Jan. 7, 2018: Baptism of Our Lord
Baptism of Our Lord, 2018. Zion, Baltimore.
Genesis 1:1-5; Psalm 29; Acts 19:1-7; Mark 1:4-11
One of my favorite writers is a woman named Brené Brown. I recently heard a re-broadcast of her interview on the NPR program 1A, which I highly recommend. In that interview she talked about her latest book, “Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone”.
At one point during the interview she said, “I always thought that belonging was something we negotiated that was external. But, as it turns out, true belonging is a spiritual practice, and it’s about belonging to yourself and believing in yourself so deeply that you find [the] sacred both [in] being a part of something but also standing alone when called to do that. [What] I love the most about true belonging is when we really belong, we’re never asked to change who we authentically are... It demands that we be who we are… Sometimes true belonging requires standing alone… [Assessing] situations in groups of people and then acclimating to fit in is a huge barrier to true belonging.”
In her book she writes, “The world feels high lonesome and heartbroken to me right now. We’ve sorted ourselves into factions based on our politics and ideology. We’ve turned away from one another and toward blame and rage. We’re lonely and untethered. And scared. So damn scared. But rather than coming together and sharing our experiences through song and story, we’re screaming at one another from further and further away. Rather than dancing and praying together, we’re running from one another. Rather than pitching wild and innovative new ideas that could potentially change everything, we’re staying quiet and small in our bunkers and loud in our echo chambers.” [Brown, Brené. Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone (Kindle Locations 539-544). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.]
She talks in the interview about how this growing factionalism, rather than leading to an increased sense of belonging, instead leads only to greater loneliness, which she characterizes as “common enemy intimacy.” In other words, we just hate the same people.
In this age of social media and digital communities, affirmation has come to replace belonging or its communal reciprocal: Acceptance Facebook gives us the chance to “like” movies or books or posts and to have things we post “liked” by our “friends” in return. Twitter, Tumblr, and Instagram invite us to collect thousands of “followers,” “fans,” or “friends,” most of whom we’ve never met. Athletic programs routinely reward kids just for showing up with medals “for participation.” Ads are increasingly personalized, based upon our browsing histories, targeting our particular tastes and creating the impression that we are the most important customer in the world. And so on, and so on, ad infinitum, ad nauseum.
One of the reasons social media and digital communities are powerful is precisely because they creatively offer affirmation in plentiful doses. Deep down most of us recognize the superficiality of it all. We know that this kind of affirmation doesn’t mean all that much. We might have a sense of the people we encounter online, but we can’t really say that we know them. So how can their “likes” create any enduring sense of value or worth? And yet it’s hard not to wonder what was wrong with the picture we posted to Instagram if only twenty people liked it when another picture garnered two hundred nods?
This kind of affirmation may be superficial, but it’s at least better than nothing, right? We crave that recognition and interaction because we are, at heart, inherently social people. Every element of our lives demonstrates the truth of God’s observation in Genesis that is not good for us to be alone. So, with relentless affirmation social media creates the perception that we are connected to all these other people. It lulls us into the illusion that we’re surrounded by a community of like-minded, and like-able, people that value us.
MIT professor, internet scholar and author Sherry Turkle has discovered that people today report feeling simultaneously more connected and lonelier than ever before. Why? Because while we may crave affirmation, what we need is acceptance. What we need is belonging.
To reiterate Brené Brown’s point acceptance and belonging are not the same as “fitting in.” In fact, they are the exact opposite. Fitting in – the skill we learned most keenly in adolescence but keep sharp into adulthood – is all about changing yourself so as to be found acceptable to your peer group. Acceptance, on the other hand, is simply being accepted and valued just as you are. Nothing is more important or necessary to lead a healthy, productive, and meaningful life than feeling accepted.
Which brings us to baptism. There are a couple of things about Mark’s story of Jesus’ baptism. First are God’s words to Jesus. They are personal, poignant, and powerful. “You are my beloved son. With you I am well pleased.” Wrapped in these words of acceptance are the blessings of identity, worth, and unwavering love.
Second, these words come just before Jesus’ temptation (which we won’t get to until the beginning of Lent) and the start of Jesus’ ministry. The event of Jesus’ baptism is foundational to Mark’s story of Jesus. It has pride of place, after all. It comes immediately after the introductory verses and is the very first episode of Jesus’ life about which Mark tells us.
In that same vein, Jesus’ baptism isn’t simply a prelude to everything that comes after it. It is, in fact, the highpoint and climax of the story in a nutshell. God’s words to Jesus at his baptism are the concentrated distillate of the entire Gospel. Again and again, Jesus casts out unclean spirits, heals the sick, feeds the hungry, and welcomes the outcast. He does to others what has already been done to him: He tells them by word and deed that they, too, are beloved children of God with whom God is well pleased. In fact, even the darkest moment of the story when Jesus feels absolutely abandoned his identity as God’s son is affirmed by the Centurion who stands at this cross. And this is then followed immediately by the story of resurrection, where the messenger testifies that God has kept God’s baptismal promise and continues to accept and honor Jesus as God’s own beloved.
This is not a promise available exclusively to Jesus. At our lowest moments, the word of faith encourages us to remember that the God who raised Jesus from the dead is the same one who promises the same to us in baptism. To never abandon us. To love and accept us always, as beloved children, even and especially when we have a hard time loving and accepting ourselves.
Baptism offers us not merely affirmation, but the radical acceptance of the Creator of the Cosmos. And so we, too, in turn, are empowered to accept others. Baptism reminds us that wherever we may go and whatever we may do or have done to us, God continues to love us, accept us, and hold onto us. For a generation that has been sold cheap affirmation as a substitute for genuine acceptance, there is no more powerful promise.
Mark reminds us that before baptism became the ritual it is now, it was first an epiphany -- an appearance of God that we had never witnessed before. It was God ripping apart that which we thought could separate us from God so as to be with us and one of us. By the end of Mark’s story we realize that it is, in fact, God splitting open the grave so that death would never, ever, be the end.
The baptism of Jesus in Mark reminds us that the first thing we should remember is that baptism is God’s epiphany. How we live into and out of our baptism must be shaped by that truth. So, before we get too comfortable or complacent in claiming our baptismal identity, we need to remember that to which Baptism calls us: The call to be an epiphany for others.
Our world needs more epiphanies. Specifically, the epiphanies that we are willing to be. Living out our baptism in the world means being committed to precisely that. To be the ones who tear apart the boundaries that try to keep God from those whom God loves. To be the ones who tear apart the boundaries that inhibit others from experiencing God’s grace. The ones who tear apart the boundaries constructed to determine who is saved and who isn’t. The world needs more epiphanies. Epiphanies like you. People who are ready to take on the responsibility of baptism.
Today is not just the Sunday of “The Baptism of our Lord”. Today is also the “Sunday of Our Baptism to be a Blessing.” I would like to invite you now, to take the first step in fulfilling your calling in Baptism. Please take a moment and turn to the person next to you. (And if there’s nobody next to you, then the person who is in front of you or behind you). With your thumb or forefinger, make the sign of the cross on that person’s forehead and say to them, “In Baptism God has promised to love you forever and never let you go.”
You have been nourished by God’s word. You have been fed at the Lord’s table of grace. You have received blessing and confirmation from your brothers and sisters in Christ that you are fiercely loved by God. Now, go from this place and do not be afraid. Do not be afraid to tear down and tear apart any and all separations or stipulations, boundaries or barriers, conditions or confines that prevent epiphanies of God. Go from this place, and be baptismal people. Go from this place, and reveal God’s love and grace and acceptance to all the world.