This Is Me
A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC January 12, 2020, the Baptism of the Lord.
Text: Matthew 3:13-17
In many churches, parents who bring a baby for baptism are asked, “What name has been given this child?” It is a question that isn’t officially included in our United Methodist ritual and I must say that I miss it. Names are powerful markers of identity. The “given” name from a parent or parents is one special piece…and the “family name”—or surname—is another significant piece.
Sometimes the names we are given get overridden by affectionate nicknames—I have a dear friend whose name is Lillian but is known by those who know her well as Fuzzy. Performers and writers may have pen or stage names which provide a whole separate identity from their day to day life. Immigrants at some times in history have chosen to adjust their names in order to fit in. Some folks have had their names taken from them in acts of violence. For transgender or non-binary siblings, the name given at birth often doesn’t fit and so a new name is taken.
Names are important and powerful and, when we claim them as our own, can be gifts of connection and identity. It is deeply affirming to have someone call you by name. But there’s a kind of “name-calling” that is the direct opposite of affirmation. Bullying, calling people names, labeling, stereotyping…all of these are damaging, disconnecting, and dehumanizing.
And we are in a moment in history in which the changes, tensions, and prejudice in our world are spinning people up into rage and fear and an incapacity to perceive the dignity and worth of every human life. The technologies available to us make it terribly easy to say terrible things about people and call people names that are shameful and shaming with absolutely no accountability or interconnection. Of course—out of some perverse sense of normality or self-righteousness—there are always persons who don’t mind being cruel right to someone’s face. From playgrounds to pulpits, from lunchrooms to bedrooms, from board tables to kitchen tables, people get called stupid, animals, abomination, disappointing, worthless, ugly, and every other kind of horrible, hurtful thing.
I don’t wish to suggest there is any easy excuse for such name-calling or try to make this phenomenon more simple than it is. But I do believe that at the core of human hatred, prejudice, and cruelty is fear. Fear of being overlooked, of being insignificant, of being hurt (again), weak, devalued, unwanted, unloved. In order to try to get or keep something that provides a sense of identity, safety, and worth, a person can do incredibly awful things. In order to make themselves feel like they are “up” some will put others “down.” Many of you will have heard the saying that hurt people hurt people. Sometimes wounded people do their personal work so that their wounds stop fueling harm to others. Sometimes they don’t.
Regardless, for all the vast diversity that exists in the human family, I think a thing we all share is the ridiculously powerful and insidious temptation to allow fear to disconnect us from our true selves and from other people.
Our text from Matthew is the beginning of the story of Jesus’ adult, public life, a life that shares and confronts all our human fears with courage and love. “Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan to be baptized by him.” According to cousin John’s understanding, Jesus has gotten confused somewhere along the way into the wilderness. John’s out there unabashedly preaching Jesus as the awaited power player who will size folks up and sort them out and be the SuperBaptizer with Spirit and fire. The plan—and what John signaled to his considerable following—is that he (John) will be the one to humble himself and be baptized by the long-expected one, Jesus. But Jesus doesn’t swoop in with pyrotechnics or power plays. Jesus upends John’s expectation saying, basically, “You’re right that I’ve come ‘to fulfill all righteousness’—to show and restore right relationship—and the way that begins is for me, Jesus, to be baptized by you, John.” And with that, Jesus steps into the waters that had touched countless human bodies, wades into the flow of all that humanity, all the debris that comes out in the wash, all the beauty and mess of our common, human life.
Jesus first public act is to humble himself, to disappoint expectations, and to align himself with the likes of you and me. I assume he did this because it seemed like the right thing to do. And, according to the story, it seems God agreed. // I imagine John asking just before he dunks his cousin, “What name has been given this child?” And at the moment Jesus emerges from the water, the answer comes, “This is my Son, the Beloved.” Here, Jesus is given his true family name: Beloved. It is an affirmation and confirmation of who Jesus is, of his identity and connection not just to God but to the whole human family. Sometimes people have joked that we think of “Christ” as Jesus’ last name. But Christ is his job title (“anointed one,” savior). I would argue that Jesus’ family name is “Beloved.” And because he is a Beloved and knows that is his name, Jesus is able to be brave, to stand up to all the temptations and challenges to come, and to continue to be himself. Jesus knows where he comes from, who he comes from, and who has his back.
And the onslaught against Jesus Beloved begins immediately as he is led into the wilderness and tempted by the devilish voice to fill his belly, to fill his coffers, to fill his ego—to recant his baptism and put himself ahead of others, to serve himself rather than serve others, to trust the fearful promises of idols for his security and value rather than clinging to the love of God. Jesus lives the rest of his short life constantly under attack. He is praised when he goes to his home church—until he reveals who he really is; then his people kick him out and try to kill him. He is distanced from his family, called all sorts of names (including Satan himself), cheered and jeered by the public, rejected by many he came to serve, and betrayed and denied by his closest friends. Ultimately Jesus was arrested on false charges, publicly humiliated, became a scapegoat for the mob’s own fears, and was killed. When he returned from the dead, he greeted those who had hurt and disappointed him with peace and with open arms that revealed the wounds of his life not as symbols of shame but of triumph. He met and welcomed people in all their skepticism and fear in all the places we still get locked up and isolated and called us to step out into a life of freedom, and courage and love modeled on his own.
Just as at his Baptism, throughout his public life Jesus was told to be other than he was, was told to run away, to hide, to pipe down, to keep his hands off, to be a different kind of leader, a different kind of savior. But he just kept presenting himself in love and humility and vulnerability and courage saying, in essence, I know who I am, who I’m meant to be. This is me… Jesus joins us here today as we gather again at the Baptismal waters and says, “Your life is a life I share. And because of that, my life is a life you can share. And you don’t need to be afraid. You don’t need to be anyone other than who you are. No matter what people call you, say or do to you, you are a member of my family. We emerge from the same waters, are held in the same love, are fueled by the same grace and Spirit. You are a Beloved! This is your family name! This gives you all you need to be brave, to stand up to all the temptations and challenges to come, and to continue to be yourself. Remember where you come from, who you come from, and who has your back.” //
Many of you will know the story told in the 2017 movie musical, The Greatest Showman. It is a fanciful re-telling of the story of J.T. Barnum’s creation of “The Barnum & Bailey Circus.” One of the attractions Barnum brought to the public were performers described by some as “human oddities”—persons who didn’t fit in to polite society, like the so-called “Bearded Lady” and “General Tom Thumb.” In the film we see folks who had been cast off, ridiculed, and excluded from public life form community and claim their lives and their gifts without shame. The anthem and rallying cry in the film begins with the bearded lady, Lettie Lutz, singing these words:
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
Just the other day, I was reminded that such words are not only spoken by those who have been most hurt and ostracized. My heart ached to read that my amazing, accomplished 24 year old niece struggles with feelings of shame and that if things don’t go well it’s her fault and that she is “bad.” And then I remembered that is the deep human fear—that we’re not right, that we’re not OK, that we’re messing up, that no one will love us as we are. It’s in all of us and is amplified and exploited in anyone who is the slightest bit vulnerable or outside the “norm.” Jesus’ life and example gives us encouragement that we are called to be exactly who we are and that we need not fear. And the song from The Greatest Showman provides new words to claim our strength as God’s children, bearing the name “Beloved.” //
I won't let them break me down to dust I know that there’s a place for us For we are glorious
When the sharpest words wanna cut me down I’m gonna send a flood, gonna drown them out I am brave, I am bruised I am who I’m meant to be, this is me
Today, the waters of holy Baptism flow to drown out any voice that wants to cut you down or make you forget who you are. You are a Beloved! That is your family name. It is our human family name. And we are glorious!