Anne LaMott, a well-known author and person of faith, describes her baptism with candor. She had been sober for a year when she made the decision to be baptized.
And on the day of the event, she was already regretting her choice.
She called her pastor and explained, “I am just not ready for this kind of commitment. I … I … I am not good enough yet … I just don’t have my act together enough. My heart is good,” Annie insists, “But my insides, they have gone bad.”
The pastor replies to Annie: “You are putting the cart before the horse. So, come on down!”
And so Annie came on down and, in front of her family and friends and the church, the pastor dipped his hand into the font, bathed Anne’s forehead with cool water and spoke the words of Baptism, blessing her … and then adding on the words of Langston Hughes:
“Gather out of star-dust, earth-dust, cloud-dust, … and splinters of hail, One handful of dream-dust not for sale.”
Perhaps, Annie was not yet ready but God had marked her as a beloved child of God regardless of what she did or did not do. Perhaps Anne did not have her act together, and still God invites her forward, to new life, to healing and to dream new possibilities.
This is a truth we see in Anne’s story and it is a truth that we see in Jesus’ story. Which is a story about pure Gospel Love. In fact, in the story, when John baptizes Jesus things the heavens open, the spirit descends and God speaks. It’s like the heavens could not contain the Gospel love of God and it just kind of had to spill out all over everything.
And one of the things I love about this text is that God doesn’t just say, “This is my Child, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased” but God says that before Jesus has really done anything. Think about that. God does not say, in the words of one pastor, “This is my son in whom I am well pleased because he has proved to me that he deserves it, he has quiet time with me every morning, he always reads his Torah and boy he knows how to heal a leper.” This is not what happens. As far as we know Jesus hadn’t even done anything yet and he is called beloved.
The One in whom God is well-pleased.
That’s God for you. Seriously. That’s God for you. Because in your own baptisms, God proclaims that in you God’s beloved children, God is also well pleased. In the waters of your baptism, the Holy One has claimed and named you as God’s own. Whether it was as an infant or a youth or an adult. Whether your baptism happened in a church faraway, in a muddy creek or rushing river, whether you were Baptized right here in the baptistery below my feet, your baptism, not the circumstances, were an act of God upon you. It is not a matter of you getting it right … it was, rather, an act of God’s Gospel Love.
Yet, one of the things that strikes me about today’s story of Gospel Love and Jesus’ Baptism is that it is not followed by a fancy party or a sheet cake or a joyous celebration, which I hasten to add is a normal expectation for a Baptism celebration. In fact, at my Baptism not only did I get a cake, but I also got a gold fish.
But Jesus doesn’t get a gold fish. Instead, Jesus gets set into the wilderness to be with wild beasts and angels. It’s a bit of a jarring transition isn’t it? To go from love spilling out of the heavens to hanging out in the back country with wild beasts?
The more I thought about Jesus’ transition from the River – where he was baptized – to the wilderness – the more I began to realize how similar Jesus’ situation is to our own. Like Jesus, we experience both the River and the Wilderness.
At the River, whatever that represents for us, we are surrounded by community and given new life. And it’s beautiful. But it is not the whole picture. The reality is that real life sets in. After moments at the River, we too find ourselves like Jesus wandering through wilderness of hardship or grief or anger or anxiety.
And sometimes that can feel like a failure. Like maybe, after all these years of living, we should have these things figured out … like, this time, we should have gotten things right.
Yet even Jesus wandered around in the wilderness. And the more I think about it, the more I wonder what Jesus’ experience was like. Specifically, I wondered if Jesus got lost. I mean the thing about wilderness is that it’s well wild, and sometimes it’s hard to keep paths straight – I am speaking for experience – and when you are wandering around for forty days and don’t have a GPS, I am just saying … it just makes me picture Jesus being lost.
And so I wonder: What would it have been like for Jesus to be lost in the wilderness?
For me, being lost in the wilderness … is about not being able to find your way forward or back or to a road … or perhaps having it so foggy you no longer recognize your surroundings … I think that sometimes being lost in the wilderness is also about being stuck … about not being able to see a way through … about being so disoriented that you aren’t able to take a step one way or another.
Have you felt like that? It seems like that’s what Annie felt when she called her pastor. I am not ready, she says, I can’t see my way forward. I just don’t know what to do. Come on down, the pastor says. Don’t put the cart before the horse. Come on down to the River and remember that you are loved regardless of what you do or do not do. You are already God’s beloved.
And Annie comes on down. What this pastor teaches us is that the wilderness does not define us … it does not dictate who we are or what is going to become of us. When the fog of fear sweeps over our lives, God calls out to us to remember the words whispered over water:
In the beginning of all creation. And at our baptism.
We are good. We are children in whom God is well-pleased. We are called to remember the waters and words at our Baptism that they might lead us forward through the vastness of the wilderness. That they might give us the courage to take a new step forward and begin to find our way out of this wilderness of wild beasts.
We gather together as a faith community so that in our moments of difficulty and inertia, in moments of loss and trouble, we might nurture and care for one another and remind each other of the fundamental truth of our identity, an identity that seeps deeper than the darkness and the wild beast around us.
And so, this week I found myself wondering: how might we do that? How do we nurture ourselves? How do we remind ourselves of that truth? How do we find a path when we can’t see a way forward?
And as I was pondering those questions, I found myself thinking of a story I had recently heard about sweet little, baby orphaned elephants in Kenya. And these little baby elephants had lost their mothers, usually due to poaching. One of their human keepers talked about the experience of rescuing them. He talked about how overwhelmingly afraid these little baby elephants are. So afraid, because they have lost everything they know, that they don’t want to live. And it’s a real challenge because the keepers can’t force the baby elephants to eat if they have given up the will to live. It’s a deeply emotional task to bring them back. The keepers stay with them all the time, twenty four hours a day, and they nurture them. Most of the keepers are young men. And they have the spirit of being a nurturing mother and they talk about that, how they can be a nurturing mother to these elephants. And they wrap themselves up in rough blankets that feel like mama elephants and put these giant baby bottles through the blankets to try to convince these little elephants to take some milk. And they sleep in the animal stalls all night so they won’t be alone. And then slowly, slowly, slowly, the baby elephants starts to show life again. They start to take milk and they start to play with other elephants and the community of orphan elephants responds with great joy and they take them all in and play with them and encourage them. The older orphans always go and protect the younger babies and nudge them and say come on, let’s go jump into the mud pit. Until they are brave enough to say yes to life made new .
(Source: Rev. Rachel McGuire’s sermon on January 4, 2015 viewed via YouTube. The YouTube video can be viewed here).
I think that is the way with us. Sometimes fear and difficulty might freeze and disorient us for a while. For a time, we might not know what way to go. And yet, like those sweet little baby elephants, our story is not over. God is not done with us.
So I think we could treat each other – or more importantly treat ourselves – the way that those tender Kenyan Elephant keepers treat those little baby elephants, so that we might be brave in the face of God’s unfolding plan, that we might soak in the kind of love that heavens can’t contain, that is ours quite apart of what we do or do not do,
And it may be that the little yeses we make to Gospel Love and life lead us to a new place, to a softening, to a broadening, to a place where we can take nourishment, to a place where we can heal and grow stronger and find ourselves:
Taking journeys, dreaming dreams, getting drenched by the waters of baptism,
surrendering to God more deeply, and finding ways forward where before there was none.