January 13, 2021
Hitting Bottom – January 10, 2021
Click the film strip icon to the right or click here to watch the video.
Last Monday, I went to see my mother in Jefferson City. She’s in a senior living community there, just down the street from the state capitol building. Many of you know I used to work in Jefferson City; I was speech writer and deputy press secretary for Gov. John Ashcroft in the late 1980s. I worked in the capitol, in an office the size of a closet. It may have been small, but it sure had a view, looking out over the Missouri River. The view wasn’t just beautiful; it was inspiring, as was the view inside the building. Every day, I got to see the stunning architecture and paintings and stained glass in that shrine of democracy. Every day, I also walked by an inscription in the rotunda, a verse from the Book of Proverbs: “Where there is no vision, the people perish” (29:18). And every day, I saw the Great Seal of the State of Missouri, which of course is everywhere in that building, even on the doorknobs. On that seal is the state motto: “Salus populi suprema lex esto”; let the welfare of the people be the supreme law. It was an inspiring place to serve. So, on Monday, after I saw my mother, I took a few minutes to go to the capitol, and park there in the circle drive, and look up to my old office window.
All kinds of memories came back. I remembered late nights at the end of the legislative session and the pasta feast from Rigazzi’s in St. Louis, served in the House Lounge among the Thomas Hart Benton murals. I remembered friends I worked with, people kind enough not to dismiss me for how young I was and how little I knew. I remembered working hard to dig up positive stories and deflect negative ones. I remembered a meeting about the governor’s reelection campaign in which a brilliant senior staff member talked about the possibility that our opponent, Betty Hearnes, might capitalize on one particularly negative story about the governor, and the staffer vowed that we’d “tear her to shreds” if she did. It was one of many less-than-holy moments of working in that office, and it helped me discern that doing press and speeches for a political leader probably wasn’t my calling. I remembered looking at myself in the mirror and thinking, “I can’t go on like this.” But thankfully, as I sat in the car last Monday and looked up at my old office window, what stayed with me was the beauty and the aspiration that Missouri’s stunning capitol building embodies.
I can’t imagine what it was like then, on Wednesday, for the staffers in our nation’s capitol in Washington as they looked out their windows and saw a mob tearing down the fences and climbing the walls. I can’t imagine how they felt as they went out into the halls to see what was happening and heard glass shattering and breathed teargas. There they were, watching the cathedral of democracy being desecrated and fearing for their lives. They must have wondered, where are all the police we saw at the protests this summer? How can it be that a mob has breached democracy’s cathedral?
At this point, we know the story of Wednesday, so I won’t retell it – other than to note that the mob didn’t win. Violence didn’t win. Our representatives and their staff did what they needed to do, risking themselves to ensure democracy won instead.
Let me also say this. I think there’s a connection between Wednesday’s events and today’s Gospel story, and here’s the connection I see: Sometimes, it’s good to hit bottom. Sometimes, we need to hit bottom. Sometimes, until we hit bottom, we can’t see our sin.
Now, you’re thinking, “Uh-oh. Just how judgy is he going to get?” Well, when I put Wednesday’s insurrection in the category of sin, let me be clear what I mean. Sin is separation from God, turning away from God’s purposes and desires for us. I believe God has purposes and desires in mind for each of us, and I believe God has purposes and desires in mind for our nation, too. We say as much when we offer the collect “For the Nation” every Independence Day. We ask God to “give to the people of our country a zeal for justice and the strength of forbearance, that we may use our liberty in accordance with your gracious will” (BCP 258). That’s absolutely an aspirational prayer. We aspire to justice, and we aspire to forbearance. But we struggle to reach our holy aspirations. We fall short. We fail, sometimes by what we do and sometimes by what we don’t do. That’s sin.
But over the course of the past several years – certainly more than just four of them, I might add – we’ve been aspiring less and sinning more. We’ve been forgetting what’s in God’s heart and mind for ourselves, our country, and our world. Our sins have been of the most pernicious type: slow in their growth, hidden in plain sight. We’ve allowed ourselves to think we don’t need people who aren’t like us. If the insurrection at the capitol embodied nothing else, it embodied this lie: “Because I know I’m right, I don’t have to honor people I think are wrong.” That represents our fundamental sin, our original sin: the sin of self-idolatry, the sin of placing ourselves ahead of God and ahead of God’s other children.
That’s the background not just for the events of last Wednesday but for our Gospel reading today. The story’s spotlight shines on John the Baptist, but behind that is the reality John saw – a great need among the people to acknowledge their sin and choose to turn from it. The reading doesn’t name specific sins, but it does indicate that the problem, like the Jordan River, ran deep and wide: “People from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to [John], and were baptized by him…, confessing their sins” (Mark 1:5). Jesus joins in with the people as they seek to get right with God – not because Jesus needed it but because he wanted to be in it with them. And as he enters into this experience with the people he came to save, the fullness of God’s glory shines forth. The heavens are torn open, and the Spirit descends on Jesus, and God’s voice proclaims, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well-pleased” (1:11).
It’s no accident that the revelation of the Father’s great love for Jesus, and for each one of us, comes in the context of people turning from their sins. When people recognize how they’ve missed the mark, how they’ve denied God’s purposes and desires for them, that’s when the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit come together to sanctify our longing to get right with God. When we come to the river and confess our sins, God joins us there, wading into the water with us and empowering us to turn in a new direction.
So, here’s a question Scripture never answers: What led all those people to go down to the river for “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (1:4)? Although each one had his or her own story, I’ll bet you most of the people in that crowd were going through the same thing. Something had happened, and they’d hit bottom. Many of us can point to a similar moment in our lives, a time when we looked ourselves in the mirror and said, “I can’t go on like this.” That’s what leads us to the water’s edge, where God shows up to meet us.
I believe Wednesday’s insurrection was our national moment of hitting bottom. Ugly strains of self-idolatry have been festering within us and among us for a long time now. More and more, it’s become acceptable to turn sisters and brothers into others, puffing ourselves up by talking someone else down. After a while, the power of evil takes that negativity and turns it into toxicity. And eventually, some of us, at least, decide it’s OK to break the law and destroy property and threaten others … because, after all, I’m right, and they’re not. We’ve been in that downward spiral for a while now, and finally the capitol was breached. So, I would say we’ve hit bottom. We’ve come to our national moment of looking in the mirror and saying, “We can’t go on like this.”
What can the Church do about that? What’s Jesus’ call to us as we come to the river separated from God and one another?
Well, the Church is about healing and reconciliation. The prayer book tells us the Church’s mission “is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ” (BCP 855). And the only way to do that is to start with ourselves and the people around us.
This Lent at St. Andrew’s, we’ll be offering an opportunity to get better at civil discourse. The new Advocacy Discernment Committee has been talking about this over the past month, well before Wednesday’s insurrection, but we certainly see the need for it now. Here in our congregation, we are blessed with a rich diversity in point of view on just about any topic you can name. Our shorthand for this is “the Big Tent” – that just as the Episcopal tradition has prayed for all sorts and conditions of people, it holds in tension all sorts and conditions of perspectives. What we haven’t done so well is to deal with that tension. Here in Kansas City, we’re very good at “Midwest nice.” That’s great, in that we don’t have to worry about people storming the church to replace the rector. But it’s not so great in that we don’t know how to deal with our differences and divisions beyond politely ignoring them. So, this Lent, as we take the opportunity to get right with God and each other, I hope you’ll consider wading in the water of civil discourse as a way to see how people you disagree with are beloved in God’s eyes.
But our national moment of hitting bottom is about more than needing civil discourse. It’s about our identity, too. What this week reminds us is that we always have to hold in living memory who we are. As a nation, we like to think of ourselves as a people of special purpose, a people who choose to live in the creative tension of democracy because it’s what Lincoln called “the last, best hope of earth.”1 But as followers of Jesus, gathered under this Big Tent, we are more than inheritors of democracy. We are apostles of love. We are God’s beloved children, empowered by the Holy Spirit to follow in Jesus’ resurrected footsteps. We are people who strive to resist evil and who come to the river to confess it when we come up short. We are people who live Good News in word and deed. We are people who seek and serve Jesus in all people, loving those who disagree with us as much as we love ourselves. We are people who strive for justice and peace by respecting the dignity of everyone – no exceptions, even the folks we understand least.
As we walk that path, sometimes we hit bottom. But Jesus is there, reaching out his hand, pulling us up, reminding us who we are, and empowering us to try again.
- Lincoln, Abraham. “Annual Message to Congress – Concluding Remarks.” Abraham Lincoln Online. Available at: http://www.abrahamlincolnonline.org/lincoln/speeches/congress.htm. Accessed Jan. 8, 2021.