There are many ways to fall. We can fall into and out of love; we can fall for spam and schemes; we can fall into or out of favor, and we can physically fall down (or even up). Theologically and religiously speaking, we can fall into sin or fall from grace, though the latter is more understood secularly than spiritually.
So—I want to be clear today that I am not advocating our falling down in any of these ways.
In Puerto Rico, annually, on the night of June 23rd, you may see locals gathering at the water’s edge in order to fall backward into the ocean. On the eve of a holiday commemorating Saint John the Baptizer, one falls backwards into the ocean 12 times at the stroke of midnight for good luck. While I have never seen the custom, it intrigues me. This purposeful, backwards “falling” into the ocean is done repeatedly and on a repeated basis; one chooses to fall into something much larger than oneself—the immensity of the ocean. Likewise, we allow ourselves to fall backwards into grace, into spiritual waters big enough and wide enough to hold us and all the baggage that we inevitably carry on our journey through life. The Puerto Rican tradition is a good metaphor for baptism.
Of course, if there is any luck involved here in our church and in our faith, it is that we eventually learn to swim in our faith and do not remain as onlookers standing on the shore or remain as shriveled prunes, smaller versions of ourselves, for being in the water for too long or for swimming in toxic waters. At some point, we must actually consider why we may have been baptized in the first place short of our parents’ good intentions, family pressure, a coming of age ceremony, or choosing the faith intentionally as a youth or young adult. Baptism can mean many things but, of course, at a certain point we come clean with ourselves regarding why we hold to the tradition and consider it a sacrament worthy of our attention. Is it luck? Some special hope of blessing? Some future reward? A reminder of our original goodness? A wiping of sin? Or perhaps it is all of this and more?
I don’t know about you, but my understanding of baptism has grown and deepened as I have reminded myself each year of the promises that my parents made on my behalf as a child, promises that still have their echoes in our worship liturgies and prayers. We are reminded regularly that we have a place to belong, a place to return to when we are psychologically or spiritually lost or frightened, that we will carry a sense of belovedness into any fray or turmoil, and that we will understand or come to understand a sense of call on our life, both as individuals and as a community carrying Jesus’ name. It is not the same for everyone—for every Christian who embraces their baptism, surely there is one who tosses it aside like a piece of clothing that doesn’t fit or that constantly pricks or irritates the skin.
Yet, in this time of pandemic and loss, after the events at the Capitol this past week, our baptism—and some of those baptismal promises uttered by our parents, grandparents, or even ourselves can ground us and remind us that we have a particular call upon our lives. What is that call? What promise reminds us of who we are and what we can be? As children of God, we promise “to resist all evil” among other things. In our book of worship for the United Church of Christ, and in similar books of worship for other Christians who hold baptism as the formal entry of the person into Christian life, we hear the words, “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?” It’s a long sentence, a mouthful, and takes a lifetime to unpack and live out. Yet, in some way or another, this baptismal promise is one that lays claim on us—we are not simply “receivers” but we are active agents. We have a commitment to renouncing and resisting evil, while embodying both love and justice and Jesus’ example. In some form or other, from hymn to prayer, from sermon to benediction, from call to worship to confession, our Sunday liturgy and the living we choose to do during the week reflect this baptismal promise and call on our lives.
As I wrote to you on Wednesday, I was deeply troubled by the way in which many of the Capitol rioters used and fused our Savior’s name with confederacy, Trumpism, white supremacy, destruction, and violence. Did they believe, if they were baptized Christians, that this was a legitimate, praiseworthy way to resist evil too? Very likely, they would have defined evil in that moment very differently from me. It gave me pause that our definitions could be so radically different. What was missing? Were they under the mistaken impression that Jesus was a militant savior and not a peaceful one? Did they think that they had the power to usher in the second coming of Christ through their attempted siege and use of force?
While there are many unanswered questions about that day, our faith does provide some answers. We know, for example, that the words we say matter and the things that we profess have consequence whether they are heavenly or hellish, holy or secular, or a mixture of all of this. As a child, I was reminded that “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Likely I learned the maxim when I had been called one of many cruel names as a child, or made fun of, but our words – and actions—do matter. While the words that we say as Christians in our prayers and in our hearts are often incomplete and fall short, when we do not try to utter them in our hearts or we fail to live them out, their absence forms a dangerous vacuum, a vacuum in which other lesser or more harmful words and actions can, and will, fill a void.
I must admit that, shortly after seeing the clips of those professing Jesus and inflicting domestic terror, I quite nearly wanted to quit the Christian faith entirely. It was a bad moment—I was overwrought and lacking sleep and feeling under the weather. It was just too much to see a group of people using God’s name, and Jesus’ name in such ways, and desecrating what I have held dear for most of my life. And yet, what kind of Christian would I be to leave a void where once there was one committed the way of justice and peace as I understand the example of Christ to be?
And I imagine, for those who witnessed the attack on our democratic institutions and process from afar, there was a similar kind of grief. That we can’t seem to get this fixed or right or come together with a common agreement of what decent human beings do and are. In aggregate, the last year feels as if it has asked too much of those who believe living in a better world is possible and desirable. Yet, in the particulars, I know and believe that we each can make a small dent in the evil that we abhor and see. When I am well-rested and have taken a fast from the endless cycle of news and FB scrolling, I can see that. I hope that you can too. Our baptismal promises ask us not to “opt out” of the evils that we see and to encourage one another as we are church together.
This community of encouragement is part of what it means to enter into Christian community and to walk with one another. We are encouraged so that we fall for the right things whatever season or circumstance that befalls us. We “opt in” when it is easier to “opt out.”
We choose to remind and allow ourselves regularly to fall into grace, to fall into faith, and to fall into God’s call on our lives without falling prey to lesser versions of ourselves and without falling apart.
May it be so for you, friends. Let yourself fall, not for luck, but for God’s sake.