Sunday, January 10, 2016

Phil Kniss: You are who God says you are

Epiphany 1: The baptism of Jesus
Isaiah 43:1-7; Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

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I’m a baseball fan.
    In baseball, statistics are a very big deal—unlike in pastoring.
    Pastors focus on things hard to measure,
        like spiritual well-being.

    But for 33 years, since my first pastorate in Gainesville, FL,
        I’ve been keeping stats on one thing.
    I’ve been counting my sermons.
    I give every sermon a number.
    The first was #1, the second #2,
        and so on ever since.
        I have them all in binders in my office.

I know this fact is apropos of nothing,
    in terms of my actual sermon today,
    and you may or may not be interested,
    but I thought I’d tell you anyway,
        because it’s interesting to me,
        and in some way satisfying,
        that I gave this morning’s sermon the number . . . 1,000.

In baseball terms, that’s not 1,000 hits.
    Just 1,000 at-bats.
        Some hits, maybe a few home runs,
            and a lot of strike-outs, I’m sure,
            especially early in my batting career.
    Speaking of which . . .
        besides Irene,
            there is one other person in this congregation,
            who was there for sermon #1, and 2,
                and most of the first 100.
            You can try to guess who.

But enough about that!
    On to the sermon.

“You are who God says you are.”
    Let me unpack that astounding statement.
    “You are who God says you are.”

We are a culture of name-callers and labelers.
    And becoming more-so.
    We seem to just want to give labels to people.
        It helps us know where people belong.
    If we can somehow reduce the complexity of being human
        down to a one-word label, or an acronym,
        then we get to put other persons in a class or category—
            most importantly,
            a category we are not, in any way, associated with.

    Then it’s easy—amazingly easy—
        to dismiss the other, and not really engage them.
    And we can do it guilt-free.
        We never have to come right out and say,
            “I don’t want to engage with you.”
        We never have to openly admit that we think of the other
            as someone who is unworthy of interacting with us.
        We merely apply a commonly-accepted label.
            And voila!
            We have explained away whatever it is that offends us.
            And with that simple explanation in hand,
                there is no need for us to go any deeper.

    In this presidential campaign season,
        we see this more and more,
        as candidates apply labels to each other—
            not just conservative and liberal,
            but lots of colorful labels,
                including some I can’t mention in polite company.

    But don’t think for a minute that this phenomenon
        is limited to blatant name-callers like Trump and his ilk.
    We are all prone to apply labels.
        I am not innocent.
        Yesterday morning,
            making a run to the hardware store,
            I followed a pickup truck,
                whose driver painted his entire tailgate
                    as a Confederate flag,
                    plus had a Confederate flag bumper sticker
                        with the slogan, “We know the truth.”

            I found it offensive.
            So in my mind,
                I immediately applied several labels to the driver.
                Racist. Uneducated. Bigot.
            It may be that those labels fit perfectly,
                if not in whole, at least in part.
            And conveniently for me, I will never know.
            Because in my mind,
                I immediately created distance between him and me.
                    I shielded myself in moral superiority.
                    So I will never need to confront him,
                        nor confront any prejudice in me.

    Labeling is a problem,
        not only because we are in a season of political posturing,
        but because this way of relating to others in the world,
            or not relating, as the case may be,
            is becoming normalized.

So I call upon us as the church to chart another course.
    And to help us walk a different way in the world,
        I call us to deeper reflection on today’s biblical texts,
            on this Sunday in the church year
            that we remember the Baptism of Jesus.

Now how can the story
    of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River 2000 years ago,
    help us in regard to this very current problem in our culture?
Let’s take a look.

People were coming to John the Baptist to be baptized.
    They came in droves, attracted by John’s bold preaching.
    John announced the coming of the anointed one, the Messiah,
        whose winnowing fork is in hand,
        and who would clear away the chaff,
            get rid of what had little value,
            and get us back to the core of God’s purposes.

    Then Jesus came along with the rest, to be baptized by John.
    And at the moment of his baptism,
        at the moment Jesus was throwing in his lot with his people,
        a voice from heaven came,
            and told Jesus, in so many words, who he was.
            “You are my Son, whom I love.”

Some preachers and scholars have called this baptism
    Jesus’ “ordination for ministry.”
    They say he was being commissioned for service.
        It’s not wrong to say that.
        His work was ordained and commissioned by God,
            and after his baptism,
            and then 40 days in the wilderness,
                Jesus did kind of launch his public ministry.

    But I don’t think “commissioning” is the best word
        to describe Jesus’ baptism.
    I think a better word is “christening.”
        It was in this baptism
            that Jesus was named by his heavenly Father.

    Yes, he had a valid naming ritual earlier,
        as all Jewish babies did.
        On the eighth day he was named Jesus,
            and blessed by Anna and Simeon in the temple.
        But this was a re-naming, in a way.
        Before Jesus was sent into what would become
            an onslaught of resistance, and temptations, and hardships,
            Jesus needed to be reminded who he was.
        And that reminder, that renaming,
            needed to come from the only one who has a right to name.
            The parent.

    The God who gave Jesus life made a pronouncement
        the began with two words “You are . . . !”
        Not, “you should” or “you will”—
            words of duty, of ordination for service.
        But, “You are!”—
            words of identity.

    In his baptism Jesus came to understand more deeply
        who he was then,
        who he was called to be,
        and who he would yet become.
    I’ve made the comment before, that at his baptism
        Jesus was not given a to-do list, he was given a name.
        His ministry grew out of accepting that identity.
        He didn’t allow anything else to rob him of that identity,
            or to redefine him
            and make him into someone he was not.

    Soon afterward, in the wilderness of temptation,
        remember Satan’s line of attack?
            “If you are the Son of God . . .”

    On his baptism, the voice from heaven said, “You are my son . . .”
    In the temptations immediately afterward, another voice said,
        “If you are God’s son . . .”
        Interesting choice of words, and not coincidental.

    Jesus withstood the temptation
        because he had clarity, through his baptism, about who he was.
    If only we all had that kind of clarity.

    Perhaps that’s part of the reason so many of us today
        are quick to call others names,
        or to affix derogatory labels on other people.
    Maybe there is insecurity on our part,
        about our own identity.
    Maybe we’re not so sure about who we are.
        So if we pigeon-hole and label others,
            as people who are completely unlike us,
            it somehow makes us feel more secure.
        I may not know who I am,
            but at least I’m not that.

    And I am assuming, from what I know of human nature,
        that in the field of partisan politics,
            there are a lot of powerful people,
            who are also insecure about their identity at a deeper level.
        That’s true in many other fields,
            including the church and church institutions.
            Among the most powerful and influential people,
                you will also find some of most insecure people.

    We are immersed in a culture, 24/7,
        that does a great job telling us lies, such as,
            we are what we drive, or
            we are what we wear, or
            we are what we look like, or—
                the most insidious and subtle—
            we are what we accomplish.
        And we believe those lies.
        We make decisions based on those lies.
            More than we want to admit.

But the voice of God comes, saying something different.
    If we take heed of what God said to his son Jesus at his baptism,
        or if we take heed of what God said to all his children,
            through the prophet Isaiah,
            in the other text of the morning,
        we will understand a deeper truth about ourselves.
    We are who God says we are.

There is only One—the one who gives us life—
    that has the right to name us.
    And I choose to believe that what God says about me is true.
        And what God says about you is true.
        And what God says about being human is true.
            If God made us, God ought to know.

Through the prophet Isaiah,
    we hear God’s voice to his beloved children of Israel,
        and by extension to all his beloved children, of all nations,
            for whom Israel was a prototype.

    “I have redeemed you,” God says to them.
    “I have called you by name, you are mine.
        I am the LORD your God, and I will be with you.
        I love you.”
    That voice still pronounces love and affection on us,
        God’s good creation.
    Notice how the prophet underscores who the speaker is,
        “the one who created you, Jacob,
                the one who formed you, Israel.”

Ultimately, there is only One with the right to speak to my identity,
    the one who gives me life.
    There are other voices out there,
        clamoring for my attention,
        who would like to tell me who I am.
    Those voices are, by definition, unqualified to speak on the subject.

    So whose voice will I listen to,
        when it comes to how I see myself.
    And just as importantly,
        as I encounter others around me,
        whose voice will I reinforce for them?
        The voice of the one Creator God who says to them,
            “You are mine, and I love you,”
            or the voice of the adversary,
                who sows seeds of doubt about their human worth,
                echoes of judgement beginning with, “If you are . . .”

    Will I help others see themselves as God sees them?
    Or will I add to their sense of unworthiness,
        by giving them a label and walking away—
            like I do, in essence, to Confederate flag-wavers
            and lots of other kinds of people easy to label.

    I have the option of applying a label.
    I also have the option of honestly framing what it is that offends me.

    I could say to myself (or others)
        that someone is a racist and a hateful bigot.
    Or . . . I could start by reciting my sermon title, in my head,
        “You are who God says you are.”
    That could bring me up short just long enough to say things
        that are probably more truthful about them, and me.

    Without taking the easy way and slapping on a derogatory label,
        I can still honestly name the ugly truth
            that needs to be named about some people—
            that their speech or behavior is deeply offensive,
                is threatening to others,
                and is morally wrong.
        I can speak truthfully about how a culture of white privilege,
            and an dangerous ideology of white supremacy,
            shapes and forms people who engage in racist speech
                and violent behavior.

    Yes, there are times that identifying certain persons in certain ways,
        is simply being clear and being honest.
        Some labels have a useful place,
            when they accurately describe certain behavioral patterns,
            or certain mental or physical states.
        But I need not usurp God’s authority,
            and pronounce who someone is at a deeper level,
                at a constitutive level,
                who they are as a human being.

I would that we all do the same . . . in reference to others,
    and in reference to ourselves.

We are who God says we are—
    human beings created in God’s image,
        persons who God loves,
        persons who God desires to fully redeem.

We are capable of doing heinous wrongs to one another.
    We are persons who may injure each other deeply,
        and may need to pay the price for those injuries.
    But still, “we are who God says we are.”

If there is any New Year’s Resolution I undertake it is this—
    to be slow to affix labels on myself or others,
    and rather engage people at the precise point of offense,
        to name the offending behavior,
        and let God be the one to name the person.

And here is how God names people, according to Isaiah . . .
    “You are precious and honored in my sight . . .
        I have called you by name . . .
        You I created, you I formed and made.
        I love you, and you are mine.”

Let’s hear those reassuring words in song,
    as we sing from the purple book, Sing the Story, #49.

—Phil Kniss, January 10, 2016

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