Sunday, January 09, 2011

My beloved

First Sunday after the Epiphany: The Baptism of Our Lord.
Sunday, January 9, 2011

Maybe you saw them? During the run-up to Christmas there were these billboards over the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel and they a part of a strange sort of war of words and images.

Last Christmas a group called American Atheists put up a billboard in that can’t miss spot over the entrances to the tunnels on the New Jersey side where all the cars are funneled through the toll booths. It pictured a stylized nativity scene complete with star and wise men, with the words “You know it’s a myth.” Well, on the other side of the tunnel—in not nearly as prominent location, because it depended on which tube you used to enter the city--the Catholic League put up an identical looking bulletin board that said “You know it’s true.” Another Christian group bought up the choice billboard spot on the Jersey side and replaced the atheist billboard with a Christian one.

This is the level that most people experience religious (and for that matter political) discourse: harangue and counter-harangue. Spin and counter-spin. Vitriol piled upon vitriol. And look at where it has gotten us.

This morning we come together in this strange mix of fear and uncertainty on the one side and hope and wonder on the other side. We are mindful of the news that yesterday someone attempted to assassinate a sitting member of Congress in her district and killed 6 other people, including a Federal Judge, in the process. (Read this.) And this morning we will be baptizing Mikaela and Brielle, initiating them into the Body of Christ and welcoming them into our community of faith.

You know, every time a person who has not walked into a church for a very long time and makes their way up those front steps through those red doors and makes their way into one these pews requires a remarkable degree of courage. We have done a lot to make this church barrier-free, but there are some barriers we can’t fix with ramps because they are in the heart. For the seeker or the person returning to church, even if it is for a baptism, wedding or funeral, I suspect that there is a certain hesitancy in the hearts of some of those people.

About a month ago, I had a small taste of this when I went to Florida for my daughter’s graduation and walked into a strange church in civilian clothes. What to expect in the service? What will they expect from me? Will I hear words of comfort and empowerment or will they be words of judgment and defensive exclusion? Will I experience nostalgia or a flash-back? Will they make me stand up and introduce myself?

And this experience put me in touch with the deepest question of all: Does this faith community have the capacity to hear our deepest concerns and questions? Will we be listened to and valued? Can we take each others questions seriously or dismiss them as an annoyance?

There are other people, the ones who have grounded their lives in their faith and in their faith community, that I am also thinking of. These are the ones who find great peace in their faith, and who are able to connect the dots between their faith and their everyday living. We know of people of faith who have shown incredible mercy, done incredible good, and put themselves at incredible risk. These are the people, whether we are people of faith or not, whom we look at and wish we could be like when we grow up.

That's because if we are at all engaged in life, we are always looking for something more. Something that gives us hope and meaning. Something that tells us that God is present and at work. And sometimes we see it in each other. Sometimes we see it when we least expect it. Our hearts keep drifting back, if not through those red doors, at least in the doors of our hearts, because our spirits long for a connection, a relationship with God and of a faith can give us grounding, purpose and direction.

In this community, we have been nourished and taught by people of prayer and commitment to Christ's mission in the world. They hang in with communities of faith like ours not because we are perfect but because they know that, despite all our foibles and failings, God is at work through ordinary humans doing extraordinary things. These everyday Christians come back, with a kind of clear-eyed, realistic hope, because there is no other places they’d rather be. They know that we are beloved.

This room is filled with both kinds of people and every one in between. And so I ask us, we who come to the waters of baptism: What is the message will we bring? Will it be a harangue or will it be hope?

A long time ago, I found myself as a chaplain to a residential mental health facility where people were dealing with everything from addictions to schizophrenia to chronic mental illness, and I was asked to run a spirituality group. The goal was to help these wonderful yet profoundly fragile people work on the spiritual side of their emotional and mental health. The person I followed ran it like a church service and I was told that the response was either passivity or near-riot. I decided that, following the lead of the author and spiritual director Henri Nouwen, I would lead with one message and one message only: God’s words at the baptism of Jesus: “This is my son, my beloved.” My question was always: “Do you know that you are beloved.”

One of the things about the John the Baptist is that he sure could yell. In the popular imagination, he is the epitome of the religious prophet who stands in his camel-skins, holding his staff, with wild look and he tells the powers that be exactly who they are---a brood of vipers—and exactly where they can go. There is a certain emotional satisfaction is being able to shut off the super-ego for just one minute, open the window and yell, just like Howard Beale in the 1976 film Network, “I am mad as hell and I am not going to take this anymore!” But as cathartic as that may feel, it will take one so far. We may like the idea of a John the Baptist—telling off the powers that be—but we don’t want to be on the receiving end, and it is a terrible thing to live life where the only thing you have to say is a harangue, or anger, or a cry of frustration.

Into this mix comes Jesus. Isn’t it strange that Jesus even chose to be baptized at all? I mean, if Jesus is who we say he is, someone like us in every way yet without sin, why would he need to be baptized?

Well, let's re-imagine repentance. We tend to think of repentance as turning away from something—giving up something bad. Okay, but let's go a little deeper. Another way to look at repentance as turning towards something—towards God. A life of repentance is a life of continual reorientation towards God. Jesus lived a life oriented towards and constantly re-oriented towards God. And in his baptism, he joins with us in our desire to be oriented towards God.

And in his baptism, Jesus ends up turning John’s message on its head, or at least re-orienting it. When the voice of God is heard, when the voice that can split the cedars of Lebanon and make mountains skip is heard, is it a voice of condemnation? No. Is it a voice of judgment or divine vengeance? No. When God speaks, and the Spirit descends, here is what we hear: “This is my beloved ”

If we start with the notion that at the root of it all, and despite all the evil that humanity can dish out, we are beloved, then everything changes.

Instead of living life trying to adhere to all the rules so that we might earn God’s love, we discover that we already have it.

Instead of trying to convince ourselves and others that we are lovable, we find that we are and always have been loved.

We find that God’s work in coming to us in Jesus Christ, and the work of the church in our common and sacramental life is not to try to fix a mistake, our common life and our sacraments give us the tools, the power, the support to live as the people God made us to be.

Because we are beloved, we find that God goes to incredible lengths to overcome the evil, the fear, the violence that marks our lives. We find that God comes to us as one of us, and dies so that we might live. All of this is to restore what God has in mind for us and all creation. God does all this because, God believes we are worth the effort. We are beloved.

We've learned yesterday in a tragic way the consequence of the loose and careless way we use words. We see that the price of a religious and political discourse built on harangue and spin leads to both spiritual and physical death and violence. But God also gives us tangible signs of hope.

Across the globe, our brothers and sisters in Christ, our neighbors, in Southern Sudan are finally trading the legacy of 50 years of civil war for a future determined in the ballot box. Our partners in mission in Kajo-Keji are joining the rest of Southern Sudan and voting on independence. They are voting--not fighting-- for their own future. So far, from what I’ve heard and read, it looks like whatever the outcome, it will be a peaceful one. What happens after that is neither easy nor predictable. But they can do it, if they can make this transition without resorting to violence, then it will be a welcome hallmark in the history of that troubled nation.

And here is another sign of hope. Today, we bring two children, named for guardian angels, to the waters of baptism. We will as a community promise to uphold them in their life in Christ. So we have a choice. It's not that whether we will convey to them values. We can’t help that. It’s a given. Just what values will we bring them? What Good News can we bring them in a world of violence and beauty, war and community? A harangue or a message of hope?

These two children come to a family who perhaps only dreamed that this day might come but worried that perhaps it was not to be. But like some biblical parents of old, they have here signs of new life, new hope, and a new journey. Words make a difference. God spoke words of hope and affirmation and redemption that continue to break open our hearts today. If we, as family, friends, and as a community of faith, can say one things to each other and to these girls, let it repeat God's words at Jesus' baptism, over and over again:

“You are my beloved.”

“You are my beloved.”

“You are my beloved.”

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