Baptism and the stories we tell ourselves: A Sermon for The Baptism of our Lord, 2022

Baptism of Our Lord

January 9, 2022

We tell stories about ourselves. As the late Joan Didion wrote, “we tell stories in order to live.” What she meant by that, among other things, is that we impose a narrative framework on our lives, we fit the events of our lives into a coherent narrative that helps us make sense of who we are, where we came from, and often, where we are going. Sometimes those stories are straightforward and fairly uneventful; sometimes they are full of trauma and suffering. The stories we tell are stories about ourselves as individuals, about our families, about our nation. And as we have seen, there can be competing stories that as in the case of something like the 1619 Project, can arouse great anger and resistance when untold or suppressed stories are brought into the light of day.

A group of us have been gathering for almost a year to explore the stories of Christians and Native Americans in North America. Thanks to the creativity and hard work of some of them, we will be offering to the congregation and beyond the opportunity to learn more deeply about those stories over the coming months, through a series of on-line sessions with prominent local and national Native American voices. Alongside the group’s work, I have also been doing a lot of reading and study and much of that work has challenged me to think about the stories we tell as Christians and as Americans.

One of those books, one of those stories is “Native” by Kaitlin Curtice. Curtice is a member of the Potowotamie Nation but grew up in predominantly white Southern Baptist churches, where she became a worship leader. As she began to embrace her native identity, she discovered that the churches that once welcomed her and employed her as worship leader began to give her a cold shoulder. She is open and articulate about her struggle, wondering whether as she reclaims her identity as a Potowotamie woman, she will also be able to retain her identity as a Christian.

Curtice’s story is not uncommon for indigenous and other people of color as they seek to negotiate predominantly white spaces and white churches. The stories of Curtice and other people of color are caught up in and affected by the larger histories of what has been done in the name of Christianity and of National myth-making. Nonetheless, many of us can identify with those struggles as we seek to fashion lives, even spiritual lives in the wake of trauma, doubt, and despair, as we negotiate our journeys away from conservative Christianity or painful family pasts. 

 For Christians, our identity should be shaped by our baptisms. Baptized into the name of Christ, as our collect reminds us, baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection, as St. Paul writes in the letter to the Roman, adopted as children of God, as our baptismal rite proclaims. 

Today is the Feast of the Baptism of our Lord. Always on the Sunday immediately following the Feast of the Epiphany, each year we read one of the versions of Christ’s baptism from the synoptic gospels. It’s one of the Sundays designated as an especially appropriate time to celebrate baptisms, although we aren’t doing that this year, an appropriate time, at the beginning of the new year, when we may have made resolutions of one sort or another, to reflect on our own baptismal identity as well as on the gospel’s account.

The gospel reading offers us an adumbrated version of the ministry of John the Baptist and of Jesus’ baptism. We heard more about John the Baptizer from Luke during Advent, when we read Luke’s description of his teaching. Luke actually goes into greater detail on the content of John’s message than the other gospels, but now we are treated to a scene devoid of context. Doubly devoid, because the appointed gospel reading omits verses 18-20 that describe Herod’s arrest of John.  

Why does Luke tell the story in that particular way? Why did the lectionary editors abridge the story the way they did? Let’s look a little more closely at the text. In the verses we’re given, we hear a bit of John’s message and the popular response to that message: The people were filled with expectation and wondering whether John was the Messiah. He deflects attention away from himself and to another: “One who is more powerful than I is coming.”

This points to one of the challenges presented to the gospel writers and to early Christians by the figure of John the Baptizer and by the fact of Jesus’ baptism by him. John’s baptism was a baptism for the “repentance for the forgiveness of sins” and that he baptized Jesus called into question who had greater authority. For the gospel writers to have John say: “I am not worthy…” was one way of emphasizing Jesus’ superiority. Luke does something else, however. By putting the baptism itself off-scene, he seems to downplay the significance of the physical act of baptism.

Nonetheless, Luke does retain other elements of the story, with slightly different emphases, and at the same time he interjects several of his central concerns. We hear the voice from heaven saying, “You are my beloved son” There’s the descent of the Holy Spirit, Luke says, in the bodily form of a dove. But then, Luke adds a detail, “After all the people had been baptized and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying…” That, the image of Jesus praying, is one that will recur throughout the gospel.

Luke is telling a story about Jesus but he is also inviting us to enter into that story, to let Jesus’ story become ours. But the way the lectionary has divided it up may obscure the importance of the particularity, the context of Jesus’ story and our own. The chapter in which the story of Jesus’ baptism appears begins with Luke setting the story in its historical, political, and religious context. He tells us who the emperor was, who the governor of Judea was, who the high priests were. He tells us where it takes place—in the wilderness, in the region around the Jordan river.

There’s a tendency in Christianity, perhaps especially in some sectors of contemporary Christianity, to try to overlook or de-emphasize our personal contexts, where we came from. That’s at the heart of Kaitlin Curtice’s struggle with contemporary Evangelicalism. She was welcome as long as she didn’t embrace and name her native identity. Baptism, especially when it is the baptism of an adult believer, often is accompanied by a conversion experience in which the individual turns their back on their past, or counts that past as of little or no account. Repentance, or turning around, may mean a rejection of who we were and where we came from.

But the Christian life is lived in the world, in historical and geographical contexts. We are enmeshed in relationships with family and friends that continue to play a role in our lives. Sometimes, of course, for some people, turning one’s back on that past, breaking sharply and permanently with it, is of crucial importance in moving forward, in becoming a whole person, in responding to God’s call and accepting God’s grace. Sometimes, though we bring with us our pasts, in their richness and depth, and pain and trauma, as we walk with Jesus.

And sometimes, we are called to excavate those pasts, uncover those hidden stories that are half-remembered or fully forgotten. The story of Jesus’ baptism was also part of the story of empire and of John the Baptizer, whose arrest and imprisonment by Herod, looms large in Luke’s telling of it.

 What story do you tell about yourself to live? Is it a story of suffering and trauma, of joy; Is it a story of forgiveness and transformation, a story of hope? Does it include all of those things? My hope for you, for all of us, is that our story is shaped by the words spoken from heaven to Jesus, “You are my child, my beloved, with you I am well pleased. They are words spoken at our baptisms, words of grace and acceptance. May we hear them and weave them into our own stories. 

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