The Rev. Amy Denney Zuniga, Grace Episcopal Church, St. Helena

Readings: Isaiah 43:1-7, Psalm 29, Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Sermon Transcript

You’ve left the safe walls of the first-century city of Jerusalem, your home, and made the two-day journey over dusty roads to the Jordan River.  What has brought you here?  Curiosity?  Boredom?  Or something more?  It’s afternoon, though the sky is slate-gray with clouds, and you’ve been listening to the Baptist preach and teach— he’s a firey one, just like they’d said!  A sight in his belted camel hair— hairy and unkempt, the picture of wilderness itself.  But his words— his words speak of God’s wrath at the injustice of this world, of God’s longing for goodness, simple kindness.  The people ask him if he is the one to come, the Messiah, and he repeats what you’ve heard he said before— “No.  One greater than me is coming after me.  I come to prepare the way of the Lord, to make a straight path in the wilderness.  He will show you greater things than I— baptizing you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.  Soon.  Maybe today.”

John has been baptizing now for over an hour, and people take it in turn to sing and chant, but the buzz of excitement over those words hasn’t died down.  “Maybe today!  Maybe we’ll see him!  Maybe we’ll be the first to see the Messiah!”  And you wonder how he will come— riding over the mountains, or perhaps down from heaven on a cloud, or out of the water itself.

It’s your turn.  You step into the waters of the Jordan, thigh-deep, muddy, cold.  You’re so close you can smell John— like a wild thing, and he’s more terrifying than the current of the river.  “Are you a sinner?” he bellows.  “Yes.” you reply, giving all of your faults, all of your doubts, all of your pain over to the Lord.  “Do you repent, and turn to God?”  “I do” you say and no sooner are these words spoken than you are swept off your feet, plunged backward into the water and held down, until you think your breath will not last.  Then, just as suddenly, you are upright, hearing John say, “You are forgiven.  Cleansed.  Made new.”  And you feel it— you feel washed.  As though  your mud and muck has stayed there in the muddy Jordan.  A fresh start.  You feel new.

You stagger out of the water and find a place to sit on the bank— you can’t stand up after that.  This sense of newness, of lightness that has begun in your middle seems to spread to all of your body, and you marvel at it.  Forgiven.  Cleansed.  Renewed.

Your focus is inward as the last few dozen for the day are baptized, but now there is something going on at the water.  A man in the peasant-garb of the countryside has stepped into the water to be baptized, and John seems to be having words with him.  Not arguing exactly, almost making excuses.  He’s lost his booming air of command, and though the man is shorter than him, John seems smaller somehow.  The buzz on the bank has gone quiet, everyone is watching now.  You can see in his shoulders when John gives in, and suddenly his strength is back as he thrusts the man down into the water.

As he comes up the clouds part, and the light is dazzling.  A shaft of sunlight falls on the man, who falls to his knees on the bank, his eyes closed, praying.  And then a small dove, white as frost, comes out of nowhere, and alights on the man’s head.  He doesn’t move, though the crowd by this time is murmuring and exclaiming.  And then you hear it— in your ears or in your heart you cannot tell, but you know that everyone else hears it too— a palpable shock wave goes through the crowd.  A voice, gentle, tender—“You, you are my beloved child.  I delight in you.”

There is silence for a long time as the sunlight dances on the water, bouncing off the hair of each person present.  You feel it warming you.  Your heart, which felt clean and new before, now feels warm too, and you realize, it is love.  Like when you see your beloved or your little child or  your aged mother— just filled with love.  You realize that tears are streaming down your cheeks.

It may have been a few minutes, or a few hours, you can’t tell, but after this long silence in the light, you hear the crowd begin to murmur.  You see that the man has gotten to his feet, and that he is walking away from the crowd, into the wilderness.

We begin every year with this feast of the Baptism of Jesus, right after Epiphany, and I love this feast.  It’s such an important place to start.  John’s baptism is for forgiveness, for renewal, for a fresh start.  And who of us doesn’t need that as we begin 2022?  Jesus’ baptism  is for belonging, for belovedness, for God’s grace upon us and God’s delight in us.  This feast day dares us to believe that like Jesus, like ancient Israel, we are God’s beloved, and that can be enough.

I read an article the other day about the way that we consciously raise children hoping that they will have strong self-esteem, by praising them constantly and smoothing out every wrinkle for them.  The psychologist said that actually facing adversity, disappointment, difficulty builds self-esteem and self-efficacy.

It seems so natural, when we love someone, to want the best for them, to keep them from every ill and every harm.  The baptism of Jesus in the muddy Jordan River, in occupied Israel asks us: Can we love and receive love without needing to fix?  Can we love and be beloved in an imperfect world?

The world is pretty imperfect right now— truth is, it always has been.  The tenor of our fear and anger has been dialed up to a point where love in all its forms— compassion forgiveness understanding kindness altruism— is hard to find.

Dr. Martin Luther King spoke of something he called beloved community.  It’s a world where all people have enough, there is justice for all in an all-inclusive spirit of being one human family, and natural human conflict is solved non-violently.  It sounds like heaven, or the kingdom of God come on earth, and I think it is, but Dr. King believed that if enough people challenged the world’s triple systems of violence— poverty, racism, and militarism—with non-violent love, this world we’re living in could be transformed from the nightmare it often is into God’s dream of Beloved Community.

Dr. King described the love of this Beloved Community as agape, none other than the love of God— “understanding, redeeming goodwill for all,” an “overflowing love which is purely spontaneous, unmotivated, groundless and creative”…”the love of God operating in the human heart.” He said that “Agape does not begin by discriminating between worthy and unworthy people…It begins by loving others for their sakes” and “makes no distinction between a friend and enemy; it is directed toward both…Agape is love seeking to preserve and create community.”

The challenge this Baptism Sunday is to let the truth of God’s love for us permeate our beings— can you not only believe, but absorb at the deepest level of your soul God’s love for you, God’s forgiveness of you, God’s renewing, healing, transforming power.  It is true that you can’t, but God can.  And God delights in you

If we truly accept God’s love and live in and from it, we see clearly— we see that every other human being, no matter how wrong or misguided we think they are, no matter how different they are from us or how strange we find their ways, no matter what they do to themselves, this earth, or to others— God loves them just as much.  God delights in them, just as much.  God is seeking to heal and transform them, just as much.  And Dr. King would tell us, that through non-violent love, God is asking us to participate in that work of healing and transformation.

Beloved, our world needs this baptismal love right now.  Our world needs a fresh start, forgiveness, belovedness, belonging.     Our beloved church community needs it.  And God’s chosen means of bringing this love and transformation into this word is us.  Each of you hearing this words— you are called to this work.

In 2018 in times of relative peace, health, and prosperity (though we didn’t know it at the time!)  Grace’s vestry approved what we call our Agreements for Communication in Community.  These are concrete ways that we can bring non-violent love into our interactions with one another, making room for the Spirit to do the work of transformation among us.  There happen to be 12 of them, and w e began as a congregation in 2020 to examine, study, and try to put into practice one of them each month.  Then… pandemic pandemonium.

I’d like to invite us into the study and practice of these agreements anew this year— as a way to a fresh start.  To enact and practice God’s healing, transforming, non-violent agape love with one another.  Our vestry leadership who did spend a year in study and practice of these agreements in 2019, has told me that they have been incredibly powerful not only in their church relationships but in other relationships as well.

So here goes.  For the next month we are invited to begin with agreement #1: Assume the best about other people.  We draw a lot of conclusions, often making up whole stories in our heads, about why people are acting a certain way, what their words or actions mean, what their values or moral character is, and what they think about us.  We shouldn’t really do this, but we can’t help it.  Our minds fill in the blanks.  The invitation of the first agreement is: give them the benefit of the doubt, and when it comes to other people’s thoughts, feelings, or motivations, there is always doubt.  Everyone is walking around, especially now, with burdens as big as a 20-story building.  We feel and know our own burdens, but we assume that everyone else, who seems fine, is fine.  Assume that they’re not fine.  Assume that they need your love and compassion.  Assume that they are doing the best they can with what they’ve been given.  And share with them the love that you are resting in, the love that you have received, the love that is new for you every morning, the transforming, healing, reconciling love of God.