Monday, January 13, 2014

Why Bother?

Feast of the Baptism of Jesus, Year A 

Why Bother?

This is a question we ask ourselves frequently. Sometimes we ask it for a good reason, sometimes it’s a means of escape, and sometimes we just love to torture ourselves with wonderment. Why bother? We might think of it when we take tedious amounts of time to clean our homes, fix up our hair or iron our garments...when we take time to weed the garden, make cookies for a neighbor or give a toy to a child. We might say it aloud when it seems nothing is going quite right and we feel the world is damned no matter what we try to do. Perhaps it is often a much deeper question seeking to explore the reason for our careers, lives, families, faith or even our very existence. We all say it, we all think it, we all wonder, at least every now and then: Why bother?

Today in our Gospel reading Jesus comes to good old crazy John the Baptist to be baptized. Baptism had been around long before John, long before Judaism even. The idea of using water in religious settings with its connotations of rebirth, spiritual renewal, washing away unseen evil forces and conversion had been practiced in many religions and tribes since time immemorial. Its a natural connection to be made. After all, water washes our bodies, it cleanses us and even protects us from sicknesses, could God not also make use of it to change our souls and spirits in some mystical way? 

You might say that John had brought baptism into vogue once again. Yes, John was after all quite the trend setter with his fabulous camelhair wardrobe and ultra organic diet of locust and honey. However, he wasn’t actually offering something radically unknown to the people around him. To be sure the Jewish priests of the day were ritually washing themselves before serving in the temple, Gentiles who converted to Judaism also washed in the same waters as a act of purification and every faithful Jew kept the spiritual laws of personal and household cleanliness all based in the use of water and prayer. But something was different about John’s baptism. He asked people to make proclamations before they went under the water: they were asked to repent of their short-comings, to acknowledge they didn’t do everything right nor had everything figured out perfectly. He went even further to expect them to join in a new revolution as part of their baptism, a revolution of expectation. To put it simply, when the person came out of the River Jordan, soaking wet, a change was to have occurred. 

Now, incase we begin to think very lofty and spiritual thoughts at this point, John wasn’t preaching that a “supernatural goose bump filled, chills down the spine, wailing ecstatically, falling on the floor” change would occur after or during baptism. Sometimes these things happen in people’s spiritual lives and that is part of their connection between them and the Divine. However, the change John was talking about was much simpler and much more understandable for the majority of us. He preached a change of mind, a change of outlook and an acceptance of something new coming. 

It was for this reason that Jesus chose to begin his public ministry in the dirty waters of the Jordan River instead of in the local synagogue or on the porch of the temple in Jerusalem. Jesus didn’t need to be baptized, especially not, if you believe he was God made incarnate in the flesh. I dare say even if he was an ordinary chap he didn’t NEED baptism, for that matter no one NEEDED baptism. John’s baptism wasn’t about obtaining some mystical promise or guarantee of an easy life but it was all about accepting a new lifestyle and daring to dream of a future where God is made real and accessible. So Jesus shows up and John’s thoughts are: Why bother? Honestly, Jesus might have been thinking the same thing, why bother, he almost tells us as much. However, all the same, without batting an eye or having a theological conversation, Jesus says, “baptize me, fulfill what is right.” 

Actually, Jesus said a lot more than baptize me. What he was really saying is something like this, if we read between the lines: 
I am here today to declare that I am no longer going to be the same person most people thought me to be this morning. Today a change is happening. I am making a public decision to become a vessel of God’s unending love. I am joining a revolution, one which will bring an inaccessible God to the lowliest of persons without regard of their finances, religious tradition, education or anything else people fret about. Today, I am truly embracing the I AM within me. 
Yes, at first John said, “why bother.” and Jesus likely agreed. However, ultimately Jesus knew that sometimes you bother because the smallest of actions can have the greatest effect. He bothered to get wet and muddy and humble himself before an entire gawking crowd to show that God is not dead nor dormant nor separated from her creation but inexplicably found everywhere and involved in the smallest of deeds. 

The Gospel goes on to tell us something incredible happened. The heavens opened up, the Spirit of God came down and John heard a voice saying: “this is my son, my beloved, and I am well pleased with him.” Now, we could debate this Biblical claim, we could talk about the discrepancies between the Gospels and who heard what, or was there really a Dove, or was John off his rocker, but those aren’t the primary point of this passage. One of the greatest principles behind this story is the revelation that God is pleased when his children bother, bother to be, bother to take the time to make a proclamation of love, and bother to get dirty if it will help another out. Ultimately, God speaks to each of us this day, in the person of Jesus, and tells us she loves when we bother to accept the I AM within ourselves. When we accept the Divine spark which gives each of us life and unites us all across man-made divisions, the heavens truly open before us!

Jesus came out of the water and accepted John’s calling of a revolution. Jesus accepted that God had placed him on this earth to spread a message of inclusion, forgiveness, joy, love and acceptance. Jesus began his ministry not in a place of luxury but in a place of real life, a place where everyone had to come in order to bathe and drink. God asks the same of each of us today. We are called to meet people where they are, to be a beacon of life and hope to the hopeless, to bother with that which many simply will not. For the Christian, baptism is our entrance into the universal church of Jesus. It is our acceptance of membership in a revolution that bring God to humankind instead of asking humankind to find God. Baptism isn’t a magical formula, it wasn’t for Jesus and it isn’t for us. It is however a powerful physical act saying: times are changing, I am not the same person you thought me to be, God is coming, God is here within me. 

So the next time you think to yourself, why bother. Remember you bother because the most tedious, littlest, seemingly insignificant act can lead to the greatest change this world will ever see. If not a world-wide change your littlest action might change the life of a neighbor, give someone hope for another day or simply put a smile on a face. After all, smiles are one the greatest miracles. Mother Teresa once said, “Peace begins with a smile.”

Today, in this very moment, God smiles and says to each of us, “You are my beloved. My kids. I am well pleased.”

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