“And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am
well pleased.’” Mark 1:11
The Reverend Luther Zeigler
St. John’s Episcopal Church, Beverly Farms, MA
The Baptism of our Lord – January 14, 2018
Early on in my campus ministry at Harvard a young freshman came into
my office, sat down, and blurted out: “It’s only a matter of time.” “Only a matter
of time until what?,” I asked. “It’s only a matter of time until I’m found out,” she
said. Becoming increasingly nervous about what revelation might be coming, I
turned to her and said: “So, what exactly did you do?” “Oh, don’t worry,” she
assured me, “I haven’t done anything; it’s just that I now know that I don’t belong
here. Its only a matter of time before everyone discovers that I’m not nearly
smart enough to be in this place.”
I knew the student well enough to know that she was in fact quite
accomplished and there was every reason to believe she would flourish at the
college. And so I did my best to persuade her as much. “You don’t understand,”
she insisted. “In every one of my classes there is a valedictorian on one side of
me, and a person with perfect SAT scores on the other; and that’s only the
beginning. They usually also speak two or three languages, play the French horn
in their spare time, and have already founded a successful nonprofit in high
school. I don’t have a chance. I just don’t belong here,” she finished.
This was the first of many such conversations I had with new students,
and I quickly learned that this variation of what psychologists call the
“impostor’s syndrome” is quite common, even in an environment where you
might think that no one is lacking in self-confidence. Notwithstanding the
impressive resumes of these students, most of them, deep inside, still worried
that they were not good enough, and that sooner or later they would be exposed
as a fraud.
I’ve come to appreciate that such feelings of inadequacy and not belonging
are in fact a deeply embedded feature of the human condition, not just on college
campuses, but in almost every realm of human life and at every age. We have all
been there at some point: perhaps you were that kindergartner running home to
mom after the first day of school convinced no one in the class liked you; or the
middle-schooler no one wanted on their team when sides were being picked for
basketball; or the seventeen year old convinced she would never be invited to
the prom; or the hard-working employee who never seems to get the promotion;
or the otherwise “successful” businessman who wakes up one day and realizes
that despite his “success,” he doesn’t have a single, really true friend.
The world, it seems, never stops measuring and judging us. The incessant
noise from out there is that if we really want “to belong,” then we must perform,
excel, produce, look good, be smart, and otherwise meet the rising bar of
somebody else’s expectations. Most of us live with this dissonance, the
dissonance between our deepest yearning to be loved as we are and the
unrelenting “what have you done for me lately” chant of a seemingly heartless
Which is why the single most important thing for all of us to hear this
morning are the words God speaks to his son as Jesus stands knee-deep in the
River Jordan. What God says to his son as he comes out of the waters of baptism
is this: “You are my beloved, in whom I delight.”
God does not speak these words at the end of Jesus’ life, after he has
proven himself worthy as a son. God does not make Jesus pass a test before God
makes his love known. Rather, God speaks these words here, in the very first
chapter of Mark’s Gospel, at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, in his Son’s baptism.
God’s love comes first, is primary, and has no conditions. Before God does
anything else, He loves.
And there is a second, and equally important truth about our gospel text:
When God says to Jesus, “You are my beloved, in whom I delight,” God is also
speaking these same words to us. We know this to be true because God sends
Jesus into the world to accomplish this very purpose: to invite each and every
one of us to stand with Jesus in the waters of the Jordan and to hear these exact
same words of love whispered in our ears. In baptism, we are adopted as God’s
beloved children, and there are no conditions or exceptions to that love. Period.
And so today, we gather as the Body of Christ to welcome these two
precious children, Emerson Ann and Harper Caroline, into these waters of
baptism, so that they too may hear these words of love spoken in their ears.
And if that is not wonderful enough, here is the other beautiful thing about
baptism: The gift of God’s love we receive in baptism does not require us to do
anything. It is here for anyone who seeks it. After today, little Emerson and
Harper can rest assured that no matter how often they think they fall short or
seem to fail, nothing that they do, or fail to do, can erase their identity as God’s
beloved children. Our relationship with God is the one relationship in life we can’t
screw up precisely because we did not establish it. We can neglect this
relationship, we can deny it, run away from it, ignore it, but we cannot destroy it;
for God loves us too deeply and completely to ever let us go.
But here is where these little girls’ parents, and godparents, and indeed
everyone here who cares about them, have a vital role to play. For again, the
harsh truth about the world is that, once we leave this church, there will be
voices out there who will say to Emerson and Harper that that their worth and
dignity and belovedness is conditional, and that in order to keep it, they must
conform to someone else’s expectations. It is up to us as fellow brothers and
sisters in Christ to guard their hearts against such blasphemy.
There will, for example, be people out there in the world who will seek to
convince these girls that their belovedness depends upon being first in their
class, or the star on a winning team; it’s up to us to remind them that what God
loves most is the integrity of their effort, no matter the outcome, and their
cooperation with and support of others, no matter who is declared winner.
There will be some people who will say to these girls that their
belovedness depends upon being pretty, or staying thin, or having a body that
conforms to this or that image of beauty; it’s up to us to remind these girls that
God loves them, and us, in all manner of sizes and shapes and personal identities.
There will be cynics who contend that the world is godless and that
“looking out for number one” is the only way to live; it’s up to us to remind these
girls that, as followers of Jesus, it is in loving our neighbor and attending to the
needs of others that we find our truest identities as God’s children.
There will be still others who will urge Emerson and Harper to always
play it safe and to be wary of making mistakes for fear of failure or appearing to
be weak. It’s up to us to remind them that at the heart of God’s love is forgiveness
and mercy; that true character is born of failure and disappointment, so long as
we have the humility to learn from our mistakes; and that the love of Christ
requires risk, and that they should never be afraid to be vulnerable precisely
because they can never lose the one love that really matters, and that is God’s.
And, as Emerson and Harper become young women, I hate to say there
will be people who seek to objectify and exploit them for selfish purposes; it’s up
to us to remind these young girls, and each other, that God’s love refuses to allow
human beings to treat each other as objects, and it is especially up to us men to
make sure that “hashtag metoo” never appears next to these girls’ names, or
indeed next to the name of any other child of God.
And believe it or not, there are very powerful voices in this world who will
tell Emerson and Harper that belovedness extends only to little white girls like
them, and not to black girls from Haiti or Africa, or brown girls from Mexico; it’s
up to us, as witnesses to Christ’s all-embracing love, to teach Emerson and
Harper that their whiteness does not make them any more or less beloved than
their sisters and brothers of color.
These are just some of the ways that we, as fellow followers of Jesus, can
introduce Emerson and Harper to the gospel values that characterize the beloved
community into which Christ now invites them. For, as Henri Nouwen puts is,
“the real beauty of knowing that God has freely chosen to love us is that we soon
discover within ourselves a deep desire to reveal to others their own chosenness.
Instead of making us feel that we are better, more precious or valuable than
others, our awareness of being beloved opens our eyes to the belovedness of
others. That is the great joy of being chosen by God: the discovery that others are
chosen as well. . . . Once we deeply trust that we ourselves are precious in God’s
eyes, we are able to recognize the preciousness of others and their unique place
in God’s heart.” (Henri Nouwen, Life of the Beloved, pp. 52-52.)
So, with all of these things in our minds and on our hearts, let us now
gather around the font. And please join me in welcoming these two beautiful girls
into the beloved community that is the Body of Christ.