The Sacred and the Profane

As many of you know, I am involved in a new Master’s program through Claremont Lincoln University. My focus is on Interfaith action, and I am working with wonderful and interesting people to pursue this. I am telling you about this, because two weeks ago when I did my continuing ed, I had a pretty remarkable experience.

It was the Saturday morning of our conference, and we were sitting down to breakfast before the day’s events began. Of course, this was in the immediate wake of what happened in Nigeria and France. There we were, my cohort group (plus a few), having breakfast and watching CNN report on these tragedies from around the globe. At first glance, this might not seem so remarkable. I imagine many of you may have had similar experiences up until that point. Here’s where it get interesting though: the people sitting at that table were people who might not ordinarily sit down together. As I looked around the table amidst these news stories, I was reflecting on the fact that I was sitting with a Muslim, a Jew, a Pentecostal, an Atheist, a Christian Scientist, a Zoroastrian Priest and a Buddhist—and oh by the way, I was the token White Male Protestant. What a collection of people! In those moments with tragedy in the air, I experienced an inkling of hope. There are plenty of people in this world who would much rather be sitting to eat together with those whom they don’t know or don’t understand, instead of shooting them—I know that seems like a simplistic statement, but given world events we have to start somewhere.

This fascinating group of scholars joined together in reflecting, mourning and discussing these events, drawing upon vastly different backgrounds and perspectives. The one thing that became abundantly clear to us, is that all of our traditions could stand to have greater reverence for the creation of which we are but a part.

This is a pretty powerful learning that comes straight out of our Corinthians passage this week. If you read it on the surface, you might be convinced this is simply about sexual morality. However, Paul is doing something much deeper with this writing—Paul is pointing us at the sacred nature of ALL of God’s creation. Everything was created by the hand of God, and that means that everything and everyone deserves to be treated with reverence and respect. In a very real way, all of us share in the divine, all of us are sacred, all of us are Holy. When we forget that, it is easy to let our differences and, our hatreds, our small doctrines and dogmas rule over us and convince us to do atrocious things!

As I looked around that table and we talked I came to the realization that I do indeed have very different views of the world, but nonetheless, God sacred divinity is being presented to me through these people sitting around me.

Of course, this becomes a lot harder to grasp when it isn’t just friends and colleagues we speak of as a part of God’s sacred creation, but also the militants of Boko Haram, and the Jihadists bent on death and destruction. This is why being a person of faith isn’t easy. There is a difficult cognitive dissonance to simultaneously condemning the evil and horrendous actions of these extremists and still understanding them as a sacred part of God’s creation (broken though they may be!). There is a great tension of the Sacred and Profane that confronts us in realizing that the people who did these awful things are also, dare I say it, beloved children of God—even though they have gone terribly awry! If we look at these events and only see evil, and cannot contemplate where the sacred fell apart, then we ourselves are on our way to the kind of hardened dogmas that can fester and become violent and evil as well.

This is what is at the heart of Paul’s writing this week—everything is sacred! We must treat everything as sacred! Or else we risk falling into the same kind of corruption that has played out as violence and evil on the world stage in the last few weeks.

Do-Over

This week we are dealing with several things: Baptism, ordination/installation, and it happens to be MLK weekend. I will be attempting to pull all of those into the sermon this weekend, but first, I wanted to share a thought on baptism that won’t be making it into the sermon.

This week’s scripture is Mark’s version of the Baptism of Christ. I have always thought there is an interesting question about this story that most of us gloss over—where did this practice of baptism come from? It has all sorts of meanings in the Christian tradition, but clearly, the practice that John the Baptist is overseeing predates the church. What was John doing?

We assume that it is the same thing that happens in the Christian Church—washing away sin, reception into the community, dying and rising with Christ, etc. But all of those things are later theological concepts. Reza Aslan points to an Essene practice that makes sense given the descriptions of John and Jesus’ baptism.

Aslan talks about the corruption in the religious system in Jerusalem, and the Essene belief that real religious practice had to be divorced from the corrupt religious system. As a result, the Essenes moved away from Jerusalem and many became ascetics and wild preachers/prophets—not unlike the description we have of John the Baptist.

Since the Essenes were sick of the corruption of the religious and political systems of Israel, they wanted to wipe the slate clean and start over. One of the ways they symbolically enacted this fresh start was to go back to where the Israelites started in the Holy Land—the other side of the Jordan River—and cross the river again as a symbol of starting over. Not only was it about cleansing sins, but it was quite literally saying we need a fresh start—a do-over.

I love the theological ramifications of this. Baptism is a fresh start, a do-over, a new beginning. I also love what this means in the context of infant baptism—each child is a fresh start for us all! As we start a new year, many people see this as an opportunity for a new beginning, or a time for new resolutions. It seems like a very fitting time for us to be talking about baptism.

Finally, in a very real way, the church has a fresh start this Sunday. We will be ordaining and installing new elders and deacons. Now, don’t take the analogy too far here—the last elders and deacons weren’t corrupt—they were all wonderful! But, this is a new start for our community with new leaders. This means we will have new opportunities and new ways for all of us to be a part of the ministry of this congregation. I am certainly excited to see where they will be leading us next.