Who We Are
Tonight is one of those liminal moments. We are honoring many things tonight; endings and beginnings, pausing and sending forth. Tonight we will celebrate the baptism of Susan Dorothy “Thea” Slauenwhite; and we will also pray for three members of our congregation who are leaving us to pursue vocational calls elsewhere. Tonight is the last Sunday evening dinner and service for the season, until we begin again after labor day.
And in this liminal time, in this moment caught up in the fabric of endings and beginnings, what is it that we need to know, going forward? I believe the answer to that question lies in the texts for tonight. In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus had come to the Jordan River to be baptized by John. You may not realize this, but this took place right before Jesus began his public ministry. As far as we know, he had not done any great healings yet. He had not confounded the Pharisees with witty sayings and wise teaching, though he had amazed them when he was a 12 year old in the Temple. He was not yet well known; as far as we know, as far as society was concerned, he was a young nobody. And we sometimes skip over this part of Jesus’ life, but I don’t think he necessarily had a rosy childhood. His family was poor; he had had to flee to Egypt to avoid being killed by the political leadership; and who knows what family relationships were like, since Joseph was basically his step-dad. What we do know is that Jesus, before he could begin his life’s work, needed something. Like Thea, at the beginning of her life, and like all of us at various stages in our lives, we need something too. What Jesus needed was to know that before he had ever done anything worthwhile, God called him Beloved. When Jesus was baptized, God said “I am very pleased with you.” You notice God did not say, “good job!” God just expressed God’s love and pleasure with Jesus, the human being, the nobody, God’s child.
Now, as my pastoral care professor loves to remind us in seminary, we are not Jesus. Jesus was the Son of God in a unique way—God’s own self coming to experience a normal human life, to heal, teach, suffer and die in order to express solidarity and love for all humankind, and to heal us from the inside. But the text from Romans tells us something really important. The Holy Spirit helps us not just to realize, but to experience that we too are God’s children—we too are beloved of God. So when God says to Jesus, “You are my Child, the Beloved,” we can know that this same message is directed to us—whether or not we have done anything worthwhile in our lives; whether we are young or old, whether we are like Thea, who I’ve been told is pretty much always in a great mood; or whether we are like Joe and Brianna, who are pursuing Joe’s first call to a church; or like Joel, who is moving to Winona to pursue his passion for teaching teachers. Baptism is about trusting in God’s promises, and God’s first and greatest promise to us is that God loves us, period.
Although babies can’t understand theology, what babies do understand is trust. Right Thea? Right Ellie? Every time Thea cries, that is an expression of trust in Ellie—it’s is saying, Mommy, I need something—I need you to come and help me, and I trust that if I cry you will hear me. We’re not all that different in our relationship to God. Thea is learning the first and greatest lesson of the life of faith right now, which is trust—trust that when we cry to God, God hears us, and God loves us. Baptism is about trusting God’s promise that we are loved with a love that is stronger than death—and, on the basis of that trust, being freed to love ourselves and others. Over the course of her life, Thea will have many chances, over and over again, to remember and to trust that she has been given an identity: Beloved of God. This is who she is.
In this culture Thea, and all of us, are endlessly told we have to “create” our own identities. It’s almost like we even have to brand ourselves; we have to come up with some unique and authentic way of expressing ourselves in the world, and we work on that in facebook and in resumes and in how we dress and all that. It’s exhausting. But what we affirm today to Thea, and what we still need every day ourselves, is to know that we already have an identity and a mission, too. Our identity is Beloved of God, with whom God is so very pleased, already, unconditionally. It is deeper than what we do. It is who we are.
This is an important point—that the identity conferred in baptism is deeper than what we do. It’s important because it might be tempting to assume that the promises we are going to make on Thea’s behalf are some sort of quid pro quo with God; God gives us something, so we have to give God something. It’s not like that. Baptism is not a contract; it is an initiation, it is a birth. Ellie doesn’t take care of Thea because Thea gives her something in return. She is Thea’s mother and she loves her, period. In the same way, God’s radical love is a love without conditions, a love that frees us to trust. But in the baptismal promises we make to God and to each other, God also gives us a community, and a mission, a vocation, an ordination—a way to love others. The promises we make in baptism are a roadmap for life with God. In fact, baptism is Thea’s ordination, and it was your ordination, too. The promises we make are a way to make any life worthwhile and meaningful, even if you are waiting tables or out of work or caught in a results-oriented career or just endlessly changing diapers, sweeping the floor, and cooking dinner.
So how does it work? Take a look at the baptismal covenant in the bulletin. We trust God’s radical and unconditional love for us, and so we are free to continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, which teaches us about that love by giving us a community of faith to learn and do life with. We trust God’s radical love for us, and so we are freed to live that love out in word and deed for others. We trust God’s radical love for us, and so when we make mistakes and hurt ourselves and others, we know we can apologize to God and others, make amends, and be reconciled. We trust God’s radical love for us, and so we are freed to recognize the dignity of every human being. We trust God’s radical love for us, and so we are freed and empowered to work for justice and peace. All this can be summed up like this: God loves us, and so we are freed to love—to have lives that are no longer curved in on ourselves, but that pour out in love for the neighbor. This is our identity, our community and our mission in life. It’s that simple, though it is not easy. This is the story of Jesus; this is the way of Jesus.
Our identity and mission as God’s beloved is a communal identity. That’s why we do baptisms with the full congregation of faith gathered around. This is a household of God, the family of faith. Thea and Ellie and all of us are caught up into the community of all the baptized, here at St. Matthews and across the alley at the UCC church, and down the road with the baptized in Catholic, and Methodist, and Orthodox churches in the metro and across the world and across time. But it goes beyond even that. God’s own being is also communal—the trinity of persons we call Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and every human being is made in that communal image—so when we are baptized we are also reborn into a deeper and fuller relationship with every human life, and with the earth God made. We cannot look at our neighbors in need in the same way, because our hearts burn with love for them, the way God’s heart burns with love for us.
Thea, and each person here, what we are saying to you is that you belong, forever, to God’s people and to all that exists, because God has loved you from the beginning of time and always will, and nothing in all creation, not even death, can change that. Today you are ordained as God’s minister. Trust God’s love for you, which can forever free you to love others, yourself and all creation—to follow the way of Jesus in your life. Amen.