In the baptismal liturgy for the United Church of Christ, as set forth in our Book of Worship, there is a question we pastors often ask of parents who have brought their children to the church to be baptized:
“Do you promise, by the grace of God, to be Christ’s disciple, to follow in the way of our Savior, to resist oppression and evil, to show love and justice, and to witness to the work and word of Jesus Christ as best as you are able?”
The same question in our Book of Worship is often asked of older adults and youth who are considering becoming members of the church or being confirmed. In the course of ministry, I have encountered several people who find this question rather difficult for many reasons.
Some find it altogether difficult because they find the question to be a tall order—too many infinitives, to many required actions: to be, to follow, to resist, to show, to witness. “It’s too much!” they say. “We find it hard to make time for church-going and for family time, how can we be expected to make such promises when we can’t even put our keys in the same location every night or go to bed at a decent hour?”
For others, the problem with this question is how. They want to know, before they make any promises, what they are up against…They ask, “how should I resist, how should I follow, how should I show love and justice, and how should I do these things especially when I am having trouble being civil to my spouse, or just to my surly neighbor, or polite to my nit-picking in-laws?” And then, sometimes they say, “I can’t come to church regularly…can you just email me?”
And then there are some, who in a misguided attempt to be tolerant, affirming, and understanding, feel uncomfortable declaring in any sort of public way that certain actions are just plain evil. They find it more easy and satisfying call some behavior unjust, but calling something evil feels too much like they are playing the role of God. Having heard too many religious types proclaim all manner of person, orientation, marital status or non-status evil, they have long since decided to extricate that “evil” word from their personal vocabulary, along with its cousin, “sin,” except for the most heinous of crimes.
And yet, that traditional baptismal question reminds us, in part, of what baptism is about— that our baptism is not a pretty ritual of raindrops on our foreheads and a necessary reminder that we are beloved, but that we are actively called to certain behaviors—the resisting of oppression and evil for one, which necessitates the actual naming of evil and of oppression, as we contrast it to the good that we know. Likewise, we are called by our baptisms to actively demonstrate love and justice and to follow in the way of our brother, Jesus, as best as we are able.
In Blue Like Jazz, spiritual writer, Donald Miller, confessed: “The trouble with deep belief is that it costs something. And there is something inside me, some selfish beast of a subtle thing that doesn’t like the truth at all because it carries responsibility, and if I actually believe these things I have to do something about them. It is so, so cumbersome to believe anything. And it isn’t cool.”
If believing something isn’t cool, then following Isaiah’s model is really fringe. Similar to the baptismal question, in our scripture passage from Isaiah, we are reminded of the characteristics of a servant-leader. A servant-leader is not just any leader, appointed or elected, but a leader called by God to act a particular way. This leader does not serve just his or her own kind, or interests, or own circle, but serves both prisoners who are held captive innocently and those held captive by their own doing, those who languish forgotten in dungeons of despair, and those who sit in the shadows of erroneous ways and narrowness of thought. God’s chosen servants are those who do not break any who are already hurting (“the bruised reed”) nor does the servant-leader extinguish the dimly burning wick of the struggling person. It is a difference of character, yes—but also of power and how one uses that power. As Stephanie Paulsell writes, “True leadership protects what is weak until it is strong enough to stand, and keeps gentle hands cupped around a weak flame until it can burn on its own.”
Perhaps you, like me, identify more with bruised reeds and faint wicks, than you do with the Servant-Leader. For a long time, you’ve stood rooted at the water’s edge, not the tallest or the strongest, but holding your own. You were doing fairly well until the storm broke and the winds began battering you. Now, it is all you can do to stand without looking at your next step, bent-over as you are. And when you cast your gaze at others, you see others even more broken than you. Those who take the medicine, Coumadin or similar drugs, know that a side effect of the medicine is that one bruises easily. Likewise, those who take the gospel medicine of the words and wisdom of Jesus will find their hearts are overly sensitized to the pain of their neighbors. It comes with the territory, and the baptism. Watch direct hit to our human kin and our hearts bleed easily. To be a servant means to feel the pain of others, and not to be oblivious to it.
We may feel like whatever burning wick we had for life, love, and joy have long since died down to a faint ember. But put us in a dark enough room, break us too sharply and we begin to glow like those neon glowsticks that children wave in the air at Fourth of July parties and birthdays. Over and over in these verses, Isaiah preaches the patient perseverance of the servant-leader whose success will not look like bombastic speeches in the public square or a forceful, violent disobedience to God’s ways, but resembles a never-ceasing endurance that steadfastly uplifts the plight of the downtrodden and disheartened. Brokenness makes us shine better and more brightly.
As both women and men take to the streets of this country to remind the incoming administration of the values of women’s rights and human rights, of health and safety for citizens, and to lift up the value of diversity in community, Isaiah’s words are a sobering reminder that making our voices heard on one particular day is but one action, and not—ultimately—the only valuable one. We are to stand not just in the public street, but at the side of those who now face the loss of their health coverage, at the side of those who are watching an uptick of swastikas painted on their holy ground and in their schools, at the side of those who are bullied by public servants because they come from a different land or practice a different faith or have been objectified by our culture for their gender.
We do not stand in the gap between our public and private worlds as social justice advocates, or merely protesting agitators, but as citizens of Jesus’ kin-dom, baptized into God’s beloved community which includes religious and moral values that we have chosen to uphold publicly and proudly. We are the very servant-leaders to which Isaiah points and Jesus calls. By reading these ancient texts and by reminding ourselves of our responsibility to both renounce and resist evil, even when we can’t find our keys and are struggling to make it through the day or the daily news, we remind each other that we are each part of the answer that we seek, and that God has both a plan and purpose for us in mind.
On this weekend, when we remember Martin Luther King, Jr. and the values
for which he lived and died, we mark his cautionary words from Strength to Love:
“One of the great tragedies of life is that men seldom bridge the gulf between practice and profession, between doing and saying. A persistent schizophrenia leaves so many of us tragically divided against ourselves. On the one hand, we proudly profess certain sublime and noble principles, but on the other hand, we sadly practice the very antithesis of these principles. How often are our lives characterized by a high blood pressure of creeds and an anaemia of deeds! We talk eloquently about our commitment to the principles of Christianity, and yet our lives are saturated with the practices of paganism. We proclaim our devotion to democracy, but we sadly practice the very opposite of the democratic creed. We talk passionately about peace, and at the same time we assiduously prepare for war. We make our fervent pleas for the high road of justice, and then we tread unflinchingly the low road of injustice. This strange dichotomy, this agonizing gulf between the ought and the is, represents the tragic theme of man’s earthly pilgrimage.”
The other night, I gave my sons some leftover glow-sticks to help them settle themselves before bed. It seemed like a good idea at the time…they lay in bed for while connecting the sticks one to the other and marveling at the light which shone under their blankets. It seemed like a good idea until I smelled a seriously strong odor emanating from under the bedroom door. When I went inside their room, one was under the bed and the blanket glowed an eerie blue without any sign of said blue glowstick. When my son finally crawled out from the bed, complaining that his lip felt numb, I figured out that the glowstick had ruptured, made the blanket glow, and filled the room with the strange odor.
Glowsticks shine only with agitation and breaking. Break them too far or too much and there will be an incredible stink which people in neighboring rooms will surely notice. My sons were not hurt in the great glow-stick escapade. But I do not recommend giving your child a glowstick if they want to chew on it or dissect it. Likewise, I do not recommend baptism for those who refuse to be broken or agitated or who might be afraid of the stink we Christians raise. There is more danger in remaining whole.
Friends, do not be afraid to resist the evils that cause harm to others. Do not be afraid to rise up, be counted in your baptism, and say that you serve and worship a different power. Do not be afraid to let your baptism call you out of yourselves to a more noble purpose and plan. Do not be afraid. God has taken you by hand and will not leave you to do this vital work alone.
When you are down and disheartened, remind yourself of this, and glow.