Insurrection: A Crisis of Belonging
The Rev. Sara Cosca-Warfield
Scripture: Mark 1:4-11
On Wednesday morning, some of you might have seen my Facebook post that said, “Why yes, the baptism of Jesus is one of my favorite Sundays.” I was feeling rested from my vacation the previous week, eager to see my church family, excited to preach again, particularly about one of my favorite things about being a Christian: baptism. It felt like it was going to be a good day. Until around 11:30 when I got a news notification. Immediately, I knew that January 6, 2021 was a day that no one would forget. A group of rioters had broken into the Capitol building while Congress was meeting to certify the electoral college votes for the presidential election.
I was in my office, and I immediately turned on CNN. I was shocked. I texted Rachel that I felt like I did on 9/11. Not in terms of tragedy but in terms of history being made for all the wrong reasons.
First, I felt afraid. Then angry. Then really sad. I’ll be the first to admit that this country has never fully embodied its democratic ideals. Since our inception and to this very day, different groups have been blocked from participating in our democracy. Black and brown folks, women, people who had committed crimes and had served their sentence. Throughout our history, we have always found ways to disenfranchise people. I knew that, but I also believed in our democracy. I believed that we were working towards “a more perfect union.”
But what I saw on Wednesday undercut that belief. There are people in this country who value power more than they value democracy, and on Wednesday they stormed our Capitol and threatened our lawmakers. They threatened the very ideals this country was built on.
I have occasionally been accused of preaching politics, and some folks might accuse me of this just because I’m talking about what happened on Wednesday. But today’s gospel talks about baptism, the sacrament of initiation into the Body of Christ. Our baptism calls us not only to a commitment of belief, but also to a commitment of behavior. If that commitment doesn’t compel us to speak out when we see wrong-doing, if it doesn’t compel us to live into the values Jesus taught, then our baptism is meaningless. Our faith is empty.
And that is exactly why this Sunday is one of my favorite Sundays. Because baptism is powerful.
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 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.”
In baptism God named Jesus, and names us, as God’s own.
In seminary, we learn that the practice of faith boils down to three things: belief, belonging, and behavior. The sacrament of baptism holds each of these things. And I imagine that, whether we’re conscious of it or not, each of us who has been baptized place emphasis on one of these.
For example, I was baptized a little over six years ago. Some of you have heard the story of my conversion back to Christianity in seminary. Long story very short, I grew up in a conservative evangelical church. By now, I think most of you have figured out that I’m queer. I didn’t quite sort that out for myself until college. But when I finally did come out, I realized that my childhood church had told me again and again that loving the way I love is an abomination, a sin ranking among murder. I learned that something inside me, something I couldn’t change no matter how hard I tried, would send me to eternal damnation. So I had a choice: deny who I am or deny my faith. I chose to deny my faith.
But then I went to seminary and met a different kind of God. A God who came into the earth in this same flesh as me and you to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.
When I committed myself to a God whose Spirit came down upon me and said, “You are my child, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
I felt deep belonging, peace that passes understanding. It was so powerful for me that I felt called to be part of spreading that kind of belonging, that kind of peace, as far and wide as I could. It’s why I was ordained. It’s what brought me to St. Luke’s.
But I experienced that belonging so deeply because I had a seismic shift in belief. (Remember? Belief, belonging, behavior…) I went from believing in a God who was following me around, tabulating my demerits, just waiting to punish me, to believing in a God who is radical, expansive love.
But our baptism is not just a rite of belonging or a proclamation of belief, it’s a call to action. When we are baptized, we vow to let God’s love change how we live, how we behave. In our Book of Common Prayer, the baptismal vows ask, Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself? Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?
These two questions directly reflect the only two commandments Jesus gave us: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” And “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” He said, on these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’ In other words, our belief is anchored to our behavior just as much as our behavior is anchored to our belief.
That bundle of belief, belonging, and behavior isn’t unique to baptism or even to religion. We saw it in action on Wednesday. The people who swarmed the Capitol building had a certain set of beliefs that drove their behavior, and all of that was driven by a desire to be seen, to be understood, to belong.
That need for belonging is a powerful—maybe the most powerful—driving force in our world. And when you boil it down, we can choose to either define our belonging by who we include or by who we exclude. In our country, those in power have largely chosen to exclude. For the first 87 years of our country’s existence, we did this blatantly. Slavery was an overt and shameless proclamation of who belonged and who didn’t. White supremacy was the law of the land. And while it’s no longer the written law, white supremacy still functions in America.
We saw this on Wednesday. The mob was almost exclusively white, and Capitol law enforcement handled them very differently than they had handled peaceful Black Lives Matter protesters just seven months ago. You’ve all seen the comparison in the news, I’m sure. On June 1, 2020, Capitol police arrested 316 people mostly peacefully protesting George Floyd’s murder in Washington DC. On Wednesday, they arrested 61 people—out of hundreds who broke down the doors and crashed through the windows of our nation’s capitol and threatened the lives of the lawmakers and their staff who were inside. Five people have died.
We know that Black and brown and indigenous people are disproportionately poor and incarcerated compared to white people. We know that Black and brown and indigenous folks are dying of Covid at a much higher rate than white folks.
That’s not about politics. That’s about who we think our neighbors are—or aren’t. That’s about who we think belongs—and who doesn’t. And our country has been shaping its beliefs and behavior around these ideas of belonging for centuries.
On Friday, our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry responded to this week's events with a Word to the Church:
Jesus spoke of love most consistently the closer he got to the cross. This way of love is the way of sacrifice, the way of unselfishness, the way of selflessness, that seeks the good of the other as well as the self. And that is the way of the cross, which is the way of life. And if you don't believe me, ask another apostle of love. Not Dr. King, not Abraham Lincoln, ask Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Ask one who has given his life for the cause of God's love in the way of Jesus. Ask him; ask Nelson Mandela in your mind. Ask them what love looks like. They knew that the way of love was the only way that could guide South Africa from what could have become a bloody nightmare and civil war to the way that could build a nation.
And it was not sentimental. Remember truth and reconciliation. They had to face painful truths. They had to do what was just and what was merciful. They had to do what the prophet Micah said. The motivation and the guide was love.
Our country is in a crisis of belonging. But if baptism has taught me anything, it’s that a different kind of belonging—belonging based on a belief in radical, challenging love—can change everything. So the question is: in this moment, how is your faith calling you to create that kind of belonging?