The lectionary text for the Sunday after the insurrection at the Capitol was the account of Jesus’ baptism. The events of the week took my sermon in a different direction. As I prepared to preach this last Sunday before Lent begins, the notes I had made popped back in my head and it felt like the right word for this week, even though the lectionary thinks differently. Here is where the journey took me. And the song to accompany the sermon is Amy Grant’s “All I Ever Have To Be.”
At this time, Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. The moment he came out of the water, he saw the sky split open and God’s Spirit, looking like a dove, come down on him. Along with the Spirit, a voice: “You are my Son, chosen and marked by my love, in whom I delight.” (Mark 1:9-11)
One of the rituals in my life that I look forward to each year will happen this week. My friend Patty, who lives in Michigan, will call and we will wish each other “Happy Lent.” It may sound like an oxymoron, but we mean it. I love the season of Lent because it is the primary season that calls us to focus, to create some space, to do without so that we can better hear the Spirit speaking.
I have a ritual from the last five years I will not get to do this week because of COVID. My job as an editor has meant, until about a year ago, that I went into New York once a week to our office there–usually on Wednesdays. On Ash Wednesday, I would stop in my walk from Grand Central at the Church of the Incarnation, which offered ashes all day. I usually got there around 7:30 am and I was the only one who walked down the center aisle of the old stone church to where a priest was standing as though I had an appointment. She smudged my forehead with the sign of the cross and said, “From dust you came and to dust you will return.”
That sentence is the reason I chose our passage this morning. I want to remind us of the difference between dust and dirt, which is another way of saying Lent is a season to remind ourselves that we are temporary, not that we are worthless.
It’s my guess that, even though I am sure Mary told him the story of the angel coming to visit, that Jesus grew up hearing that his mother was pregnant before she was married. I’m sure the whole family took some ridicule for their circumstance. I know the gospels offer a picture of a confident kid when Mary and Joseph found Jesus hanging out in the synagogue when he was twelve, yet I also find room to imagine a boy who grew up feeling odd and estranged from those around him.
Mark, as we know, doesn’t tell any of those stories. When Jesus walks into his gospel, he is thirty years old or so, and he comes to John to be baptized. Baptism, in Jesus’ day, was more than a sprinkle. He went into the water and when he came up, Mark says, the sky broke open and the Spirit fell on him like a bird descending and a voice said, “You are my child, chosen and marked by my love, the pride of my life.” Another translation says, “. . . in whom I delight.”
I don’t care if you are the messiah. I don’t think it matters what age you are. A blessing like that is life-changing. Life-giving. And it is the central message God offers all of God’s children: you are my beloved, my delight.”
Maybe one of the reasons it is more difficult to believe that God’s words apply to us as well is that the whole thing is couched in the metaphor of family–between parent and child. For many parents, it’s hard to express their love for their children in ways that the kids really get it. For many kids, even grown ones, it’s hard to hear the blessing; sometimes it is not given.
Years ago, my friend Burt, who was then pastoring a church in Texas, asked me to write a poem related to this passage. Ginger and I were living in Boston at the time–in Charlestown, right on the harbor. Not far from us was the Museum of Science and they had a big billboard across from their building that said, “Come see our new planetarium, you tiny insignificant speck in the universe.” I had seen the sign a couple of days before Burt called. Here is the poem I wrote:
The crush of afternoon traffic finds me
in an unending stream of souls staring
at the stoplight. From my seat I can see
the billboard: “Come visit the New Planetarium
You Tiny Insignificant Speck in the Universe.”
When the signal changes, I follow the flow
over river and railroad yard, coming
to rest in front of our row house, to be
welcomed by our schnauzers, the only
ones who appear to notice my return.
I have been hard at work in my stream
of consciousness, but the ripples of my life
have stopped no wars, have saved no lives —
and I forgot to pick up the dry cleaning;
I am a speck who has been found wanting.
I walk the dogs down to the river and wonder
how many times I have stood at the edge
hoping to hear, “You are My Beloved Child.”
Instead, I skip across life’s surface to find
I am not The One You Were Looking For.
I am standing in the river of humanity
between the banks of Blessing and Despair,
with the sinking feeling that messiahs
matter most: I am supposed to change
the world and I have not done my job.
Yet–if I stack up the stones of my life
like an altar, I can find myself in the legacy
of Love somewhere between star and sea:
I am a Speck of Some Significance.
So say the schnauzers every time I come home.
Our schnauzers still offer their boisterous blessing whenever we come home, even though they aren’t the same pups that were in the poem. Their unabashed affection mirrors the love I hear in the words that fell on Jesus like the sunshine and the Spirit: “It’s you! I love you!”
Can you recall a moment, large or small, when you felt the blessing of Love with a capital L? When, even for a few minutes, you knew you mattered just because you were breathing—not because you did something, or said something, but because you’re you? Wherever that place is in your heart, remember it. Visit often. Whoever told you that was telling the truth. Every last one of us is wonderfully created in the image of God and worthy to be loved.
Life changed quickly for Jesus, as we have seen in our study of this chapter: his temptation, John’s arrest, calling the disciples, being challenged in the synagogue, the whole town descending on him because they wanted healing from him. Time and again, he tried to get away for some time alone to pray–to be with God. I wonder if part of that prayer was saying, “Tell me the part about being the pride of your life again.”
And then he would get back in the fray, knowing his life was short and he had much to do—just like ours. The words we say are true. From dust to dust. And also, from blessing to blessing. It matters that we are here, no matter how short our days or how long our years. We have been reminded this year more than most that life is not guaranteed.
But love is. We are God’s children, chosen and marked by love, in whom God delights. May we take every opportunity to remind one another of that truth.
Happy Lent! Amen.
“Life is short. We do not have much time to gladden the hearts of those who travel the way with us. So, be quick to love; make haste to be kind.”
–Henri Amiel, 1868