“Baptism and Standing Your Sacred Ground”
A sermon by Rev. Aaron Fulp-Eickstaedt
At Immanuel Presbyterian Church, McLean VA
On January 12th, 2014
Isaiah 42:1-9, Matthew 3:13-17
Our first scripture lesson is the assigned Old Testament lesson from the book of the prophet Isaiah, the 42nd chapter. It is one of what are known as Isaiah’s Servant Songs—poetic tributes to an unnamed servant of God. In speaking of that servant, Isaiah may originally have been speaking of the whole people of Israel returning from exile, or of a particular person within that community, or of a yet to come Messiah, but in Christian tradition the passage I’m about to read has come to be understood as a description of Jesus. Listen now for how Jesus might have understood himself through those words, how we might understand him through them, and how we as part of the community of Jesus might live them out as well.
Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching.
Thus says God, the Lord, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people upon it and spirit to those who walk in it: I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.
I am the Lord, that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to idols. See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth, I tell you of them.
Our second lesson is just five short verses from the Gospel of Matthew, the first gospel’s account of the baptism of Jesus. Notice how John responds to Jesus’ request to be baptized–and notice what Jesus says back to him. This interchange is unique to Matthew among the different gospel accounts of the baptism. And listen, of course, for echoes of Isaiah 42.
Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.’ Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’
Every year we schedule our confirmation process so that it begins on the same weekend on which we commemorate Jesus’ baptism at the Jordan.
We start with a kick-off event on Friday evening. The event goes from 7-9, before the lock-in begins (and by the way I didn’t stay all night for the lock-in this year, but I did win the ice cream eating contest again! I’ve still got it!). Anyway, from 7-9, before the lock-in, our eighth-graders, their parents, their faith mentors, and our Session members (elders) gather and our time with one another focuses on the meaning of baptism.
One of the activities we do together is to respond to “reaction statements” that Dan Thomas posts on newsprint all around the Assembly Hall of the Meeting House. These are statements with which you are supposed to agree or disagree. They always lead to some good dialogue in the groups.
I love the conversation that occurred around one of the statements this year. “Baptism defines your identity.” Agree or disagree? Well, what do you think?
Well, yes and no, the discussion went. Being baptized is certainly a way to identify yourself with the Christian faith if you are a person who was not baptized as a little child (or to have that done for you if you were baptized as an infant). It’s a way of publicly claiming that the one who is baptized is a child of God. And that that’s how God defines him or her. It’s not that the person isn’t a child of God before that; it’s just that baptism is a sign and seal of that status.
But baptism isn’t the only thing that makes up our identity, we agreed. We are all of us lots of things. I, for instance, am Judith’s husband, Rebecca and Martha’s dad, Ike and Mary Alice’s son, Tim’s brother. I’m the senior pastor of this congregation. I’m an American citizen, an athlete (or at least I fancy myself one), a Packers and Cubs fan, an alum of my college and seminary, a friend, a writer. I am or have been a member of several groups and teams. And I’m part of the whole human race.
I could argue that there are lots of things that define me, that go into making me who I am, that identify me. And you could do the same for and about yourself.
That reaction statement about baptism defining identity is an important one to mull over, however. It’s important to think about. What is it that ultimately defines you, that is most important about you, that gets to the very core of who you are? Huh?
Because I can guarantee you, there are forces at work in our world that will want to define you in other ways, not all of them very helpful.
Some will treat you as if the most important thing about you is that you are a consumer. So they’ll want you to feel like you are not enough as you are. Not cool enough, not attractive enough, not secure enough, not thin enough—the better to sell you products, goods and services.
On either side of this highly polarized political spectrum, they’ll seek to whittle you down into a caricature of your views, to ridicule you and treat you like anything but a child of God or to control you and to ensure your vote at the ballot box.
There will always be people, (and middle-schoolers know this better than anyone, right?) who, wanting to make themselves feel better, will put you down, and exclude you.
Some of you may be familiar with the work of Brene Brown. She’s a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate School of Social Work and a nationally known speaker on the topics of shame, worthiness, vulnerability and courage. Brown is probably best known for her TED talks, including one called the Power of Vulnerability.[i]
What Brown realized in her work on shame, which she thinks is epidemic, is that it underlies most of the dis-ease, the addiction, the violence, the anxiety and meanness, in our society.
She defines shame as the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.[ii] Brown distinguishes shame from guilt (and guilt, she says, can actually be productive) in this way:
Guilt is focused on behavior. It is to know that you’ve messed up, that you have done something bad or wrong.
Shame is feeling or believing that you are bad. That whatever you are is not enough, that you are not worthy of love and connection.
Guilt is about specific behavior. Shame goes to the core of our identity. And it causes us to want to disconnect from our true selves and from others. It keeps us from wholeheartedly embracing who we really are.
The antidote to shame, Brown says, is experiencing love and belonging, which can only happen through being vulnerable, through letting ourselves, our imperfect yet wholly worthy of love selves, be seen.
Her shame resilience mantra is “Don’t shrink, don’t puff up, just stand your sacred ground.” Don’t shrink. Don’t run away and hide, don’t be less than who you are, don’t sell yourself short. Don’t puff up. Don’t get arrogant or rude or mean or try to pretend you are more than you are. Just stand your sacred ground. Claim your identity as a worthwhile and wholly worthy of love person who has gifts worth sharing. In other words, I’d say, remember that you are a child of God.
It seems to me that Jesus, who lived out in his life the role of the servant that Isaiah described in the passage we read this morning, understood a little something about this mantra. And so should we.
Don’t puff up. Be gentle. Gentle enough, Isaiah says, not to break a bruised reed or to quench a dimly burning wick. Gentle enough not to meet evil with evil, to seek revenge, or to crush the tenderhearted. Be humble enough to know and admit that you make mistakes.
But at the same time, don’t shrink. Don’t sell yourself short. Don’t let yourself faint or be crushed or be cowed.
Stand your sacred ground. Remember that God loves you down to your very core—that you are a child of God. Bring your gifts to bear and speak up for justice and peace.
The fact that Jesus came to John to be baptized was a bit of a scandal for some in the early church. There was concern that John’s disciples might take that as a sign that Jesus was somehow inferior to him. There was a worry that it might make him seem somehow less than perfect, at least at that point. As if Jesus, like the crowds, needed to have some pre-baptismal sin washed away.
So Matthew, alone among the Gospel writers, includes a dialogue between Jesus and John the Baptist. “You ought to be baptizing me,” John responds to Jesus request for baptism. “John, let it go. Allow it to fulfill all righteousness,” Jesus shoots back.
Righteousness is being in right relationship with God and others. You might say: Not shrinking, not puffing up, standing your sacred ground. Maybe that’s why Jesus came to John, to show that he understood that.
When Jesus comes to John for baptism, the sky is opened and a voice comes from heaven, “This is my child, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased!”
I like to think that maybe Jesus had to be baptized by John In order to hear that, so that it would help him stand his sacred ground in the work ahead of him.
Wouldn’t it be great if the sky opened up like that whenever we had a baptism, and that babies (or people at whatever age they are baptized) would hear and know and remember down deep in their soul that God loves them.
Wouldn’t it be great if whenever we had an ordination or a confirmation service, the sky would open up and a voice from heaven would come down “This is my child, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased!”
But rarely are our experiences that dramatic.
Yet even without such dramatic experiences, there are people who show us what it means to stand our sacred ground.
Somebody from Immanuel recommended that I read Malcolm Gladwell’s new book David and Goliath[iii]. It’s worth the time. A little uneven in parts, but worth the read.
I came across an article by Gladwell[iv] this week in which he talked about going to interview a woman in Winnipeg, Canada, while he was writing David and Goliath. The woman’s name was Wilma Derksen.
“Thirty years before, her teenage daughter, Candace, had disappeared on her way home from school. The city had launched the largest manhunt in its history, and after a week, Candace’s body was found in a hut a quarter of a mile from the Derksen’s house. Her hands and feet had been bound.
Wilma and her husband Cliff were called in to the local police station and told the news. Candace’s funeral was the next day, followed by a news conference. Virtually every news outlet in the province was there because Candace’s disappearance had gripped the city. “How do you feel about whoever did this to Candace?” a reporter asked the Derksens. “We would like to know who the person or persons are so we could share, hopefully, a love that seems to be missing in these people’s lives,” Cliff said. Wilma went next. “Our main concern was to find Candace. We’ve found her.” She went on: “I can’t say at this point I forgive this person,” but the stress was on the phrase at this point. “We have all done something dreadful in our lives, or have felt the urge to.”
Imagine that: A family who had been through that kind of trauma who could even be willing to consider extending love and forgiveness to the person who murdered their child. Wilma Derksen told Gladwell they could do this because they were Mennonites, who had endured persecution in Europe, and the Mennonite response to persecution was to take Jesus’ instructions on forgiveness seriously. “The whole Mennonite philosophy is that we forgive and we move on,” she said.
Talk about standing your sacred ground.
Please dear God, may none of us have to go through what this family did. But we all have opportunities to stand our sacred ground every day of our lives.
Don’t shrink. Don’t puff up. Just stand your sacred ground.
In Jesus’ name. Amen.
[i] Brene Brown, “The Power of Vulnerability” TED talk. You can access it here: http://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_on_vulnerability.html. It is also worth checking out her books and audio recordings, most especially The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Are Supposed to Be and Embracing Who You Are. (Perseus Distribution, 2010), from which I gleaned her precise definition of shame.
[ii] Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection.
[iii] Malcolm Gladwell, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Batlling Giants (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2013).
[iv] Malcolm Gladwell, “How I Rediscovered Faith” Relevant Magazine (Issue 67: January/February 2014). You can access the article online here: http://www.relevantmagazine.com/culture/books/how-i-rediscovered-faith