Delivered at Ames UCC on October 18, 2015
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie
Sermons are the result of pastoral preparation, congregational presence, and Holy Spirit participation. Please join me in that mysterious but always delightful process at 10:30 a.m. on Sundays, except in July and August when times vary. Check the calendar for details.
About twenty years ago, when I was still rightfully very angry at the church for its homophobia, sexism, racism, and failure to live the gospels—for its humanity—I found an interesting group working to change some of that. It was affiliated with a tradition other than the UCC, one that at that time had not acknowledged the full humanity of queer people and so did not allow us queer people to serve as priests or to wed. But this group was working to educate the church, to do the tedious and emotionally taxing education required to help fellow children of God understand that we are not a birth defect, an aberration, nor an abomination. One of their slogans was “I was baptized, too.”
At the time it took the wind out of me. Yeah! I was baptized, too! On December 23, 1973 at Bethany Lutheran Church in Webster Groves, Missouri, my sister, grandfather, mother, father, and godparents presented me to the church. They made promises on my behalf and for themselves. An ordained pastor three times put water on my head, reciting the phrase of centuries: I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. He wiped off my brow with this cloth.
I was baptized, too. Whatever the haters and lawmakers, be they canonical or civil, said about me, I had been in the same river as Jesus, witnessed and washed. To point this out to other Christians was to call them out on the partiality and prejudice they were practicing, in direct contrast to God. In direct contrast to God at Jesus’s own baptism.
At the end of today’s passage, we heard:
“This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
This single sentence is among the Bible’s most powerful testimonies to God’s radical love of all people and God’s expectation that we practice the same.
Why is that?
Of course, God is pleased with Jesus. He’s Jesus. There’s nothing radical there. There’s no lesson about bigotry in God’s public declaration of love for Jesus at his baptism.
Yes, there is.
Two weeks ago, on the Sunday after Christmas, the scripture was Matthew’s opening chapter. That chapter consists of 24 verses of ancestors, from Abraham to King David to Joseph, whom Matthew’s gospel attends to more than Mary.
But Mary is there, too. Mary, the unmarried young woman, a socially suspect figure. So are several other kinds of shady characters: In addition to Abraham, who tried to do an end run on God’s promise by abusing a slave to get a child, and King David, who had a man killed in order to fulfill his lust for that man’s wife, there is Jacob, Tamar, Rahab, and Ruth.
Jacob stole his brother’s birth right through a disguise and lies.
Tamar posed as a prostitute to trick her father-in-law into sex so that she could force him into fulfilling his obligations to her as a widow of his sons.
Rahab was a prostitute, a sex worker not of the ancient Israelite faith, who nonetheless protected Israelite spies from harm.
And Ruth, of course, seduced a drunk man so that he would honor his obligations as a kinsman-redeemer to her mother-in-law Naomi.
In other words, Jesus’s lineage is not pure. It includes the honored patriarchs, sure, but not even they are squeaky clean. And as if to reinforce the point, the book of Matthew includes desperate women made desperate who used their minds and their bodies to secure a future for themselves and their families. And, if there is any factual truth to the stories, it is the future of Jesus.
Jesus’s story does not become any less human as it continues. After the genealogy of Jesus and his birth, Matthew tells us that Joseph is instructed by an angel to flee to Egypt to escape Herod’s infanticidal response to the journey of the magi. After Herod is dead, and Joseph has two more dreams, the family settles in Nazareth. It is decades later, then, that John the Baptizer appears at the Jordan, as we heard today.
And it is a pretty weird appearance. John is wearing camel hair and eating bugs and honey and quoting scripture not at the temple, but by a river outside the city walls.
If we weren’t so immersed in Christianity as a culture and in our choice to be here, it would be pretty easy to write Jesus off at this point. His ancestors are problematic, he comes from nowhere, and his first public appearance is with a zealot taking part in some fringe religious revival. Anyone hearing this story could discount him as utterly unqualified, from his roots to the company he keeps, to serve as spiritual guide, let alone an emanation of the divine. It is no wonder God speaks up, in fact or in the Matthean imagining, to offer reassurance that yes, even one such as this is good in God’s eyes.
“This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
And, as that son will go on to preach and teach and live and die for, it is a statement that applies to all people. All human beings, all kinds of human beings, are a pleasure to God. And so no human beings can try to deny other human beings that pleasure or the place of equality such love affords.
I’m not mad at the church, not like I used to be. Critical, sure, but not petulant. I have learned to forgive it its humanity, to love that humanity, just as God and Christ both teach.
It helped me to find the United Church of Christ, to find Christians as eager as I am to spend less time, or none at all, fighting about who is in God’s grace and who is out, and more time living that grace in practical and spiritual terms. I also found Christians who did not care that I am gay, only that I uphold my own baptismal promises as well as those of my ordination.
So I no longer say “I was baptized, too” from a posture of defensiveness but one of camaraderie. Hey, I was baptized, too! I, too, went into water to feel on my skin God’s delight in all people and to commit myself to the work of that delight.
And now today I am—we are—joined by baby Martha! How good, how pleasing, it is to have another family say yes to God’s love and the Spirit’s guidance and to profess that a teacher, guide, agitator, and scandalous presence like Jesus, is more worthy of discipleship than king or capital. What a relief to know that people are still prepared to publicly renounce evil and to show love and justice.
All of which can happen without baptism, of course. Baptism does not render anyone more special than anyone else. But there is power in the public profession, in the corporeal encounter with covenant.
So I invite you today, whether you have felt shut out from the delight of God or not, whether you have been baptized or not, to take a little renewing dip in this river yourself. Sunny will play the hymn for us to sing as usual. But as you are so moved, come forward, if you like, as we do for Communion. Pr. Hannah and I will use this ancient river water to anoint your hand or your forehead and you will hear the phrase “beloved child, God is well pleased” then return to your seat by the side aisle. If it is easier for you to stay where you are, raise your hand and our intern David Sheridan will bring the water and the blessing to you.
It may feel like a fringe religious revival, and it may feel difficult to get out from behind the city walls of these pews. But the freedom from anger and fear and isolation you will meet here is as deep as the water’s origin and as beautiful as heavens opened wide.