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422 Brenau Avenue, Gainesville, GA 30501
When Lisa and I moved to Georgia from Arkansas for graduate school, we didn’t know anyone. We joined Central Presbyterian Church downtown, and we began preparing for Lisa’s own baptism. I am her godfather!
On the day of Lisa’s baptism, we sat down front and I noticed a large banner posted by the font that said, “This is my beloved child, in whom I am well pleased.” I remember standing there with Lisa, feeling stunned and thinking: this is the first time in my entire life that I have understood this phrase, this image from Jesus’ baptism, applied to my own life, to each of our lives.
It is hard to tell you how much of a shift this was from the way I was raised–or the way I had understood my own identity until that point. I was raised in a tradition that emphasized a distance, separation, between God and us. There was a boundary there, and only through trust in Jesus was that boundary crossed–although the reality of the boundary was still stressed. It always felt like a precarious bridging, with a particular emphasis remaining on this separation between God and us.
So I could have never imagined that this message or image from Jesus’ own baptism could ever connect with my life: “This is my beloved, in whom I am well pleased.” Simply put, it would not apply to me, because God was not pleased with me. Yet, the moment I saw it, something in my own heart opened up, an awareness of God’s love for me, for Lisa, for each and every soul. I recognized a truth I had actually held deep down.
From that moment on, this experience has left me wrestling with this question: just who is stressing the existence of this boundary, God or us? Is there really a boundary from God’s point of view, or is the existence of a boundary on our terms, with our limited theological understanding? Put another way, does God need the boundary, or do we think we do?
For me, these are vital questions when it comes to human life and the formation of a spiritual community in this day and time, when so much around us stresses the particular “otherness” of any number of “categories” of people. So many “groups” of fellow human beings seem to be pitted against each other, with the tension building and sometimes snapping.
I thought of the image of tectonic plates when I was talking with Edgar yesterday after he finally got home from Puerto Rico. He has been there for the week to take care of family business, and he was there throughout the earthquakes. We texted each day to check in, and he finally arrived back home early Saturday morning–just as another 6.0 quake hit.
Edgar said that the news there–which, intriguingly we have not heard a great deal about you might have noticed–keeps saying that there is enormous strain between the boundaries of the tectonic plates. The strain has built over many decades, and scientists feel a large quake is coming, because the strain has to be released. The boundary cannot hold with its current pressure. Indeed.
It is a provocative image for me to consider as I wrestle with the dynamic of boundaries in my life, in the lives of members of this parish, and in the wider community and world.
What I learn from Jesus’ own baptism is this: when it came to communities and people, Jesus found every opportunity he could to cross a boundary and enter into someone else’s world so that, in that heart-transformed space, they realized there is, in reality, just one world.
God entered so fully into our lives, into this world, that it wasn’t enough that God breathed the Spirit of life into the clay; rather, God imagined an even more intimate way to enter into it. I really don’t think we will ever fully understand this mystery–at least not on this side of things.
By stepping over these social and political and religious boundaries–even being baptized like us, which blew John’s mind because it makes no rational sense if Jesus was without sin–by crossing these boundaries, Jesus is showing us what we are called to do in our own lives. I imagine him stepping over the threshold into someone else’s story, someone else’s pain and confusion, and holding the door open, looking back at us–at me, at you–and saying, “This. You want to drink from my cup? You want to follow me? You want to share my life? This is what it looks like. This is the risk we take.”
It looks like paying attention to the pain of another person’s human existence and becoming aware that it is your pain too. It looks like adopting this as our mantra, as our shared prayer: “What is your pain? What would you like to share? What do you need to share? What is your joy? I am here for you. How can I be present to you?”
For me, here’s the hard part I struggle with, and I honestly don’t know if you agree with this or not, but here’s my struggle as a parish priest: this work, this boundary-crossing, pain sharing, existence-entering practice of faith can only be done by, in, and with a transformed heart. “By Christ, and with Christ, and in Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit…”
Ever wondered why we have this prayer each week in the Holy Eucharist? Because the heart of what we do as a church, as a spiritual community that dares to try to follow Jesus, is to nurture this level of heart transformation. With a transformed heart, perhaps we begin to see that it is not God who needs to maintain the boundaries but we humans–out of our fears and anxieties that so easily take hold of us in the tensions of our lives.
And this is why I believe that parish ministry–my vocation as a priest and as your rector–that church and the nurture of a spiritual community can never be reduced to, constricted to, the management of interest groups.
The eye cannot say to the hand “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.”
And pay attention to this image from St. Paul: On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect…” (I Cor. 13)
We think as a body. We imagine ourselves as a body. Each one of us as members, with our stories, our pain and our joy.
We do not, we cannot, think of anyone or ourselves as interest groups to be reckoned with, or managed. If we do this, we fall prey to the same toxic forces that plague our political conversations and cultural assumptions–and this, indeed, leads to the dark side of things because then we can only engage in a zero-sum world view.
We cannot reduce anyone down to an interest group, because as human beings we are so complex–frustratingly complex. Even as I grapple with my privilege as a white highly over-educated man, I realize that my own family story is rooted in rural poverty. I am the first person to really move away to college in my family, to keep studying and have so many of the life experiences of my family. I have complex factors in my life that muddle easy boundaries–just as each and every one of us does.
No one can be reduced to an interest group, be treated like that. The differences in our lives, our complexity, must be seen through the eyes of a transformed heart so that we can see–fleetingly but lovingly–through God’s own eyes. And God’s eyes see everything held together in a divine union that tests our impulse to categorize.
Jesus’ baptism and his desire to share so intimately in our own life shows us how God desires wholeness for us all. God’s desire is for us to realize our oneness in the life of the Spirit.
Now, here is a question that I bet has risen within you: “Are all boundaries bad?”
Cynthia and I talk a lot about the story of the Garden of Eden, and how God set up a boundary there around the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. As Cynthia says, the garden was perfect not in spite of this boundary but because of it. Such a boundary was the factor that enabled a certain perfection of existence. Humans transcended that boundary and, as is imagined through story, ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. They were cast out before they could eat from the tree of life.
Now, here’s why I think this is so vitally important: the boundary that Adam and Eve crossed, as imagined in this story, was one in which they grasped the power to impose their own boundaries on the world. Up to that point, creation in its richness and distinctiveness, in its diversity, was held in divine union, in harmony. Things were not all the same. Things were different, distinct, yet all was held in harmony.
Adam and Eve grasped for themselves the power to determine and impose their own categories on life, and thus began, as we imagine, the human impulse to set up and impose. It’s worth pondering.
So, perhaps the question we have before us is this, perhaps this is our discernment as human being: just whose plan or interest does any particular boundary benefit? Does it nurture God’s desire for wholeness and union in our distinctiveness? Or, does it benefit our own human impulse for control and power? Does it nurture God’s own desire to live into the Body of Christ, with its many members all flourishing together with the gifts of the Spirit? Or does it feed off our own sinful cravings and our fear and greed? These are vital questions for us to consider.
When Jesus came out of the water, the stories imagine that the heavens were torn open, and that Jesus heard a voice saying “This is my beloved, in whom I am well pleased.” And, as we share in the life of Christ, we realize that, yes, this message is meant for us as well, in our wholeness, in a union that embraces our distinctiveness and sees it as a mirror of the Triune life of God, a holy relationship. And we are challenged to see it is directed at each person we see: that God loves them all. Each and every one. No exceptions. Yes that means that person you just thought of in your mind that you want to exclude with your boundary.
This love is the only thing that can heal us.
The Rev. Dr. Stuart Higginbotham
The Feast of the Baptism, Year A
January 12, 2020