January 12, 2020 - Sermon - Rev. Hamilton Throckmorton

Scripture:  Matthew 3:13-17; Connect with Your Belovedness       

     When I was serving my first church, in Vermont, one Sunday I baptized a little girl.  She was probably three or four at the time, and she was a wildly energetic girl—extremely lively and spirited and active, a decided handful for her parents.  After her baptism that morning, she suddenly and inexplicably became sedate and serene.  We were all—her parents and I—taken aback and somewhat amazed.  It wasn’t to last though.  In the middle of that same Sunday afternoon, her mother called me up and, having seen her daughter return to her customary frenzied ways, the mother complained to me with mock indignation, “The baptism didn’t take!”

     We both roared laughing, even though we knew, at some level, that that is not what baptism is intended to do.  Baptism isn’t about taming the wildness out of someone’s spirit.  It’s not a magical tamping down of a person’s true nature.  It’s not a drastic and instantaneous reshaping of a person’s behavior.  Far from it, in fact.  At the heart of baptism is not a domestication of a person, nor the altering of a person’s true nature, nor the refashioning of a person to be culturally acceptable.  Quite to the contrary, in baptism, we are all anointed to be who we most deeply are.  When we emerge from the waters of baptism, the shackles are released, and we are freed to be the selves God made us to be.

     It may sound odd to say, but it can be surprisingly hard to know who we really are.  We’re encrusted in all sorts of expectations by our society and our families and our workplaces.  Your friends all wanted to play football, maybe, and you wanted to draw or dance.  You had the instincts of an entrepreneur and family history kept pushing you to go to med school.  You had a passion for advocating on behalf of people who were being treated poorly, and a parent sternly admonished you to be nice and to fit in and not to rock the boat. 

     Societies have a similar desire to shape people in certain ways.  Maybe you had an innovative and affirming sense for how to encourage best performances by those you led at work, and a higher-up harshly chided you to be firmer and less forgiving.  Or maybe you just unconsciously took on some unspoken and biased and restrictive cultural mores.  Who of us, decades ago, didn’t mindlessly adopt a societal dismissal of LGBTQ+ people or people of color?  Bryan Stephenson, in his book, now movie, called Just Mercy, recounts the enormous pressure put on the legal authorities of Monroe, AL, to arrest someone after the murder of a popular white girl, and preferably to arrest a man of color, even when there was no evidence the man had committed any crime.  So they did arrest this man.  Cultures and families have myriad ways of trying to make us conform to some acceptable standard or other.  Often it’s extremely subtle.  And too often this cultural shaping pulls us away from who we were really meant to be.

     So along comes Jesus, who decides he needs to be baptized by John the Baptist.  Jesus has a pretty fine pedigree—announced by an angel, conceived by a virgin, saved by his father’s dream—but something is still missing.  It’s not entirely clear to the wider world who he’s intended to be and what he’s called to be about.  After John baptizes him, Jesus emerges from the waters in which he’s been immersed, the skies open up, God’s Spirit descends on him in a dove-like form, and a voice declares for all present to hear: “This is my [Child], chosen and marked by my love, delight of my life” (Matthew 3:17, The Message).  This is who Jesus really is: chosen, marked by holy love, the delight of God’s life.

     The core of this story of the baptism of Jesus is that this is the one for whom we have waited, the one who embodies God, the one in whom we know light and peace and purpose.  Jesus is the one in whom we find our bearings—the very North Star of our faith.

     Equally powerful in this tale, though, is what’s implied by the baptism of Jesus.  Not only is Jesus chosen, marked by love, and delighted in, but so, too, are we.  Which means you and I are chosen as we are, loved as we are, delighted in as we are.  Not as someone else thinks we should be, not as some rulebook says we should be, not as anyone’s biases try to insist we be.  As we are.  Dancer, entrepreneur, passionate advocate for justice, innovative leader, resister of stereotypes.  You.  As you are.  That’s who God loves.  That’s who God treasures.

     When the writer Sue Monk Kidd, who wrote The Secret Life of Bees, was growing up, she had a picture of an unnamed little girl that hung over her bed.  The girl in this picture was a sweet, demure girl with a docile smile.  When her parents recited to her a nursery rhyme about a good little girl, Sue took in the powerful message: “Personify the good side of [that] little girl” was the not-so-subtle urging: “smile sweetly, be pleasing, do what’s expected.”  As she says, it didn’t take her long to learn how she was supposed to act: “Be pleasing, demure, compliant, conforming, docile, and sweet.  Obtain what you need or want through charm, not directness. . .. Above all, smile.  I learned,” she said, “how to please, how to adapt myself to the expectations of others and live out their projections of what a ‘good’ girl should do and be.”

     This good girl, she says, “followed me right into adulthood.  One day, over lunch, a prominent writer whom I admired expressed disdain for a social cause I supported.  ‘I can’t imagine how anyone could support such a cause,’ she said.  ‘Can you?’  I swallowed.  [I] wanted very much to please her and have her approval.  ‘No,’ I said weakly, ‘I suppose not.’” 

     And finally, of course, comes the consequence for this desire to conform.  “Later I felt sickened at how I’d compromised myself” (When the Heart Waits, pp. 59-60).  In not being herself, Kidd had forsaken her baptismal identity.  She had abandoned the person she’d been created to be.  The story of Jesus’ baptism and the memory of our own are reminders of the unique stardust we all are.  We dare not forsake that identity.

     I officiated at a memorial service some time ago, and when, in preparing for the service, I talked to the family about the man who had died, the children spent a full hour talking, in pained tones, about the difficulties they’d had with him as a father.  He had been callous and cold and opinionated and dismissive with all three of them.  In the service itself, I gave thanks to God for the gifts of this man—and there were many—and then I mentioned, in a brief, direct way, the gruff manner he had exhibited with his children.  Immediately after the service, one of his children said to me, as she walked out of the sanctuary, “Wow, that was a lot.”  When I asked her later if the mention of his arrogance had been too much, she said emphatically, “No, not at all.  I’m a good, peace-making middle child, and I had never really said those things before.  It was actually such a relief to acknowledge it, and much to my surprise, it also helped me to appreciate his good points more.”  For this woman, there was something freeing about taking off the handcuffs that had kept her feelings bottled up inside her.  She was finally living the truth of who she was.  This authentic living, we might say, is the fruit of baptism—it’s the gift of God.

     Not only does baptism anoint us to be who we really are, but it also commissions us to be vicars of Christ—vicar meaning representative or deputy of Christ.  Baptism anoints us to convey the love of Christ to the broken world into which Christ came and in which we live.  As baptized Christians, we are beckoned to be bearers of love wherever that love is needed.  That love takes shape in all sorts of ways.

     Two stories.  The first is told by Paul Olsen, a now-retired professor of English at Illinois’ Augustana College.  Olsen tells a story about his father, who was a school principal and superintendent for his whole career.  “We lived in a little Minnesota town, and in that town, the . . . Native Americans lived on a reservation just outside of town.  And they came in to ‘our’ high school when they hit the ninth grade.  But lots of those Native American families made the money for their families by a thing called ‘wild ricing.’  They’d go out in a boat and whack rice into the boat and sell it. . . . Sometimes they would just skip school.  And one day, three young boys did just that, and my dad went after them. . . . They saw his car pull up, and they ran out into the swamp up to their waists [to get away from him], and more or less said, ‘Come get us.’  He had wing tips and a three-piece suit, and he walked out in the water and got ’em.”  And later that day, Olsen heard his father recount the story to his mother: “‘After that, I walked into the teachers’ lounge and my pants were wet and my shoes were ruined, and one teacher said to me, “Why do you waste your time on those guys?  They’re going to end up drunks on the reservation anyway.”’  And my dad said a line I’ve remembered since [I heard the story] when I was five . . .: ‘I’m not going to let those kids think their lives are [negligible] for one second.’”  And Olsen goes on to quote the words of God in the prophet Isaiah: “I have called you by name; you are mine.”  Olsen’s father took those words to heart.  “He called those boys by name.  [They were not negligible.]  And they knew that he cared” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sBG2GW5WAA8).  The love Olsen’s father had for those boys simply could not let them go.  He knew that they, too, were “chosen, marked by [God’s] love, delight of [God’s] life.”

     Auburn Sandstrom tells another story on NPR’s Moth Radio Hour.  For a number of years, Auburn had been addicted to drugs, and her life was careening toward disaster.  For much of that time, she carried around in her pocket the phone number for a helpline.  Her mother had given her the number, and told her that this was a Christian counselor.  One night, in the middle of the night, in utter desperation, Auburn finally decides to call the helpline.  When a man answers, she says, “Hi, I got this number from my mother.  Do you think you could maybe talk to me?”  She says he right away became very present, and said, “Yes, yes, yes.  What’s going on?”  Sandstrom told the man that she wasn’t feeling at all well, and that she was scared.  She told him her marriage was teetering, that her husband had hit her repeatedly, and she said she might have a drug problem.  This man, she said, didn’t judge her.  “He just sat with me and was present and listened and had such a kindness and gentleness.  ‘Tell me more,’ he’d say; ‘oh, that must hurt.’  I’d made that call at maybe 2:00 in the morning, and he stayed with me the whole night ’til the sun rose.  And I was feeling calm.  I was feeling OK.  And I thought, ‘I can probably do this day.’ . . .  I was very grateful to him, and I said, ‘I really, really appreciate you and what you’ve done for me tonight.  Aren’t you supposed to be telling me to read some Bible verses or something?’  He laughed, and said ‘I’m glad this was helpful to you,’ and we talked some more, and I said, ‘No, really, you’re very, very good at this and I need to tell you how grateful I am.  How long have you been a Christian counselor?’  And he said, ‘OK, Auburn, I’ve been trying to avoid this subject.  I need you right now not to hang up.  That number you called?  Wrong number.’”  And Auburn says, “The next day I experienced what I’ve heard called the peace that passes understanding, because I had experienced that there was random love in the universe, and that some of it was unconditional, and that some of it was for me.  And I can’t tell you that I got my life totally together that day.  But it became possible. . . . This is what I know: that in the deepest, blackest night of despair and anxiety, it only takes a pinhole of light, and all of grace can come in” (https://player.themoth.org/#/?actionType=ADD_AND_PLAY&storyId=11026).

     Whether she would have framed it this way or not, Auburn knew the beauty and heart of the story of Jesus’ baptism—that she is God’s child, “chosen and marked by [God’s] love, delight of [God’s] life.”  May we all know that pinhole of light, and be vicars of God’s radiant love, God’s ambassadors of the peace that passes all understanding.  For we are baptized.  And this grace is our gift.  And this love is our magnificent calling.