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"I Got a Name" by Rev. Jillian Hankamer


January 21, 2024

Matthew 3: 1-6 and 11-17


There’s nothing to make you reevaluate your teaching abilities than one of your students asking about the whole purpose of your class a full semester into class. It would be like a political science student asking in November, “What’s Political Science?” or a second-year music major saying, “Someone please explain to me why I need to take music theory to be a composer?” I’m sure there are basic questions it would be frustrating to hear from engineering students or finance majors, but those are far enough outside of my wheelhouse that I don’t know where to begin, so I’m going to assume you take my point. I’m also going to assume that the educators in the room have had an experience like I did last week during Pastor’s Class.


             To give you some context Pastor’s Class has been ongoing since August. We’ve missed a few weeks here and there due to scheduling and the holidays, but the kids, Karen Rossler, and I have been meeting consistently for months. In my efforts to prepare these young folks for baptism, we’ve talked about everything from the layout and contents of the Bible, to how faith and science go together to whether or not it’s okay to struggle with believing everything in the Bible and everything people say about the Bible. We’re not into the homestretch. Palm Sunday is three months away, so when I asked last Sunday, “What questions do you still have? What do we need to spend more time on?” the last thing I expected to hear was, “What is baptism? Why do we need to do it?”


             Ya’ll…I would like to blame the kids. After all, they’re teenagers who’re willy and prone to selective hearing. Anyone who’s taught or parented a teenager knows what it’s like to say something to a teen and have them look at you blankly. But as I realized in an instant last week, the truth is we hadn’t talked about what baptism means and why we do it. I’d gone over the logistics with the class, I even did a practice baptism on Sam Barrick, so he’d understand how much he’s going to have to bend his knees for me to get him under the water. But we hadn’t talked about what baptism means. Why it’s important. Why we as a church believe in being baptized and doing it when and how we do it.

 

             What does baptism mean? It’s an excellent question, possibly the question for someone in Pastor’s Class to ask. It’s the question Matthew’s gospel asks us to ponder this morning as we hear of Jesus’ baptism, and it’s a question people of faith have been asking for millennia. For those who believe baptism to be the method for washing away sin, it’s confusing that Jesus, who is sinless, needs to be baptized.  Others are troubled by Jesus seeking out and submitting to his cousin John for baptism. Clearly, John is hesitant as he says to Jesus, “‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’”[1]


             According to Christian historian John Dominic Crossan, there was “acute embarrassment in the New Testament gospels about [Jesus being baptized by John]”[2]  because the Early Church found it scandalous that the Messiah would place himself under the tutelage of a rabble-rouser. As Episcopal Priest and writer Debie Thomas asks, what was “God’s incarnate Son [doing] receiving a baptism of repentance? Perfect, untouchable Jesus? What was he doing in that murky water, aligning himself with the great unwashed? And why did God…choose that sordid moment to part the clouds and call his Son beloved?”[3]


             Matthew tells us Jesus prevents John from rejecting his desire to be baptized in verse 14 by saying to him,

“‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.’         Then [John] 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 the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’”


             At this moment, with the voice of God speaking from above, Jesus’ divinity is revealed, he is called “Son” for the first time, and his identity is made clear. As commentator Dr. Jeannine K Brown says, Matthew uses this scene to “highlight his Christology” – what he believes about the nature and incarnation of Jesus – “while also providing an incipient Trinitarian moment, with the divine voice affirming the Son while the Spirit comes to rest upon him.”[4]  In other words, Matthew uses this moment in writing his Gospel to make a first, clear statement that Jesus is the Son of God and also part of the Trinity – God, Jesus, Holy Spirit. But more than Matthew’s effort to tell a particular, evangelistic story – which let me be clear, all the gospel writers do – this moment of Jesus being pulled up from the water by John and having the very Spirit of God rest upon him and call him “my beloved Son” is incredible because it occurs at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.


             It occurs before Jesus has told a single parable, healed a single person, and asked a single person to follow him. This naming, this claiming by God happens before Jesus has done anything to upset the religious establishment, anything to raise the eyebrows of his hometown before he has done anything Christ-like or praiseworthy. And yet, God comes in this moment, blessing Jesus, showering him with approval and love, naming and claiming him. Despite any objections the Early Church had or questions that might linger for us today, this story must be heard because, as David Lose profoundly comments,

 

“It helps us recover and reclaim baptism as a dynamic, present-tense activity rather than being seen as a quaint ritual or ceremony. Yes, baptism washes away sin. Moreover, holy baptism promises ongoing forgiveness of sin and relationship with God…But baptism also provides something more: a name –    Beloved – and with that name, an identity – child of God, one to whom God is unfailingly committed. And that name and identity has never been more        important.”[5]


             A few years ago, at the church I served in St. Louis, I met a woman named Sandra. I don’t remember exactly how Sandra found the church or what attracted her to us as a congregation, but over a few months, she became a regular visitor. After about six months Sandra came to my co-worker Donna to talk about joining the church. Donna explained that the usual procedure was for people to come forward on a Sunday morning during the Invitation, present themselves to the church, and publicly announce their desire to join the congregation. The church office would then get in contact with Sandra’s previous church and notify them of her change of membership. Simple, easy, no muss, no fuss. Except that wasn’t exactly was Sandra had in mind.


             You see, Sandra is a trans-woman who lived as William until she was in her 50s. Despite being married, having children, and building a successful career as a mechanic for Boeing, it wasn’t until she was finally able to be Sandra that she was truly herself. And though she knew that one baptism was enough, that she didn’t have to go under the water again to ensure her salvation, Sandra said something to Donna and later to me that I will never forget. She said, “William has been baptized but Sandra hasn’t.”


             Sitting in the front row the morning Donna baptized Sandra I wept, as did most of those sitting around me. We wept for the beauty that is always so striking in baptism. We wept for the promise of eternal life and sacredness of a practice that Jesus himself took part in. But more than that we wept to see this beloved child of God claiming the identity that had been inside her for so long. We wept to see longing fulfilled. We wept to see one life end and another being.  We wept to hear the words, “Buried with Christ in baptism and raised to walk in newness of life” spoken over that brave, remarkable woman. It was glorious. It was sacred. It was a claiming.


             My friends, I’ve said before that words are powerful. Names are also powerful, “they convey identity, purpose, authority and more”[6] and the Good News this morning is that in baptism God names us as “beloved.” Keep in mind this naming by God doesn’t make all our other names worthless. Father, mother, sister, pastor, wife, friend, caregiver, advocate, son – these names are valuable and should matter to us a great deal. But, as David Lose again says to eloquently,  “While all these other names, affiliations, and identifications may describe us, they dare not define us...”[7] What defines us are the words spoken over us in baptism, not by the Pastor but by God, who tells us who we are and whose we are.


             As you go from this place think about the names you’ve been given over your lifetime. The nicknames people have given you, and the not-so-nice names people have called you. Think about the names you’ve inherited from your ancestors and perhaps passed on to your own children. Think about all the titles you carry with you daily. Then think about how different a world it would be if we were to recognize all the people, we meet by the name that matters the most: “beloved child of God.”   

          

 

 

 

[1] Emphasis mine.

[2] John Dominic Crossan, The Message of Jesus: John Dominic Crossan and Been Witherington III in Dialogue, edited by Robert B. Stewart. 2013. Pg.

[3] Debie Thomas, “Thin Place, Deep Water” from Journey With Jesus. Posted January 1, 2017. https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay?id=2047

[4] Jeannine K. Brow, “Commentary on Matthew 3:1-17,” from Working Preacher.com   https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3845

[5] David Lose, “Baptism of our Lord A: Family Name,” from …in the Meantime, http://www.davidlose.net/2017/01/baptism-of-our-lord-a-family-name/

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

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