Rosalyn Baldwin’s Beloved Community

Rosalyn Baldwin’s Beloved Community

“Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness.” Matthew 10:1

 The Reverend Luther Zeigler

Pentecost 2A – June 18, 2017

Amidst all the depressing news of this week, I was grateful to stumble upon the story of Rosalyn Baldwin, a seven-year old African-American girl from Hammond, Louisiana. The daughter of a pastor, Rosalyn was deeply affected last year by the news of the tragic killing of five police officers in Dallas, as I suspect many of us were. But Rosalyn, she decided to do something about it, something simple, something wonderfully naïve, something meaningful. She told her parents she wanted to travel around the country visiting police stations so that she could give hugs to police officers. When asked why she wanted to do this, Rosalyn replied simply: “They risk their lives and want to keep us safe. So I want to do this for them.”

When she first approached her parents about this project, they were touched, as you might expect, and agreed to take Rosalyn to the local Sherriff’s office, where she did indeed offer hugs to all the officers there. Secretly, though, her parents were hoping that this visit would satisfy Rosalyn, and that her dream of a nationwide hug-fest would pass, so that they could go on with their lives; but Rosalyn’s determination didn’t pass. She has politely, but tenaciously, insisted on carrying out her dream of visiting police departments in all fifty states, and she is now almost a third of the way there.

An interviewer recently asked her how she got the idea. She answered, “God told me to do it.” When gently pressed by a skeptical questioner, Rosalyn explained that she reads the Bible, that Jesus teaches us to love one another as he loved us, and that hugging people to whom we are grateful is a good way to love them. Yes, God told her to do it.

Somewhat more precociously, Rosalyn also noted that her daddy had taught her about Dr. Martin Luther King’s vision of Christ’s “beloved community,” a place where people consistently serve one another, meet one another’s needs, and base their behavior on concern and care for the other and justice for all persons. Rosalyn said she wanted to live in such a community, and so, if it didn’t exist, she would create it.

This may all sound like a hopelessly sentimental and unrealistic approach to problems of urban violence and law enforcement; and perhaps it is, but guess what? Every major news outlet has picked up on Rosalyn’s story, and the Chicago Police Department – not known for their softheartedness – recently threw Rosalyn a party, and all of their officers are now wearing an “Officially Hugged by Rosalyn sticker.” The truth is that this seven-year-old is doing more to confront issues of gun violence with her little hugging project than the rest of us combined.

True, Rosalyn may not have an understanding of the complex causes of urban unrest, or the nuances of race relations in America, or the historical patterns of conflict between police and minority communities. But as a theologian friend of mine once put it, you don’t need to understand healing to heal or be healed, and you don’t need to understand blessing to bless or be a blessing. Maybe it is precisely because of her youthful naiveté that Rosalyn is willing to put herself out there, to take a risk, so that she can be a conduit of healing, all in the name of Christ’s love. Perhaps that is why Jesus says elsewhere in the gospels that to enter the Kingdom of Heaven we must first become like children.

So, what does little Rosalyn have to do with today’s gospel text? Well, today’s story from Matthew marks the first time in Jesus’ ministry when he calls together the twelve disciples and tells them what it means to be one of his followers. “You’ve watched me for weeks proclaiming the good news by healing the sick and liberating the possessed,” Jesus tells them. “I’m giving you this very same authority: the power to heal and liberate. Now,” he says, “go out into the world and do as I do.”

Well, I imagine the disciples probably reacted to this invitation the same way you are now, wondering to yourself what on earth it would look like for us to heal the sick or liberate the possessed. It is not likely, after all, that any of us will soon be encountering folks with leprosy or palsied limbs or folks possessed by demonic spirits like Jesus did. And if we did come upon such a person, surely we would refer them to a qualified physician.

But that is a far too literal-minded understanding of what Jesus is saying, both in terms of the types of maladies that afflict us and in terms of how we can heal one another. The truth is that every single person we meet, and I dare say each one of us, is in some sense, and at some point in our lives, wounded, and in need of healing. Do you know someone who has recently lost a spouse and is grieving the loss? Or someone caring for a parent with dementia, who is experiencing the pain of watching a loved one recede into a shadow of his former self? Or someone contending with the pain of a divorce or some other broken relationship? Or someone living in the depths of loneliness? Or who has just been diagnosed with a life-threatening disease? These are all real, human sufferings that stand in need of our compassionate and healing response. As his followers, Christ invites us into these wounds, asks us to be present to them, and urges that we bring the healing presence of his love into these spaces on his behalf and for one another. That, as Rosalyn understands, is at the heart of the Church’s mission.

The same is true of liberating the possessed. You may think you’ve never met someone possessed by a demon, but here too, let us not be so literal-minded. If you know an alcoholic, or a deeply anxious person, or someone consumed by greed or ambition, or someone prone to violence, or someone with deep and enduring insecurities, then you’ve met someone battling a demon. And, I suspect too that each of us, if we’re honest, have our own demons of one sort or another.

The good news of Christ is that, whatever temporary hold such demons may seem to have on us now, he is here to liberate us from the tyranny of such compulsions and disorders. And we, in turn, are invited to share these burdens with one another, and be conduits to each other, of the promise of Christ’s liberating love.

Let me pause here…because I want to underscore a risk of misunderstanding these stories of healing and liberation. While the gospels are replete with accounts of Jesus’ healing touch, we all know that not every disease in life is cured, or every demon tamed, despite our faithfulness. Oftentimes the sick do suffer and die, and the possessed continue to be plagued by their demons. Are we to conclude that our faithful prayers and presence in those situations are ineffective? Hardly. It is a mistake to interpret these gospel stories of healing and liberation in narrow utilitarian terms, as if we are placing an order with God for a certain result. The purpose of our prayer for healing and liberation is not to win a short-term medical outcome (although sometimes that does happen) but rather we are prayerfully present to those in pain so as to draw them and us into a deeper relationship with God, and each other, a loving communion that will itself endure beyond today’s sufferings.

For the truth of the matter is that our lives on this earth are short, and our bodies and minds stay young and healthy for only so long before they begin to age and fail. That is the nature of our creaturely condition. And while it is appropriate to hope and pray for long and healthy physical lives, and for healing from those illnesses that sometimes beset us, our ultimate destiny is not in these bodies we now inhabit. Our ultimate destiny is to draw nearer to God and one another through Christ. It is not our bodies that need healing so much as our hearts, and it is for hearts that are open and receptive to Christ’s presence that we should pray. For our bodies will come and go, but through Christ’s redeeming love, our hearts belong to God forever.

That, my friends, is the good news that little Rosalyn is communicating with her simple hugs of grateful healing and appreciation, whether she fully understands it or not. To the rest of the world, such reckless love appears to be crazy, irrational, and ineffective. The cynicism of the world is convinced that violence, corruption, meanness, and the chaos of evil, are just too powerful to be overcome by the love of a little girl. But those of us, like little Rosalyn, who follow Jesus, we know better.

When Steve Jobs, one of the founders of Apple, died a few years ago, an old Apple commercial from the 90s went viral on YouTube. It was a commercial that aired in 1997 and that attempted to re-brand Apple products. The tag line for the commercial and the company was “Think different,” a phrase that is grammatically incorrect — which is part of the point.

In the commercial, they showed a collage of photographs of people who have invented and inspired, created and sacrificed to improve the world, to make a difference. They showed Amelia Earhart, Frank Lloyd Wright, Maria Callas, Martin Luther King Jr., Jim Henson, Albert Einstein, Pablo Picasso, Mahatma Gandhi and on and on and on. As the images rolled by, a voice read this poem:

Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels.

The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes.

The ones who see things differently. . . .

You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them.

About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them.

Because they change things.

They push the human race forward.

While some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius.

Because the people who are crazy enough

to think they can change the world,

are the ones who do.

In the words of our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, what our Church needs now more than ever are crazy Christians. Christians crazy enough to believe we can both be against racism and for respecting police officers. Christians crazy enough to believe that we can disagree with one another politically without shooting each other on a softball field. Christians crazy enough to believe that God is real and that Jesus lives. Crazy enough to follow the radical way of the gospel. Crazy enough to believe that the love of God is greater than all the powers of evil and death put together. We need crazy Christians like Rosalyn Baldwin. God bless her, her hugs, and her determination. May we heed her example and go and do likewise. Amen.