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(Matthew 3: 13-17)
The text for today got me thinking about baptism, this strange ritual that we participate in as Christians. As if a few drops of tap water and a couple of choice words can really make a difference in someone’s life. And yet, thousands of years later we are still baptizing folks. And it is not just something that devout church-goers do. As you well know, we have people who come here to have a baby baptized who we will never see again. These families often don’t attend church and may not even fully identify as Christian, and yet they come here LONGING for their child to have this blessing.
Now, as some of you know, I am the daughter of lapsed Catholics who have, at best, a contentious relationship with Christianity. But in my baby album there are these pictures of me as an infant in a poufy little baptismal dress and a matching white crocheted sweater. While I had never discussed my baptism with my parents, the photos led me to believe that my parents had gotten nostalgic and taken me down to see the local priest. Even though we were not a religious family, having seen these photos, I felt sure that had been baptized. As a teenager, when I would visit a friend’s church after a sleepover, I didn’t hesitate to receive communion. Now fast-forward a couple of decades, to when I am talking to my mom about this incredible communion ritual I had attended on a retreat. As I am telling the story, she interrupts me to say, “But you can’t take communion, Tamara. You’re not baptized.” Huh? Well, It turns out that my irreverent parents had borrowed my cousin’s baptism gown for a photo shoot because they thought it would be “cute”. And now, here I was in seminary, already in discernment for ordination, and I hadn’t ever participated in this basic Christian sacrament.
Now, before I go any further with my story, I want to talk about another experience I had just last week. Piper and I went to the Connecticut Science Center to see the Bodies Revealed exhibit. (Have any of you gone to see it?) Well, for those of you who haven’t, it’s this fascinating and arguably creepy exhibit about the human body that uses actual bodies that were donated for science. The bodies were prepared using a polymer preservation technique, which is like a liquid silicone rubber. The bodies were then positioned in a variety of ways with different organs, or layers of muscle, or bones exposed. In addition, there were cases holding various organs, both healthy and diseased examples. Well as a former massage therapist, I love this sort of thing and Piper is a huge dork, and can be convinced into almost ANY educational activity. I knew that I was excited about the exhibit, but I didn’t imagine that it would be a hugely popular weekend activity.
But, when we got to the museum the line was crazy. It literally snaked down two flights of stairs and across the lobby. Then, once you got through that line, there was another line at the exhibit hall. People of every age and race, shape and size were waiting to see these bodies. Once inside, we joined a throng of other curious viewers, pressing around the display cases. At one case, that held information about the endocrine system, I overheard a few teenagers talking about the thyroid gland, “Yeah, that’s what my mom had to have removed. It wasn’t working and now she is on medication to replace it. Weird it looks kind of like a knobby butterfly or something.” In another part of the exhibit I saw a family crowding around a body with a hip replacement and discussing an upcoming surgery. And then there was this one glass case that a group of older women had gathered around… and they stood there, staring silently for quite some time. When they finally moved along, I saw that the case contained ovaries and a uterus. And, I wondered if it was the first time that these women, many of whom had likely gone through pregnancy and childbirth, had actually been able to see this part of themselves.
I couldn’t help it, I got really choked up. Because, you see, we all spend our entire lives IN a body. We experience everything through this body: pain, pleasure, hunger, breath… even our emotions are experienced somatically: we experience sadness in our throats, rage in our jaw and gut, desire courses through us like heat, and longing seems to live somewhere in our chests… it is all happening right here inside of these bodies. And yet few of us really KNOW what is actually happening in our bodies at a given moment. We can’t see into ourselves. We have to rely on outside professionals to explain our own bodies to us. How crazy is that? And so, when an exhibit like this comes to town, the lines snake down the block for a chance to… see ourselves.
And it is not just true with our bony, fleshy, physical forms, it is also true about our minds. We think that we control our minds and yet, I would guess that everybody here knows what it feels like to have your mind wander off in the middle of something important… leaving you guessing at the turns that the conversation took while you were… well wherever it is that we go when our minds wander off. Or maybe you can think of a time that, without your express consent, your mind started focusing on something gruesome or terrible, or just something you know you probably shouldn’t be thinking about. It is like you are wrangling this thing that IS you, but it also somehow has a “mind” of its own… And so some people read books about meditation, or mindfulness, trying to learn how to control this part of themselves. Others talk to therapists, or read self help books, hoping that someone else can shed light on what the heck is happening up there (pointing to head) in their own head. Again, we cannot actually see these parts of ourselves fully…
But I think, maybe, it goes even further…beyond just our brains and bodies. We also might feel as though we can’t… for lack of a better way to describe it… we can’t see into our own soul, or spirit, or essence. We try on different identities, or personality markers, to try and express this unique part of ourselves to the world. Any of you who has ever spent time with a teenager has watched this process, the trying on of different ways to express something internal to the outside world… sometimes they do this successfully, sometimes comically. But we all do it… even as adults. It’s in the way we try to craft our Christmas cards or Facebook profiles… it’s in the way we dress, or choose not to focus on how we dress. It’s in the hobbies we choose, or interests we cultivate as a way of showing the world something about who we are or want to be. The person who is into home pickling and pottery is asserting something about who they want to be, as is the person who works on their Harley each weekend and is a proud member of their bowling league, or the person who is into opera and bird watching… or that strange person guy who writes musicals and is super into puppets…. Yes, these might be core interests, but we are ALSO, in our own ways, trying to package some deeper part of ourselves for the rest of the world. We want others to know who we are, what we are about, that we are interesting, or good, or clever, or kind, or creative. Yes, there is that part of us, but there is also the performance of that part of ourselves. And why do we perform it for others? Well, my guess is that we perform it, because we want it reflected back to us that that is who we are. We want to be able to SEE that thing about ourselves.
And yet, paradoxically, the people who “know us best” are the ones we DON’T have to perform it to. The people who “see” our most authentic selves, are often the ones who are with us when we are too tired, or broken to try being anything at all.
What a funny predicament to be in, right? We are these embodied beings who walk through the world trying to understand ourselves, and yet we need others to tell us what is going on inside our bodies, to tell us how to navigate our own minds, to tell us who they see us as… because sometimes, we simply can’t see it for ourselves.
Now, I imagine that some of you are not buying this, you are thinking, “I don’t need other people to tell me who I am… that is the problem of someone who is insecure.” Or maybe you are thinking, “maybe you, Tamara, as an extrovert need other people, but I am fine just hanging out with myself.” And yet, I want you to think about your life and if there has ever been a moment where you felt like someone REALLY got you… a moment where you felt truly seen. Maybe by a partner or spouse who saw all of your flaws, day in and day out, and loved you anyway. Or maybe by a close friend who witnessed you making a HUGE mistake… and listened and sympathized and didn’t judge. Or maybe it was your own child who grew up and said, “despite all of the hard stuff, now that I am a parent I can finally could see how hard you tried… thank you.” Or maybe it was a random conversation with a stranger, someone who you met on a bus or at a diner late one night, and in that conversation you felt like there was an inexplicable soul connection… like you really got each other. Or maybe it wasn’t a person at all, but rather your dog who is so freaking happy to see you when you get home, that no matter how crappy you are feeling about yourself, that love they give you makes you feel better. Well, if you have ever had that kind of moment, you know how good it feels. How much we all long to be seen, to know that we are okay. That we are lovable. That deep down, we are good.
Okay, back to my baptism. So, here I was at 31 years old, and I was finally going to be baptized. I was on the Judson Memorial Church annual retreat, which happened to be on the fall equinox (much like our wedding several years later). That chilly autumn Sunday morning at sunrise (yes, another sunrise ceremony I forced people to attend!), SO, a group of church members and friends rolled out of their sleeping bags while the sun was still in bed, and tromped down to a misty field beside a little pond, where they formed a circle. As the sky brightened I knelt at the center and my pastor poured ice-cold pitchers of pond water over my head saying, “I baptize you, Tamara, in the name of the creator (and he poured a pitcher), and the created (another pitcher) and the spirit that binds them (one last pitcher of water).” Each time the water hit my head and neck I gasped for air… yes, the water was really, really cold, but there was something else at work. I felt, in that moment, like I was being awakened into my life, awakened into the Christian community, and awakened more fully into God’s love. After the last pitcher had been poured, my sweet ordination mentor, Rev. Ed Powers, who is in his 80’s stepped forward to wrap me in a thick, wool blanket…we were both sobbing. And then I joined the circle and we all sang together, and then went around anointed one another’s foreheads with oil. And as each person turned to anoint their neighbor, they looked them in the eye and let them know that they were God’s child and that they were beloved.
So you see, whether for a baby or an elder, whether outside or in this peaceful sanctuary, whether with drops of water or by being dunked into a river or the ocean, by a minister or a friend… this is a ritual where we are blessed, not only by God’s love, but by one another, promising to watch out for each other, promising to bear witness during the hard times, and to reflect back the sacredness in each of us. It is not that God loved me any more after I was baptized. It was not as if there had been a quantifiable transformation. It is not even about the baptism at all… that piece is simply a symbolic ritual. But in that moment of my life, surrounded by community, I was able to see something about myself, about my own sacredness, that I couldn’t have seen alone.
In today’s text, we are in the Gospel of Matthew. Just two chapters before Mary and Joseph flee to Egypt with the baby Jesus, and Herod kills all of the innocents. In the next passage we learn all about John the Baptist, and THEN Jesus shows back up…as an adult man. We don’t get to know anything about what happened in between the baby part and the part where he shows up as an adult. At this point Jesus’ ministry isn’t really underway—all we have is predictions about who he will be. But in our passage the he goes to see his cousin John, this strange prophet living in the wilderness, eating bugs, and dunking people into a river. Jesus goes to see him and asks him if he will baptize him. In our text John is, understandably, quite nervous. Just a few sentences before our passage for today, John describes Jesus as one who is greater than him, one whose sandal he is not even fit to tie. And yet here is Jesus, asking John for this strange blessing. John agrees and submerges Jesus below the water. And then, we are told, as Jesus emerges from the water, the heavens part and he is told that he is God’s child, in whom God is well pleased.
There are probably lots of ways to interpret this text, but the way I read it is that: before Jesus could go into the wilderness, before he could spend 40 days and nights alone, battling his inner demons and getting good with himself, before he could go out into the world and heal others, before he could walk on water, or turn water into wine, before he stood up to the religious establishment, before he traveled the region advocating for the marginalized and dispossessed… before all of that, Jesus needed to connect with someone who saw his potential and he needed to know that he was loved. The way I read this is that EVEN Jesus needed help revealing his sacredness, not to the world, but to himself…
And each of us is the same. We walk around, in many ways, blind to ourselves. Without outside help we cannot understand the inner working of our bodies, we cannot always control our minds and, in our own ways, we walk through the world trying to perform something about ourselves that we hope to have mirrored back. Something to affirm that we are, in fact, lovable. So as you leave this place today, remember that just as Jesus was sacred, so are each and every one of you. And while the clouds might not literally part and a voice might not speak through the heavens, we are, each of us, a child of God in whom God is well pleased. BUT, we might need each other as mirrors, before we can actually see it. So go out from this space, and BE VULNERABLE… Tell the people you love how sacred you think they are, and make space for them see you, to see into your tender heart. Because in order to do the work of creating God’s kingdom here on Earth, we all FIRST need to know that we are loved.