Through Earthly Forms and Folds
This beginning of the calendar year is what someone in my social media feed called a “cruel,” “hard shift.” Before the Christmas decorations can be put away, along comes the push to set a resolution for ourselves. The pressure comes just when the days are shortest and we might be at our most depleted. I don’t usually set a New Year’s resolution, but I did commit to taking monthly visits to museums with a friend to see new and beautiful art.
What I appreciate about the liturgical year is that just as we encounter the calendar year’s hard shift from tinseled twinkling trees to endless new- year- new -you ads schemes, the Church focuses her attention on the Baptism of the Lord. It[The Baptism of the Lord] is in this yearly celebration where divine love meets us on the banks of the Jordan River. It is on this day we remember that the heavens opened and Christ is revealed to us with a word of divine affirmation. It is a good time of year that we might reflect on our own baptismal identities.
During Advent Bill preached on the text right before the words I am about to read. He said, “we have to get past John the Baptist,” to get on our happy way to the stable at Bethlehem. Today we meet him again on our happy way to Jesus’s ministry among the people. The Jordan River is about a 13 hour walk from Jerusalem. John’s preaching style was gruff. He says to those gathered, “You brood of vipers! Repent!” But people kept showing up anyway. They keep coming into the wilderness, searching for something. Maybe a new way of life? A break from Roman tyranny? The messiah they’ve been waiting centuries for? And then, one day, Jesus shows up.
Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw God’s Spirit descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from the heavens said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
The author of Matthew’s gospel wants to make sure that readers know Jesus the Messiah, the beloved son of God, the one true king who will mediate between heaven and earth. Matthew tells us almost nothing about Jesus’s childhood and young life. He’s born, escapes to Egypt with his family, and then he shows up a few decades later to be baptized and the voice of God declares, “This is my beloved son.”
Water and rivers are sacred symbols throughout the world. Many of you have been to the Jordan River, which is sacred to both Jews and Christians. The Jordan is listed second on Condé Nast’s list of eight sacred rivers of the world joining the Ganges which is sacred to Hindus, the Columbia sacred to multiple indigenous nations in the Pacific Northwest, and the Whanganui in New Zealand which is sacred to the Māori. Whanganui is so sacred in fact, in 2017 it was the first of a handful of rivers now granted the same legal rights as humans.
Water is both ordinary and essential, common and miraculous. Toba Spitzer reminds us in her new book God is Here that water is one of the “most prevalent metaphors for God in the Hebrew Bible.” Since creation, “God is of the waters, over the waters, and active in and through the waters.” She notes that there are multiple “water names” for God in the Hebrew Bible including: Well of Liberation, Fount of Living Waters, River of Bliss, and River of God. She likens God’s power to the flow of water, a persuasive, not coercive, power that cajoles, instructs, challenges and invites us into the current of God’s righteousness.
Following Jesus' commission, when we baptize children here at Kenilworth Union Church, we trust that God claims us and calls us God’s own. We say that God frees us from sin and death, uniting us in Christ’s resurrection, and we are made members of Christ’s Holy Church, and calls us to a ministry of love, justice, and peace. Parents proclaim their faith in Christ and their intention to raise their children to love and serve Christ the Lord. And we the congregation pledges to support them with our love and care, that they might be nurtured as disciples of Jesus Christ their whole life through. All of this is marked with an ordinary sign of God’s extraordinary grace: water.
This is why when our youth go on mission trips they go to the water to remember their baptisms to once again be reminded that God’s grace flows in and through their lives and in every corner of the world. This is why when people in affirming and inclusive churches claim a name and gender identity that is different from that assigned to them at birth, we return to the font with them to offer a blessing because it is God who knitted them together. God who knows their innermost being and God who calls them beloved. This is why we sing “Deep and Wide” over and over again in children’s chapel.
To borrow the words of Wednell Berry, it is “holy love that flows through earthly forms and folds.”
It is persistent, persuasive grace that sustains our baptismal identities as beloved children of God, called to new life in the divine flow, becoming part of God’s living, liberating, life sustaining work in the world. On our best days, we behave as though we know the truth that we are beloved. Other days, the never ending hustle leads us to three wrong and harmful conclusions about who we are.
Theologian Henri Nouwen names them: I am what I have. I am what I do. I am what other people say or think about me.
Every new calendar year we are faced with the same pressures. We pledge to save more, achieve that work goal or school award, read more books, get more followers, and organize our messy homes and lives. All of these things can be good and helpful. But they are not who we are. We are more than the schools we went to, the teams we will cheer for during tomorrow night's NCAA football final, more than the job title we hold, more than our GPA and we are more than our bank account balance. Thank God for that.
Who are we? I believe that those of us who gather here to worship are here because we are trying our best to be followers of Jesus, seeking to do justice, to love kindness, and to join humbly in the River of God. We don’t have it all figured out yet. We may be baptized or not. But we keep showing up looking for God.
Dutch theologian Henri Nouwen's writings are about helping others ground themselves in their belovedness. I haven’t read all of his 42 books, but it is fair to say that belovedness is a part of every single one. For Nouwen, the “decisive moment” of Jesus life is his baptism, which shows him and us, who he really is, and grounds his ministry. In the Gospel according to Matthew, the Spirit leads Jesus directly from baptism into the wilderness, where he is challenged to prove his identity “If you are the Son of God…. turn these stones to bread!” says the tempter. Knowing who and whose he is, Jesus doesn’t fall into the hustle to prove he is what he can do.
Jesus' baptism is the beginning of his ministry. Belovedness was before and throughout his life and work. Celebrating Baptism of the Lord Sunday is a chance to reorient ourselves to our identity of belonging and belovedness that is the beginning of the unique work that God calls each of us to.
For Nouwen, our identity as beloved is what enables us to celebrate the belovedness of others. It moves us from “solitude to community to ministry.” “The more you know you are loved, the more you will see how deeply your [siblings] in the human family are loved. The more you love others without conditions, the more you realize how much you are the beloved of God.” This calls us to love God, and to love for our neighbors, to seek justice, and to ask forgiveness.
Perhaps you heard the story of Isabella Kulak this week?
When she was ten, this member of Cote (Cotee) First Nation, Saskatchewan, was shamed for wearing her handmade ribbon skirt to a formal wear day at her elementary school. Artist Felica Huff explains that for indigenous people, ribbon skirts, “ is like our armor. It's like our tool,.... When we wear that skirt, we're in a safe space. We're in our own space. And as we walk, that skirt pushes things in and out of the way that need to or not need to be there for us." She adds, “The ribbons that circle the skirts symbolize the connectedness and circular nature of life.”
And so this week, in order that children like Isabella can show up to school as themselves, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that January 4 would be National Ribbon Skirt Day, a day to “learn about and to celebrate Indigenous cultures and traditions.” It is a step toward “advancing reconciliation as a society, as well as building relationships and connections based on mutual respect and understanding.” Centuries of harm cannot be undone with a simple statement or a national celebration. But National Ribbon Day can help us all to try to see the beauty of God’s diversity.
I mentioned my New Year’s resolution to visit more art museums. It’s day eight and I am still on track. On Monday I saw the David Hockney exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago. Hockney created dozens of digital paintings of Normandy in Spring 2020, just as the pandemic shutdown began. The exhibit description noted that even as the people of the world stood still, spring life was emerging.
When the world shut down, like David Hockney, Wendell Berry, and many of you, I went outside. I walked the familiar trail from my house to Middlefork Savanna daily—maybe 50 times before I was able to reenter this building. I witnessed the emergence of spring native plants: shooting stars, wild onion, trillium, may apples, and jack in the pulpits. I heard the sandhill cranes return and saw the turtle tracks marking the sandy places where turtle eggs would soon hatch. I witnessed once again this native ecosystem where plant roots dig into the almost impenetrable clay soil, creating a way for water to flow deep into the earth. And I sat by the Middlefork of the Chicago River, when the humans stood still. And there I was reminded of God’s endless river of grace that never stops flowing, never stops moving toward us.
The world is no longer shut down, but the outdoors still calls to us, inviting us to stop and notice the “Thrush song, stream song, holy love That flows through earthly forms and folds.” There, may the “grace living here as we live move our minds to hold things as they change.” Thanks be to God.
 Jarvis, Cynthia and Johnson, Elizabeth (editors). Feasting on the Gospels: Matthew volume 1, 135.
 Spitzer, Toba. God is Here, 41.
 Ibid. 47–48.
 Ibid. 56–57.
 Nouwen, Henri. Spiritual Direction, 25.
 Ibid., 20.
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