January 10, 2016 | Luke 3: 15-17, 21-22 | Rev. Nancy Talbot –
Over the holidays I noticed a trend around New Year’s resolutions. A variety of newspaper articles and Facebook posts seemed to be suggesting we do away with the whole idea of making resolutions, mostly because few people ever seem to keep them. One statistic I read stated that only 14% of people over the age of 50 who make resolutions actually succeed. Although that’s a particularly relevant statistic in terms of my own decision to not make any resolutions this year, what’s been even more compelling for me are the articles suggesting that maybe we don’t need to make resolutions because maybe who we already are is good enough. Perhaps we should spend more time this year being resolved to love ourselves for who we are instead of beating ourselves up for not being who we think we ought to be.
This summer one of my friends announced she had stopped trying to lose her middle age spread. She decided there’s just more of her to love and she’s going to love it. I admire her resolve but admit I’m not quite there yet.
One of the things I have always appreciated about the story of Jesus baptism as it is told in the gospels of Matthew, Luke and Mark is that right after he is baptized, a voice from heaven is heard saying “This is my son, the beloved, in whom I am well pleased.”
Whenever I read this story I always think of the man in my former congregation who after hearing this story for the very first time said “wow, my father never told me I was beloved. I wonder what my life would have been like if he had.”
Sadly, one of the most insidious aspects of our human nature is the need we have to qualify our love for one another and for ourselves. Some of us just can’t seem to get beyond the need to put conditions even on God’s love. So we read the story of Jesus baptism and wonder if the reason God was pleased with him was because he just repented of his sin. In other words he did something to earn God’s praise. Or to say, of course he’s the beloved, he’s Jesus, perfect in every way, but that’s not a status we can claim.
But what if instead of being a qualified statement about who Jesus was or the state of his soul, it was instead a declaration made at baptism that any one of us is free to claim about ourselves. We are the beloved in whom God is well pleased, whether we make and keep our New Year’s resolutions, or not.
Back in November, one of my colleagues posted a picture on facebook that said “Religion says God will love us if we change. The Gospel says God’s love changes us.”
That resonates with me and my understanding of God and of love in general and it resonates with our United Church way of understanding what baptism is all about. Which is that at its core, baptism is a response to grace, a declaration of our belovedness regardless of who we are or where we have come from. It’s quite a different thing to allow our belovedness to make us want to be better people. Rather than wanting to be better people because we think that who we already are isn’t quite good enough. Naming and claiming our belovedness makes us want to be who we have already been declared to be.
One of the things that can hook us in today’s scripture reading is the way it begins with John the Baptist’s declaration of who Jesus is. I baptise you with water, says John, but the one who is coming will baptise you with Fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor. He will separate out the wheat from the chaff. And he will burn the chaff with unquenchable fire.
The suggestion always seems to be that Jesus is going to separate the good people from the bad people. Some are in and some are out. But what if the wheat is our belovedness? What if it’s not about separating out who is right and who is wrong but grabbing onto, harvesting those aspects of ourselves that are the best the most fruitful part of our being.
Some of you have heard me tell the story about the landlord I had when I was first ordained. One of the members of my congregation had found a townhouse for me to rent in a gated community in Surrey. When the landlord found out I was a minister it sealed the deal. She proceeded to walk me around the complex pointing out the places where the “good Christians” lived. I remember cringing every time she pointed to a house and said “he’s a good Christian” “they’re a good Christian family” because I knew if she knew more about me and my beliefs I was never going to make the “good Christian” cut.
It makes me think of Walter Hawkins who was a member of my former congregation. Walter was a life-long and devoted member of the United Church. He never missed a Sunday service, was one of the top financial supporters, served on the Board, attended every book and bible study I ever led and in his spare time had a habit of visiting the most vulnerable in the community, especially the bereaved. He was and still is a kind hearted, generous soul. But if there was one thing that got him going, it was people who boasted about being Christian.
“I can’t stand those people who like to refer to themselves as Christians every opportunity they get” he’d say with a scowl on his face and a shake of his head. “I’m a Christian are you a Christian? they say as if being a Christian were something you become once and for all. I’ve been a member of the church all my life and I don’t know if I’m a Christian” he’d rant. “I’m trying to be a Christian. I’ve spent my whole life trying to be a Christian, but I don’t know if I’ll ever succeed.”
Walter had a beautiful way of recognizing that each and every one of us is beloved and our job is not to judge who is in or who is out, who’s a good Christian and who’s a bad one, but rather to live our lives in humble service to the love in which we were all created.
Walter used to say that everyone should have a sermon they are ready to preach at any given moment. There’s a well known story in that congregation about the day my predecessor there fainted in the pulpit and Walter took over and preached his sermon.
I wonder what the one sermon is that you have to preach?
Walter knows that being baptized means being called to share the light of Christ, to live into becoming more and more Christ-like, more Christian, every day of our lives. Not because who we already are isn’t good enough, but because knowing we are loved changes how we live.
There are many different interpretations of the meaning of baptism. For some it is about repentance and forgiveness, for some it is about a commitment to the church, for some a sign of death and resurrection, a promise of something more in the life beyond this life. In the story of Jesus baptism marks a new beginning, the first action of his public ministry.
That is why the church in its wisdom retells this story every year three Sundays after the celebration of the Nativity. Because this is the time of year we too begin again. What if the thing we die to as we begin another year is our propensity for self-deprecation in order to be resurrected into the fullness of who we truly are; what if we repent of our sin of never being happy with who we are; what if we commit to loving who we are and being the beloved… Christ made flesh … or at least like Walter, trying our best even if we never fully succeed.