrilegious inscription, “Caesar Augustus, the son of God.” They frankly hate Herod as much as the Romans, and Herod is constantly trying to squelch various insurrections and rebellions before they come to the Romans’ attention. The last thing Herod needs is to have the people all excited about a new king, and worse, a king they might think is the legendary Messiah who will restore Israel’s former glory and chase the Romans out. And so, Herod devises a plan. If he sends his soldiers out looking for a baby king, everyone will think there really is one. Instead, he sends the magi on to find this baby, if it even exists. Most people will think the magi are crackpots and pay no attention to them. Then the magi can tell Herod where the baby is, and he can figure out what to do next.
The star leads the magi on to Bethlehem and hovers over a simple house. The magi are confused. They expected another palace, or at least a large, fancy house, but this is barely better than a stable, although there isn’t straw on the ground, and no animals, and there’s an actual crib for the baby. The magi introduce themselves to Mary and Joseph. They sheepishly give them the gifts they’d bought in Jerusalem, gifts for a king, but they can see now that, really, diapers and baby formula would have been a better idea. Mary is gracious, and offers to let them hold the baby, but they don’t feel quite comfortable with that. They chat awkwardly for a few minutes, and then they say their goodbyes and leave.
They probably should go back to Herod, they say to one another. It’s what they had planned to do, and they can’t see any reason not to. This baby is hardly a threat to Herod. The magi have begun to realize that the baby may be a king, but not a Herod sort king. But they have these dreams, each of them, weird dreams that seem to be saying don’t go tell Herod, and over breakfast the next morning they agree that they won’t. And then they go back to their homes by another way.
Maybe that’s the end of the story, but I doubt it. The magi have had an encounter with something they don’t quite understand, but it has changed them. I suspect they go back to their homes, and after a lot of talking things over with their wives, they settle back into their routines, but they make some changes. The shopkeeper stops selling those love potions which he knows don’t work. The fortuneteller decides to stop telling fortunes and starts counseling people on how to communicate better with their spouse. The teacher spends a little less time in the library in the afternoon, and stops on the way home to pick up flowers for his wife. They all spend a little less time staring up into the night sky wondering where they went wrong, and a bit more time being grateful for all that they have.
The magi’s encounter with the star and with Jesus breaks them out of their everyday routine, out of their everyday, mindless, unexamined habits. May this feast of the Epiphany remind us that although we are governed by our habits, they don’t have to have the last word. We can listen to where God is calling us, listen for how God is calling us to live. May this Epiphany and this new year provide us new opportunities to create new, life-giving habits. We might start small, with those simple If...then plans. If I’m feeling frustrated or depressed, then I will sit quietly for a few minutes and listen for God. If I find myself getting cranky with my spouse, then I will reflect on their good qualities for a bit. If something catches my eye, maybe an opportunity to be of use to someone else, then I will do my best to help out. May God, manifest in Jesus, bless us in this new year, and make us a blessing to others. Amen.