This is the sermon I preached on Jan. 9th, 2011 – the day after the tragedy in Tuscon, Arizona. I credit much to Diana Butler Bass for provoking us preachers to not be silent in the pulpit and to speak a word that could reach the troubled spirits of those in our pews. May the God of grace and peace grant us comfort and wisdom as God longs to have us all know we are Beloved sons and daughters.
Coerced Baptism or Did he know not he was Beloved, too?
When I left the house as a teenager, my parents would say, Don’t forget – folks know you and know us. So, wherever you go or whatever you do, we’ll know about it. My parents weren’t out to make me afraid of Big Brother cameras that watched our every move. The ones George Orville imagined in the book 1984. Rather, it was that I was known and they were known. It works that way, as some of us can attest, in small towns. In that phrase – folks know you and know us – it said something about who I was and whose I was It was my adolescent identity phrase. I was Jessica. Daughter of Bob and Barb McClure. And, everyone in town or at the mall or at the football game likely knew it. The second part of my parents’ warning was the description of the first. Who I was and who I belonged to - spoke volumes to what was expected of me. If we put a theological spin on it, my identity called me to a particular way of being – my vocation – even if a teenager.
On the river banks of the Jordan, folks in the city were streaming out in the wilderness to go down in the river by John’s baptism. John cried out, “Repent!” John baptized with the murky, river waters and knew of its inadequacy compared to the ONE who will baptize with the fire of the Holy Spirit. On those banks, the now grown up Jesus comes from Galilee to meet his cousin and submit to this kind of baptism.
Like John, perhaps, we, too, are left puzzled by Jesus request. Jesus – the one who will be tempted just as we yet blameless– desires a repentance baptism? We understand John’s protest. It is like Peter who first refuses to have Jesus wash his feet. John, too, wants the washing to be the other way around. Jesus would not have it so. For it is right, just, Jesus says, that I be baptized by you, cousin.
So, down Jesus goes into the river and then back up again to emerge from the surface to the sweet air that filled his first breath. And in that moment, the heavens rip open for a Grand Incarnational Moment. Like a Dove, the Spirit of God descends to rest upon Jesus. Alighting on him – the scripture says. Alight - to rest or perch is one meaning but it can also mean to be on fire; lighted up; burning. Both definitions seem to fit, don’t they? Then, God spoke. This, This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.
Then, Jesus spends 40 days in the wilderness –hungry and tired, tempted and tested. And after that – Jesus goes out, calls his disciples, preaches and teaches about the Good News of the kingdom of God, heals the sick and afflicted and folks follow to hear him.
So, this where I was with the sermon yesterday. I was ready to sit and hammer out what I thought God was saying to me about this text – how Jesus’ baptism speaks to Christian identity and vocation that is wonderfully and powerfully bestowed upon us, too, in the waters of baptism. You know I really wanted to preach a few good points. I wanted to tell you how it is only in Matthew that God says This is my Son rather than the You are my Son in the other gospels. I was going to build up to some key exegetical thought Tom Long had about Matthew saying This is my Son as way to cap off all the other titles given to Jesus thus far in the gospel. Jesus is not only son of Abraham, son of David,etc – but this Jesus is the very Son of God. I was going to reserve a whole section on the sermon that Jesus’ baptism happens before Jesus’ ministry and just before the Spirit pushes him into the wilderness. Baptism for Jesus sets him apart as God’s son – his identity – and places a mighty call on his life that he will die for – his vocation.
I wanted also to explain the bizarre title to sermon that comes from a seminary professor’s lecture in which she called infant baptism – coerced baptism. It was to be the story to segue into how Jesus’ baptism becomes our baptism, too. It is in the waters of baptism that we are made known who we are and whose we are – as God’s own beloved. And, also from the moment of our baptisms – God gives us a calling upon our lives that is like Jesus’ to go and tell of God’s kingdom coming.
Yes, that was pretty much how the sermon was going to go until yesterday when constantly streaming on tv and the computer screen where the images of blood, shots and violence that happened outside a Safeway in Arizona. 6 Killed – a federal judge and a nine year old girl among them– the targeted congresswoman, Gabby Giffords, lies in a hospital fighting for her life after a gunshot to the head. A deeply troubled accused young man detained and accused of doing this thing. Facebook and blogger preachers like Diana Butler Bass – wrote out to provoke us clergy by asking whether we will be silent tomorrow (today) in the pulpit. God began to nudge, too. I think I’d like to change the title.
Jared Lee Loughner – did he not know he was Beloved, too? Have we forgotten, too?
We know not much about who Jared Loughner was or is. They say he was a loner, dabbled in drugs, had erratic in speech and was not accepted in the military or likely not much elsewhere either. We don’t know if he was raised in the church or if he received the claiming waters of baptism. But what we do know is that he is a son. He is a son of the parents that bore him and held him in their home for 22 years. He is a child of God, too. A son that desperately needed to know, to have someone tell him he was Beloved. Oh how much he must have needed help to hear this voice. This voice, God’s own that comes from out Heaven to overpower the mix of the other voices that likely played on his mind. In the mix of you don’t fit in, you are not smart enough, pothead, loser and fear – Jared was likely drowning in the baptism of the world that seduces to claim us. Yesterday morning then, those voices won out and crushed the claim that God had on him that promises both a new name, Beloved, and the gift of the Spirit that calls to new way of being in the world.
Have we forgotten we are beloved, too? Have we all forgotten what it means that God loves and calls us Beloved? Diana Butler Bass says it another way. In America, she says we have a history of two kinds of baptism. One is the one that Jesus offers of water that forges new life, a new creation. The other is that of blood brought through revolution. There is no doubt our discourse and very way of being is much more violent. We don’t miss a beat to describes things in stark terms of good v. evil, nor seem to hesitate to brand someone that we disagree with charged names as socialist or as hostage takers. So, Diana Butler Bass asks what baptism do we proclaim? What baptism, she also asks, is the world, full of Jared Loughners, in need of? It is clear, isn’t it? It is the baptism that says despite what the world says – it is God who says who we are and whose we are. We are Beloved sons and daughters all of us because before we entered the world God knew us by name and formed us into our very selves. We are in need of a baptism that calls us to a new way of being, truly a new creation, in the world. This new way of being is our vocation. It is the same one Jesus was called to after his own baptism. And, it is a vocation, a ministry that the world is hungry to receive.
- We are called to be disciples sent out into all the world to preach the Good News of the Kingdom of God.
- To work toward reconciliation and peace.
- To stop calling each other names and branding one another with words that are much too extreme.
- To cease pretending we are not really all part of the same household God.
- To pursue justice and the end of violence. To seek the lost and lonely and befriend them.
- To go into the streets of DC and tell someone cold and hungry this afternoon that they are Somebody.
- To stand up and say enough with sound bite yelling that forgets there are fragile and ill minds out there that don’t know the difference between rhetoric and actual call to bear arms.
This is the baptism in which we have received. This is the one in which we are called and the Spirit pushes us to live out as disciples of the One we proclaim as Lord – Jesus Christ.
Diana Butler Bass’ questions still hangs – To which baptism are we called? She asks – Do we need the water of God, or the blood of a nine-year old laying on a street in Tucson? The answer is profoundly and simply obvious. We need redemption gushing from the rivers of God’s love, not that of blood-soaked sidewalks.
Beloved – let us go and proclaim such a baptism – that God loves us and calls us to love one another. Amen.