Holy Wisdom Monastery
The Baptism of Jesus
January 13, 2019
Isaiah 43:1-7; Acts 8:14-17; Luke 3:15-17; 21-22
We think we know this Jesus and
We’ve got him all pinned down.
Until he gets himself baptized
Like everybody else in town.
Several times a month, I stand in line with other visitors at one of our state prisons. If it is a kitchen day, there can be 20 or more folks there: grandparents in Packer jackets, sisters and sweethearts, people in wheelchairs, moms with toddlers … often, a woman carrying her pink-vested emotional support pug, resting on a pillow. We’re there a good 30 minutes before we are allowed inside – to stand in another line. It can be 45 minutes before we are waved through the scanner. We’re sort of a community; as one gentleman observed, “we are all equals in this line, all here together to visit someone we love.” The guards, though, often seem to define “equals” as “equal to the people we’re visiting.” Their harsh reprimands (for standing too close to the edge of the walk, being in line too early, asking to use the restroom…) often sound disrespectful. The refrain – complaint, really: “We’re not the ones in prison!” is regularly heard among our small group. How could the guards equate US with THEM – people whose poor decisions had derailed their lives, who “deserved” to be incarcerated? In theological terms, those “sinners?” But … maybe the guards have a point.
This morning’s text from Luke finds Jesus at the Jordan, showing up among “people filled with expectation.” He had walked out of Nazareth, away from the carpenter shop and out into the countryside to listen to his rough-around-the-edges cousin, John. Specifically and uniquely among the gospel writers, Luke mentions all the others who were baptized that same day as Jesus: people from the margins of society, elbowing their way toward immersion in the mud and muck of the river. Some came drawn to the baptizer’s call to repent, to confess and be cleansed. Some may have come believing that John was announcing that God was about to do something new for Israel, for the world – but whatever their reason for being there, the place was teeming with self-identified sinners, guilty, sorry human beings. Just like us. As Luke tells it, Jesus got in the back of the line, behind the crowd, and waited. “All the people” – everybody else in town – they all were baptized before Jesus’ turn came.
But in the same way that the crowd had been “questioning in their hearts concerning John,” after the heavens had opened and the dove had descended and the voice had been heard (by Jesus, at least), after Jesus’ public ministry had begun, many would look back and wonder what Jesus was doing being baptized with such ne’er-do-wells, placing himself under the tutelage of a scruffy rabble-rouser like John? What was he doing aligning himself with that basket of deplorables? How could HE equate himself with THEM?
Barbara Brown Taylor puts it this way, “If Jesus had listened to his public relations people, he would have been … a friend to sinners, a kind and loving helper, but never mistaken for one of them. His handlers would never, ever have allowed him to be baptized. He could have stood on the shore and offered encouragement … he could have held out his hand to those who struggled out of the river in their… wet clothes. But he could not under any circumstances have gone into the water himself… it was ruinous to his reputation. Who was going to believe that he was there just because he … refused to separate himself from (the least, the lost and the last, the immigrants and the refugees)?”
Jesus wasn’t afraid of guilt by association. He joined the people at the river, surrendering to, embracing, his life’s purpose by entering into solidarity with us, sinners and outcasts. In line with us, like us. Sinners who are, at the same time, utterly beloved.
Beloved. Luke tells us that the Holy Spirit “descended on (Jesus) … and a voice came from heaven: You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Jesus hasn’t said one public word up to now; he hasn’t performed any miracles. Yet, God looks down and calls his son, “beloved.” Jesus heard here what every one of us longs to hear: that we are beloved daughters and sons, in Isaiah’s words, precious in God’s sight. Maybe this is the moment when Jesus realized he had something to say, work to do.
Now, listen to the voice of someone else standing in line. Lamont Nance has been incarcerated for 15 years; he sent this reflection on New Year’s Day: “For years I have been good and struggled to live good … but have felt unfulfilled and disjointed as if I had no roots. No thing to anchor me. Nothing to prevent the Mack truck of my guilt from dragging me by chain down a back road. When we think poorly we do poorly. Just as if we hinder what is life giving in our lives, we allow what drains us to affect everything we love for the worse. …I cannot tell you enough how living uncertain and in ignorance, can leave you like chaff and unfruitful; feeling as if all of your efforts are for nothing.”
If we agree with Richard Rohr that God does not meet us in doctrines and commandments as much as God comes to us in and through our human world; if hour by hour reality is our “daily bread;” if the Word became flesh because we need the human experience of being beloved to bring us home — where does this leave us, all of us who are in line with Jesus? Folks like Lamont – like so many of us who have never heard what Jesus heard? People at the edges and at the borders, outsiders and strangers? We, too, are chaff.
If we’re on board with the new world that Jesus’ baptism represents, a world where we join Jesus in changing the mind of humanity about a God who loves us unconditionally and always has … we have our work cut out for us. And as today’s readings remind us: isn’t the first order of business to hear and to live into the good news that we are called by name and loved beyond all good sense?
Rohr reminds us that we’re truly baptized when we “allow God’s love to become the purpose, the direction of our lives,” when we try to replicate the one message that sets in motion everything that is good: We are beloved children of God. I like casual theologian Anne Lamott’s version of this message: “I never said I am a good Christian. I just know that Jesus adores me and is only as far away as his name. I say, ‘Hi, Lord,’ and he says, ‘Hello, Darling.’ He loves me so much he keeps a photo of me in his wallet. If I were the only person on earth, he still would have died for me.’”
New Testament scholar, Marcus Borg, suggests that Jesus is still standing in line with us at the water’s edge, furloughed, imprisoned, willing to immerse himself in shame, scandal, repentance, and pain — all so that we might hear that we are loved. This morning, we are reminded that the Jordan is a place of hope, and Lamont takes us back there: “I make no declarations. Rather I will just share with you that I am choosing to live with hope. Bear fruit. Understand that ignorance has many shades. Most importantly, that forgiveness is for oneself as well. That it is a constant process and only then will I have the life I want to have.”
Listen to Lamont, listen to the outcasts, to the people on the other side of the aisle. Like Jesus, we are in line with them. The new life promised at the Jordan, at baptism, allows us to choose to live with hope. Because (and only because, perhaps) we are God’s own. God’s daughters and sons. God’s joy. Even in the deepest water, in the prisons, at the border, in the ranks of sinners, just like Jesus, we are the Beloved.
Let us turn to our God in prayer. Whatever our situation, Jesus loves each of us so much that he walks right into the middle of the muck of our lives. There’s no place too messy, no situation so hopeless, that Jesus is not willing to be there with us. He has always led us from our midst, joining us in line, in the water, in the skin, to show us how life is to be lived.
* For loving and compassionate attitudes that open us to people of other races, nations, cultures and beliefs, we pray, God among us, hear our prayer.
* For the courage to stand witness against those who practice exclusion because of fear, misunderstanding, a lack of knowledge, or political gain we pray, God among us, hear our prayer.
* For immigrants and refugees who seek safety in foreign lands and long for humane and compassionate care, we pray, God among us, hear our prayer.
* For those within this community, in our neighborhoods and beyond, who are marginalized, overlooked, unacknowledged or in any kind of need, and for the ministers and ministries who walk with them, we pray, God among us, hear our prayer.
* For what else shall we pray?
* For all those whose names are included in our book of intentions and for those whose names we mention now, either quietly or in the silence of our hearts.
Loving God, stay close during this Epiphany season. In this thin place between Advent and Lent, part the curtain between the mundane and the eternal and allow us to hear your voice calling us beloved.
Let us share with one another a sign of peace.