Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
January 8, 2017
“Tracked Down by the Zeitgeist”
Matthew 3: 13-17 – New Revised Standard Version
Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14 John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15 But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. 16 And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved,[a] with whom I am well pleased.”
On the afternoon of December 1, 1955, a woman asked “Why do you push us around?” The officer replied, “I don’t know.” But it was his job to arrest her anyway for not giving up her seat to a white man.
The story has often been told that Rosa Parks was simply a poor seamstress who refused to move because she was tired after a long day of work, unaware that her action would spark a new civil rights movement. That myth persists even though Rosa corrected the record herself by saying “people always say that I didn't give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn't true. I wasn’t tired physically... No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.” As a member of the NAACP in Montgomery, her action had been planned in advanced. Yet, if it wasn’t that she was simply tired, there still was a moment when she decided she was going to do something. What was that motivating moment? In Slate Magazine, Diane McWhorter said “We all act upon, and are acted upon by, forces we don’t understand [and don’t control]. And then suddenly those forces crystallize in a person or an event that “de-randomizes” all that has come before.”
Something happens and we will no longer accept what has always been assumed, business as usual. Suddenly it all makes sense and we know what to do, or at least, we know that we are ready to do something.
I’m curious about that crystallizing moment for her. The epiphany. The “ah-ha” that changed the path on which she had been living. Like McWhorter put it, living “randomly.” Meaning, when we’re satisfied enough, if not particularly intentional. But suddenly we know that the future we assumed must be transformed. Martin Luther King said of Rosa Parks, she had been “tracked down by the zeitgeist.”
Zeitgeist is defined as the attitude or general outlook of a specific time or period. For her, the 1950s segregated Jim Crow South. Suddenly, in some instant, it was no longer acceptable. I am prepared to act.
In July 2013, Alicia Garza posted what she called “a love letter to black people” on Facebook. It was a response to a community distraught over George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. On the day of the Zimmerman verdict, Garza posted: “the sad part is, there’s a section of America who is cheering and celebrating right now and that makes me sick to my stomach… [To her Facebook friends Garza said,] “Stop giving up on black life.” She ended with “I love you. I love us. Our lives matter.”
Alicia’s friend Patrisse Cullors amended those last three words to create a hashtag: #BlackLivesMatter. And a new civil rights movement began. Starting as small as Rosa’s sit down, this new movement grew in momentum after Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson and after each subsequent death. In the three years following, that one lone hashtag was used 13 million times. It crystallized for thousands of young people who found themselves tracked down by the zeitgeist. That hashtag made sense and hit a nerve and now they too are activists.
For you, what has been a motivating moment? What have been the epiphanies, the “ah-ha” when you said I have to change this? It doesn’t have to be about an issue. I’m also thinking about relationships. “I’m done.” Or a workplace. “That’s enough.” Or the moment when we chose the path of sobriety. Weight loss. Or self-acceptance. A realization: This is who I am. And that’s good. What have been the moments when you said “I have to” or “I’m going to…”? What happened when you too were tracked down by the zeitgeist? When some prevailing attitude was no longer acceptable?
I remember at least one time like that in my life. As I was struggling to come out, another student at college said, “I’m sorry this means that now you can’t be a minister.” It was a tiny little innocent comment that reflected the zeitgeist exactly. An out gay man could not be a minister. But everything crystalized in that moment. There was no big fanfare, I wasn’t a shepherd visited by an angelic host, but I decided this was unacceptable and I would not be stopped, or at least, I wouldn’t give up trying. In the 29 years since that singular moment, so much has changed that I could never have imagined at the time. Unfortunately, some of which we gained we stand to lose in the near future.
What has been so difficult after the election is the shift in zeitgeist in our country. A palpable shift from one in which we thought our shared values included an appreciation of diversity to one in which diverse people are pitted against each other. That, yes, there will always be a few who try to hoard wealth for themselves, but there seemed to be, nonetheless, a widely shared value that prosperity among all of us is better. A sense of uniquely American responsibility for each other. A zeitgeist about democracy and fairness and respect replaced by a contempt for education and a mean-spirit that believes cooperation for the Common Good is a bad thing. Even the zeitgeist about truth is not considered sacred anymore – where facts and lies are subject to definition by tweet.
Perhaps it’s good that it is so obvious. We don’t need to go looking for a motivating moment. An epiphany. An “ah-ha!” A big fat package was delivered postage due on November 9th. The only question is the exact nature of the action each of us will take in response. Waiting, like Rosa, for the moment we realize this is a seat from which I will not stand. Like Alicia, in despair, finding the clarity to state what became the hashtag seen round the world to crystallize a new civil rights movement.
But perhaps, like Jesus, we must first be sent into the wilderness too. To be quiet. To listen. His baptism led immediately to a time of preparation for temptation – after 40 days he was presented three variations of a temptation to seek the easy way out. But his baptism prepared him for that.
Most of us have been baptized. But I’m not sure we have ever thought of our baptisms as a preparation. Perhaps because we may think of baptism as something for cute babies – preferably when they’re still young enough that their reaction to a stranger and some cold water isn’t to scream bloody murder at the top of their quickly developing lungs. Baptism, the way we practice it, may not be messy enough. Or considered consequential enough. Someone once suggested that baptism should involve jumping out of an airplane. Skydiving. Free fall. Pull the rip cord. And only then, gently float down to the ground. The number of baptisms would probably plummet but we would understand that baptism is meant to prepare us to face our fears. Or if not skydiving, something equally capable of communicating our need to give it some serious thought first. Like rollercoasters… (shudder) and other matters of life and death.
Brad Braxton wrote that if we were to take the baptism of Jesus seriously, we would see that baptism is revolutionary. That baptism is preparation for a revolution. Parents, when you presented your child for baptism, did you ever consider that the path you chose for your child would prepare them to lead a revolution?
Baptism in Matthew’s gospel is sprinkled with subversive clues, beginning with, why would a sinless Messiah come to be baptized if baptism were merely about personal piety? John even tries to prevent Jesus from being baptized. I need to be baptized by you! But Jesus counters by telling John he wishes to be baptized to “fulfill all righteousness.”
Jesus chose baptism, in front of growing crowds of people flocking to the desert seeking a change in their lives. He chose baptism right in front of a bunch of hypocritical religious authorities whom John pointed to and called snakes and vipers. Why are you here!? Jesus chose this public venue, not a private event, to “fulfill all righteousness.”
Righteousness is one of those church-y words, such as sin or salvation or even baptism. It sometimes fails to communicate its intent clearly. It is not primarily something like – You should be more righteous. And it’s incongruous to call someone “self-righteous.” It’s a curious word. And here are three possibilities to understand his meaning:
1) righteousness is about God’s saving action in the world (not something we can do; not something we can be)
2) in Greek, the word is also be translated as justice, and
3) righteousness simply expresses God’s passion to see things set right that are wrong – the reversal of fortune such as the hungry are filled with good things and the rich are sent away emptyhanded. That is righteous. It has nothing to do with being “holier than thou.”
This understanding of righteousness would suggest that baptism is first of all, not about me. It is about our willing participation in God’s passion for seeing things set right that are wrong. It is God’s saving action.
Jesus said his baptism was to “fulfill all righteousness.” So by submitting to being baptized, he declared, “I am ready for the revolution.”
Something was wrong in his world. Yes, the Roman occupation. But worse, the collaboration of religious and Roman authorities to enrich themselves. Fake peace. Tyranny. Rigid rules, stuffy rituals, meant to control people, not to uplift them. Something was wrong back then. And something is deeply and terribly wrong today.
Remember Rosa? Suddenly, forces not fully understood crystallized in a moment that de-randomized all that came before. Suddenly it all made sense. She was prepared to refuse to stand. If you haven’t had that motivating moment, an experience that has provided the “ah-ha” needed to act, just wait. The zeitgeist is looking for you too!
And when found, your baptism has prepared you for your place in this righteous revolution. Yet just remember: this is not about us. This is our participation in God’s passion for seeing things set right that are wrong. It’s not an agenda that can be implemented or dismantled by a political party. It is about having the same gospel values whether we admire the president or are terrified by him.
We can’t save the world, no matter how important we are. But through our baptism we were made ready for the moment of clarity that it’s time to do the righteous things of God.
So, in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, when your Rosa moment comes, when your Alicia moment comes, know that you have been prepared for the revolution!
 Brad Ronnell Braxton, “Ready for Revolution,” The Christian Century, January 2-9, 2002