©Holly Lyman Antolini
Lections: Genesis 1:1-5; Ps. 29:1-11; Acts 19:1-7; Mark 1:4-11
Ascribe to the LORD, you small humans, ascribe to the LORD glory and strength. Ascribe to the LORD the glory due his Name; worship the LORD in the beauty of holiness. AMEN.
This is a week in which it is easy to feel quite overwhelmed by the painful course of human events and our smallness in relation to them. As a believer in democracy, it has been easy this week for me to tremble at its fragility, as gunmen kill cartoonists in broad daylight amid the urbanity of Paris and desperate Syrians are turned away from Lebanese borders because, Syrian refugees making up fully a quarter of the entire population of Lebanon, there is simply not enough social and economic fabric to cover the influx with even flimzy shelter amid the winter blizzards. It has been a week in which I feel, and I imagine many of us feel, quite powerless in relation to the terrible reaper’s blade of events.
In the same week, the opening of the movie Selma invites us to remember a great if also terrifying and destabilizing moment in our own history of democracy, the moment at which the tides of racial politics in our country took an important turn toward justice, a moment in which there could easily have been other, very different outcomes were it not for the toweringly visionary and compelling leadership of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and a host of other women & men of color who led (often sacrificially) along with him, and I must add, were it not for the wily-coyote-like political leadership and commitment of Lyndon Baines Johnson, who fares badly in the dramatic narrative of the film but in historical fact contributed crucially to the success of the movement for the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts. Small we may be, but at certain moments, any one of us can be given a power for good that affects the ages. The vision that propelled Martin Luther King came straight from his own baptism in Jesus Christ. He called his vision “the beloved community.” Love was at its center. Martin Luther King was passionately convinced of the worthiness of every human being to be loved, convinced of the dignity of every human being, convinced of God’s desire for our dignity to flourish, every one of us, brothers & sisters of Jesus Christ, children of God. In the strength of that vision, he said “YES!” to his extraordinary moment, not once, but over and over, as it led him deeper and deeper into the hard, frightening and sacrificial work of transforming our whole political landscape in the United States.
So this morning, on the Feast of the Baptism of Christ, the First Sunday after the Epiphany, we face into the strange counterpoint of truth about ourselves: our smallness and inadequacy in the face of events… and our importance, our dignity, our worthiness to be loved, our capacity to express that love transformationally in the world. Isn’t that what baptism is all about? Christ’s baptism is a “new beginning of Creation,” the lectionary wants us to know, as it pairs the Genesis One story of Creation with Mark’s story of Jesus’ own baptism and also pairs it with the baptizing of Gentiles into Jesus by Paul in the Book of Acts, expanding the promises of God to ALL people, not merely to the Jews – God’s “chosen people” – among whom Jesus – and Paul – were born. And Christ’s baptism is the baptism that imbued them and imbues us with the Holy Spirit, the creative Breath of God that can transform our smallness, so prone to a terrible frailty, prone to ill-informed choices and destructive deployment of what little power we have in our humanity, into God’s transformational power to imagine, to affirm, and to love. We literally need to lose our little separate lives in order to participate together in the mighty transformative life of God.
I’m thinking of those two misguided young men in Paris, trying to use their little power transformatively, and completely forgetting that the outcome is dignity for all.
Jesus set the model, willingly offering his own little life in “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, “ says Mark, in order to become part of God’s mighty work of mercy and justice in the world. At the same time that it names our smallness and inadequacy, baptism affirms that in its power we can turn and turn again toward God – repentance, metanoia in Greek – that in its power we can release – forgive, áphesin, in Greek – whatever has marred our dignity in the past and claim our full dignity in the future, immersing ourselves ever more deeply in God’s love, love for us and through us, for all others.
I want to offer a parable of baptism, a story of smallness to the point of invisibility, and of dignity and capacity beyond all imagining. It’s a story I heard on “All Things Considered” Friday night, the story of Martin Pistorius. Martin grew up in South Africa in a normal childhood, until at age 12 he had a headache that turned out to be both a rare form of meningitis and “tuberculosis of the brain.” It worsened progressively until he lost all capacity to move, even his eyeballs, and to speak. He entered what doctors call “a vegetative state,” and he was sent home with his parents to die. But he didn’t die. Instead, he persisted in this complete paralysis, year after grueling year. Everyone assumed he had no consciousness to speak of, since he gave no sign of any. But inside his inert body, his brain eventually “woke up” and he became “aware of everything just like a normal person. But he couldn’t move his body.
Everyone was so used to him not being there that they didn't notice when he began to be present again. Though he could see and understand everything, he couldn't find a way to let anybody know. The stark reality hit him that he was going to spend the rest of his life like that - totally alone. He was trapped with only his thoughts for company. And they weren't particularly nice thoughts. ‘I will never be rescued,’ he thought. ‘No one will ever show me tenderness.’ The thoughts battered him, berated him. ‘No one will ever love me,’ he thought. ‘You are doomed.’ And, of course, there was no way to escape, take a walk or talk to a friend. ‘You will never get out,’ he thought, ‘You are powerless. You will be alone forever.’ So he figured his only option was to leave his thoughts behind, simply let them all just float by. That was his first strategy, disengaging his thoughts, and …he got really good at it. ‘You don’t really think about anything. You simply exist.’”
And worst: because he was in a vegetative state, his carers would leave him in front of the TV and play “Barney” re-runs by the hour, day after day. He HATED Barney. One day, he decided he had had enough. He needed to know what time it was because if he could know what time it was, he could know when [the torture by Barney] would end! But he was rarely seated near a clock, so he would watch how the sun moved across the room or how a shadow moved throughout the day. He began to match what he saw with little bits of information he was able to collect - what he heard on the television, a nurse mentioning the time. And within a few months he could read the shadows like a clock. It was his first semblance of control. Simply knowing where he was in the day gave him the sense of being able to climb through it.
He started to take his thoughts on again. Only now, “when a dark thought came up, instead of letting it just float by he would try to find some new relationship to it. Like, one time, shortly after having the drool wiped from his chin by a nurse, he started to think, “You are pathetic.” But just then, “He happened to notice that a song was playing on the radio - Whitney Houston's ‘The Greatest Love Of All.’” In the midst of that terrible isolation – after year after year of it – the truly “baptismal” moment arrived. In the song Houston sings, “No matter what they take from me, they can’t take away my dignity because the greatest love of all is happening to me… I found the greatest love of all inside of me.”
Little by little, “Martin found a way to reframe, reinterpret even the ugliest thoughts that haunted him. Like the time his mother, in desperate frustration and thinking Martin couldn’t understand, said baldly to him, “I hope you die.” “But [unbeknownst to her,] he was conscious when his mom told him that. The rest of the world felt so far away when she said those words. But he began to wrestle with it. Why would a mother say that? As time passed, he gradually learned to understand his mother's desperation, [that] every time she looked at him, she could see only a cruel parody of the once-healthy child she had loved so much.” What an amazing capacity for compassion he forged, to be able to see his mother this way.
“And over time [as] Martin began reengaging with his thoughts, and slowly, as his mind felt better, something else happened. His body began to get better. It’s a “long story, involving inexplicable neurological developments,” but the short version is that “at age 26, Martin passed a test where he identified different objects by pointing at them with his eyes.” That was when he finally got the electronic “tools to communicate” via a computer-generated voice similar to Dr. Stephen Hawking’s. “He forges ahead,” becomes wheel-chair mobile, “gets a job at a local government office….Eventually, he scraps that job – too elementary! – and goes to college. In computer science. Starts a web company. He writes a book. He's learning to drive…He’s met a woman – a friend of his sister’s, and they’ve fallen in love and gotten married. She says “the thing that drew her to Martin was his humor about the human condition, his frankness.” She goes on, “’If I ask him anything, he'll give me an honest answer. There was no pretend. Oh, OK, well, he's in a wheelchair and he doesn't speak, but I love this guy. He's amazing. Then it just so quickly turned into love,’” she laughs. And Martin, at long last, had no trouble expressing what he felt inside.” He says, “My face would hurt from smiling so much.”
Martin Pistorius in his illness became so small and so desperately isolated that he was literally invisible even to those who loved and cared for him daily and sacrificed for him unthinkably. Yet his capacity now seems mind-blowing. He “thinks it may have been his decision to lean into those dark thoughts – to claim his dignity, as Whitney Houston told him to – that helped him to get the very best thing in his life,” his wife, his love, and his connection to and power in the world.
“The earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, "Let there be light"; and there was light.” And the heavens were torn apart and “a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my… Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’"
Dare we take Martin Pistorius’s story as a Word to us, a word of hope in the teeth of all that threatens our dignity; a word of power in the teeth of our weakness; and above all, a word of love in the teeth of all that is hate-filled and destructive? We may not be called to a work on the scope of Martin Luther King. But we ARE called to our OWN scale of work to claim our own dignity and to connect to and support the dignity of others, in the power – the sometimes miraculous power – of our baptism into Christ, our brother, and our God. AMEN.
Lulu Miller: “Trapped in his body for 12 years, a man breaks free” All Things Considered, 1-9-15 http://www.npr.org/templates/transcript/transcript.php?storyId=376084137
Whitney Houston, “The Greatest Love of All” http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/whitneyhouston/greatestloveofall.html