Francis Asbury United Methodist Church
Baton Rouge, LA
Sunday, January 7, 2018
Reverend David R. Melville
Each year several new words are added to the lexicon because they have come into frequent use. 2017’s class includes words or terms like net neutrality, binge-watch, photobomb, safe space, troll, ransomware, alt-right, and bitcoin. This week I mentioned one of the newest words to Melanie, but this morning I can’t remember which word it was. That, of course, is another phenomenon which seems to be added to the lexicon each year for some of us: forgetfulness.
One word that is being bandied about more in public discourse lately describes and explains what is happening in American politics and culture and relationships: tribalism. We are increasingly dividing ourselves into tribes, and setting ourselves apart from those not in our tribes.
This has always been a part of human nature. We used to call it cliques in high school, and perhaps gangs, and at its most irrational, the Hatfields versus the McCoys. We all belong to various bands of brothers and sisters, which make us feel safe, comfortable, and one with another. We feel special, important, affirmed because of what we did or do together. Some retired employees gather monthly for years (such as Buford and his fellow Exxon workers) to reminisce and to make sense of the world, which has changed and changed since they were working together. Some civic and charitable clubs have secret rituals and passwords and dress codes which are innocuous in themselves, but which serve larger needs for bonding, and for –may I dare say it — sometimes feeling superior to the outsider.
Tribalism can include very informal bonds, which are expressed only in annual family or veterans’ reunions, to vocational allegiances incorporating a “code of silence,” in which it is understood that one member of a profession does not “rat” or “snitch” on a colleague. Sometimes tribes are based upon the common age of the participants; sometimes upon common gender; sometimes upon common experiences, such as cancer survivors maintaining a certain protective cocoon for each other. I have often said I wish the local church could be as loving, supportive, understanding and forgiving toward each other as are members of Alcoholics Anonymous — or for that matter — any addiction recovery group.
So often we exclude another from our world because they allegedly “have not walked a mile in our shoes,” when, in fact, they may have. We assume that until another has “been there,” or experienced what we’ve experienced, they simply won’t understand. It’s not their fault; that’s just the way it is. I remember working with an individual one day, and getting exasperated with his non-cooperation in helping himself, and expressing my exasperation. He looked at me and said calmly, “You’ve never been drunk, have you?” as if that explained both his and my behavior. Does it take a drunk to understand, deal with and help a drunk? Maybe. Does it require a divorcee to lead a divorce recovery group, a widow to help other widows, etc.? Maybe.
The leading tribalism in America these days is political partisanship: Democrats versus Republicans; conservatives vs. liberals vs. progressives. Partisanship is blocking legislation and causing government gridlock; it’s dividing families, institutions, and churches. I suggest political partisanship has, for the moment at least, surpassed former culture wars between blacks and whites, between men and women. For some reason, there is still no divide between rich and poor, even as the gap between rich and poor expands. Most people still want to become rich, and don’t resent those who are rich. But they don’t want to become a liberal or conservative and resent those who do. Yuk!
Being baptized used to be regarded as special, as defining which tribe you belong to. Baptism reminded us not only who we are, but whose we are. Since John the Baptist’s baptisms of fellow Jews, including Jesus, the number of baptized believers has always been a minority. The number at any given time is a small, defined, set-apart tribe united with Jesus and forgiven of their sins. Membership in that tribe should transcend all other tribes and should color one’s behavior in all other tribes. In other words, we should be a different and better Rotarian or family member or political activist because we are a born-again, baptized believer in Jesus Christ, rather than the other way around.
What sets baptized believers apart … not in a smug or superior way, but in a way that allows us to live more Christ-like and other-directed, which some of us still believe is a better goal in life than self-ambition and self-promotion:
First, baptism paved the way for the repentance and forgiveness of sins. (Mark 1:4) Does your tribe have anything to do with or say anything about sin? I doubt it because most individuals and most groups don’t want to think about or talk about sin. But baptized believers do. Baptized believers acknowledge that we have sinned against God, sinned against ourselves and sinned against others, and we seek forgiveness for our sins of commission or omission. When we really see and sense sin for what it is, we want the weight and the burden removed. Baptism is the first and the right step. When we go under that water … when that water goes over us … we die to sin.
Secondly, the tribe of baptized believers includes Jesus. John the Baptist, up until about 30 A.D., was the chief prophet and catalyst for change and new birth. But he admitted, “After me will come one more powerful than I … the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie.” (Mark 1:7) Does Jesus come with your tribe? Is Jesus invited to be a part of your tribe? It makes all the difference in how open, how loving, how giving, how stubborn and resilient your other tribes will be.
Thirdly, scripture tells us that the baptism of and with Jesus involves not only water but requires the presence of the Holy Spirit. John the Baptist said it this way: “I baptize you with water, but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” (Mark 1:8) And indeed, “As Jesus was coming up out of the water, He saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on Him like a dove.” (Mark 1:10) As we sang in our first hymn this morning, “Come, Holy Spirit, aid us to keep the vows we make; this very day invade us, and every bondage break. Come, give our lives direction, the gift we covet most: to share the resurrection that leads to Pentecost.” It takes the Holy Spirit!
Is the Holy Spirit sought and captured in your tribe? I doubt it for most of the tribes to which you belong, regardless of how friendly and how noble they may be. But baptized followers of Jesus Christ constantly seek and find the Holy Spirit because that is the only way they will be distinct from other tribes. Do you really need another worldly tribe … another group on Facebook? Or are you flitting from tribe to tribe when what you truly need is re-birth into the tribe of Jesus?
The problem with my message this morning, and the challenge of most Methodist preachers in front of their congregations on this “Baptism of the Lord” Sunday is that most of you have been baptized by water and the Spirit. We call it preaching to the choir – I bet all of whom are baptized!
But I respectfully submit this morning that if you are not remembering your baptism by living out your baptism, then you are no longer in the tribe. And we can’t blame our not remembering on aging; we must blame it on getting out of practice. You may still be going to heaven – I’m not going to get into that – but you are what we call inactive as far as the tribe of baptized Christians on earth. You have not been paying your dues. You may still have a little status … it’s normally called inactive, but you are not having any effect. You are not being the “salt of the earth,” or the “light of the world” that Jesus talked about. Next Sunday I’d like to talk a little more about remembering our baptism.
This first Sunday morning of 2018 we have the privilege of receiving the sacrament of Holy Communion. Some denominations do not permit you to receive the elements unless you have been baptized. In the early, early church, first came baptism, then your first communion. Some denominations ask that the sacrament of confession and reconciliation, or forgiveness, be administered prior to the sacrament of Holy Communion. I kind of like that, because it stresses remembering your baptism … i.e., taking the first step of acknowledging how much you have disappointed God, and have fallen short of who you would like to be. Then you are ready and prepared to meet the risen Christ at the communion table.
As United Methodists, we invite all to the table; we believe that with the help of the Holy Spirit we might become even better members of the baptized tribe at and after the table rather than before. Maybe it does take meeting Christ, again and again, to live like Christ again and again.
The sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion are alike in that in each we share Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. As a member of the baptized tribe, we are a living sacrifice. Think about which tribes you want to be associated with — be active with — in 2018, and above all join those who are living their baptism. By becoming a member of such a select group you are not better, you are not superior, but you are different.
SACRAMENT OF HOLY COMMUNION