St. Philip Lutheran Church
10 January 2021 + Baptism of Our Lord
Rev. Josh Evans, preaching
So: How are your New Year’s resolutions coming along? Have you given up yet? According to one article, studies show that nearly 80% of all resolutions will fail – many by mid-February. So if you’ve already given up, chances are you’re not alone.
I have to admit: I really dislike the whole idea of New Year’s resolutions – not just because of the inevitable failure, but the whole premise to begin with. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to improve ourselves. Our physical, mental, and emotional health are certainly important.
But when every commercial and billboard seems to promote a new gym membership or diet plan, it suggests there’s something “wrong” with our bodies that needs “fixing.” That kind of messaging only leads to shame, and shame rarely, if ever, gives us a compelling reason for positive change.
A popular quote from Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber reminds us: “There is no resolution that, if kept, will make you more worthy of love. You, as your actual self and not as some made up ideal, are already worthy.”
That is a truth that we proclaim in baptism, echoing the words we hear in our gospel reading this morning: We are God’s beloved children, and with us God is well pleased. Just as we are.
Of course, it’s not a message widely suggested by the world around us – the world that says we’re “too much” of this or “not enough” of that – too old, too young, too big, too skinny, the list could go on. These messages are harmful, and they need to be challenged.
I’m notoriously bad at keeping up with the latest movies, so it’s no surprise that I finally watched the 2017 film The Greatest Showman just a couple months ago. The movie tells the story of P.T. Barnum and his founding of what becomes Barnum’s Circus – featuring oddball acts like the “Bearded Lady” and others, those who in everyday society would be considered “deformed” or outcast. Through his circus shows, Barnum seeks to carve out a safe space where his performers can be celebrated for who they are and not shunned as “freaks.”
But as Barnum’s popularity grows and he starts to find more fans among “respectable” society, he begins to distance himself from his troupe of performers for fear of what his well-to-do patrons might think. In one scene, as Barnum mingles with the crowds at a grand reception, he himself shuns his performers, literally slamming the door in their faces as they try to enter the reception area.
In response, Lettie Lutz, the Bearded Lady, launches into the powerful musical number, “This Is Me,” and bursts into the reception anyway, echoing the messages society has long leveled at her and her fellow outcasts:
“I am not a stranger to the dark.
Hide away, they say,
‘cause we don’t want your broken parts.
I’ve learned to be ashamed of all my scars.
Run away, they say,
no one’ll love you as you are.”
Then, in a stunning manifesto, echoing the song’s title, she declares:
“When the sharpest words wanna cut me down, I’m gonna send a flood,
gonna drown ‘em out.
I am brave, I am bruised,
I am who I’m meant to be, this is me.”
This is me. A statement as evocative as the words we hear in today’s gospel: “You are my Son, the Beloved.” As if to say: This is who you are.
Beloved. Broken parts, scars, bruises, and all. “I know that I deserve your love,” the song goes on, “there’s nothing I’m not worthy of.”
This week in our nation’s capital, we saw the brutality of human violence on full display as rioters stormed the Capitol building, leading to at least five known deaths. I sat in my office on Wednesday, my eyes glued to the news feed on my computer screen, watching with horror the unfolding scenes in D.C.
Amidst the violence and destruction, I found hope in the response of faith leaders, including many Lutheran pastors and bishops from our own church. One of them, Bishop Leila Ortiz of the Metropolitan Washington D.C. Synod, attended a vigil on Wednesday at Luther Place Memorial Church, just blocks from the White House.
As Bishop Ortiz said, “My hope and my mission is to highlight the humanity and the belovedness of all of God’s creation, and this particular violence – this particular permission to be violent – is profoundly disturbing and antichrist.”
That is the work of the church – “to highlight the humanity and the belovedness of all of God’s creation.” In the midst of violence and despair. Especially in the midst of violence and despair. To proclaim a message the world so desperately needs to hear. To unequivocally declare that white supremacy and racism are anti-Christ and incompatible with the gospel. And to emphatically proclaim that all of God’s creation is beloved.
We are God’s children, God’s beloved. That is our gospel message that a hurting world needs to hear.
The blessing spoken over Jesus in his baptism is a blessing that God speaks over each of us every day. It’s a blessing that is spoken in spite of our flaws, doubts, and failures. It’s a blessing that is spoken in the midst of chaos and violence and despair.
We know that baptism isn’t some “magic trick” that solves all our problems and answers all our doubts and fears and worries and challenges. But God’s promise does mean that those things don’t get the last word.
The blessing spoken over Jesus is a blessing that is spoken just as he is thrust into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. It’s a blessing that speaks to us in our wilderness, in all our trials, in all our challenges.
The truth of this story, the truth of the promises God makes with us in our baptism, is that there’s nothing we can do to earn our belovedness or our worthiness. And there’s nothing that anyone or anything can do to negate it – no failed New Year’s resolutions, no threats of violence, no acts of terror.
Dear church, remember this, cling to this: We are worthy. We are God’s children. We are beloved. And God our heavenly parent delights in us, just as we are.