The Rev. Canon Jan Naylor Cope
Transcribed from audio recording.
Gracious God, from whom every good gift comes, send your spirit into our lives and by the flame of your wisdom open the horizons of our minds. Loosen our tongues to sing your praise in words and to go beyond speech praising you in the silence deep within our hearts. Amen.
“You are my son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased.” These are the words that Jesus hears from God at his own baptism; it’s a clear declaration of identity and belonging. On this day when we remember the baptism of our Lord and renew our own baptismal covenant can you imagine hearing for yourself the voice of God saying to you, “You are my son; you are my daughter—beloved. With you I am well pleased.” And, if not, why not? What other voices might you be listening to that take you away from your central identity and belonging as beloved children of God?
Theologian Douglas Hare characterizes the baptism of Jesus to be his own call story. That Jesus, hearing the voice of God and having the Spirit of God descend upon him was preparation for him to go forth and begin his public ministry embodied and emboldened by the Holy Spirit to do all things that God had called him to do. In the Scriptures appointed for today, there is a feature prominent in God’s voice in all of creation. Voice, spirit, water undergird our Scriptures for today. In that passage from Genesis, the beginning of the creation story, the spirit of God sweeps across the face of the water and God says, “Let there be light and there was light. And God proclaimed it good.” God literally speaks creation into being. And we know that as the creation story continues, that upon the creation of humankind, of which we are part, God proclaimed it very good from the very beginning. And in Mark’s Gospel account of Jesus’ baptism as Jesus ascends from the baptismal waters, the spirit of God descends and Jesus hears clearly who he is, to whom he belongs, and who he is called to be. God’s own son, beloved, with whom God is well pleased.
The Greek translation of that passage is actually even a little more precise. What we hear translated in today’s gospel is that the spirit descended on Jesus. A better translation is that the Spirit descended into Jesus. It wasn’t like a dusting falling down—some superficial thing. It was inside—not a dusting—but an indwelling of God’s own spirit living and breathing and moving inside Jesus. And so too, as children of God, that spirit lives and abides in each one of us. But it’s something that I think we tend to forget. Larry Stookey calls it spiritual amnesia—that we remember and we forget what God has done for us. We forget the promises that God has made to us and furthermore, we forget what it means to be a disciple of Christ, to follow and embody the things that Christ taught all of us to do. That’s part of what we are reminded today.
John Westerthoff says that it’s not necessary to be baptized to receive and embody the love of God. That was given to us at creation. Part of what baptism reminds us is that the love of God and the Spirit of God that lives within us is unearned, unconditional, and never ending. It’s with us always. Baptism reminds us that it is a free gift that has been given to us. But there are so many other voices out there that would seek to help us get off the path of who we are, what our identity is, our belonging and our call. If you listen to the public discourse today it’s not particularly beloved and embracing. If I were one of the candidates running for president today and listening to the things my loyal opposition said about me in terms of my identity and who I was, I doubt that I could get out of bed in the morning much less go about doing the work that I felt God has called me to do. John the Baptist referred to his loyal opposition as “You brood of vipers.” It pales in comparison to some of the messages that we hear out there today. They’re pervasive. Sometimes we hear these things at home, in the workplace, out in the world—messages that would seek to try and tell us that we’re not good enough; that we’re not smart enough; that we’re not worthy enough. And we lose the voice of God saying, “You are beloved and with you I am well pleased.”
In her book The Help, Kathryn Stockett makes this point very poignantly. The book is set in 1962 in Jackson, Mississippi. It portrays what it must’ve been like to be an African-American maid working in a white household in the South in the nascent days of the civil rights movement. In the beginning of the book, one of the heroines is an African-American maid by the name of Aibileen. Aibileen goes to work in a white household after the tragic death of her son. She goes, as she says, to raise her 17th white child. In the household that she goes into there’s a little girl by the name of Mae Mobley. But her mother manages to call Mae Mobley, “it” and to reinforce in every way possible that she’s not worthy and she’s not beloved, but a bother and that she’s bad. It breaks Aibileen’s heart and she sets about to try and turn off those voices and to help this baby girl who, she calls Baby Girl, claim for herself her true self. And she teaches her from the time that Baby Girl can talk, “Repeat after me: you are smart; you are kind; you are important.” And then has her repeat it. Aibileen of all people probably understood better than most what it must be like to try and live in your true identity when the voices around you would try and tell you something else—that you were unworthy. At the end of the book Aibileen has to leave that household; she’s fired. And it’s heartbreaking to Aibileen that she’s not able to explain to Baby Girl the circumstances. At the very end of the book she leans down as they are both crying at the thought of having to be separated. And she says, “Baby Girl, remember what I told you. What did I say to you?” Baby Girl looks deeply into her eyes and she says, “I am smart. I am kind. I am important.” hearing the voice of God saying to her, “You are beloved and with you I am well pleased.”
On this day when we renew our baptismal covenant reminding us once again who we are, to whom we belong, and who we are called to be. Listen to the one true voice who declares to you, “You are my son; you are my daughter, beloved, and with you I am well pleased.” Take that identity and the embodiment of the life Christ out into hurting and suffering world that needs to hear that Good News.