“A Beastly Day.” That’s the headline for this morning’s paper! Seahawks fans, how are you feeling today?
Every empire has its gladiators and coliseums, and football happens to be our empire’s version. We’ve all heard it said that “it’s not whether you win or lose; it’s how you play the game.” But that’s not true, is it! In pro sports, it’s all about winning!
I get sucked into the excitement like many other people and I wonder, What is that all about? And I realize that it’s not really about football—it’s about me. It’s about my identity! That’s me out there on the field. If my team wins I feel good about myself. Important. Strong. Successful. Superior. Worthwhile. If they don’t win, I feel disappointed—not as worthwhile.
Rooting for the home team is what we do in many areas of life. By “team” or “tribe” I mean whatever groups are most important to us. I’m proud to be…what? An American? A Seahawks fan? Member of a particular family or club or profession or service group or ethnic group? In order to assure ourselves that we are worthwhile we build an identity around a certain tribe. That “tribal” identity can become who we are. There can be so much at stake in that team identity that if it seems to us our tribe is being attacked we may become angry and defensive. (Our tiny egos are often fragile and easily offended!) But over time, as the world changes the tribes that are the source of our identity may become less powerful or less important in the eyes of the world and we therefore become less sure of our worth.
Christian faith provides a way through this problem. When Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
Why do you think Jesus was Beloved? Because he was especially good? Because he was baptized? Because of his many gifts? His accomplishments or his “good looks”? Because of the tribe he belonged to, the team he was on? No! Jesus was Beloved, because God is Love, and love is God’s full-time job.
The voice from heaven at Jesus’ baptism is the same “voice of the Lord” that the Psalmist speaks of today; it’s the same voice that speaks to you and me every day. You are my Son/Daughter, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased. God’s favor rests just as much on you as on Jesus! Do you believe that? Or, do you believe that your value depends on which team you’re on? What we find in the world is that those who are most passionate about their tribal identity often are those who have the most trouble loving themselves.
Some of you have read The Shack. It’s a novel that was hugely popular a few years ago. It’s the story of a parent who tragically loses a child to violence. Well, in the story God literally shows up for this parent, but not as an old man in a white beard. God takes on the form of someone who looks very much like our own Velma, a middle-aged African-American woman. And whenever God meets someone in the novel, her favorite thing to say is: I am especially fond of this one. She says that of everyone, no matter who they are!
That’s what’s going on in today’s Gospel reading. God is especially fond of whomever God encounters—whether it’s Jesus at his baptism, or you, or me…or your worst enemy. While we desperately try to establish our worthiness in the sight of God, the world–and especially, ourselves–while we are maneuvering to prop up our fragile egos by being on the best, the most important, the most powerful, the most righteous, the most successful team—there is a voice from heaven that insists that none of it matters.
This is a tough pill to swallow, isn’t it? We just don’t buy it! Not even the writers of the Bible could fully accept this message of God’s unconditional and universal love. Today’s second reading is one example. We know Jesus’ disciple Peter not just for his devotion to Jesus but for his multiple screw-ups, and we witness another of those today. He starts out exactly right when he says, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality…” Yes! He could’ve stopped there but then he continues:… but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. Peter! No, no, NO!
This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased. That’s not the voice of human need and anxiety, clamoring for attention and validation; that’s the voice of God. God’s unconditional love and grace is beyond human understanding. It will always be unbelievable and even offensive to us because God’s love is for all people always, equally, regardless of what team or tribe they’re on.
We were driving home in the rain from dinner the other night, and I don’t know how we got on the subject but I remember clearly something my wife said. She said, “We really have no idea what the consequences of our actions will be, do we?” She’s a smart cookie, and wise, too! Peter thought that fearing God and doing what is right is what it’s all about. But even our purest motives, our best intentions, our most courageous and compassionate deeds have unintended consequences. Even if we are performing heroic deeds in helping one person there may be someone else who needs us just as much or more and who doesn’t get our care. For example, this past week I talked to a couple of long-time members of this congregation and asked them how they’re doing, and they said, “Nobody calls me.”
Friends, if it’s a tribe that we attach ourselves to that gives us a sense of meaning; if for our sense of self-worth we need to believe that we’re the good guys then we are most to be pitied, for despite our best intentions we are often blind and indifferent to needs outside our team, and sometimes even within our team.
Today’s gospel proclaims that it is not our goodness but God’s love that matters. As much as we want to make life about us there is only one thing that ultimately matters. It is the voice from heaven that says: You are my Son. You are my Daughter, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased. This is God’s message to us, Christ’s disciples. Our life’s work is to pass along this message of good news to the whole world. We do this not by running around and saying “God loves you!” but by words and deeds that welcome and include others, especially those not on our team.
Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” What gets your blood pumping? Is it your baptismal identity? Maybe not. Maybe it’s your football team or your national pride or whatever team you think makes you worthwhile. We have invested so much in those identities that it’s probably too much to ask that we set it all aside. Even though every team we identify with eventually disappoints and fails us, maybe it’s enough simply to be aware of how important our tribe is to us, and how desperate we are to believe that we are somebody because of those tribes.
If you find yourself getting worked up about the Seahawks winning or losing maybe remember that the Seahawks don’t care about you; they don’t even know you exist. There is someone who does. You are my Son, my Daughter, the Beloved, in whom I am well-pleased.
Children get this. Without children around adults can easily become way too serious about ourselves and our tribes. Children haven’t had enough time to build up a track record. They don’t yet have deep attachments to a particular team. They are therefore much freer than we are, more open to the voice from heaven. Children are much more likely to believe that they are Beloved, just because. My prayer during this season of Epiphany for each and every one is that you will have an Epiphany, that the light bulb will go on, and that you will realize—maybe for the first time— that God loves you…just because.