January 12, 2020
Deacon Alex Benson
Grace, peace, and mercy are yours from the one who calls us into belovedness, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
A few years ago I had the privilege of traveling to Israel and Palestine with a group of students and professors from my seminary. Israel Palestine is a complicated part of the world – it is situated in what we call the “Middle East,” a region often associated with military conflict and ongoing violence. It is also in the region that Christians refer to as the Holy Land because it is the part of the world in which most of the stories of the Bible took place. It is in fact where Jesus lived, where his disciples dropped their fishing nets to follow him, where God took on flesh and lived among us. As Christians, along with Jews and Muslims, we trace our roots to this holy and complicated place.
One day on this trip, my fellow travelers journeyed over to the Jordan River to visit one of the sites where Jesus may have been baptized. Now, as someone who grew up in the Christian faith, I had heard about the Jordan River pretty much my entire life. I learned songs about it, read Bible stories about it, saw the river’s bright blue water depicted in children’s Bible illustrations. And when you have spent years and years hearing about something, imagining it, it is natural to develop some pretty high expectations. I had always imagined the river as bright and clear, probably pretty large, definitely impressive or notable in some way – after all this is where the very Son of God was baptized, so it must be pretty remarkable.
So anyway, that day we got out of our tour bus in the middle of the desert, walked past the large Jordan River tourist welcome center, and wandered down to the banks…and let’s just say I was a bit underwhelmed. The river, at least where we were, is actually fairly small –way smaller than the Missouri in this part of North Dakota. The water was muddy and murky. It wasn’t moving very fast. It was just…a river. Entirely unremarkable. Pretty dirty. Not exactly what I would consider divine or heavenly or, on first glance, particularly holy.
What was striking, however, were the armed soldiers on either side of the river. So, a little geography lesson: Israel lies on side of the River Jordan; the country Jordan is on the other. So there we were, a group of Bible and theology nerds from Minnesota, taking our place alongside the muddy water as armed soldiers paced back and forth on either side of us.
Trying to play it cool, we gathered together, and one of our professors pulled out her Bible and began to read the very gospel text we read this morning. It was a story we all knew – the story that marks the very beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. Jesus, standing in and among this crowd of ordinary sinners, ordinary people, steps forward to be baptized by his slightly eccentric cousin, the prophet John the Baptist. John, understandably taken aback, says, Wait a sec, Jesus. ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” It seems backwards somehow. But Jesus insists. So, he wades into the water to stand next to John, and John baptizes him – fully immersing him in those muddy waters as was the practice of the day. And as Jesus comes up for air, the heavens are opened and the Spirit of God comes down and a voice from heaven proclaims for all to hear, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am will pleased.”
It was a bit of a surreal experience reading that text with my feat firmly planted on the banks of the Jordan. On one hand, it felt too ordinary. This was, after all, a seemingly unremarkable river. It kind of seemed like we could be anywhere. And on the other hand, it all felt too bizarre. With the armed military surrounding us, the tension, the brokenness, the years and years of conflict and pain and struggle of this land were palpable. To imagine the Son of God, God in the flesh, splashing around in these waters, taking his place among ordinary, broken, complicated people – it seemed downright outrageous.
But the more and more I wrestle with this ancient and mysterious Christian faith, the more I come to wonder if that isn’t exactly the point. God doesn’t come to the perfect, picturesque river. God doesn’t come to hang out with perfect people. God enters in, just as things are – in the mud and the muck and all of the weirdness that is part of being a creature on this planet. And God names it beloved. And whatever God calls beloved is transformed into something holy, something beautiful, something of God and in God – even in its ordinariness and brokenness.
One of the things I love about this story is that God proclaims Jesus’ belovedness at the start of his public ministry. Not after he has healed people or gathered disciples or fed the crowds or taught about the Kingdom of God. According to the narrative given to us at least, Jesus hasn’t really done anything yet. His public ministry doesn’t begin until God tells him that he is loved, that he is God’s child. Then, and only then, is he sent out love and save the world.
My experience in the Holy Land came during a rather difficult part of my seminary journey. I was halfway through my first year of classes. I loved my coursework but had been feeling deeply insecure and uncertain about my call to ministry. I was wracked with anxiety. After several months of trying to fit myself into the “pastor” box, I had this nagging feeling that something just wasn’t right. It just didn’t fit. And that scared me. I felt lost and alone; I was sure there had been some mistake in this call to ministry I had been so certain about less than a year before. And I didn’t feel particularly beloved at all.
But that day on the banks of the Jordan, after we read the story of Jesus’ own baptism, we took turns rolling up our pantlegs and stepping into the muddy water one by one as our professors made the sign of the cross on our foreheads, called each of us by name, and reminded us of our belovedness. When it was my turn, my professor looked me in the eye and said “Alexandra, child of God, you are loved.” And for a moment, I believed her. And in that moment, I felt free. I felt whole. And even just for a second, it was as though I had the courage to trust that if God could meet me here, in the muddy water in an imperfect and complicated land, perhaps God could meet me in those other places too. In the anxious places. In the painful places. In the places that made me feel small and insignificant and unworthy. In the places where I had totally messed up. In the places where I felt lost and confused and uncertain about the path ahead. Perhaps even there, God could find me and call me Beloved.
Rachel Held Evans once wrote that “the great struggle of the Christian life is to take God’s name for us, to believe we are beloved and to believe that is enough” (Searching for Sunday). We live in a culture that doesn’t want us to believe that we are loved. Products are marketed to us based on the premise that we are not good enough as we are, so we need help from beauty products or certain brands of clothing or cars or technology or a whole slough of wellness products. This time of year is especially difficult with new year’s resolutions and the tendency for many of us to take stock of our inadequacies. Self-improvement is certainly not a bad thing as long as it comes from a place of wholeness-seeking, of a genuine longing for life and goodness and healthy relationships with ourselves and each other and all of creation. But too often our desire to improve ourselves is based on comparison, on a longing to be liked or loved or known, on the misconception that we can somehow make ourselves more worthy of approval. I have to wonder, what would our world be like if we all truly believed that before we do anything, we are already loved?
I think it would free up a lot of our energy for one thing. We could spend less time worrying about impressing each other or outdoing one another and more time simply caring for each other. I wonder about how much more freely we could address issues of social inequality. I wonder how differently we might approach the ways we have harmed others or the planet, seeking forgiveness and reconciliation instead of holding onto defensiveness and insecurity. I wonder.
But how easily we forget who we are. How easily we forget God’s name for us. And when I forget that I am loved, I not only end up hurting myself but I also, more often than not, end up hurting those around me. I get so focused on trying to prove that I’m good enough that I lose sight of the ways my neighbors might need me to show up and to spread light and love in the world.
Dr. Karoline Lewis, one of the professors who stood alongside me on the banks of the Jordan River that day, recently wrote that “Baptism is also about who the other needs you to be.” I’ve been pondering that this week. Baptism tells me that I am beloved. Baptism tells me that you are beloved. And I owe it to myself and others to act like one who is beloved. And the truth is, if we are all indeed members of Christ’s body, I need you to do the same. We all need each other, we call each other, to live and move and breathe out of God’s abundant love for us. And when we forget, we remind each other. We remind each other through words of love spoken and ears ready to listen; we remind each other through meals shared and handshakes of peace exchanged; we remind each other by sticking with each other, by showing up to try again, by daring to believe that God meets us in the muddy waters of the Jordan and in this very chapel and in each and every corner of this world.