Lesson: Mark 1:4-11
I’ve spent my whole life spelling my name. When someone says, “Name, please?” I rattle off “Joanne Whitt, W-H-I-T-T.” Just like that, every time. Whitt doesn’t sound complicated but it’s often confused with the more common German version, Witt, W-I-T-T, or someone tries to add an “e” to it to make “White,” which seems to makes more sense to people. If I’d taken my husband’s last name, it’d be even worse. Not only does he do the same thing: David Buechner, B-U-E-C-H-N-E-R, but people routinely butcher his name even if they’re looking right at it. Buckner, Buschner, and Beekner, because of author Frederick Buechner who spells his name exactly the same way but for some reason pronounces it differently. My daughters’ last name is Meredith. More than once, someone would ask for their last name and when they’d say, “Meredith,” the person would smile indulgently and say, “No, sweetheart, your lastname.”
Even if you don’t have a hard-to-pronounce, hard-to-spell or unusual name, I’ll bet it’s important to you that people get your name right. I’m not saying you throw a tantrum or anything; just that our names remind us who we are, and in this world, it is hard enough to remember who we are. In order to be what we are supposed to be and do what we are supposed to do in this life, we need to remember who we really are.
That isn’t always easy, is it? Not for anyone; not even for Jesus. At Christmas a couple of weeks ago, we celebrated not just his birth but “Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us,” that God took on the human experience. If Jesus really were a human being then he had to struggle with who he was, what his purpose was, why he was here, just like us. That is what humans do; it’s what we all do.
Why else did Jesus walk out to the edge of the wilderness by the Jordan River to join all the other folks listening to John the Baptist? You might not know that John didn’t invent baptism. Ritual bathing was and still is a part of the Jewish tradition. In Jesus’ time, the pilgrims who came from the hinterlands to the Temple in Jerusalem were understood to be “unclean” because of their contact with people of other religions and cultures. Special baths were constructed around the Temple so worshipers could ceremonially wash off that contamination and present themselves to God as “clean” people again. During the time of occupation and domination by the Romans, it helped to preserve their religious identity.
John performed his baptisms not in Jerusalem but over 80 miles to the north and east; not in private holy baths but in public, in the countryside on the banks of the Jordan River. John was announcing that traveling to a special city and an opulent building would not make people clean and holy. What they needed was not a change of location, but a change of heart. John’s baptism was a protest – John the Baptist was out there protesting the establishment.
That means we can assume something about the folks who gathered at the river to hear him: All those other folks who didn’t find comfort in traditional religion, who weren’t sure traditional religion could address their questions and doubts, or that traditional religion cared about their real lives and real problems, including the problems of an oppressive regime and inflexible religious leaders. That’s who was desperate enough to traipse out into the desert to listen to a man every one thought was crazy.
Then along comes Jesus. He asks John to bless him, to baptize him. In doing so, he’s identifying with the protest. He’s dunked in the river just like everyone else. Mark says that it was as he was coming up out of the water that he saw the sky torn open, and the Spirit coming down like a dove onto him. A voice from heaven answers his question: “This is my beloved son, in whom I am well-pleased.”
Beloved. That was the name God gave him. And that is the name God gives you, too. And you, and you, and you, and me, and you: Beloved. That is the gift of baptism: Each of us longs to hear words of acceptance, identity, blessing, and commitment, and we receive that assurance in baptism. We do not have to do anything to receive God’s acceptance. The beauty of infant baptism is that you can’t do anything – not even make a decision for Jesus, let alone commit your life. We are called God’s beloved children not because of something we do but because of who God is – a loving parent who wants nothing more than to see us flourish. It is our most holy and sacred work to remember our names and to live as though we believe them.
But it isn’t easy work, is it? All those messages from school or work, culture and even family telling us we aren’t good enough, smart enough, popular enough, pretty enough, rich enough – we just aren’t enough. It’s hard to hold onto this identity in the face of all that.
Yet another challenge of living into this identity is recognizing that it is not just ours – it is everyone’s identity. In his book, Building a Bigger Table, John Pavlovitz describes the great story planted in his heart by his religious upbringing: God was massive and made everything and yet knew him intimately and loved him completely. But, he says, there were other stories planted: That he was more deserving of the love of this big God than some others, including gays, poor people, addicts, and people of color. He writes, “My story told me that I was a beloved child of God and those whose lives were seemingly foreign to me were at best tolerated foster children who needed to do some work in order to earn a seat.” He grew to believe in the “God of the Good People,” and conveniently the “good people” always looked and sounded and believed an awful lot like he did.
It’s more than ironic – isn’t it? – that the sacrament of Baptism started as a protest against the establishment and as the way we are reminded of our identity as God’s beloveds, but it also has been used to define who are the “good people,” and who are not? That’s it’s been used to create insiders and outsiders? Ai-yi-yi; what would Jesus say? I think we can guess what he’d say by looking at his table ministry – it’s his table ministry that is the basis of our other sacrament in the Presbyterian Church, the Lord’s Supper, or communion, which we’ll celebrate this morning. Jesus used the act of sharing a meal as a way of letting people know they were God’s beloveds; that they were seen and heard and known and respected. Around his table, he welcomed the world to experience communion with God and one another.Most startling was the diversity of Jesus’ table. He gathered with priests and “sinners,” with the religious elite and the common street rabble, with his disciples and his adversaries. “There at the big table they were all treated with equal dignity, and they all left his presence with their dignity intact – even if he sometimes had hard words for them.”
You’re probably familiar with the story of Jesus’ feeding crowds of people with a few loaves and fish; it’s in all four gospels. I think what’s more important than any miracle that did or didn’t happen in these stories is that Jesus feeds people. That’s what he does. But it’s also striking what he doesn’t do in these stories. There’s no altar call, no spiritual gifts assessment, no membership class, no moral screening, no litmus test to verify everyone’s theology – and, my friends, not even any Baptism – to identify those worthy of a seat at the table. People were just accepted. They were accepted, because God accepts them. They were worthy, because God named them worthy; God named them beloved.
That tells us our calling, as God’s beloveds and as God’s Church. We are in a strange transition time for the institutional church – we have been for years in Marin County, where we’re way ahead of the curve, but the rest of the country is catching up with us. The influence and even relevance of the church in people’s lives is waning, partly or maybe largely because of the obstacles the church has constructed. But Pavlovitz tells a story that points both to how the Church can continue to be faithful, and why the future of the Church is still hopeful. He was speaking with a woman at an interfaith gathering about the difficulties she’s experienced as a Christian married to a Jewish man. She told him a story of looking for the common ground with her in-laws, and of the surprising revelation her husband’s mother shared with her one afternoon. “’I’ve been thinking a lot about chicken soup,’ she said. ‘No matter where you travel on the planet, nearly everyone eats chicken soup in some form or another. It might have this spice or that spice, it might be served with rice or noodles or dumplings or matzo balls – but it’s basically still chicken soup.’ She looked at her daughter-in-law and said, ‘Maybe God is there. Maybe, if we can come together and share chicken soup and keep talking, then maybe there’s a way forward.’”
“Maybe, if we can come together and share chicken soup and keep talking, then maybe there’s a way forward.” That is the only future the Church really has: The Church will thrive only to the degree it is willing to be about making space for a greater swath of humanity, recognizing each and every person as God’s beloved, and recognizing the redemptive power of real relationships. It’s easy to forget that our faith is a relational experience; that it’s about relationships. Relationships with people who agree with us and who don’t agree with us; with people who look like us and don’t look like us. In our world, with a divided government, an increasingly polarized culture, racism, sexism, heterosexism, nationalism, wars and rumors of wars, this kind of relationship is a radical and faithful protest, just like John’s baptism. That is the ongoing radical protest of the Christian church: seeing and treating every person as a beloved child of God.
So – does Baptism even matter? Yes. Yes, because it reminds us that God claims us; that we are accepted and loved just the way we are, no matter what. That is an incredible, indelible gift. And it matters as well because we were baptized into the same protest as Jesus, into his Way, the way that says nothing we can do, no institution we join, no tribe we belong to, no political or social reality, not baptism or anything else, is what makes us God’s beloveds. We always were, we always are, as is our neighbor down the pew, across the street and around the world.
What the world needs from us who have been baptized into Jesus’ Way is the goodness of God incarnated in the flesh of the people who claim to know this good God. As others meet us, may all experience to their very core the message of baptism, expressed so beautifully by Paul Tillich:
“You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know. Do not ask for the name now; perhaps you will find it later. Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!”
You are accepted. You are beloved. Beloved. It is everybody’s most important name. Keep saying it. Keep remembering it. Keep recognizing it in others. Keep living it. May it be so for you, and for me. Amen.
© Joanne Whitt 2018 all rights reserved.
 Brian McLaren, We Make the Road While Walking (New York: Jericho Books, 2014), 88.
 David Lose, “Powerful Words for a New Year,” January 4, 2018, http://www.davidlose.net/2018/01/epiphany-1-b-powerful-words-for-a-new-year/.
 John Pavlovitz, Building a Bigger Table (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017), 4-6.
 Pavlovitz, 58-59.
 Pavlovitz, 59.
 Pavlovitz, 61.
 Pavlovitz, 62.
 Pavlovitz, 62-63.