Delivered at Ames UCC on October 18, 2015
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie
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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.