Saturday, January 18, 2014

[Epiphany 1] selfies in the dirty water

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by John.

John would have prevented Jesus, saying, "I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?"

But Jesus answered, "Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness." Then John consented.

And when Jesus had been baptized and was coming up from the water, suddenly Jesus saw the heavens open and the Spirit of God descending, alighting like a dove. And a voice from heaven said, "This is my Child, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased."

Matthew 3:13-17 (NRSV, alt. -- with thanks to Emily Aviva)

Every time I encounter this passage I think, "The very first sermon I preached was on this passage. I don't remember what I said."

When I think about this story (without referring back to the records of the sermon I wrote), I wrestle with why Jesus needed to be baptized (complicated by my lack of knowledge about what such ritual actions imported in Jesus' pre-Christian Jewish context). What is Jesus on about with "it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness"?

And eventually I let that go and I remember that God says, "This (You) are my beloved -- with whom I am well-pleased," before Jesus has done anything of note in our records (aside from Luke's incident in the Temple) besides exist. And I really really like that. We don't "earn" our belovedness, God just loves us because that's what God does, that's who God is.

I remember Tiffany telling the "You are a bright, brilliant, beloved child of God -- who is beautiful to behold" story.

When I was prepping for this Sunday, I read Nancy Rockwell:

And so, Jesus was baptized in the river, one in the midst of many, and when he came up from the water, according to Matthew, the heavens opened to him. To him. To no one else. Not even to John. According to Matthew, Jesus saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, 'This is my son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.'

And that's it, according to Matthew. Gosh, in Luke, the whole huge crowd was wowed by the sight of the dove and the voice and the blessing words, My Beloved Son. This was epic, an epiphany for the record books. According to Luke. But according to Matthew, it was a Selfie. It was a snapshot moment Jesus kept, and pulled out to help him through the forty days of struggle and temptation in the wilderness, and maybe even the hours on the cross. My Beloved Son. It was something to remember.

This is what has stayed with me throughout the week. This idea of a "Selfie."

"Selfies" are strongly (and often negatively) associated with (young) women, so partly this is because I have a girl!Jesus agenda and have acquired a discomfort with the dismissal of things coded as "feminine" (and/or relating to teen girls).

I won't bore you with a rehash of the selfie debates, but I will posit that in a culture that spends so much money and energy convincing people (especially people who are or wish to be read as female) that they are obliged to look "good enough" in other people's views and that they will probably never achieve that, at least not without lots of external aid (purchased with time and money) -- I would posit that in that culture, for women to take pictures of themselves and say, "hell yeah I'm okay with people seeing this image of myself," is a counter-cultural act. Rachel Simmons asserts: "The selfie is a tiny pulse of girl pride."

At Church Council this week, we did an Affirmation exercise. We each wrote our name on the top of a sheet of paper and passed it around, each of us writing an affirmation for the person whose paper we received (folding the paper so you didn't see what people before you had written). Mine is pinned up on the corkboard in my bedroom. Once I got past being struck by how all the affirmations I got were way more thoughtful and articulate than the ones I gave other people (I said all true things, I just had difficulty coming up with a succinct phrasing, so I felt like mine came off as mostly generic), I was struck that (1) the totality of the sheet of paper covered so many different aspects of myself, and (2) none of them felt foreign to my self-conception.

A young adult group I attended at a different church a few years ago had a closing ritual in which we each Affirmed each of the other people in the circle (it could be "I like your sparkly sneakers" -- it didn't need to be profound). I remember often noting that people saw me differently than I saw myself -- and my journal will attest that this identity/perception disconnect happened elsewhere in my life as well.

Sometimes people are just wrong about us, it's true -- but sometimes it takes an outside perspective to point out to us things we hadn't realized about ourselves, whether it's because we've changed and haven't noticed ourselves because it's been so gradual from the inside, or because we've internalized untruths other people have told us, or for some other reason.

GetReligion correctly (though boringly at length) answers "A Christmas question: Did the baby Jesus cry?"

But then I made the mistake of reading the comments and Julie Gould commented:

He misses the point. Away in the Manger is a song for children. Children want to know that their beloved Jesus is not a gross, screaming, stinky intruder like their little brother or sister. He was perfect, so of course he didn't cry. He was beautiful like a little doll, adorable, and therefore easy to adore. We suffer now from too much worldly realism. Go back and learn truth from the old paintings and poetry.
I would like the record to note that I did not actually punch the computer screen.

I assert that Jesus does show up as "a gross, screaming, stinky intruder."

By this I mostly mean that Jesus disrupts our lives, puts difficult calls on our hearts, calls us to give up what is comfortable and move to places of discomfort and challenge. Some of you may recall the button I had on my hoodie for a while that said, "If I let Jesus into my heart, then everyone will want in."

But it's also true that Jesus showed up as fully human -- not as a shining doll. Jesus tells cryptic parables; gets schooled by the Syro-Phoenician woman; privileges chosen family over family of origin; turns over the tables of the moneychangers in the Temple; weeps after Lazarus' death; cries out while dying, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" This is a not a static, easy-to-adore figure. This is arguably a flawed human being -- as all human beings are.

I know, I know, to argue that Jesus was flawed or imperfect in any way, or perhaps even sinned, is blasphemous to some -- but if Jesus really became fully human, doesn't that have to be true?

Gregory of Nazianzus wrote:

That which He has not assumed He has not healed; but that which is united to His Godhead is also saved. If only half Adam fell, then that which Christ assumes and saves may be half also; but if the whole of his nature fell, it must be united to the whole nature of Him that was begotten, and so be saved as a whole. (Epistle 101)

At Jesus' baptism, God says, "This is my Beloved Child, with whom I am well-pleased." I don't think anyone reading the Bible doubts that God was well-pleased with Jesus. But if Jesus is able to function as a stand-in for us, for humanity, for each of God's beloved children ... if we can hear God's affirmation directed at us as well as at Jesus, I think that's really powerful.

"You are my Child, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased."

Molly preached this Sunday about mistakes -- about how we are all going to make mistakes and that the aftermath can allow God's grace in. Speaking about the time of Jesus' baptism, she said that Jesus was, "This person who hasn't yet done a single thing to earn this love—and maybe even done some things to test it. Which maybe means God's love can't be earned at all, and that we should stop trying."

However we might compare ourselves to the Jesus of a few years later -- the itinerant preacher, teacher, healer, rabbi, who has amassed followers (and enemies) and a reputation -- this Jesus, the one who shows up at the Jordan that day, has been living in relative obscurity, has done nothing of note except maybe slipping away from parents to spend time with the cooler grownups. This Jesus grew up a child of promise, but that promise is yet waiting to be fulfilled. Each one of you is also a child of promise, a promise whose fulfillment is still being written.

In her sermon, Molly said:

I want to remind you that the line that Jesus got in for baptism, was not a line of deserving people, it was not a line of people who never made a mistake. It was not a line of people who were at a spiritual end-point, but were at a beginning. And Jesus got right into line with them.
This declaration of belovedness was not the result of a long ministry but rather an affirmation given at the beginning to be carried with and returned to throughout the difficult times -- a worry stone to touch in one's pocket and think, "I remember that day at the River. I remember when Ze said, 'I love you.' I remember how supported and protected I felt."

While Jesus' experience was unique, its purpose wasn't to set Jesus apart from everyone else but rather to more firmly and deeply situate Jesus amidst everyone else.

Dan Clendenin writes:

Jesus's baptism inaugurated his public ministry by identifying with what Luke describes as "all the people." He allied himself with the faults and failures, pains and problems, of all the broken and hurting people who had flocked to the Jordan River. By wading into the waters with them he took his place beside us and among us. Not long into his public mission, the sanctimonious religious leaders derided Jesus as a "friend of gluttons and sinners." They were surely right about that.

With his baptism Jesus openly and decisively declared that he stands shoulder to shoulder with me in my fears and anxieties. He intentionally takes sides with people in their neediness, and declares that God is biased in their favor: "For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in our time of need" (Hebrews 4:15–16, NIV). God's abundant mercy, Jesus declared, is available directly and immediately to every person; it's not the private preserve doled out by the temple establishment in Jerusalem.

One of the things I often remember when I think about the story of Jesus' baptism is Ian Holland's sermon ("Good Enough?" January 9, 2010) about how messy the Jordan River was. Though digging up the sermon, I find that I actually have Marlin to thank for that imagery.

Ian said:

If we have been too quick to forget the cold and the dirt of the manger, or the smell of dung in the stable at Christmas day, in the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River, God makes it plain.

The Jordan River is not a grand river like the Nile, the Euphrates, or the Mississippi; it is a scrappy, scraggly wind of water through the Rift Valley. It begins at the inland Sea of Galilee and meanders down into the Dead Sea.

Then as now, it is the major source of water for millions of people in Israel, Syria and Jordan. Then as now, it has been used as a sewer. Then, as now, animals and humans used the river for whatever they needed.

A member of our church, Marlin Collingwood was baptized by his father at the age of 14 at the site near Jericho that some scholars identify as the site of Jesus Baptism. Marlin writes:

"This area of the Jordan is very narrow and very muddy and very slippery for walking! I can remember that my Dad baptized 8 or 9 folks that day – we all changed into white choir robes and were in our bare feet. My Dad was already in the Jordan and as we walked down into the water it was very slippery and slick. The water was muddy, muddy, muddy and you couldn't see your feet or legs once you were in the water. It was a hot, humid day and the water didn't smell very good if I remember correctly."

And so Jesus walks 70 miles on the dusty road from Nazareth to the river outside of Jericho. It is crowded in that place, with hundreds, maybe thousands of people trying to hear John preach and baptize them.

It is slippery, muddy, mucky, and perhaps smelly in the heat. This is the water that Jesus enters. It is maybe a bit murky. It is not pristine, perfect, or beautiful.

This is, of course, a lovely metaphor for the incarnation.

The humanity that Jesus enters is not pristine -- it's slippery, mucky, smelly, and perhaps a bit murky. But it is beautiful in its way.

And Jesus allows herself to be plunged into it fully -- when the dove alights on Jesus (and I often imagine this as a six-foot tall dove enveloping Jesus in an embrace), heaven is fully embracing wet, sticky, muddy, blinking earth.

Ian went on to say:

His Baptism reflects his ministry to come. He is ready to get into the grime, slime and mess of human living. He will go to the people that the world judges to be inferior, impure, imperfect, and unholy. And he will make them whole, and holy - they are worthy and are admitted to the Kingdom of God made present through his actions.

He will go to the places of brokenness – to the homeless, and lepers, to prostitutes, and bleeding women. He will go to foreigners, aliens and the demon possessed, and he will sanctify them.

In Christ, God comes to us, where we are. We don't have to go to God, to reach some mountain, and attain some kind of purity.

God comes to us in our brokenness and says to us I am with you – you are my beloved son, you are my beloved daughter.

You people of all genders are God's beloved children.


What does this story bring up for you, Beloved?

We use that word "Beloved" a lot to greet and name each other, as individuals and as community. Is that an identity you feel able to claim?

Does it feel like too much to hear God naming you as Beloved at Jesus' baptism? Can you imagine God blessing you at this point in your journey, empowering you to move forward loved and supported?

What does it mean for Jesus to be God incarnate, to fully tent among us, to take on the fullness of humanity in the flesh? How can we reimagine Jesus in ways that make real Jesus' shared humanity, that enable us to feel and experience Jesus truly among and with us rather than as a distant figure?

What might it mean for us to plunge ourselves into the waters of rebirth, to allow God into the broken places in ourselves, to allow God's grace to transform our mistakes, to ally ourselves with those who are broken or oppressed and to open ourselves up to be vessels of God's grace transforming others?

You're invited to continue the conversation in the comments -- responding to any of the questions I've asked or raising questions of your own, or simply sharing some thoughts.

As always, you're welcome to comment anonymously/pseudonymously if you prefer.

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