Sermon by Rev. Todd Weir
January 13, 2019
Scripture: Luke 3:15-22 (The Baptism of Jesus)
(click below to listen)
“This is my beloved child, in whom I am well pleased.” How many people long to hear this blessing from the humans who brought them into the world? “You turned out well.” There is no equivocating in this blessing, no “buts,” nothing else to do. Not, “I am well pleased, now if you could only get married…then we could have a grandchild.” Or “I am well pleased, it almost makes up for those teenage years.” I am well pleased, almost as much as with your older brother.” “This is my beloved child, in whom I am well pleased.” Period. Or better yet, exclamation point! A little blessing goes a long ways, “Great job….You are such a good spouse…I appreciate you.” A heartfelt blessing can bring us to tears, perhaps even be transformative to our sense of self. You belong, no matter what. This will always be home.
What would it feel like for God, the creator of all things, to be pleased with you? How would you know? This is one reason we pray, engage in spiritual practices, or join a church. I recently heard a story from someone that they were meditating on finding their “spirit animal.” Just like a dove descended from heaven as a sign of the Holy Spirit, spiritual traditions have often seen animals as messengers from the divine. This person was astonished when an eagle flew by the window. She went to get her husband, so he could see it too. While she was very animated about how this was a sign from God, her husband said, “That is a vulture.” “What? It can’t be. My spirit animal cannot be a vulture. What is God saying to me with a vulture?” Am I supposed to be a Hospice volunteer, an undertaker?
I am sure some people feel loved by God regularly, perhaps in their daily prayers. I am not one of them. I can count on one hand the number of times I felt beloved by God, and I’m not complaining, because they were powerful enough experiences to carry me thorugh life. I have to remind myself that God’s love is real. I am forgetful. I tire, my ability to love wains, so I wonder if God forgets me too, in the vast world of human problems. Why should God love me anyway? Shouldn’t white male privilege be enough? Why would I need God too? Isn’t God busy with more important people, or people in Yemen or on the southern border with their children? God, if you have extra beloved-ness to spread around, go to the border, please.
Do you wonder how Jesus felt about this beloved pronouncement from God? This happens to him, he doesn’t say anything in the text. “Thanks Dad, right back at ya! Can I borrow the keys to the Kingdom, please?” (I’m going to be like you dad, you know I’m going be just like you!) In the next scene, Jesus is driven by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness for 40 days of testing and temptation. Apparently, Jesus did not think these words from heaven were confirmation of his greatness. He did not immediately gather disciples, call a press conference and announce his candidacy for Savior of the world. He had to think about this. This message was not a source of pride, or certainty or total self-confidence. If anything, God’s pleasure and love gave him the confidence to face himself, to dare to wonder what his life might go next, but still, to test it a make sure this was something real.
As I pondered the text, I wondered why God was so pleased with Jesus, especially right at this moment of baptism. Was it just random? “Jesus, I really don’t tell you enough that I love you and I’m proud of you.” Was there something specific about this moment? Had Jesus done something to please God? The timing strikes me because Jesus hasn’t done anything at this point. Most Gospels jump from birth to baptism, leaving out the 30 years of Jesus life. This leaves the impression that God’s great love and pleasure in Jesus has nothing to do with any accomplishment. He has no disciples yet, no significant resume, perhaps didn’t even make the honor roll in seminary. God doesn’t say, “Good job on staying away from sin for 30 years Jesus. Most people don’t last a week.” This blessing is at the beginning of Jesus ministry, it is the starting point.
God is blessing the beginning, the start of the quest. God is pleased with Jesus’s desire. Jesus is willing to take on the work of the Beloved Community, the Kingdom of God. The words in Luke blessing mirror the words of Psalm 2:7, which is a Psalm about God’s favor bestowed on the King of Israel to deliver the people from their enemies, “I will tell of the decree of the Lord: He said to me, “You are my son, today I have begotten you.” This Psalm blessing is not for anything the King has done, but what he is charged to do.
Our theology of baptism mirrors this quality. We are not baptized because we have passed a theological test, or lived a life which earned God’s favor. We are baptized because we want to begin a journey, and travel with a people, to belong to the work of the community. We don’t baptize the worthy, we baptize the willing. When we baptize an infant, we affirm that God’s blessing and Holy Spirit are already at work, and we will nurture a child till the point of Confirmation, and their own decision. We don’t get a greater love from God if we are doing well, nor do we lose the blessings of baptism when we fail. God does not revoke love because we made a mistake, because we got on the wrong path or smashed up our lives. Rather God urges us back on the path, God continues to seek and love us.
This all sounds great in theory, but is hard to wrap our minds around it because we often experience human love as conditional. Other people may reject us not just because we fell short, but simply because of who we are. The judgement and rejection of other people becomes a barrier to people seeking God within the life of the church.
The Washington Post carried a great story last week about a woman named Sarah Cunningham, of Oklahoma City. Sarah was a good Baptist, a good mom, regular church attender. In 2011, her son came out to her as gay. She was stunned and angry. Her church taught that being gay was a sin, and at first, she tried to “pray the gay away.” For several years she felt the pressure to choose her church and theology over her son. At some point this stopped making sense to her and she chose to do something different. She reconciled with her son, but she felt like she had to do something more. So she wrote this Facebook post:
“PSA. If you need a mom to attend your same-sex wedding because your biological mom won’t,” she wrote, “call me. I’m there. I’ll be your biggest fan. I’ll even bring the bubbles.”
This post went viral and has had 10,000 “likes” and over 9000 “shares.” People are taking her up on the idea, and she is attending weddings as a stand-in-Mom. The idea is catching on, and other people have added their names to a list in their local areas to be stand-in family as well. Cunningham has started an organization called “Free Mom Hugs” to offer resource to LGBTQ families, and written a memoir entitled “How We Sleep at Night.” One reason this story is hitting the Washington Post is that Actress/Director Jamie Lee Curtis has purchased the movie rights and is planning to share this story more broadly.
To me, this story is one answer to my starting question-How do we know we are beloved by God? Often it is because someone is a stand-in. The primary purpose of the church is to be a community where we stand-in for each other, so we are continually reminded that God is love. It pains me when people have to go outside of their families to know they are loved, and also when the church rejects rather than loves. A mark of a healthy church is one that has enough love in its community, that it care share beyond itself.
I know that I don’t have to convince you of this truth. I know this congregation will stand with and for many things-you will stand with refugees from the Congo, no matter what their religion; you will stand with school children in Haiti, and a child we sponsor in India, you will stand with people of different gender identities and races. I know you will reach beyond yourselves. The challenge I put before us is twofold: First, while it is admirable to love everyone, it is important to love the people in the next pew, and the far pew, even the ones who you find it annoying. Love begins at home. And the second challenge: remember why. Each of you is loved by God, with a deep and steadfast love that is not fickle. You are baptized into a Beloved Community, so you may claim this relationship. Why is this so crucial? Because you don’t have enough love within yourself to meet the need. By ourselves we tire. Together we are strong and endure. We may do much with our own strength, but if we allow God’s love to work among us, we will move beyond being do-gooders; we will be transformed.