Jesus was not the first person to be baptized. And John the Baptist was not the first person to perform this sacred ritual. But at the baptism of Jesus, some important things happened.
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Jesus was roughly thirty years old when he came to the River Jordan, so he came with much experience. Whether that was the experience of being a carpenter or stonemason like his father Joseph, or if he had already engaged in formal study toward being a rabbi, if had followed some other path entirely, is pure guesswork on our part.
But one way or another, say all four gospel writers, Jesus did present himself to his cousin John to be baptized in the Jordan. (Today we have a little shout-out to that, with the waters of the Jordan intermingled with the waters of the Bow River in our baptismal water). And at the moment of baptism, we are told, a voice of the heavens proclaimed something that had always been true, but now, at the beginning of a ministry that would envelop his life and transform the world, needed to be said: that he was God’s own beloved child.
“You are my beloved child.” What a way to initiate the ministry of Jesus, through this declaration of familial love. Jesus’ total belovedness by God becomes the baseline and hallmark of all he does. His teachings and healings, his activism and inclusion, his gentle proddings and his blunt declarations, all emanate from the love that is at the heart of God.
And while the gospels are wanting us to understand the uniqueness of Jesus through this heavenly declaration, it is my assertion that each and every one of us is fundamentally beloved. From our first moment, God delights is us and, if all is well in the world, so do a goodly number of humans. Baptism is not a cleansing of some imagined “original sin” but a visible, tangible declaration of our baseline goodness and blessing. Baptism repeats in word and action, the truth of belovedness in the life of this Child: “you are a beloved child of God.” As are the child’s parent(s) and everyone gathered today. Each of us is beloved. Each of us matters.
Following their first months, when children are truly the centre of their own universe, they cross certain developmental thresholds and start sensing the bigger patterns that they fit into. The first and most powerful classroom where we learn how those interactions work, is through our own family of origin. Sometimes those lessons are positive and other times, not so much.
Back in my early years of ministry, living in a somewhat remote rural area, pre-marriage counselling (and indeed, a bunch of broad-based counselling) was almost entirely the job of local clergy. As I worked with couples, we would spend time learning about the families they had grown up in: in their growing-up household, how was love conveyed? How was affection shown? Who made the decisions? Was it a safe place to be, a safe place to speak, a safe place to acknowledge emotion? The answers to these questions gave us the starting point to start thinking about what kind of household they were going to establish, and sometimes it was extremely hard work – especially if they had grown up with anger, or authoritarianism, or conditional love, or in an environment where love was neither spoken nor demonstrated.
If you grew up with messaging that suggested you were bad, or broken, or sinful, or only lovable if you achieved, I want you to know the real truth: by the gracious and universal love of God, you are beloved and empowered to be an embodiment of that love right here, right now. Contrary, negative messaging may have been delivered by parents or a coach or a teacher or your peers or your Church or the community at large, undercutting your self-image. If that was or is the case in your experience, know right now this truth: you matter. Your life, matters.
As we make that big bold declaration of belovedness, as we assert that Every Child Matters, our hearts necessarily turn to a situation and system that was set up to deny belovedness… to demean deep parts of human experience and birth culture… to portray worth as conditional rather than universal. We think of the Indian Residential Schools, for which the United Church of Canada carries significant responsibility.
Knowing what we know, about the importance of belovedness – and the crucial modelling that we get in our early years, from the family system in which we live – imagine growing up in a system where virtually every adult you encountered, had the job of telling you that you are basically inferior, that your language and your long hair braids and your parents’ pattern of life was something that needed to be replaced by something better. Something European. I have heard the first-hand accounts of Indigenous acquaintances, reporting that the main thing they remember about Residential School is that every adult they encountered was angry. Just pause for a moment to consider the impact of that, especially when applied successively to multiple generations of a family. Repeatedly, with the full support of the system, your self-worth is undercut. Consistently, palpably, the adults you encounter are angry and even abusive and dangerous to you. How does a child’s self-understanding weather such a barrage? How does a child learn what parenting should be, when all the adults around them are angry and disapproving of them? What is the cumulative effect of this on a culture, when three or four generations in succession have this same early messaging? On this orange shirt, Every Child Matters Sunday, we acknowledge not only the sorrow of the unmarked graves of Kamloops and Cowessess and Red Deer and Brandon and over 100 other locations yet to be investigated; we also acknowledge that generation after generation of Indigenous children were denied a core affirmation of their goodness and belovedness and worth. Children learned from the adults around them, that their lives did not matter.
And as we sit with the wrongness of that, the voice of the Divine speaks belovedness, as the voice of the Divine is prone to do. In the midst of the misshapen image that only one type of person matters, the loving God speaks, “every child matters.” In the midst of human constructs like race and gender and wealth and progress creating such havoc on this planet, God’s boundless gift of love for all opens us to health and wholeness, a world awash in love. The life-draining power of superiority and judgmentalism asserts itself so freely, but amidst those falsehoods I pray that we will know that true things of God: inclusion and affirmation, equity and justice, reconciliation and right relations, the sanctity of each life.
Every child matters. You matter. Each one of us matters. If life unfolded as God intends it, every child would know that they are beloved and that they matter, every adult would have grown up knowing their baseline belovedness, our relationships with one another and even our relationship with this planet would flourish. And knowing from childhood God’s intention for belovedness in all of us, we would develop a broad-minded embrace of the unique gifts of others. Ideally, each of us and all of us would be working from that base of belovedness. Today, even as we acknowledge with lament, and confession, and deep resolve, that belovedness is not universally experienced, and the role of the Residential Schools within that, we assert with confidence that in God’s heart, every child matters. Every life is sacred. All of creation, is good. Every moment, is a moment of loving potential and loving intention.
On this day of baptism – on this day when the colour orange makes a powerful statement of allyship with the first peoples of this land – in this place where the splendour of God’s creative intent is all around us – we acknowledge the pain and difficulty that arises when lives are not held as sacred and beloved. We explore in worship the many emotions that arise amidst these realities. And we assert once more, with God, that belovedness is the baseline, that Every Child matters, an assertion that we invite to shape our lives as a Church and a society in the days and years to come. Thanks be to God, Amen.
References cited or consulted:
Bradshaw, John. Homecoming. NYC: Bantam, 1992.
Collins, Ken. http://www.kencollins.com/jesus/jesus-35.htm
MacDonald, Ian. Living Waters: Daily Reflections for Lent. Toronto: United Church Publishing House, 2006.
© 2021 Rev Greg Wooley, Ralph Connor Memorial United Church.