January 13, 2019
Baptism of Jesus, Pastor Lois Pallmeyer
Dear Friends in Christ, God’s grace and peace be with you. Amen.
In William Kent Krueger’s novel, Ordinary Grace[i], Warren Redstone teaches young Frank Drum the native concept of Wo iyokihi. “`It means responsibility,’” he explains. It’s the work Sioux people do to make sure the past isn’t distorted by the lies majority people tell about them.
Warren surprises the young boy by explaining some of the background for Dakota wars in his community. Frank had never been told about the broken treaties or false promises that preceded the insurrections and protests he had learned about in school. In his mind, Native people’s savagery had inflicted unwarranted violence on Christian white people, and it had never dawned on him to consider any other explanation.
But that summer exposes Frank to many false impressions of the people in his town. Not only does he learn to shake myth from reality in the stories of his Sioux neighbors, but he learns the hard lesson of separating the wheat from the chaff in his impressions of the people he’s known a lot more closely, even the images he holds of his parents and siblings, and eventually his sense of self.
It’s Frank’s job in the rest of the novel to grow into his own Wo iyokihi, to learn how to discern fact from fiction, and to work to make sure that neither the past nor the future could be distorted by false descriptions of himself or his family.
It’s a big responsibility for a young person coming of age, to make sure the lies told about us don’t distort our true identity. It’s probably not just young people who struggle with that task. I wonder what illusions are the hardest for us to shake free from.
Like Frank Drum, many of us may naively hold a simple sense of ourselves as being relatively good people. After all, we work hard; we try to do well; we’re generally responsible and caring. We know we sometimes make mistakes, but we don’t really mean harm. Generally, we are rule-followers, decent, upright citizens. We feel as if we deserve the good life we’ve secured. What could be wrong with that?
It can be a rude awakening for us when, like Frank in the novel, we begin to discover that we haven’t always been as honorable as we believed, and that sometimes in our own sense of responsibility and uprightness, we’ve been dismissive and demeaning to others around us. Our sense of superiority and self-righteousness can get in the way of authentic, caring relationships. Until we come to an honest confession of our shadow-side, we will lack true, mature self-awareness.
For others, we may have never felt very good about ourselves. Perhaps we could never measure up to others’ standards for us. Perhaps others had dreams for us we couldn’t achieve, or pushed us to succeed in ways we knew would never be life-fulfilling.
We live in a culture that teaches us we probably don’t have what it takes. We’re fed lies that unless we’re more successful than others, unless we’re richer or smarter, unless we’ve achieved enough to be something, unless our work or accomplishments have been acknowledged by others, we’ll never amount to much.
Advertisers work to convince us that we’re not beautiful or sexy enough, our smile’s not shiny enough, we’re not tall enough, we’re not fast enough. We don’t have a nice enough car. We don’t have a big enough house, wardrobe, investment portfolio, friend list to really be anyone. We can’t measure up to the standards that surround us.
But what if those standards are all part of a false image of what it truly means to be human?
Today we celebrate the Baptism of Jesus. This text (Luke 3:15-17, 21-22) comes around every year right after Epiphany, as the church once again turns to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.
Before Jesus begins calling disciples. Before he begins healing those who are sick, or preaching in the temple, or facing the forces of destruction around him, he comes here to the water. And before he even steps out of the river, he hears a voice telling him his true identity. “You are my Child, my own beloved. I am well pleased with you.”
Isn’t that interesting? It’s before Jesus has done anything. He hasn’t proved himself. He hasn’t started his ministry yet. He hasn’t called anyone, or healed anybody. Here, before he even begins, God claims him. God is pleased with him. God loves him.
What if we believed our identity was not shaped by what we’ve done or not done? earned or not earned? accomplished, or achieved, or attained? What if our true sense of ourselves was as loved, and worthy, and valuable not because we’re so good or so beautiful, but because we are eternally and wonderfully God’s own.
“All the people were filled with expectation, questioning in their hearts whether John might be the one, when he answered them, `One who is more powerful than I is coming, whose sandals I’m not even worthy to untie. His winnowing fork is already in his hand.’”
Could Jesus be clearing our threshing floors already, even before his ministry begins? Is God’s holy spirit already blowing, not only upon Jesus, but upon all of us who stand in the grace of baptismal hope? Is sacred wind already breathing into our lungs the truth of our genuine identity? Is Jesus already tossing our lives into the breeze, and letting the illusions fall to be swept away and burned? Is God already tearing open the heavens to claim us all as beloved children, not because we’re perfect, or blameless, but because we have always been, and always will be, God’s beloved ones?
The news has been full of nothing but talk of walls and shutdowns this week. But it’s not only a few people in Washington who want to build walls to keep others out. We create our own shutdowns to authentic, loving relationships every time we fall for the lies the world tells us. But if God can tear through the wall separating heaven and earth, then there’s no stopping love from breaking through.
Baptism reminds us that God claims us as we are, even as infants, even as adults, even as old people, imperfect, incomplete, and sometimes entirely shutdown. Love wins. Maybe it’s our Wo iyokihi, our responsibility to make sure the lies that would tell us anything else never get the last word.
In her 2015 book, Searching for Sunday[ii], Rachel Held Evans writes, “The great struggle of the Christian life is to take God’s name for us, to believe we are beloved and to believe that is enough.”
Our struggle, our job is to hear the voice of Isaiah reminding us that the God who formed us, who created us, has redeemed us. Our call is to trust God who tells us, “Do not fear.” Our responsibility is to work so that all people might know that they already have been called by name, that they are precious in God’s sight, and honored, and loved.
I won’t spoil the outcomes of Krueger’s novel for you. I’ll leave it to you to learn what Frank uncovers about life in his town. But I will tell you this, by the end of the story, his expectations about who is valuable and honorable and worthy of respect have been changed. The chaff of his false impressions and illusions has been burned away. He comes to new awareness of his place in his family, but still knows that he is not alone, and that he is forever loved.
May we know the same. Thanks be to God. Amen
Texts: Isaiah 43:1-7; Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
[i] Ordinary Grace, William Kent Krueger, Atria Publishing Group, 2013
[ii] Searching for Sunday : Loving, Leaving and Finding the Church, Rachel Held Evans, Thomas Nelson, 2015