As we engage this challenging Scripture, I’m going to suggest that we start at the end, and work our way back. Let’s start by standing in the waters of baptism with Jesus – in this beautiful, holy moment of inclusion and embrace and new life. Let’s go down to the river to pray.
While all the people are being baptized, Jesus enters into the waters, and is baptized too. As Jesus is praying, Scripture says, the heavens open – the fullness of God opening onto the fullness of humanity – and the Spirit in bodily form like a dove descends. And a voice – a voice from heaven says: “You are my child – my Beloved. With you, I am well-pleased.” This moment – as God delights in God’s beloved children – a new thing breaking forth – a new creation – this Scripture brings us into the threshold of baptism.
But to get here – to get to the waters of baptism in the Gospel of Luke – John the Baptist has had to clear the way. This holy moment – this threshold moment – emerges in a world that is fraught.
When John the Baptist erupts in verse 7 – and calls out “You brood of vipers!” – he is calling out a socio-economic world structured around systems of separation, division, and exclusion. It’s a world that separates the haves from the have-nots. A world where economic powers exploit the poor, and keep them poor – where violence keeps
the oppressed pushed down, and the outcast cast out.
On the way to the waters of baptism, John the Baptist has some ground-clearing to do – the voice of one crying out in the wilderness – “Prepare the way!” – every valley will be lifted up – every mountain made low – the rough places made smooth. No more oppression and separation – All flesh – all flesh – shall see the salvation of God. And so John says, Watch out – the ax is lying at the root of the tree – these systems – this world of separation you have constructed – it is coming down. Make way.
And those in the crowd – nervously ask – “What then shall we do?” And he starts with the obvious: “If you have two coats, give one to someone who doesn’t have a coat.” Look who all is there: The tax collectors ask, “And us?” “Well, stop extorting more money than is prescribed.” And the soldiers – “Stop using violence and power and lies to take what isn’t yours.” This world of separation, division, and exploitation – it’s coming to an end. John the Baptist says, I am baptizing you with water – but one more powerful than I is on the way.
In the voice of the prophet, John the Baptizer names the realities of a harsh world – this world that shoves people down and keeps them down – that pushes people out – separating us from each other and from any possibility of living a life that is whole and just. John the Baptist names that and says – One is on the way who is bringing us all into the threshold of belonging – into a new world – a new creation – where we everyone is welcomed in – all of us – all flesh – welcomed in and made whole.
During this season of Epiphany we are considering Thresholds – those moments and spaces that connect one experience to the next. As we said last week, a threshold is not “simply a boundary, but rather a frontier that divides two different territories, rhythms, atmospheres.” It is a liminal place to pause and consider – to make meaning.
This morning’s Scripture brings us to the threshold of belonging.
When I did my hospital chaplain training at UCSF, the head of the chaplaincy program structured our spiritual care around what she said were the three basic spiritual needs: (1) the need for meaning, (2) the need for reconciliation in our relationships, and (3) the need for belonging. It doesn’t take long in life to figure out that the world is so much bigger than us. As a part of being human, we yearn, we search for our place in the expanse of the world – where and how we fit in. What Mary Oliver calls “our place in the family of things” – the place where we belong.
Belonging is that sense of being a meaningful part of something bigger than us – and particularly the family of humankind. Belonging involves being seen and valued – experiencing connection and support. Out of our deep need, we seek belonging in our families – our families of birth and our families of choice; in our loves and in our friendships; and in our communities, and in church.
In church, in spiritual community, what we’d call the community of Christ, we belong not only to each other – but to the God who claims us as God’s own – “You are my people; I am your God” – all of us beloved by the One who made us in their image, who loves us still, and always will. Belonging is our place in the family of things where we can be accepted, where we can give and receive love, where we find a sense of companionship and union, where we can live and thrive.
But in this primal, human search for belonging, the world doesn’t make it easy. The world is full of systems that separate and divide, with that separation too often accompanied by power and privilege. Maybe it began with a sense of tribe – “You are in this tribe, and you are not.” But over the history of humanity, these powers of separation have excluded and disenfranchised those they deem other – those from a different tribe or nation; those of a certain social caste; those who are not male; those who can be economically exploited; those who are not something called white; those who love differently; those who dare to name and claim their own gender; those who move through our midst without the documents we prefer.
In his anti-racism work, legal scholar john a. powell says it like this: “The human condition is one about belonging. We simply cannot thrive unless we are in relationship.” Systems of power-over – segregation, racism – he explains, work to separate and isolate. What those who resist do is to say, No, “I belong. You belong. We belong.” If we don’t do that, powell says, if we “define the other at an extreme, it means we have to cut off large parts of our self.”
Before we can reconstruct a world of belonging and find our place there – a place for all God’s children – we have to deconstruct the powers of separation – the forces that work to keep us apart.
And so John the Baptist says, the ax is at the root of the tree. This is the ground he clears, as we find our way to the waters of baptism, and find Jesus standing there. And in this moment in scripture, look who is standing there with Jesus – those who have, and those who have not, the tax collector, and the poor, the soldier, and the oppressed – all flesh – all of us together in the waters of baptism – standing together on the threshold of belonging. And a voice from heaven says, You are my child, my beloved, in you I am well pleased. All of us together, no separation, beloved and free.
About a month ago, Janie Spahr and I gathered here in the sanctuary, on a rainy December evening, with friends of the Trans Heartline House. We gathered for a Naming Ceremony. Some of you know and are involved in the work of Trans Heartline House – it’s a local non-profit – formed about 5 years ago – to support transgender persons as they go through gender confirmation surgery here in Marin County. Trans Heartline House offers safe housing and loving care, with volunteer help from a number of local congregations (including our own), bridging faith, spirituality, gender, and healing.
In early December, Karina – a transgender woman staying at the House – asked Karyn, the Director – and Janie if there might be some way that she could celebrate and affirm her chosen name – Karina – in a church. You see, Karina grew up in an Evangelical Catholic community, and for a good part of her life, she experienced the church as openly hostile and harming – rejecting her because she is transgender – because of her gender identity – because of who she is. And so as part of her healing, Karina asked if the Trans Heartline community would join her in affirming and celebrating her chosen name and identity – in a church.
Because Janie knew of the welcome of this church, she called us to ask if they could gather for that ceremony here. I offered to be a part of the service – and Janie and I let the Session know – our Session responding with amazing words of encouragement and affirmation and gratitude for Karina.
So on that rainy night in December, Janie and I arrived and opened up the church. We set up chairs in a circle, and dressed the table – Janie laughed because I was able to find a purple lamé table cloth for the occasion. Karyn arrived with an earthenware bowl that we filled with water, as 20 or so folks gathered – from about 5 different congregations.
We settled in together in that circle. I welcomed folks on behalf of our church – and Janie began by talking about the importance of names – and of folks in Scripture whose names had been changed to reflect their true identity – Abram, who became Abraham; Sarai, who became Sarah; Simon, who became Peter; Saul, who became the Apostle Paul. Each claimed a new God-gifted name.
Karyn then shared Karina’s story – of the struggles Karina had faced as she claimed her gender as a woman. Both in Mexico and after she emigrated to the US, Karina experienced abuse from folks in the church – because she is transgender – because of who she is. They said to her that was going to hell, and if she ever came to church, the Devil would meet her at the doorway. (I think it’s important to know that people really do say things like that to transgender people and to others of us in the LGBTQIA+ community – it is an all-too-common experience.)
Even so, Karina remained convinced of God’s love. Karina loves the traditions and mystery of her Catholic faith, and for her, the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe – Mary – has been a symbol of God’s love – sustaining and upholding her over the years. And so we placed an icon of the Virgin of Guadalupe that Karina had brought on the table, a symbol of God’s loving presence.
Then, we took the bowl of water on the table – a reminder of our connectedness to creation and to each other and to God – a remembrance of our baptism. And we passed the bowl around the circle – each of us touching the water and offering Karina a blessing.
After we had spoken our shared blessings, Karina shared more of her experience, and she invited us to join in celebrating her name – and in God’s love for us all. Janie and I asked Karina to state her name. And she did: “Karina.” Together, we blessed Karina in the name of Creator, and Christ, and the Virgin of Guadalupe, and the Spirit.
The memory of that night lingers with me. By inviting us into that circle, Karina invited us into a deeper sense of belonging. By claiming her name with such courage and love, Karina invited us to do the same. By embodying and sharing God’s steadfast love, Karina invited us to be part of healing the harm that the church had done.
When Janie and I first wrote to the Session – I remember one member of Session wrote back and said this: “Thank you, Karina. You are giving us the chance to actually be who we say we are.”
Friends, I have Karina’s permission to share this story with you – and I share it here – because I know what it is to stand on the outside looking in – and maybe you do too. Maybe you know what it is to feel like you don’t fit in – or to have a barrier slammed down in your path. Maybe you know what it’s like to have the world try to tell you that you are somehow less than.
In the midst of a world that is too often bent on separating, dividing, and excluding – in the experience of God’s love for us in Jesus Christ, we find ourselves on the threshold of belonging. And in the waters of our baptism, Jesus invites us – each and every one of us – to come all the way in. At the threshold of belonging we can see the world as it too often is – its systems of separation, division, and harm – we can feel their impact in our bones and we can see ways we have been a part of the harm. And on the threshold of belonging, we get a clear vision of the new creation breaking forth even now.
In the waters of baptism, Jesus invites us to venture on in through the threshold of belonging. All the way in. To participate in the fullness of belonging – we have some ground-clearing to do – to tear down every barrier and obstacle that would prevent anyone from living life full and free. Wading on in to the waters, all of us, we experience in our bones – in our bodies together – those words from the One who created all of us in love and who loves us still: “You are my children. My Beloved. In you, I delight and am well-pleased.”
© 2022 Scott Clark
 Stephanie Buckhanon Crowder, “The Gospel of Luke,” in True to Our Native Land: An African American New Testament Commentary(Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2008), p.163. For general background on the gospel and this text, see Sharon Ringe, Luke(Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995); R. Alan Culpepper, “The Gospel of Luke,” New Interpreters’ Bible Commentary, vol. ix (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1995), pp. 79-92.  See John O’Donohue, To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings (New York; Convergent Books, 2008), p. 48.  This framework was learned from Rev. Dr. Michele Shields.  Mary Oliver, “Wild Geese.”  “Belonging” is a need voiced and described across a number of disciplines – for example, spiritual care, psychology, business leadership, those engaging the work of diversity, equity, and inclusion. The description here draws from a survey of writers, including, e.g., https://hbr.org/2021/06/what-does-it-take-to-build-a-culture-of-belonging ; https://www.spirituallyhealthyyou.com/spiritualneeds/  john a. powell, Interview on the On Being podcast with Krista Tippett, https://onbeing.org/programs/john-a-powell-opening-to-the-question-of-belonging-may2018/  Id.  See https://transheartline.org