1 Epiphany C 2019: The Presumption of Solitude

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I am going to do two things
I normally do not do in a sermon.

The first is to read an extended bit of prose,
and the second is to “proclaim.”

I know preachers are supposed to proclaim,
but I do not like to – at least not explicitly.
To talk about anything is to proclaim something,
of course, but we all know
I have no more right
to stand up here and tell you what to believe
than you have to tell me the gospel truth.

Rather, I hope, what I do
is poke and prod and ponder
and share the results of that with you
for your own consideration.

I know that in 2019,
just because I went to seminary
and got zapped by a bishop,
does not make my words any more
authoritative than anyone else’s.

But today, because of the subject,
is a little different,
I am going to do some proclaiming –
but I feel safe knowing you will disregard anything
that you need to.

Okay, here is an extended excerpt from “Prodigal Summer,” by Barbara Kingsolver.

“She (the coyote) stopped to listen, briefly, for the sound of anything here that might be unexpected.  Nothing.  It was a still, good night full of customary things.  Flying squirrels in every oak within hearing distance; a skunk halfway down the mountainside; a group of turkeys roosting closer by, in the tangled branches of a huge oak that had fallen in the storm; and up ahead somewhere, one of the little owls that barked when the moon was half dark.  She trotted quickly on up the ridge, leaving behind the delicate, sinuous trail of her footprints and her own particular scent.

If someone in this forest had been watching the coyote – a man with a gun, for instance, hiding inside a copse of leafy beech trees – he would have noticed how quickly she moved up the path, attending the ground ahead of her feet, so preoccupied with her solitary search that she appeared unaware of his presence.  He might have watched her for a long time, until he believed himself and this other restless life in the (sight of his rifle) to be the only two creatures left here in this forest of dripping leaves, breathing in some separate atmosphere that was somehow more rarefied and important than the world of air silently exhaled by the leaves all around them.

But he would have been wrong. Solitude is a human presumption. Every quiet step is thunder to beetle life underfoot, a tug of impalpable thread on the web pulling mate to mate and predator to prey, a beginning or an end.  Every choice is a world made new for the chosen.”

Well, that is a beautiful piece of writing
but the gemstone I want to extract
is her observation that, “solitude”
is a human presumption.
To say it another way,
our standard operating procedure
that God is absent,
or at the very least quite distant,
results from a human preoccupation with itself.
But the apparent distance
between God and us
is a function of our lack of depth perception…
and simple self-preoccupation.

I mention it
because we are staring into baptism today –
the baptism of Jesus in particular,
but that is a mirrored image
in the gospel pond
in which we are invited to see
our own reflection.

Here comes the proclaiming.

Because Christianity became an empire,
and because for two hundred years
it has been the establishment religion of our nation,
baptism became a cultural nicety –
something one did for their kid,
like piano lessons.

There has also been some superstition
that collected on baptism
like barnacles on the hull of a ship.

Let me hack away at both of these.

No one hasto be baptized.
Baptism is not some powerful magic or voodoo
that opens the pearly gates like an ATM card
accesses a bank account.
Baptism is not about gaining the love
and acceptance of God that is only available to those
with a watery cross on the forehead.

Baptism is about relationship with God. Period.
It is about disabusing ourselves
of the presumption of human solitude.

No one needs to be baptized
to be loved and accepted by God.
No one hasto be a Christian to know God
or be loved by God.

This universalism is not just Cam
barking his proclamation either.

Even our own Episcopal Baptismal Covenant
says as much, when we say that we promise to
“seek and serve God in all persons.”
God in all persons –not some persons,
but all persons.

Surely, we have gained that much perspective
after all the wars and internecine hatred
of the past centuries.
So, baptism is about what kind of relationship
we are going to have with God.
It presumes the presence of another
and among us,
rather than solitude.
It even presumes we are, from the beginning
and to the end,
already in relationship with God.
The question is what kind,
how deep
how broad
how intimate
how meaningful?

Now for the exclamation mark at the end of the proclamation.

The relationship that God invites us into,
at least if the prophets and gospels are right,
can be characterized by one word:
We translate it, justice.

But let’s be careful here.
Mishpat is neither ideological or legal
in its substance.
It is neither Marxist or Jeffersonian.
Mishpat is not an idea around which
we can form a legal system
or create a plan for redistributing wealth.
Rather, it is a highly nuanced ancient Hebrew word
that points to the relational nature of the universe –
and always, with the knowledge
that it is a universe created by God in the first place.

So, Mishpat is the idea
that justice is always shaped
and determined
by what is expected
and needed
and promised
within a particular relationship.

In other words, justice
is always contextual
because it depends upon
the specifics of the relationship:
God and prophet
God and nation
God and gentiles
God and Israel
God and Jesus
Parents and children
Domestic partners and their extended families
Employer and employees
Trinity Place and Geneva…
Mishpat, justice, is not the same thing
in each relationship, but rather,
the fulfillment of the promises
that creates and are created
within each relationship.

Mishpat has to do with doing the things
we have promised to do
in order to meet the rights and needs
inherent in a given relationship.
It is not necessarily egalitarian or universal
but relationship-bound and specific.

This notion of justice
also includes what it takes to restore relationships
that have been violated
by neglect or betrayal of our commitments.
So, whenever the justice in a relationship
has been lost, an opportunity
needs to be created for those in the relationship
to restore the justice.
This is true for societal relationships
as well as interpersonal ones.

The relationship God desire with us
is one in which we do justice
to the promises we have made,
and when we fail to do those promises justice,
that we restore them.

Baptism is that kind of a relationship.
It has promises based upon
what we as Christians in general,
and Episcopalians in particular,
understand God wants from us.
So, your baptism and mine,
are about doing justice to those promises,
restoring the failures when they happen –
and of course they will happen –
and trusting in God’s presence rather than
presuming Solitude.
Like love itself,
Baptism is way more than we bargained for.

Our baptismal covenant
offers a description
of what the promises are
that create and sustain
our relationship with God.
It is not a prescriptionbut a description.

They are five rounded and simplified
guides for spiritual practice
that, if pursued, do justice
to our relationship with God.

1)The first promise is that we stay in community with one another,
and nurture our community with the wisdom of Jesus,
and the sacred meal, and prayers together.

So, our relationship with God is, at its core,
a communal relationship. It requires partners, not solitude.

2) Secondly, we promise to resist evil as best we can,
and when we do not, that we honestly acknowledge it,
and then find a way to turn around and not continue to do it.

So, our relationship with God requires an ongoing and fearless moral inventory
that leads to change.

3) Third, we promise to strive for integrity, keeping a close distance
between what we say we cherish and believe, and how we live our lives.

So, our relationship with God is rooted in how we act rather than what we believe.

4) Fourth, we promise to seek and serve God in all persons,
loving our neighbor as ourselves.

So, our relationship with God leans on compassion and service to others,
and a generous acceptance of ourselves.

5) Finally, we promise to strive for Mishpat and peace among all people,
and respect the dignity of every human being.

So, our relationship with God is interconnected
with our relationships to friends and strangers alike.
This last promise is the most challenging of the five
because it means we cannot do justice to our relationship with God
when we are not doing justice to our relationships with others.

Notice please, in all of this,
that there is very little promised
about what we will believe,
and a great deal promised about what we will do.

Doing justice to our relationship with God,
like fidelity to any human relationship,
does not happen because of beliefs we hold
so much as because of how we act.

Although presuming God’s presence
is a kind of belief,
and a kind of belief that changes things.

We probably do not always feel
the presence of God,
and in fact, feelingGod’s presence
may be an exception rather than the norm.
But presuming that presence
rather than solitude,
will make all the difference in the world.

To me, that is the best reason to pray.

Keeping God in my thoughts,
presuming that presence in my routine,
verbalizing even,
what I make of a given situation
because I presume God’s presence
instead of my solitude –
all of that is in fact, a spiritual practice
that keeps us mindful that we are not
in solitude;
that we are in the presence
of a power greater than ourselves.

It is in such small, ordinary actions
that we do justice to our promises –
small actions,
accumulating over time
are what deepen
and strengthen the relationship.

So, the season of Epiphany
is a great opportunity to be mindful
of the promises of our relationship
and ways we can do justice to those promises.
And most specifically,
to actively presume the presence
of a power greater than ourselves.