I’ve been so moved in these past weeks by conversations I’ve had with so many of you about your personal responses to the new film, Selma. The film is a depiction of the efforts of Martin Luther King, Jr. and so many others as they undertook the history-making campaign to secure equal voting rights with an epic march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in 1965.
Those of you who lived through the Civil Rights Movement and remember those events have shared with me some of your feelings as you revisit those memories on the big screen; for those of us who do not remember the actual events, your perspective has helped bring history alive, to experience through that film and your stories, such a powerful, powerful time in the history of our country.
The movie, of course, is largely focused on the figure of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the leadership he gave to both this march and to the movement as a whole. The film’s depiction of his character was as layered as a short telling of a whole life can be, but the film showed moments where he was conflicted; unsure. He made mistakes. He got scared. He was brave. Ultimately, the film showed a leader who knew who he was and what he was meant to do with his life.
It occurs to me that it’s in our human DNA to look for leaders to help us change; but we don’t often think about the courage it takes to be a leader: to preach an uncomfortable message, to show a new way, to insist that things have to be different.
And in this moment in our life together in this country, we’ve heard over these last months the voices of young organizers who keep telling us: we are all leaders. For this moment, in this time, there is no way we can radically change systems unless we all step up into leadership—no hoping that the next big voice will show up soon to tell us what to do.
Wait. What do you mean, us? You? Me? We’re just normal people trying to make our way through life; we’re conflicted; unsure. We make mistakes, we get scared. Sometimes we’re brave, but not always—maybe even not often.
But on this second Sunday of a new year in the season of Epiphany, when we are leaning toward what little light we can see, we are hearing again the story of the baptism of Jesus, another one who stepped into the invitation to become all he was created to be. He couldn’t do that until he knew who he was, and I think all of us, leaders of world changing movements or just normal people, experience just the same.
What does it take to live into all you are created to be? How do we, followers of Jesus Christ who are called to risk boldly and proclaim radically a message that can change things—really change things—gather the courage to step up? Well, our gospel story today reminds us that we can’t—not really—until we can see for sure who we are.
The gospel lesson today comes from right at the very beginning of the gospel of Mark, where the author says straight out that he means to write a book of good news about Jesus Christ. And the first thing to do when you’re writing a book about the person who will change the world is to introduce your readers to that person. So Mark does, not with babies and angels and wise men like everybody else, but with a strange and tender story of baptism.
As Mark’s story goes, it was John—John the Baptist—who seemed to be causing all the fuss. He was drawing a crowd out there on the edges of Galilee, people who were looking for a leader to help them change an oppressive system. There had been a thread of discontent running through the citizens of Jerusalem and surrounding areas for some time, because the Jewish community had been too long under the oppressive rule of Rome. And, the Roman government kept the people barely surviving by imposing steep taxes and laws that limited their ability to thrive. They were getting to the end of their patience, and something had to change.
And when something so deep in a system has to change, as we know, people automatically scan the horizon for a leader, someone they can believe in, someone who will show the way to freedom.
Could John be the one? Everybody was wondering. So they came out in droves, down the road away from the city, over the Galilean hills toward the river, where they’d heard John was preaching. Men, women, children, dust stinging their eyes, the hot sun beating down on them, made their way to the river banks, crowding in to hear what John had to say—to see who he was.
His message was compelling and powerful; he was causing people to rethink what they were doing, to repent and be baptized, to come together for change. But he was also pretty clear that he wasn’t the leader they were looking for. “Someone more powerful is coming after me; I’m not even worthy to bend down and untie his sandals!”
I wonder what thoughts went through the crowds along the river bank when they heard that? You’re not the one we’re waiting for? Well, then, who is? Maybe they looked around at each other, kind of sideways glances in the crowd—maybe that guy over there?
Mark tells us that one of the people in the crowd that day was a carpenter from Nazareth who was listening to John preach and having the same response as the rest of the crowd. Perhaps like others there, he was asking questions like: who am I? What am I doing with my life? Who am I meant to be?
In the world of preachers there is a story that has been told so many times it has become almost legendary. Tradition says that it’s a story belonging to Fred Craddock, masterful preacher and now retired professor of preaching. Here’s how it goes:
Early in his career as a young pastor, Fred Craddock had the opportunity to get away for a few days of vacation with his wife. Pastoring is hard work, with many people needing your attention, and they just needed to get away. But they were young and serving a small church, so they didn’t have much money. They decided they could take a trip to Gatlinburg, Tennessee, rent a cabin, have a few days of quiet.
One night of their vacation they found a little diner where they could have dinner—just the two of them. As they sat there waiting for their food, they began to notice a distinguished looking man with white hair, moving throughout the restaurant talking with people. As they watched him go from table to table, they avoided eye contact and hoped the man wouldn’t come over and interrupt their time together. But of course he did
“Where are you from?” the man asked. They answered that they’d drive from Oklahoma. “And what do you do for a living?”
Now you know this because I’ve told you before: this is a very dangerous question for a preacher to answer in public. “Oh! You’re a preacher! I’ve got a story to tell you about a preacher.”
Dr. Craddock said he groaned inwardly: Oh no, here comes another preacher story. It seems everyone has one.
The man began: “I was born not far from here on the other side of the mountain. My mother wasn’t married when I was born so I was the subject of much gossip, speculation, and unkindness when I was a young boy. Going to school was terrible; the kids called me names and left me out of their groups. When my mother and I would walk on the sidewalk downtown, people would stare at us and whisper, spreading rumors about who my father was. I didn’t know; all I knew was that I wasn’t as good as everybody else because I didn’t have a father.”
“One day when I was about 12, a traveling preacher came to town, set up a tent in a field nearby, and began a three night revival. It seemed like the whole town would come out every night, and I did too, even though I could feel people staring at me. I listened from the edges of the crowd and left early so nobody would say anything unkind. But the third night I tried to get closer to see better, and because of the crowd I couldn’t slip away quickly, as I had been doing. As I turned to leave at the end of the service I felt a hand on my shoulder and turned around to see the preacher, who said loudly: “’What’s your name, son? Whose boy are you?’”
My heart sank; there in a public place, even the visiting preacher was making fun of me. The crowd around me fell silent because, of course, everybody knew. But the preacher didn’t wait for me to answer. As he looked down at me he smiled and said, “Wait a minute! I know who you are. I see the family resemblance clear as day. You are a child of God.”
With that the preacher slapped me on the back and said, “That’s quite an inheritance. Go and claim it.”
As the man turned to leave the table, he said, “Isn’t that a great story?” Craddock and his wife agreed. The man finished, “You know, if that preacher hadn’t told me that I was one of God’s children, I probably would never have amounted to anything!” And then the man turned and walked away.
A little later when the waitress came around to their table, Fred and his wife asked: “Do you happen to know that man who was just sitting at our table?” The waitress grinned and said, “Of course. Everybody here knows him. That’s Ben Hooper. He’s the former governor of Tennessee!”
Whatever Jesus was feeling that day on the banks of the Jordan, he somehow gathered enough courage to step down the slippery riverbank into the muddy water. And he waded out into the middle of the river, the current rushing by him, to his friend John. And just like so many others that day, he was dunked under that water and pulled up dripping, a symbol of washing away the old and determining to live into something new, transformed.
It was then that the light broke through—the heavens opened, a dove came down, Jesus heard a voice—in Mark’s account directed just at him: “You are my son, my beloved; I am so very pleased with you.”
Suddenly, it was like God turned a spotlight onto the very meaning of his life by reminding him who he was. The people standing there that day could see something had happened, but I think this little bit of light from heaven was meant especially for Jesus. For the task ahead, for the courage it would take to live boldly into the promise and possibility of his life, he had to know who he was.
And I suspect, in the fear and pain that his work eventually brought, there must have been moments when he wanted to give up, throw in the towel, walk away. But he stayed, maybe because he knew—he knew at his core who he was.
Like Jesus on the edge of the Jordan River so long ago, you and I desperately need to know who we are. We’re not prophets in a dusty Middle Eastern town, and few of us will ever likely have a Hollywood blockbuster made about our lives.
But there’s no doubt that God has created you and me, with lives of great possibility and promise. We’re invited to gather enough courage to live into the sacred call of our lives, to change the world in whatever ways we can, too.
Today, the second Sunday of a new year in the season of Epiphany, light, God has turned a spotlight on your life and mine. In this story of Jesus, baptized and blessed, God is shining some light on us, too. He so desperately wants us to see who we are—whose we are.
Because if you and I could ever understand in our deepest hearts that we are beloved children of God, it’s then we can start to see others with that same light, to gather together the spark of the divine by which we are all enlivened, and to turn a spotlight, the light of Almighty God, onto the darkest places in this world.
Today these words Jesus heard are for you, too—light in the darkness: “You. You and you and me and you: you are my beloved child. I am so pleased with you.”
That’s quite an inheritance. Go claim it.