One of the characteristics of recipe blogs, as opposed to a recipe site, is that you generally have to read through a long story to get to the recipe, so if you are trying to find a recipe in a hurry, you have to scroll for a while to find what you want. But the front part is more than just filler. The writers tell their stories for a reason: they want to connect with their followers, to make it about more than just the recipe.
As I have been preaching more regularly, I’ve started to feel the same way about my sermon posts, since often they include stories I have told before (well, pretty much everything I say and write contains stories I have told before) and I write them for the congregation, so sometimes they are fairly specific and need a little context. This is the Sunday that commemorates the Baptism of Jesus. I love preaching from this passage because it talks about blessing: the unabashed love of God that names us all. I spent a lot of my life looking for a blessing that felt like enough. I have also spent a lot of my life telling other people they were beloved children of God that brought God delight. Embracing that blessing in my own life has made me more determined to pass it along.
Here is my latest version.
About a month ago, on the Second Sunday of Advent, the scripture for the day pointed us to John the Baptist and we talked about his calling people to a baptism of repentance and forgiveness. During Advent, John felt a little out of place, but he helped us prepare the way of the Lord. Today, as many congregations across the wider Church commemorate Jesus’ baptism, the story fits a little better into the timeline of Jesus’ life.
Of course, the timeline is spotty, as far as the details go. We know John and Jesus were cousins, but we don’t have any accounts of how they grew up together or what brought them to this moment. Because of the connection of the families, it is a fair assumption that they were a part of each other’s lives and Jesus showing up at the Jordan was something John saw coming, even if he was surprised by Jesus’ request to be baptized. Their life stories were already intertwined.
One of the most meaningful metaphors we use for life is to say we are telling–or living–a story. Each life, like a story, has a beginning, a middle, and an end. And it is peopled with characters. One of my favorite quotes (that I never can remember exactly) says something like, “My life is filled with wonderful characters, I’m just not sure about the plot.”
The reality is life is not a story–or not a cohesive narrative–until we begin to shape it by our retelling. And when we do, we think of ourselves as the main character. Rebecca Solnit says,
We are all the heroes of our own stories, and one of the arts of perspective is to see yourself small on the stage of another’s story, to see the vast expanse of the world that is not about you, and to see your power, to make your life, to make others, or break them, to tell stories rather than be told by them. (The Faraway Nearby 29)
It is stating the obvious to say both John and Jesus are part of a larger story, but I think it matters that they both knew that. John got a lot of attention, but he knew he was not the main event. He appeared to understand that in the way he welcomed Jesus, as well as in the way he called people to forgiveness and repentance. Both those words call us to remember we are not the main character but are a part of a web of relationships. Jesus understood as well. He asked to be baptized to “fulfill the Law,” which means more than saying, “We have to obey the rules.” At the heart of the Hebrew faith was a sense of justice, as in the prophet Micah saying what God requires of us is to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God.
His actions challenge our thinking about who he was. If he was sinless, why would he submit to a baptism of repentance and forgiveness? Perhaps because he knew the story was not about him, even if he was the Messiah. He was joining the larger story of God’s love and justice, and that opened him up to receive God’s blessing: “This is my dearly loved child in whom I am well pleased.”
Theologian Cornel West says, “Justice is what love looks like in public.”
In public, Jesus joined the story of repentance and forgiveness that leaned into the love of God and found blessing. We all need the blessing to be able to practice the art of perspective that reminds us we are not the main character. This is an ensemble production.
What does it mean to be blessed?
In French, the word blesser means to hurt or to wound; and in English, we could say, I suppose, that it means to heal. The two languages remind us that to love someone comes with the risk of injury. Opening ourselves to love means being willing to be hurt. Whatever brought Jesus to meet John at the Jordan led to God proclaiming, “That’s my child in whom I delight.” Those words launched Jesus into the next chapters of the story, which carried its share of pain even as he went forward with a blessing.
Who doesn’t need to hear a blessing?
One of the stories of my life is my relationship with my father. He died eight and a half years ago, but the story is still unfolding. Life with my father was not perfect; we lived through several stretches where it was difficult for both of us. I was his namesake, which often made things even more complicated. When we were living in Boston, I went back to Baylor University for Homecoming and learned that my father, who was the university chaplain, had preached that day on campus. I did not hear the sermon, but a friend told me that he had used me as an illustration.
My father said, “In life you have to learn the difference between a problem and a predicament. A problem you can fix. A predicament is something you have to learn to live with.” He paused. “I used to think my eldest son was a problem. Now I see he is a predicament.”
I told that story at his funeral and then I added, “I learned he was a predicament, too.” We loved each other and had worked hard to learn to live with and love each other as we were, which was a good thing. While he was still alive, we found a rhythm as predicaments that let us both be ourselves and be together; we were able to bless one another. Since his death, that blessing has meant my ongoing predicament is I am not going to get over missing him. And I don’t want to.
My mother, who died six years ago this coming week, blessed me in the kitchen. She is the reason I love to cook. As a young boy I asked a lot of questions about what she was doing as she prepared meals and she invited me to help. Then she would say, “You watched me do this last time. You can do it.” And I believed her. I don’t step into the kitchen without being aware of her blessing.
Many years ago, my friend Burt, who was then a pastor in Waco, Texas was preaching on this passage and asked me to write a poem for his sermon. In the way a good story comes together, I had just seen a billboard on my way home to our house in the Charlestown neighborhood of Boston that had already set me to thinking. I wrote these words.
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.
I don’t know where you find yourself in the story of our lives this morning. Maybe you need someone to bless you, to tell you that you are a child of God, wonderfully and uniquely made and worthy to be loved. Perhaps you need the new beginning offered by repentance and forgiveness, both on the giving and receiving ends. Maybe you hold the blessing someone else desperately needs. Or maybe you are just trying to figure out what the story is in these difficult and exhausting days. Whoever you are and wherever you are in life’s story, you are God’s beloved child in whom God delights. And you are not alone.
Let that sink in: you are loved, you are loved, you are really, really loved. Amen.
Also published on Medium.