Baptism of Our Lord: Make Them Hear You
By: The Rev. Joseph Peters-Mathews
Your sword can be a sermon, or the power of the pen….make them hear you.
In the musical Ragtime, Coalhouse Walker, an African American jazz piano player — after attempting legal means to have his Model T restored and the racist vandal held accountable for its destruction — takes over the Morgan Library and threatens to blow it up. Coalhouse is a radical who fights for the entire show to be recognized as a person of full worth, as one of God’s beloved with whom God could be well pleased.
Coalhouse’s demands aren’t met. He doesn’t get to mete his own justice to the fire fighter, and he is shot with his hands up after being assured safe passage for himself and his followers. When he gives up his cause and agrees to turn himself over, his followers are disappointed. They had found something to believe in and then it was gone. Coalhouse assuages them by admonishing them, “Make them hear you.”
Coalhouse, like Jesus, takes the brunt of the state’s punishment for his followers. Coalhouse, like Jesus, tells those following him to tell their story. He says,
Go out and tell our story.
Let it echo far and wide…
How justice was our battle
And how justice was denied…
In Ragtime the end of Coalhouse’s occupation of the Morgan Library — and the end of his life — is presumably the beginning of a movement of people working for racial justice in New York suburbs: people who followed him, and people who trusted the government to keep its promises.
On Friday, January 20, Donald J. Trump will be sworn in as President of the United States. His election has left many people — people of color, undocumented immigrants, queer people like me, and women — fearful. They are afraid that he will follow through on his campaign promises of mass deportation, rolling back LGBT rights, working with the Congress to restrict women’s access to full and adequate healthcare, and continue practices that limit African Americans’ access to voting.
Friday, January 20 will be a beginning not yet seen between election day and the inauguration. The transition time is only planning, hoping, and preparing for taking the oath of office. Inauguration Day begins the reality, as the authority of the office. While many are saying, “Give him a chance,” his personnel decisions are policy. By the end of November his choices reflected an opposition to immigration, rejection of Civil Rights legislation, the belief that women who have abortions should be punished, and distaste for LGBT inclusion in the full life of society. Even before the inauguration, policy is taking place.
Matthew 3.13-17 gives us a very quick snapshot of a different beginning: the beginning of Jesus’ miracle. Most liturgical traditions hearing this passage will celebrate baptisms or engage in baptismal renewals. Jesus’ baptism is a time when the Church remembers that its members have been baptized, and in so remembering reflects on the vows they have made, vows that will be instructive for remembering on Inauguration Day, during the Trump presidency, and — as the Church intends — throughout life.
First and foremost, the Church must remember the baptismal profession of faith. In the United Methodist Church, the question is, “Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior, put your whole trust in his grace, and promise to serve him as your Lord in union with the church which Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations, and races?”
My church, The Episcopal Church, breaks that profession into three questions, “Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Savior? Do you put your whole trust in his grace and love? Do you promise to follow and obey him as your Lord?” In short, the Church reminds us in baptismal remembrances — and preachers would do well to remind their hearers — that we’ll never find a savior on Capitol Hill.
Secondly, the Church reminds the baptized that they have renounced the spiritual forces of wickedness, rejected the evil powers of this world, and repented of their sin. In some traditions there is a promise that when (not if) one falls into sin to repent and return to the Lord. Sin is committed by both the individual and corporate lives: racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. are sins individuals commit and that churches and governments commit in enacted policy. Jesus’ baptism — which takes place among the crowds of Jerusalem and Judea who heard John the Baptizer’s call and repented of their sins — is a call for the people of the Church to repent of their individual and corporate sins.
Thirdly, baptism for Christians is a beginning — not a culmination. Jesus’ baptism is the beginning of his public ministry, and Inauguration Day will be the official beginning of the Trump Administration. The Church’s remembrance of Jesus’ baptism, inviting its members to remember their own baptisms and promises reminds them of the duty and work they’ve signed up for.
In The Episcopal Church this work includes striving for justice and peace among all people, respecting the dignity of every human being and proclaiming by word and example the Good News of God in Christ. In The Episcopal Church, the baptized are expected to tell the stories of Jesus and the Good News of salvation he brings, to preach the Gospel using words, not just their example.
Finally, the four verses from early in Matthew’s Gospel detailing Jesus’ baptism bookend with verses at the end of Matthew’s Gospel: Jesus’ direction to his followers to go through their lives teaching others his commandments and baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Jesus’ teachings are that he brought good news to the poor, and hope for those on the margins. Those who follow him are called to continue that work.
Jesus tells his friends that he is with them always, even to the end of the age — regardless of who occupies the White House or controls the houses of Congress. Even with that assurance he gives his followers the direction to continue his work and to tell people their story, and to stand up for what is right. In baptism the Church calls people to repentance and to tell the story of the man they followed. In reaffirmation and in baptism the call of Jesus and the Church is that of Coalhouse Walker just before his death: make them hear you.
The Rev. Joseph Peters-Mathews is a priest in The Episcopal Church. Joseph is formerly the Working Group Head for communications for the Episcopal Diocese of California. He and his husband Brandon are in transition to Seattle, where his husband will practice sleep medicine. Joseph is discerning his next call and will review the Greek he hasn’t touched since seminary, read, bake, and maybe work as a barista in the interim.