The Rev. Sara Warfield
Scripture: Mark 1:4-11
I took down my Christmas decorations this past week. The lights around my apartment windows and on my little baby Christmas tree, the ornaments. I put away the Kenyan creche I’d gotten from a Kizimani event, and cut away the now dried greenery from the Advent wreath my sister made me. And I was struck by how quickly I put everything away versus when I set it all up.
There was a care, an intentionality I had when I put my decorations up at the beginning of December. I took my time making sure the lights made their way into the depths of the tree as well as along the edges of the branches, making sure it was all balanced. I paused with each ornament, remembering who gave it to me and placing the most special ones where they would be most visible. I arranged and then rearranged the nativity scene so that all the shepherds and angels were just so around the Holy Family.
But this past week, I just swept those little figures with my hand in one motion back into their little box. I tugged the lights out of the tree, going for speed rather than finesse, not caring if branches broke or what kind of mess I’d make when the bits of greenery fell off. I’d clean it up later. I had to be somewhat careful with some of the breakable ornaments, but I just tossed the felt and wood ones back into their box.
It all really stuck with me. Dismantling my setup was just about getting it done, rushing to the conclusion, whereas putting it all up felt sacred, an act of creation, an act of love. It took time, patience, care.
Destruction, it seems, is always quicker and easier than creation.
You’d think it would be a little harder with people, with actual lives, than it is with ornaments that you can sweep into a box and forget about for most of the year, but….
On October 7th, Hamas chose destruction. In a surprise attack, they fired rockets into residential areas in Israel, mowed down over 200 people at a music festival who were trying to escape. They raped women and burned families alive, and they kidnapped over 200 people and took them hostage. It was an unspeakable day of terror, of atrocity, leaving more than 1,200 dead.
And the Israeli government responded in kind—with destruction. Within the first week after October 7th, they had bombed residential buildings, hospitals, and schools in Gaza. Since then, the violence has displaced over 90% of the Gazan population. At least 70% of all homes in Gaza have been destroyed. Because the Israeli Defense Force is blocking the flow of goods into Gaza, medical care and food are scarce, so disease and starvation are becoming just as threatening as bombs and bullets.
Some estimates say that over 22,000 Gazans have died, including more than 8,000 children. Some people have disputed that figure, saying the actual number is lower, but I wonder, what would be a more acceptable number?
Destruction, it seems, is always quicker and easier than creation.
Now I don’t want to dismiss the complexity of this situation. The decades, the centuries of trauma. The deep desire to call a place home, to feel safe, to feel valued.
It just seems that everyone has given up on taking the time and care to create something new.
And by “creation” I mean the coming together of different parts to make something that could have never been imagined without one of those parts—like two people growing a friendship, like an artist working with the stuff of this world to make something beautiful, like all of us gathering for worship.
Creation is what is birthed from relationship. Relationship between people, relationship between us and the substance of this world. Which means creation is always an act of love.
On the other hand, destruction is the denial of relationship, the denial of the value of a person or a thing. Destruction is the denial of love.
Our Christian scriptures, which include our Jewish siblings’ scriptures, can be used to justify both destruction and creation. We read in the Jewish scriptures from the book of Joshua through the Chronicles and Kings about the Israelites laying claim to the Promised Land, sweeping in and destroying all the people they encounter, all men, women, and children, root and stem. Purifying the land and taking possession of it.
But Rabbi Sharon Brous, leader of IKAR, a Jewish community in Los Angeles, has a different take on her faith. She says, and this is a long quote, but I think it’s important:
If you take a step back and look at the five Books of Moses, if you look at [the] core sacred literature [of the Jewish faith], the Torah, you see that four of the five books of the Torah are dedicated to the experience of our people, the Israelites, walking from out of degradation and enslavement and barbarity and human cruelty toward the promised land on a quest to build a just society.
And that story, that core narrative, lives at the heart of every Jewish ritual, every single Jewish holiday. It is at the heart of our prayer services. There’s not a morning, afternoon, or evening prayer where we don’t recall the exodus from Egypt. And it is delivered, not only as a narrative, but a narrative that is tied to specific moral action, which is, you are strangers in the land of Egypt. Do not oppress the stranger. You were strangers in the land of Egypt. You know the heart of the stranger. And you are strangers in the land of Egypt. You must love the stranger, protect the stranger.”
And that is the source of my Jewish faith. Maybe I am reading our tradition wrong, and those extremist, messianic figures deep in the West Bank who are teaching soldiers that they need to wipe out the enemy, maybe they’re right and I’m wrong. If that’s the case, I will have a very hard and honest conversation with the Holy One on the day of judgment.
Rabbi Brous is making a choice of faith between creation or destruction.
We Christians have a similar choice. Our book of Revelation tells the story of a judging God who sends incredible suffering upon the sinners of the world to cleanse the land so that a new Zion can appear. Violence for the sake of a pure faith, a pure people. Utter destruction. Some Christians can’t wait for this moment to come.
On the other hand, we have Jesus, the Word made flesh, our great teacher, the one we call our savior. Who preaches, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also.” Be in relationship especially with the people it’s hard to be in relationship with, he tells us. Create something new. Create love.
I’ve been told by more than one person that in the face of harsh reality, these teachings of Jesus are naive. That sometimes destruction is the only choice we have. But I don’t think what Jesus taught us is naive. I just think it’s sometimes really, really hard. But Jesus never claimed otherwise: “If any want to become my followers,” he said, “let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
It can be hard to take that extra breath when someone says something hurtful to you instead of immediately lashing out and saying something cruel to hurt them back. It can be hard to slow down and try to see from another person’s point of view when it feels like they’ve betrayed you.
And I’m not saying we should let harm against us slide without accountability, but I am saying that Jesus calls us to respond with creation, with love, not destruction.
As he hung in agony on the cross, Jesus could have called down an army of angels to rain destruction on the Romans who put him there. Instead he asked God to forgive them, for they do not know what they’re doing. Was he naive? Or was he courageously creating a whole different way of being?
Today we celebrate the baptism of Jesus. We hear that John is “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” But Jesus doesn’t have sin, we’re told, so why would he need baptism? Well, because that is the moment God chose to show that a new thing is happening, a new creation is emerging before our very eyes.
And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’
It was then that this world witnessed that Jesus belonged to God, and that God was blessing the ministry he would accomplish on this earth. To heal without questions, to forgive no matter the crime, to be willing to suffer rather than deny who he is and the grace he came to bring.
Jesus taught us that where there is sickness, sin, or conflict, there is the potential for relationship, for creation, for love.
And so that is what our own baptism calls us to. In our own baptism, we make a choice to accept the belonging that God has always extended to us. And to accept that belonging, to commit to that belonging, calls us to a powerful ministry of creation. A beautiful ministry. And sometimes a difficult ministry.
In a few moments, we’re going to say our Baptismal Covenant together. And I invite you to really hear and feel the words you're saying. What they mean in this time, what kind of action and behavior they call you to. Are they naive? Or are they courageous?
The transcript of the Rabbi Sharon Brous' conversation with Ezra Klein is available here, though it requires a subscription to the New York Times.