Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The antidote

Isaiah 42: 1-9; Matthew 3: 1-2, 11-17
Woodmont United Church of Christ, Milford, CT
January 9, 2011

None of us likes to be fooled nor do we want to miss the boat on anything either. It seems that most of us are persuaded that there must be one right way to do things; usually our way or the way of the mob, the majority or those in the resistance camp. We want to know who and what is right so we won’t have to be wrong. For many folks certainty is the unconscious drive behind religious faith. Or the rejection of religious faith. As I said, none of us likes to be hoodwinked.

Recently a group of folks volunteered for a study to not only be hoodwinked but told openly by researchers that they would be. The study was conducted by Harvard Medical School and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. 80 patients with irritable bowel syndrome were divided into two groups: one group was given a placebo to be taken twice a day, the other was given nothing. The hitch was that those who took the placebo knew they were taking sugar pills. Some of the patients and a few of the doctors conducting the study were skeptical as to whether or not the pills would have any effect on symptoms. Placebo studies that had been carried out in the past concealed the fact that patients were taking sugar pills. Though the placebos in many cases worked, hence the term ‘the placebo effect’, the secrecy surrounding the pills made it unethical for doctors to prescribe them.

Surprisingly, 59% of those who knowingly took sugar pills had adequate relief of symptoms compared to 35% of the group who took nothing. And of course, there were no side effects. Researchers theorized that it was the ritual of taking a pill that did the trick. Usually when we take aspirin or something for a headache, we of course expect relief more so than when we don’t take anything.

Many more studies need to be done before doctors could prescribe placebos. So far sugar pills have only been effective on maladies due to an overactive nervous system, that is, stress and anxiety. However, it does beg the question if an honest placebo would work with more serious illnesses like Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, cancer and others. If the cure to what ails us is in our minds, wouldn’t it be miraculous not to have to poison our bodies in order to be well and whole?

The word ‘placebo’ is actually a 13th c. name given to the rite Vespers of the Office of the Dead, which comes from the opening of the first antiphon or responsive song, taken from Psalm 116.9: “I will please the Lord in the land of the living”. ‘Placebo’ means ‘I will please’, the future tense of the Latin placere. In the late 17th c. the word placebo gained its medical meaning: a medicine taken to please rather than to benefit the patient.

In this morning’s gospel lesson we read that after Jesus is baptized by John, God is well-pleased; that somehow Jesus submitting to John for baptism pleases God. Through the centuries many have been puzzled as to why Jesus would require baptism. It’s not as though he was a sinful person needing repentance, to turn toward God. We’ve heard at least six weeks’ worth of readings that Jesus is God-with-us. What benefit would there be to Jesus receiving John’s baptism of repentance?

In fact, John and his message of repentance were seen as an insidious poison by the powers that be. He challenged the status quo, calling the people out from the cities and towns, declaring that God was not in the seat of power but in the homeless wilderness of our lives. He hurled insults and levied charges against both the Pharisees and Sadducees, the religious authorities of his time. He was loud and obnoxious, clothed in animal skins, his diet that of a wild bear.

So when Jesus wades into the Jordan in front of God and everybody, asking John to baptize him, Jesus aligns himself with this apparent poisonous personality. Even though Jesus is both physician and medicine to our souls, to sin and evil, Jesus looks like poison.

We all know or have known people who have toxic personalities. They spread chaos in their wake, they hurt and destroy, they shame and blame others. Perhaps we’ve even been a member of a church where one or more of these bullies was a leader or a behind-the-scenes-wrecker. It’s not easy being in community with the person we least want to be there. When Jesus said ‘love your enemies’, I would bet this is the kind of person who would be the most difficult to love.

And though it may be easy to identify such persons, it’s not as simple as that. Often what irks, angers or frustrates us in other people are traits that we ourselves possess. Rather than examine the health of our own psyche, it’s much easier to diagnose someone else’s problems. All of us are capable of wreaking havoc, large or small, in our communal lives.

Before worship began, I gave two small containers to two different people.

(Here is where the manuscript of my sermon ended, and the extemporaneous began. I had given the two containers pictured to two different worshipers before service. I gave no instruction, except that they may do with them as they wished and that I needed them back at the conclusion of worship. I did not think ahead of time who I would ask; rather I followed the Spirit's leading. What follows is a paraphrase of the rest of my sermon.)

Interesting! The person I gave the button to now has both the prescription bottle and the button pinned to his shirt. The prescription bottle took a trip around the room but the button stayed in one place.

(Incidentally, the bottle had a label on it that said "DAMITOL - Warning: Contents may be hazardous to community life. Keep out of reach of children." Inside the bottle was a slip of paper that read "Active ingredients: Fear, anxiety, self-absorption, anger, non-communicated expectations, assumptions about others. Possible side effects: Conflict, bruised egos. If taken with a dose of grace, there is increased likelihood for spiritual growth.")

Now I could make all kinds of allusions to why one object traveled and one stayed in one place, but I think you can guess those yourself. The thing of it is, is that too often our tradition treats baptism as if it was the antidote to fear and sin, as if the waters of baptism had the power to turn us away from ourselves toward God.

Baptism is the outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible reality, that we have made a choice to follow Jesus, to recognize others as a child of God and to treat them that way. Sure, it would be nice to wear a button that says that we are a child of God and I hope you'll treat me that way, but that's not what it means to follow Jesus. To follow Jesus means to take the focus off of ourselves and instead look at others with clear and compassionate eyes. It means making this decision each and every day, that we will follow Jesus.

Jesus is the antidote, taken through the waters of baptism. In Jesus, God says to us, "You are my child and I will treat you that way."

(The idea for this sermon came to me in a dream. I was little nervous: one, because of the source of the idea, and two, because it was open-ended. I didn't have a clue what would happen.)

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