Sermon on Baptism, Belovedness, and how God is Like a Duped Teacher

Sermon on Baptism, Belovedness, and how God is Like a Duped Teacher January 13, 2014
Image Credit: Daniel Bonnell

Click here to listen along (the meaning of the words is clearer when heard and not read.) —>Untitled – 1_13_14, 9.13 AMnbw extra copy

13Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. 16And 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. 17And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” – Matthew 13

Some of you may remember that about 4 years ago I went on a 48 hour silent retreat, the first of what was to become twice yearly periods of prayer and reflection for me.  Now, before you get too impressed you should know, I only went that once.  So my designation as a Spiritual giant may have to be delayed once again.

I went to a Catholic retreat house outside town and I was matched up for spiritual direction with a tiny little nun named Sister Eileen. I remember thinking it an absurd idea to take spiritual direction from someone I just met.  Because, you know, I’m complicated…. way too complex for someone to “get me” in an hour long meeting.  Ends up I was right.  It didn’t take an hour for her to get me.  It took like, 5 minutes for her to get me.  See, I was hoping she’d give me work to do.  Spiritual practices…. Stations of the cross, say the our father, lectio divina…instead, she looked me in the eye and said.  Nadia.  I don’t think you should DO anything while you are here.  I Just want you to walk in the knowledge that God loves you totally apart from anything you do or don’t do. I thought, man…that sounds awful.  And I was right…because seriously, as soon as I tried, I just started crying.

For some reason, there was something painful for me about the idea of being loved completely apart from what I do or do not do.  It’s perhaps all we really want in life, and yet the prospect of it, stung.  I’m not even sure why. Maybe because it only highlighted how much being loved apart from what we do or don’t do is so rarely something we ever encounter.

There seems no time of year when that is more real than Christmas.

Personally, Christmas time is hard for me. Not because of family drama or that dull pain so many of you carry because of family and friends and lovers who have died.  Christmas time is hard for me because so many of you go home to situations where no one really sees you – no one gets you.  It’s just painful for me knowing so many of you have to spend the holidays with people who for some unfathomable reason have no idea how amazing you are. And have no idea how to love you well. Every year I unsuccessfully launch a “you really don’t have to go home for Christmas” campaign. I mean, I understand that family dynamics are complicated and that there are good reasons for connecting with even the most difficult of families, but sometimes I feel like I just can’t handle one more story of the gender queer daughter getting a pink scarf for Christmas or the vegetarian getting steak knives from their parents. Or on the other side of things, the adult child who you pay to fly home and then never spends any time with you while they are here.

So it’s in the new year…the time when we are both returning from spending the holidays with our families and are resolving to improve ourselves in the new year, resolving and perhaps already failing to be more awesome, more beautiful, more disciplined…which is of course to say, more worthy of love, – yes, it is this time of year when are recovering from not being loved well, trying to forget all the ways we too have not loved others well, and are busily trying to do things to make ourselves more worthy of love, that we hear this text from Matthew about the day when Jesus was baptized in the Jordon. And in this story is pure Gospel love.

The story itself is amazing. We are told that like, basically everybody was flocking to the Jordon River to get baptized by John. A mass of unwashed sinners all crowding around, waiting their turn.  Sun beating down, mosquitoes buzzing, children screaming. I imagine it was a serious horde. See, John the Baptist had been preaching about preparing the way of the Lord and yelling for repentance and so people were coming in droves to get that fresh start.  They carried in line with them all the things they had done and not done.  All their sins and betrayals and misdemeanors.

John’s arms had to have been tired from baptizing that many people.  Tired from preparing the crowd for the big thing God was about to be doing in their midst.  One person after another. Preparing that one for the Lord and then the next one for the Lord and then holy , the next one IS the Lord! What’s hilarious about the fact that the next guy in line to be baptized was Jesus,  is that, get this… John the Baptist tries to talk Jesus out of what Jesus is trying to get him to do, which take my word for it…never works. I’ve tried.

So John gives in and baptizes Jesus. And then things get crazy – the heavens open, the spirit descends and God speaks. It’s like the heavens could not contain the Gospel love of God and it just kind of had to spill out all over everything.

You know the one thing I love most about the Baptism of our Lord text is not just that God the Father says “This is my son, the beloved with whom I am well pleased”, but that God says this – before Jesus had really done anything. Think about that.  God did not say “this is my son in whom I am well pleased because he has proved to me that he deserves it, he has quiet time with me each morning and always reads his Torah and because boy can he heal a leper.”  Nope. As far as we know Jesus hadn’t even done anything yet and he was called beloved. The one in whom the Father was well pleased.

That’s God for you. And I mean that literally.  That is God FOR YOU.

Because in your own baptisms, God proclaims that in you his beloved children, God is also well pleased. In the waters of your baptism, God claimed and named you as God’s own. Whether it was as an infant or a youth or an adult. Whether your baptism happened in a church you can’t even remember, or in a river at Summer Camp or in a church you love or one that no longer allows you to take communion, your baptism, not matter the circumstance, was most certainly an act of God upon you. Not an act of faith that you or someone else was giving to God. Baptism, is God’s act of Gospel Love. And as is my tradition whenever peaching about baptism, here’s my standard offer: if you have never been baptized, we have water…right here, plenty of it. Come find me during open space and we’ll do it right now because you already belong to God. You are already God’s beloved.

I heard a story a few months back on the radio, about how studies have been done where elementary school teachers were told at the beginning of the term that certain children in their classroom were gifted, regardless of the actual capacity of these children – and the study showed that by the end of the year those kids were scoring off the charts from their peers. They became what they were believed to be.

God is like that.  God is like a teacher who has been duped into thinking you are “gifted” and then treats you like you are special and then that’s what you end up being.

I was in a 12 step meeting the other day when one of the old guys, a guy who has been sober for like, 35 years said something so simple and so casual but something that made me shake my head and wonder what it would be like if we all really believed it.  As we were all discussing what our “higher power” is like, what the “God of our understanding” is like, he said “I don’t know about you, but my God is crazy about me”.

I couldn’t stop thinking about that. For most of my life I’ve heard the saying “God loves you”.  But it always feels more like an empty slogan like, don’t worry, be happy, or something. For someone to say, Nadia, God loves you, feels almost compulsory. Like God loves me kinda because he has to since I’m one of his kids.  But to say my God is crazy about me. I don’t know.  That’s different.

That feels like the kind of love that heaven can’t contain.  The kind of love you can walk around a Catholic retreat house being aware of. A love that is yours quite apart from what you do or don’t do. The kind of love that breaks your heart and then makes it bigger, A love that create belovedness in the one is rests upon.

Beloved. Be loved. Just sit and be loved. Even if it hurts.  Just sit and be loved and be the beloved of God. For this is what pleases him. amen


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