On Tuesday, as I sat in my office at Trinity digging into the readings for today, I received a telephone call. A man looking for help. He and his wife needed someplace to stay for a few nights, while they waited for the application for housing assistance to be processed. Most of the time I politely explain that we just don’t have the means to help them with housing. But I knew a storm was coming, and I had just been out to the Mollyockett that morning to swim, so…I called Tim and Fran. Yes, sure, they could put them up for a night. But the expectation was that I would meet with this young couple and try to show them the error of their ways, invite them to church, “introduce” them to Jesus and offer them salvation. I thanked them, contacted the couple and made arrangements to pick them up in town and drive them out to West Paris—well, Woodstock. I decided I’d figure out how to have “the conversation” with them once I’d met them face-to-face.
I picked them up at the library, and had a “getting-to-know-you” conversation, and then just as we passed the bowling alley on 26, I took a deep breath and said, “Well, soooo…the people who own the Mollyockett are really good, Christian people who are incredibly generous to the clergy association in helping us put you up for a night or two…but…they expect me to have a ‘chat’ with you about Jesus.”
They laughed and said, “Yeah, they kinda warned us about that” and then told me about the churches they attended growing up, how they had fallen away from attending as they fell on hard times, and so on.
I let out a sigh of relief, and said, “Well, here’s what I think is the most important thing I can tell you right now. God loves you so, so much!”
I could feel them relax a little as they realized I wasn’t going to pull out my best John-the-Baptist choice and preach hellfire and damnation at them. I explained that I’m not that kind of Christian, and I just don’t think it helps to make them feel worse than they might already be feeling. We continued on our way and I delivered them to the Mollyockett, assured Tim we had had a “good conversation” in the car, and I was content to leave them without any further discussion. When I picked them up and brought them back into town on Thursday (God bless Tim and Fran, they put them up a second night because of the storm!) they were feeling better for having been able to shower, rest, get a little something to eat and stay dry as the storm raged.
Sometimes it’s hard to know when is the time for a call to repentance, like John the Baptist, and when is the time for the promise that God will be with us when we pass through the raging waters, that when we have to walk through fire God will be with us so that we are not consumed by it.
And maybe they are not different things. To repent is to turn around and go a different way—to go home by another road, as we heard last week. Sometimes, to repent is to shut off all the voices in your head that tell you you’re not good enough, and instead hear the promises of God: don’t be afraid, I have redeemed you, I have called you by name, you are mine.
You are mine.
That’s God saying that, you know. God saying, “I made you. You belong to ME.”
And to quote my friend Sakena, “God don’t make no junk!”
Today is the first Sunday after Epiphany. It is the day we always hear the story of John baptizing Jesus in the Jordan River. Each gospel portrays it slightly differently, because each gospel writer had a different focus, a different emphasis. Even a different audience. The Gospel of Luke was written for people who were not as familiar with Jewish religion and culture. Many were Gentiles who didn’t have the same expectations of a Messiah, but fully understood that life under the rule of the Roman Empire was not as rosy as it might seem. They might not have understood sin and repentance in the same way.
But they recognized a new light shining when they saw it. And for them, the idea that the Divine Being would be interested in them, in their lives, in their struggles—that was something completely foreign. A god who promised to be with them as one of them, well that was unprecedented.
So in the Gospel of Luke, we see Jesus being baptized among a crowd of other people. He is not separated out, not set apart as something unique. He is baptized in solidarity with them, as a promise that he would not set himself apart. He would not act as though he was better than them. He would get right down in the mud with them, if that’s where they were.
Isn’t that a wild thought, that God Incarnate, that little baby in the manger all grown up, chooses to be where we are? Even when we’re in a mess?
But isn’t that the same promise we heard from that passage in Isaiah?
That is our call—to continue that work of being with God’s beloved children, wherever they find themselves. Sometimes that will mean holding up a mirror to them and asking them to look honestly at themselves and admit the mistakes they have made that have led them to this point. But if we don’t start by saying, “God just loves you so much!” and “God don’t make junk!” we have missed the point. We are all God’s beloved, even when God may not be quite so well-pleased with us. The world offers plenty of shame to people. We need to offer something else. We are all God’s beloved.