I am always in the wrong line at the supermarket. Always.
And so it was that early this week I found myself with lots of time to kill while waiting t check out at Shaws in Waverly Square. I did exactly what the people in product placement wanted me to do. I started looking at the covers of the magazines next to me.
One magazine featured a sketchy picture of the wife of a famous actor, and claimed, in all caps, that she was a “Wife from hell!” Bullet points under this claim included “Jealous monster,” Control freak,” “Outrageous diva demands,” and “Violent tantrums.” I know nothing about this woman or her marriage, but given that the title of the magazine was National Enquirer, I’m guessing the claims are, at minimum, an exaggeration, and perhaps even baseless.
Let me move on, I decided; maybe there’s something else worth reading here. So I glanced at the next magazine, which featured a scantily-clad model, and featured the headline, “New year, new booty.” Another promised article was on “No-fail ways to drop 5 lbs,” and a third on “How to be an “in” girl. Ironically, the final cover story was called “Shut Down Stress: Tricks for morning, noon, and night.” (I’ll give you a trick for shutting down stress: Don’t read this magazine!).
As I continued checking out, I kept thinking of these covers. They left me sad and angry. How we commodify people. How we narrow their horizons. How ephemeral our understanding of most people, not just famous people or models but people we deal with day to day. And because we live in a culture that is built on glimpses and glances of people, sound-bites and snap-chats, how hard it is to dig deeply into the truth of who others are and take time to know ourselves.
Sherry Turkle at MIT is writing and talking these days about how personal technologies are making it harder than ever for us to truly know ourselves and one another. Tempted by the possibilities of a text or an email in which a glossy or incomplete image is communicated, we avoid face-to-face conversation, where we have to look, listen and reveal ourselves. We are more afraid of judgment than ever, and we avoid what Turkle calls the “necessary conversations of solitude and self-reflection,” because we’ve already judged ourselves as inadequate and don’t want to face it, (Reclaiming Conversation, 2015).
God’s dream for us is so much more. In this season after the Epiphany, we reclaim the truth of who we are as we learn more about who Christ is. And it starts with today’s gospel:
Along about his 30th year, Jesus went out to the Jordan River to be baptized by his cousin, John. This wasn’t that unusual. John was a prophet, calling people to repent and turn back to God. And one of the ancient rituals of purification, a sign of turning back to God, was baptism. So Jesus joined “all the people of Israel” in going through this rite.
But Jesus, we believe, didn’t really need it. He was God. So what was he doing there?
He was beginning the work of showing us who we are. As Gregory of Nazianzus wrote way back in the 4th c., “Jesus comes out of the water, drawing the world with him.” He comes up out of the water and immediately prays – He turns to the Father. And as he does so, the Spirit of God comes upon him, and God’s voice proclaims, “You are my beloved, in whom I am well-pleased.”
Jesus is beloved. And he goes on, in the power of the Spirit, to show all those around him that they, too, are loved – all of them, the sleek and the needy, the pure and the impure, the healthy and the leper, the widow and the orphan and the thief on the cross. Beloved.
“You are my beloved,” are words for Jesus, and they are words for all of us, too. In baptism, we say yes to those words. We claim our belovedness as the central, fundamental truth of our being. Good. Loved. We are called to be part of the Body of Christ, and therefore, called to bring more love and healing and hope into this broken world — called to resist narrow definitions of identity and superficial or commodified relationships.
Can you believe it? You are beloved and God’s love is at work in you. William Blake wrote, “We are here to learn to endure the beams of love.”
We have been so conditioned to minimize our value. It is this, I believe, that more than anything else is what makes it challenging for a congregation to call new leaders – “Who am I to bear a chalice?” – and challenging for a congregation to imagine a larger ministry and mission – “How could we possibly be called to transform hundreds more lives?”
Today, we follow Jesus’s lead and go to the waters for a baptism. Jason and Nathalie (parents) and Laura and Mark (godparents) and all of us invite Garrett into a lifetime of learning to endure the beams of love. Garrett is beloved by God; he is gifted in ways that we will learn as he grows to do particular acts of love through particular vocations. He will make Christ manifest to us, and if we sit still, put down our cell phone, ask questions of him that make space for him to share and us to listen, amazing blessing will follow.
Earlier this week, someone shared these words of Richard Rohr with me. They are a good summary of what I’ve tried to convey in this sermon:
God’s life is living itself in me.
I am aware of life living itself in me.
God’s love is living itself in me.
I am aware of love living itself in me.
If that were on a magazine cover in the checkout aisle at Shaw’s, it wouldn’t sell. But I bind myself to this truth, and I look forward to seeing it manifest in this congregation and in Garrett in the days ahead.