A Baptismal Meditation delivered by The Rev. Timothy C. Ahrens, Sr. Minister, The First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Columbus, Ohio, May 23, 2004, Ascension Sunday, dedicated to Savana and Sonoma Hardesty on their baptismal day, to Elaine on her day of joy, to Debbie Anderson for her breathless enthusiasm and her creative imagination, to our teachers and students, to Dorinda White and Gayle Henderson, to Andrew Long-Higgins on his Confirmation day & always to the glory of God!
(Part 4 of 6 in the sermon series "Good News for Today")
Acts 16:16-34; Acts 1:6-11; Revelation 22:12-21
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and meditations of each one of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our rock and our salvation. Amen.
Several years ago a man came to worship like none other I had ever seen inside the sanctuary during worship. He was distinctive in every imaginable way. His clothes were colorful - a dirty rainbow-colored shirt made of polyester fabric, torn blue jeans, torn docker shoes, no socks. He was in his early 30's. His features were lean and gaunt and worn - almost ghost-like. His bleached-blonde hair was brown at the roots. His eyes were highlighted by colorful make-up. Each ear was pierced with two different kinds of gold earrings. Eyeliner was running on his left and right cheek as if tears had fallen in cavalcades to streak his pale face with dark gullies from eye to lower jawbone. Each fingernail was roughly painted a different color.
His name was Paul. He entered the service late and sat alone, though close enough to seem a part of the whole. He stayed long after the lights were out to talk of his life in need of everything. After the greeting line was finished, the coffee pots cleaned, the children and parents gone to their post-church activities, this young man sat alone in the sanctuary weeping silently in the darkness. I sat done beside him, he reached his sweaty palm to my hand and held on. The touch was enough to activate his rapid-fire delivery:
"I have been sent to you by people who told me you could help me. I am gay. I am alone. I am dying of AIDS and some person told me you would understand. He told me you would help . . . Well, I mean, I know you can't help my AIDS, but he told me that maybe you could help me before I die - and I don't have long before I die . . . "
His was an unfolding story of childhood torment, teenage rejection, and then a continual cycle of sadness, fear, pain, abandonment, homelessness, aloneness. Since being thrown out of his home as a teenager, his life had been a downward spiral of anguish. As he spoke, tears came to my eyes. I simply listened. He simply unveiled his story and he hung onto my hand. Finally, he paused to catch his breath. Then a smile enlightened his forlorn visage. He said, "Do you know, I have been a prisoner of my body and soul. But, I feel like my soul has been released from prison even though AIDS holds my body captive" He asked if I would baptize him because his parents had run him out of his home before he found his way to the waters of baptism. And so, in the name of "the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit" Paul was cleansed, forgiven, reconciled, loved and washed in the grace of God. On that day, in the face of his death, he began his ascension into glory, as he joined the great cloud of witnesses - a child of our living God - a rainbow-painted sign of hope.
After baptism, I Paul asked to receive communion. Receiving the torn body and poured blood of Christ, this man who had been broken and had poured out, came that day to KNOW the Risen Christ. With a liberated heart, Paul departed the church's sanctuary in peace. As for his departure to the realm of God's glory, I do not know the ending of his story. But, I do know, that for this prisoner of body and soul, there was good news on Sunday several years ago!
Prisoners of body and soul have been very much in the news lately. And there is not good news surrounding these prisoners and their captors. With the abuse scandal of Iraq's Abu Ghraib prisoners by American soldiers (coupled with our horror at the beheading of the American civilian), the American people and the world community have focused their eyes, ears, and prayers on our Military Courts of Justice. We are hearing about the five men and two women reservists who are facing a variety of charges of military insubordination. In addition, news was released this week concerning a number of Marine guards involved in torture and abuse almost one year ago. Although we cannot now know how trials, investigations and inquiries will turn out, we can be sure that the pictures the world has seen and unfolding news that has followed the photos will cost America's standing in the world in ways that are far beyond calculation. Carroll Bogert of the internationally respected Human Rights Watch, (which gained its prestige uncovering human rights abuses in the former Communist-block nations) in quoted in this week's Newsweek saying, "The United States is running a gulag, a series of detention centers around the world where international legal standards are not having sway. (This administration has) opened the door to a little bit of torture and a whole lot of torture has walked through" ( "Abu Ghraib and Beyond," Newsweek, May 17, 2004, p. 35). Along with Human Rights Watch, Nobel Peace Prize winning Amnesty International has joined its reasoned voice to the cacophony of international voices rising across the globe and will not rest until answers are given which reconcile these human rights injustices. To change our policies related to prisoners in this war on terror. We and all Americans need to add our voices, too.
For me, this story has personal and significant meaning. For several years in the early 1980's, I was the staff person for a small Christian human rights organization that dealt with torture victims around the world. Several times, I had the opportunity to sit with survivors of torture. One woman, a Guatemalan peasant had been tortured for no reason other than she was her village leader of for the equivalent of Guatemala's Church Women United. Having met men and women who had been tortured, I can tell you the phenomenal trauma this kind of treatment creates. Some of you know first-hand, or from family and friends, the trauma brought upon our POW's or our own soldiers placed under the command of men in war who defied the Geneva Conventions of War. My father faced such a situation while in combat in WWII.
To be dehumanized or to participate in the dehumanization of another person is any way, shape, or form is to be scarred as a prisoner of body and soul. For our times, the good news is that we live in a democracy. We have a system of government of the people, by the people and for the people. We live in a land where the government leaders are accountable and responsible for their actions or inactions. It is good news that the military courts of justice will get to the root of these abuses. Quite frankly, the key to ending this insanity opens the door at the top levels of leadership. In a word, the President of the United States and his leading cabinet members need to give the clear command to end this now and follow the Geneva convention, especially now, when we are faced with a war on terror. Nothing less than claiming the high ground of humanity and justice is what is called for now.
In a time such as this, on a day such as this, following the beautiful baptisms of Savana and Sonoma that signify not only their union with Christ and Christ's church, but also rings the bells for their mother Elaine of finalized adoption after a year of wondering, praying, anticipating and waiting. We want to soak in the beauty of the new Music banner and sing an "Alleluia!" to our own artist in residence, Debbie Anderson. We want to dance with delight to celebrate the good news of our teachers and students growing in faith and knowledge of Christ in our educational ministries. This is the day that the Lord has made and we are delighted by the great, good news that embraces us this day.
In addition, the biblical story calls us to lift up the Ascending Christ as he is carried on the clouds of glory from earth to heaven and ultimately to the right hand of God. We want to rejoice in the exorcism for the young girl trapped by evil spirits, and the liberation of Paul and Silas and the prisoners in their middle eastern prison so long ago. We want to celebrate the conversion of the jailor who begins this story in fear for his life after the prisoners escape on his watch and ends the story with Paul and Silas staying behind to liberate him from his fears and baptize him into Christ. And finally we want to join with the author of Revelation and cry out, "Alleluia! Christ is indeed coming soon! Come Lord Jesus! Amen!"
And we can celebrate and we will celebrate all this good news and more. We can and we will because a man walked into a sanctuary years ago, looking like no man who had ever entered there before. He sat quietly in the transept of the church. When it was time for the reading of the scripture, he unexpectedly stood, came forward, unrolled the scrolls, and read softly and clearly. The text belonged to the prophet Isaiah. But, the spirit of God's prophecy belonged to the young man, this young man named Jesus. He said:
"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because God has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. God has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of God's favor. (Luke 4:18-19, quoting Isaiah 61:1-2).
Then he said, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." The rest is our history. Now that . . . that is good news! Amen.
Copyright 2004, The First Congregational Church
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