Sermon: Monday, January 13, 2019: Baptism of Our Lord

Texts: Isaiah 43:1-7 / Psalm 29 / Acts 8:14-17 / Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

“There are two kinds of people in this world,” according to advice columnist Abigail Van Buren, “those who walk into a room and say, ‘there you are!’ and those who say, ‘here I am!’”

But, then again, “there are two types of people in this world,” said Samuel Clemens (better known as Mark Twain), “people who accomplish things, and people who claim to have accomplished things. The first group is less crowded.”

Of course, Clemens was in that first group, so he accomplished more than one of these “two kinds of people” aphorisms.  He also said, “there are two kinds of speakers: those that are nervous and those that are liars.”

Oliver Wendell Holmes said, “people can be divided into two classes:” (which is the classy way of saying, “there are two kinds of people”) those who go ahead and do something, and those who sit still and inquire, ‘why wasn’t it done the other way?’”

And a century later Robert Frost said basically the same thing: “There are two kinds of people: some willing to work and the rest willing to let them.”

John the Baptist’s message, which we hear in the gospel reading from Luke today, is often paraphrased as something like, “there are two kinds of people: the wheat and the chaff. When the messiah comes it will become evident what kind of person each of us is.  The wheat will be kept, and the chaff will be burned away.”  

And that’s the kind of religious talk that gets people nervous.  Basically, any time a preacher starts talking about anything burning people get nervous, including the preacher — unless that preacher is the kind of person Mark Twain called a liar — because burning, when said in church, sounds like a metaphor for hell, and we’ve all heard, somewhere along the way, that there are two kinds of people: the ones going to heaven and the ones going to hell.

There I said it.

But that distinction hardly settles things, because there are two other kinds of people: the ones who know where they’re ultimately going, and the rest of us.  Religion has tried to resolve that basic anxiety with all kinds of solutions.  In some expressions of Christianity you know which group you belong to based on whether or not you’ve claimed Jesus as your personal Lord and savior.  To these Christians, there are two kinds of people as well — those who have and those who haven’t.

Other groups of Christians turn that formula around — it’s not a question of whether or not you’ve claimed Jesus, it’s a question of whether or not Jesus has claimed you.  So we begin to look for markers of who’s in and who’s out, and we start to treat the sacraments — visible signs of God’s invisible grace — as membership cards.  There are two kinds of people, we say, those who are baptized and those who aren’t.

Of course, there are two other kinds of people: the ones who believe in an afterlife and the ones who don’t give it much thought.  Honestly, you don’t have to care much about the afterlife — whatever that is — to see how these dualisms characterize our social interactions.  Whether you take to the streets on behalf of the 99%, or you dismiss half of the country as the 47%, you’re still saying that there are essentially two kinds of people: the ones in my bracket, and the ones who take from it.

Friends, it seems like there’s just something in us that can’t help but want to divide people into categories.  Don’t they essentially all end up as some version or another of “there are two kinds of people in the world: us and them.”  Or, in its very loneliest version, “me and everybody else.”

Late last year an international group called “More in Common” released a research study on the phenomenon of political and social polarization in the United States titled, “Hidden Tribes: A Study of America’s Polarized Landscape.” In the forward to the study, they state that,

“In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America’s differences have become dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants, the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them. These tensions are poisoning our personal relationships and putting our democracy in peril. Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security, become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.”

“Hidden Tribes: A Study of America’s Polarized Landscape”

One way of understanding sin, another one of those preaching words that makes people shudder, is separation from God and from one another.  When we begin dividing the world into two kinds of people, sin isn’t so much a characteristic of the people on one side of the line or the other as it is the distance between them.

When I listen to the story of Jesus being baptized at the river Jordan by John, I think, “there are two kinds of people in this story: Jesus, and everybody else.”  Jesus is the only character in this story that the church calls the messiah, the Son of God, the Word made flesh, fully God and fully human.  Something about the very names we give Jesus gets in the way of the either/or thinking that dominates our interactions with most people.  He isn’t only spirit, or only flesh.  He isn’t only God or only human.  He blurs the lines.

We might even wonder why Jesus was being baptized at all.  In fact, in Matthew’s gospel John says to Jesus, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”  But Luke’s gospel, the one we read this morning, says 

Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove.  And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

What I appreciate about the way Luke tells the story is the way that Jesus steps over the line between people like him (a party of one) and people like the rest of us.  The Baptism of Our Lord is often referred to as the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, and if that is the case, then I think it is important to notice that the first act of Jesus’ ministry is to step over, no — to wash away — the line between the two kinds of people: the human and the divine, the clean and the unclean, the saved and the damned.  The reign of God is not for me or you, us or them, the 47% or the 53%, the 1% or the 99%.  The reign of God come near is for the 100%.

It turns out that there aren’t two kinds of people at all.  There is only one kind of person, the kind that God made.  There isn’t a person in this room who doesn’t already fall into that category. It doesn’t matter if you have claimed Jesus as your personal Lord and savior or not.  It doesn’t matter if you have a job right now or not.  It doesn’t matter if you are a lifelong Lutheran, or just considering Christianity; if your family has been in the United States for generations, or has only recently arrived; if you are gay, lesbian, straight, bisexual or transgender; if you live with disabilities, chronic illness, or are able-bodied and currently healthy; if you are home-blessed or homeless.  You are one of God’s beloved children.  That’s the only kind of people there are.

The prophet Isaiah remembers the voice of God saying to those whom God created, “you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.” (Isa. 43:4)  And as Jesus sits praying among the rest of the people baptized by John, not apart from them, God speaks again to say, “you are my child, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (Lk. 3:22).

The authors of the “Hidden Tribes” study conclude the introduction to their study with the following statement:

“Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate. The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us.”

“Hidden Tribes: A Study of America’s Polarized Landscape”

For Christians, that’s what baptism is: a bigger story of us. Not because of who we are, but because of who God is. The one who names us all as Beloved. The one who bathes us in grace and showers us with love. What do suppose it would it would take for our churches and communities, our schools and our workplaces, to embrace a “bigger story of us.” How would we welcome each other, how would we disagree with each other? How would we forgive each other? 

We give thanks for the baptism of our Lord, and our own baptisms, because they are signs that God is claiming the whole world in love, and through love, and for love.  Amen.

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