Hope and Joy, Even Now, Amidst Suffering

Sermon for Sunday, May 25, 2014
Easter 6A
I Peter 3:13-22

This morning’s sermon is really about 1 Peter and Baptism.  (Scholars believe that 1 Peter was a baptismal homily from the early church.)  And at the end, I’m going to ask you what your Baptism means to you.  But we’re not going to begin there.  We’re going to begin with a movie that was ostensibly based on Homer’s Odyssey, but which – when I watch it or listen to the soundtrack – I can’t help but think of 1 Peter.

We’re going to begin with one of my two favorite scenes from “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” — Delmar’s Baptism.   The three escaped convicts are on the lam in the woods, and stumble upon a congregation doing immersion Baptism at a lake.  One of the three, Delmar, is visibly moved, and dashes off, running and splashing in the water, toward the preacher, who holds and dunks him under the water.  Pete and Ulysses, the other two convicts, watch from the shore.

Pete: Well [I don’t believe it]. Delmar’s been saved.
Delmar: Well that’s it, boys. I’ve been redeemed. The preacher’s done washed away all my sins and transgressions. It’s the straight and narrow from here on out, and heaven everlasting’s my reward.
Ulysses: Delmar, what are you talking about? We’ve got bigger fish to fry.
Delmar: The preacher says all my sins is washed away, including that Piggly Wiggly I [robbed] in Yazoo.
Ulysses: I thought you said you [were] innocent of those charges?
Delmar: Well I was lyin’. And the preacher says that that sin’s been washed away too.  Neither God nor man’s got nothin’ on me now.  C’mon in boys, the water is fine.

You may recall the soundtrack at this point in the movie – it was Alison Krause singing, “Down to the River to Pray:”

As I went down to the water to pray
Studying about that good ol’ way
And who shall wear the starry crown?
Good Lord, show me the way.

My other favorite scene is when the three escaped convicts happen upon a rural radio station with blind announcer who, though he’s heard about the escaped convicts, does not recognize them.  The trio convinces him that they are a blue-grass band – on the spot calling themselves the “Soggy Bottom Boys” – and perform an old bluegrass classic, “I am a Man of Constant Sorrow.”

I am a man of constant sorrow
I’ve seen trouble all my days
I bid farewell to old Kentucky
The place where I was born and raised.
[…tells of many sorrows…]

… But there is one promise that is given
I’ll meet you on God’s golden shore.
He’ll meet you on God’s golden shore.

“O Brother, Where art Thou” reminds me of 1 Peter not merely because of Delmar’s Baptism and 1 Peter was a Baptismal homily, but also because – like the protagonists in “O Brother, Where art Thou,” saw trouble all their days  – the community of 1 Peter was likewise “seeing trouble all their days.”   Note how often 1 Peter speaks of suffering, such as in today’s lesson:

“Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil.”

For the homilist to speak to them like this, the community of 1 Peter must have been experiencing some kind of persecution.

As I try to imagine what the community of 1 Peter was experiencing – discrimination?  imprisonment?  some sort of physical punishment? –   I can’t help but notice the hope and even joy that Peter expresses (like the hope and joy of Delmar coming up out of the water):

Three weeks ago:  “He was destined before the foundation of the world, but was revealed at the end of the ages for your sake… so that your faith and hope are set on God…You have been born anew, not of perishable but of imperishable seed, through the living and enduring word of God.”

Last Sunday:  “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”

It seems to me that one of the things we Christians can offer this world is hope and joy even where there is suffering.  We know how to offer hope and joy where there is suffering because we were baptized into Jesus’ death:  “Do you not know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” writes Paul.  We know about suffering and death; we are close to the man of sorrow (who saw trouble all his days).  And…  because we were baptized into his death, we also share in his resurrection.  To cite Paul again:  “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”   Our Baptism means that we have it within us to know suffering and death, and yet at the same time to point to hope and joy.  We follow a Lord who – even as he was undergoing his Passion – yet knew joy: hope, for the resurrection he knew would come; joy, because he knew he was doing his Father’s will.  We are this man’s disciples, the ones whom he has chosen.  He has called us, he abides with us, he will be with us forever, and he loves us as his Father loves him.   He wants us to have joy, and he holds out the possibility for us to find it, even in life’s darkest circumstances.

We began with two scenes from a movie; I am going to close with two scenes from my own life.  First, a visit to St. James’ Roman Catholic cathedral in Seattle:  Around the Baptismal pool in the back of the cathedral, etched in the stone around the perimeter of the pool, are hope-filled, joy-infused words from 1 Peter which tell us our identity and mission as the baptized:

“You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”

The second, is a place on the Chestatee River in the mountains of rural north Georgia.  It’s a spot where Ashley’s family will often gather for family reunions, and it’s also a spot used by local congregations for Baptisms.   The Chestatee comes down from the mountains of the Chattahoochee National Forest in spectacular fashion, rushing over boulders and around sharp bends, but at this point, it’s fairly tame.  On a hot Georgia summer’s day, it’s incredibly refreshing to wade in, to feel the gravely sand of the riverbed under my feet, and to gradually go over to the deep spot and to lie back and float in the water.   As I float there –  seeing the branches of the trees overhead, hearing the water trickling by the rocks and roots along the bank, smelling that mountain stream smell of moss and wet stones and decaying leaves –  I can’t help but think:  “This is the spot where people give themselves to God.”  And I try to imagine the hopes and dreams that they have for this new life in God, and maybe the feeling of release from an old life.

I wonder, what does your Baptism mean to you?  What are your hopes and dreams for your life in God, and where might you like to be released from an old life?  And I wonder if you – like Delmar coming up out of the water, like Jesus rising out of the tomb – know something of the joy that Jesus wants to give you?

 

 

 

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