Tuesday, January 13, 2009


Epiphany 1 Year B 0109
By Rich Gamble

While I was walking my dog, T, the other night I thought about how people name dogs as a reflection of their own creative inclinations. It has nothing to do with how the dogs would want to be known. I named my dog, the Emperor Tiglath Pilezer III in reference to a man who once terrorized the known world. No one today remembers that long ago tyrant, except a few historians and biblical scholars. To name my very sweet, friendly and sometimes dopey dog after this guy, is my way of tweaking all of those who think that they are so important. Someday, if your lucky the only way people will know your name is if a dog bears it.

T doesn’t really give a hoot about my reasons for linking his existence to that particular set of sounds. He just knows that when I say it I am talking to or about him. Dogs don’t seem to care about linking their beings with names. Their carry their identity in their smell. When they urinate on something they are leaving their calling card. That smell is undoubtedly unique to them, and since dogs have a sense of smell so much greater than ours they can distinguish between thousands of different scents. Their body chemistry is their identity and it is unique to each canine.

We humans live in a more complex reality. Our identity is tangled up with our parents, with our body chemistry, with the society which surrounds us, with our own vision of ourselves and with our faith. These different ways of defining our identity create a complex and often contradictory identity. We bear not only the hopes and compassion of our parents but their prejudices and fears. We bear the memories of love and the scars left by others. My family was a reflection of their society: generous and compassionate, violent and racist, that odd mix of light and shadow often sanctified as a whole by the popular religion.

We all bear similar marks, left in our psyches from our upbringing. We also bear the marks left by our bodies themselves. Some of us are physically different from that which is called “normal.” Some of us, perhaps most of us differ in our brain chemistry than the common myth of “normal.”

Society would sometimes have us suppress what our brains are telling us is true about ourselves. People with mental illness often lead tortured lives pretending that they are “normal” and fearing to ask for help. In the past, some people who were of mixed race hid part of their heritage to more readily fit into a racist society. Some people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered have felt the overwhelming social pressure to hide their identity.

In the past and still today religion has often been used to bolster prejudices and give divine sanction to certain identities and divine hostility to others. Just before Christmas, the Pope declared that gender identity was assigned by God and humans who did not honor that identity and the roles of that identity were standing against the will of God. This is a logical stand if your god is cast in the role of divine dominator.

The Pope is not alone, many of the religions of the world and most of Christianity cast God in the role of dominator and as such pronounce divine sanction on those who do not conform to their idea of the holiness of the dominant forms.

Which finally gets us to the scripture for today: you probably have heard the story before, John the Baptist, who in his dress and manner is depicted as a prophet invites people to be baptized. Jesus does so and God is well pleased.

For those who interpret Christianity through the lens of domination, this story is problematic. For them Jesus is God and is sinless and baptism for them is about washing off sins. So why does Jesus need a bath when he isn’t dirty? Matthew sees the problem with this and includes a conversation between Jesus and John in which Jesus says something to the effect of I know that this doesn’t make sense but God wants me to do this so let’s do it.

Mark doesn’t see any problem. He just states that Jesus was baptized. Mark says that John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

The domination form of Christianity (and in Jesus’ day, Judaism) focuses on sins. Sins are interpreted as acts which are contrary to the rules of God. Break the rules and you deserve punishment in a domination based system. To have sins in that system is like having a bull’s-eye target painted on your back, you are a walking target for God’s wrath, which in its Christian form means eternal torment. So you want to get those sins off you as soon as possible. In that system, with that God, it makes sense to baptize babies because in that system once you get your baptism you have a sort of Teflon coating when it comes to sins. For Baptists the sins just slide right off, for Catholics you have scrub a little bit with confession but they come off pretty easily.

Domination, order and sin are natural partners in the social order of our civilization, also needed is an approved way to realign yourself in the system if you sin. Now I know that guys with larger vocabularies and a greater command of religious minutia can dress it up to sound a whole lot more mystical but when we do that we sometimes lose sight of the essentials.

There is another form of Christianity and another idea of baptism. In that understanding the focus is not on repentance as feeling bad about a failure to conform to the norm of God, and wanting to do better. It is about changing direction. That change is not about being better at conforming to the dominant ideas but instead turning away from the power behind those ideas.

There is a reason why John the Baptizer is dressed in funky clothes and standing by a river in the back of beyond. He is an outsider. If his role was advancing the cause of conformity, he would have been inside the Temple, dressed in ceremonial robes and flinging water out of a fancy punch bowl. John is an outsider calling on people outside the hold of the domination system.

To be baptized then was not about scrubbing off the ways you failed to follow the holy rule book as dictated by the guys in the big hats and fancy robes but turning away from understanding reality in terms of domination, rules and conformity. It was about choosing a path for your life, choosing an alternative image of God, and ultimately about choosing an identity not governed by the dominant social order.

The ancient Christian metaphor of baptism as rebirth is much more on point in this interpretation of baptism. It is choosing to be born into a different reality, a different understanding of ultimate and therefore everyday reality.

In the past we have flung water at you out of punch bowl here in the sanctuary in order to remind you of your baptism. But this year we won’t do that because baptism is about your choice. Do you choose the radically divergent path of love and compassion over domination and conformity? It is ultimately each individual’s choice.

On this day in this place, the water is invested with the symbolism of choice. Just like the water of the sea outside Egypt for the escaping slaves. Enter into the sea and you can never go back to Egypt. The water of the Jordan river and our symbolic Jordan here in our baptismal font is a symbol of accepting the path of outsider.

It is about choosing to be born into a new reality, a reality based on love. In that reality we don’t ask what is normal, we ask what is our loving response? We don’t look at the world through the lens of the guys in charge but through the lens of the most vulnerable, those who are being oppressed and excluded. We accept that we are flawed creatures who are loved by God and through that love, we are made children of that God called to love all the flawed creatures.

Through our act of choice, we choose an identity which us turns away from our traditional understandings of good order and instead embrace a path of goodness.

Where the Pope and Rick Warren call on us to exclude gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people as outside of God’s order, we choose to denounce those who paint God as excluder. Where those who claim to speak for God call us into violent conflict with people of other faiths or doctrines, we choose instead to stand for non-violent cooperation. Out of the love of God, we can choose to see ourselves as outsiders, standing with the outsiders of the system of domination and exclusion. Out of the love of God, we can choose identities which spring from God’s inclusive love. The world has left its mark on us, but we can choose our identity and our path in life. We can choose to be born into a new reality of love; that choice and that reality are indeed good news.

On the stand on the way out is a bowl of water. It is holy water if you choose to make it so. If you want to affirm your choice to be a child of the God of love and justice, compassion and inclusion that take some water on your thumb and make a small sign of the cross on your forehead. Hindus believe that is where the eye of wisdom is found, scientists believe that is where the prefrontal cortex, our center of judging right from wrong is found. To make the sign of the cross on our foreheads then is a way of saying that the love of Christ is our wisdom, and the basis for discerning right from wrong.

It is just water in the bowl. You make it holy with your choice. You make your choice holy with your life.