I was about nine years old. My mother picked me up at school and when we got home there was an unfamiliar car parked in front of our house on the lovely suburban street in Alexandria, Virginia. It was a big, dark sedan–a very serious-looking car.
And it was right that it should be a serious-looking car, because inside it were federal agents, their job to keep an eye on our family because my father, then a U.S. Senator, had been threatened. Someone, somewhere, didn’t agree with his position on something.
My daddy was an equal opportunity offender, a person who employed reason to determine his positions, and who never felt afraid to disagree with people in his party or the other party when he believed an idea was correct, or an appointee was not.I think my mother made up a story that day, but I could tell the car meant something serious. I could tell because my mother parked in the steep driveway she hated instead of right in front of the house in front of the serious car.
In those days the things people got angry about in politics in a Southern state mostly had to do with race. My dad had been considered too liberal in his support of integration, and then he refused to support a Supreme Court nominee well-liked by the left, and that was the reason for the serious car to be in front of our house.
Yesterday I spent a lot of time thinking about that serious car, and wondering where the 21st century versions of them were. Why weren’t they at the Safeway with the young Congresswoman, or better yet letting her know not to be there, so that a nine-year-old girl and all the other people shot would never have been at risk?
So much life and potential was lost yesterday. It was a dramatic and I have no doubt grisly scene. We were spared immediate photos and videos sent from cell phones because the uninjured witnesses were held and questioned for such a long time—seven hours, I heard. While they answered questions, you may have been watching cable news. At our house, where we gave up all those extra channels a while back, I was picking up coverage on news websites, from links my friends put up on Facebook and Twitter. I couldn’t stop wondering about the nine-year-old girl and the 40-year-old Congresswoman. They sounded like characters in a story you might read in one of the gospels, their lives tied together by a passing young man. But in this terrible story, he is not coming to heal them.
It often feels like our world is telling a terrible story, and we wonder where to turn when it is dark and hard and cold and threatening.
Maybe we come to church. We hope maybe, just maybe, God will have something to say to us, that God will put something we need to hear into words we can understand. The Psalm tells us God speaks in things we can see and hear and feel, but does not promise words. The Gospel gives us a God who speaks, but it’s not clear if anyone but Jesus heard that voice.
John was there, baptizing him, perhaps a little warily. He knew the relationship ought to have been the other way around, that Jesus had something to give him that he could not give back in equal measure. So even though it’s not clear whether John saw the heavens open up around Jesus or heard the voice of God proclaiming Jesus as a beloved child, it is clear from John’s hesitation that he knew this wasn’t some ordinary guy coming out to the River Jordan for a cleansing dose of repentance.
“I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”
It’s a funny little conversation they have, an awkward acknowledgement that they stand at the edge of more than a river.They stand at the edge of incarnation, of God’s knowing habitation in human flesh.
Put it into words: it’s pretty amazing. A boy was born and grew up with a carpenter for a father and a mother who had a vision and eventually he went out to the Jordan and met up with a rather wild guy who had been stirring things up in their faith community and he did the thing so many other people had been doing, stepping into the river and coming up out of the water again with John’s help, but then it was not the same at all.
Here’s a question that fascinates me. Did he know what he was getting into when he went to John? Did Jesus know? If he was God, surely he knew, we might say. But he was human, and maybe he had a sense that something was up, and maybe he didn’t really know it all the way for sure until he heard that Voice put it into words.
This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.
And off he went, to be tempted, a story we won’t hear until Lent starts, and to call disciples, which we’ll be talking about next week, and to begin his ministry, imbued with the Spirit of God which lit upon him like a dove. Which perhaps John could see, and perhaps not. We don’t know.
Of course, the word got out that Jesus had a more significant relationship to God than the rest of us, and then he attracted the attention of people who, if there had been cars in the first century, would have driven some super-serious ones and quite possibly have tossed him violently into the back of one to take him away for questioning, because when they realized he was going to upset their way of life, their established systems and their long-held wisdom, their goal became his absolute destruction.
And it doesn’t make sense, does it? We have this idea of what faith means, that there is a sort of general trust in God and a desire to live rightly and a Force of Goodness and Love to turn to when we have really messed things up, and why wouldn’t we want to embrace an emissary from that Goodness? Why wouldn’t we want to listen to the words of the One declared Beloved?
Maybe if God had been more explicit. Maybe if God had put the whole thing into words of one syllable that *everyone* could hear…
At our house, when it gets close to Easter, we will hunt around for the CD of “Jesus Christ, Superstar,” that music that I was famously forbidden to listen to when I was young because it would have given my Baptist grandmother a stroke! We hunt around for it and I chuckle and grimace, both, at the truth in that title song, something that seems it would be even more true now:
Every time I look at you/I don't understand/Why you let the things you did/Get so out of hand/You'd have managed better/If you'd had it planned/Now why'd you choose such a backward time/And such a strange land?
If you'd come today/You could have reached the whole nation/Israel in 4 BC had no mass communication
It seems like it would be more helpful, if the things he said and did could have been sent around the world, broadcast to everyone, making it absolutely, perfectly clear that he was God.
But we live in that era of mass communication, of so much communication we can’t possibly take in everything being presented to us, and it provides opportunities for people to rile one another up and seldom seems to settle anything.
And I think the truth is that God created a very challenging species in humankind, challenging even to God. We are for the most part stubborn and difficult and some days I wonder whether I really believe that deep down we’re all lit by a spark of Goodness that comes right from God because the stories being brought to me by that mass communication suggest absolutely otherwise.
Why would you want to threaten a person who believed all kids should be able to go school together? That’s what made some people so angry with my daddy. At the time it seemed like a good reason to hate him, to some people.
We are surrounded by people in our world today who are full of anger and vitriol and who are not thinking about the way their words influence others, and if they are thinking about it, that’s even worse. Last night, the Sheriff in Pima County, Arizona, a man of mature years, declared, “That may be free speech, but it’s not without consequences.”
We, you and I, cannot do much about the people who stir the world into a frenzy, cannot stop them from saying the things they say. We can’t even be sure of not hearing them, because the noise of their voices pours in all around us.
But we can do our best to be sure we don’t do what they are doing, and we can be sure why we don’t.
We can be sure that is not the way we are to live, because we remember we have been baptized.
We may not remember the details of the event.
Perhaps we were babies, gently held while a kind hand cupped full of water touched our sweet heads. Perhaps we were older, guided by a strong arm as the water rushed over our heads. Each baptized Christian has been acknowledged as a member of the same loving family in which Jesus is a Beloved son. Promises were made, whether for us or by us, to renounce evil and oppression and to follow in the way laid out for us by Jesus Christ.
At baptism, we put it into words. We name each baptized person as a child of God. And as members of God’s family, we have work to do in this life we live. It is a work of faith, a belief that there is a Christ who came among us and lived a human life, that there is a Spirit light the way we are to follow, and that even in the darkest times, there is a God—there IS a God!—whose Voice calls out that we are beloved children, too.
Sisters and brothers in Christ, children of God, when the discussions come about things that are uncomfortable or controversial, and we can be sure they will, may we remember whose we are, and when it is our turn to speak, put it into words. Amen.
That first picture is yours truly, in the front yard of the house where the serious car kept an eye on things not too long after the photo was taken. (Aren't you glad this didn't turn into a story about baptizing a cat?)
Baptism – Catacomb of Peter and Marcellinus, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.