CONNECTING WITH PEOPLE WHERE THEY ARE
Homily for Epiphany 1/The Baptism of Jesus
One of our hymns asks the question,
What king would wade through murky streams
And bow beneath the wave,
Ignoring how the world esteems
The powerful and brave?
If we believe that Jesus is the One sent by God to guide the world to God, then moments like his baptism are extremely significant. So, where does his baptism take place? In the Temple? (which represented for the Jews, who believed they were God’s chosen people, the one place where God dwelt on earth.) No – Jesus came out into the wilderness and took his place among ordinary people, who were convinced that they were separated from God, and not worthy. And who conducts his baptism? The High Priest? A synagogue official? No – an outsider, a renegade – John the Baptist — someone totally outside and even at odds with the established religious institution.
Think about that. His baptism occurs in the wilderness, i.e. a place where God was often seen as absent, and is conducted by an itinerant preacher/prophet who has no official authority. This Gospel offers an insight into the deeper nature of our relationship with God, by showing that God is truly in the midst of us, wherever we are, and that Jesus engaged in his mission of connection and re-connection by entering fully into the circumstances of human life. Jesus stands among the people and is one with them – one of them – and he doesn’t place himself in a special category.
And though John’s message had been all about the harshness of God, and the coming of God’s fury and fire, as Jesus stands in the water, the experience for him, apparently shared by others, is of God’s love shining on him, and the message: “You are my beloved; with you I am well pleased.” That in turn becomes the message that Jesus will carry to all humanity, if they will listen, and believe.
“You are my beloved …”
How many of you heard encouraging words like that from your parents? How many of you feel that is the way God looks at you? I have ministered to many people who have suffered abuse as children. They often continue to have images and perceptions of being frowned on, blamed, despised, and that is often the sense that have of themselves in relation to God.
“You are my beloved …” Jesus was defined by these words – they gave him his basic sense of who he was, and fired his confidence in what he was here to accomplish. How fortunate we are to have heard these words and to be reminded of them every Sunday!
Yet how many people are there who never hear such words – who never come to believe they matter to anyone? Being motivated and happy is difficult for the disconnected – the unloved. In isolation, believing that no one loves you or believes in you, it’s difficult to hold together a sense of belonging and identity. That’s as true for a homeless person walking the streets as it was for ancient Israel in captivity in Babylon. When our prevailing self-understanding is of being abandoned, alone, or not good enough, then it’s hard to amount to anything.
Jesus came to where those people were, those people whose sense of themselves matched up with John’s harsh message: the shunned and the shamed. These were people who saw themselves as sinners, scoundrels, snakes. I’ve met lots of people who had exactly that sense of themselves and sometimes the source of that message was the church! The church (whether in the form of clergy or Sunday School teacher or ordinary member) made them feel unworthy, or evil, and God as some remote being who delights in sending people to hell.
I believe the reality is quite the opposite. Luke’s Gospel attests that God delights to give us the kingdom! God delights in people – even those of us who have screwed up our lives so badly we feel we are beyond the pale – like the Prodigal Son, whose story appears only in Luke’s Gospel (see Luke 14: 11—32).
Jesus comes along and identifies with all people, not just the chosen people – he connects with all, and especially with the outcasts, the marginalized, the lost. This has got to amount to some kind of giant clue for what the Church is to be about. It’s clear to most people that we are in the midst of re-aligning, re-focussing, because what we have been doing is just not reaching people “where they’re at.”
I was at a conference this past Friday and Saturday and one of the speakers told of being called to a church that was on the verge of closing. It was way past decline – he described it as already dead. It had 38 members left, and most of those were of the miserable old crank variety. But as he said, death, for a believer, is just the prelude to resurrection!
They gave him a mandate to lead, and not just be a caretaker (or undertaker) to their needs. They gave him a mandate to connect with the community, which is exactly what he did. He went out into the community to connect, and to find out what people needed, and to see how his church could begin to minister to those real needs.
Early in his time there he was sitting in the local Tim Horton’s and suddenly found himself asking one of the staff, “What are you hungry for?” Initially, he got the response you might expect from any teenager nowadays. Embarrassed, he quickly explained he was preparing a motivational talk – for a church – and he was in the process of returning to his table when she said, “Wait – don’t you want my answer?” And then she let him know about her experience of church, and why she had to leave the church – it was because, as a pregnant teen, at a moment when she needed understanding and a community of support, she was shunned and sent packing.
Do you know what it’s like not to be heard, not to be taken seriously? If you’ve ever been in a relationship with someone who doesn’t listen, you’ll know what I mean. We’ve all encountered those people who are all about themselves – full of themselves – and will go on and on letting you know how full of … (themselves) they really are. And when you attempt to make it mutual, to inject something of what you’re about, these people will not hear you and often start talking again right over you.
I think that is how the Church has been with a lot of people – not listening, not being really mutual, acting like it’s all about us and believing we have nothing to learn from others. It’s time to turn that around and make it our business to ask the right questions, and then truly listen for the answers.
Through this caring pastor, this young woman was finally heard. And what was this young 20-something hungry for? She told him she was hungry for “tolerance, acceptance and unconditional love.”
She is exactly the sort of person who might have been there by the Jordan, trying to find a way back to God, back to some sense of personal worth or value – one of those many people who, for one reason or another, end up in the wilderness. And this Jesus comes to where they are and radiates a love which turned the world upside down, making the least great, the last first, and the poor in spirit blessed and happy.
That’s what people have always found in the presence of Jesus, but not always in the Church which professes to believe in him. And we in this generation have to change that, and not just for the survival of the church, but because we genuinely care about people just like her. We have to be humble and authentic enough to realize it’s not about us, but about what the love of God can do when it is set free in human life.
“Tolerance, acceptance and unconditional love.” How can we put that into practice? How can we place these qualities at the heart of our parish’s life? You already have the answer within you. Trust it. Act on it.
They hang a banner in front of that Calgary church, which says “Whoever you are, wherever you’re at, join us on the journey.” And people have joined. The minister mentioned that the Sunday after Christmas, typically a low Sunday, there were 250 people in that church. Having served in the neighbouring Anglican parish, I know something of the history of that church, and, believe me, that is virtually a miracle!
During Advent, we prayed for the coming of the Messiah, but today we are urged to pay attention to where, and to whom, the Messiah came.
Jesus didn’t go where people were supposed to be – he went to where they were. I think it’s essential that we take the time to ask people: “Where are you?” and “What are you hungry for?” – and not just in a physical sense, but in the sense of where they are in life, and what they are yearning for in their hearts. And we need to engage in those conversations with own children, other members of our families, co-workers, or people next to us at Tim Horton’s — and then really listen and pay attention to what we hear.
The traditional theme of the Epiphany season was captured in a line from the Gospel of Matthew (5:16), which I paraphrase this way:
“Allow the light that is in you to shine, out there in the world, in such a way that people will be so inspired by the good you are doing, that they will want to turn their lives toward the Source of that light, who is God.”
It is as valid a calling as it always was, but today it needs to be put into a different or wider context. That part you can figure out according to your own circumstances.
Knowing and believing we are loved by God, trusting that we matter and have a purpose, let us reach out into the community in compassion, kindness and respect, finding connections and willing to see the sacred in the most ordinary people and places. And may this parish of St. John’s always be a place where people can come to celebrate new life with us, and find this to be a place where they are welcomed with tolerance, acceptance and unconditional love. Let this be a place where people may find the sacred in themselves.
The Rev. Grant Rodgers
St. John the Apostle Church
Port Moody, BC