January 7, 2018

The Baptism of Our Lord Year B

At the Beginning

A few months ago, a friend mentioned that she’d written to me through Facebook messenger, and I’d never replied. Without getting too complicated about communications technology, this was like finding out I had a mailbox somewhere that practically everyone knew about but me. In December of 2016 I closed my Facebook account, but apparently the messenger part of Facebook had to be closed separately. When I finally checked this other mailbox, I was horrified to find a year’s worth of messages I’d never replied to.

Some cases were especially bad. There was the personal note inviting me to a Christmas dinner in 2016 that I never responded to. I just didn’t show up. There was the note from a friend of thirty years who asked for my new address so she could send me a Christmas card. I never replied, which is all the worse considering that I never send Christmas cards myself—which I feel guilty about already. It was like saying, “Let’s just get over this Christmas card thing,” when the truth is that I leave Christmas cards hanging on my fridge pretty much year round.

Other worst cases included a note from a friend who’d just gotten engaged, asking me about how he could get married at our church. When I never replied with congratulations, I imagine him wondering whether I was reluctant to support his marriage or something. Also, a friend I’d invited to a community of moms last year asked whether I could give her a ride to our January meeting. (That’s January of 2017.) She must have stayed at home that night, and I don’t think she ever came to the group again.

I had parents of my son’s preschool classmates write to ask whether we could sign our kids up for spring sports together. I never replied, and now maybe they wonder whether I don’t want my son to hang out with their kids.

Many months ago, someone from church wrote to ask whether I could have coffee with someone who really wanted to speak to a person of faith. My silence probably sent the message that no, I didn’t have time for that, and this person would just have to walk with God on her own.

For some reason, a smaller incident really bothered me a lot. I’d run into someone I used to see at an exercise class and at the Lutheran church where I occasionally fill in for the pastor. She was frantically searching her car and the street for her wallet. Later that evening, she wrote to tell me she’d just left her wallet at home, thank goodness. When I didn’t reply, it probably seemed like I hadn’t given her lost wallet a second thought. But the truth is, I had worried about that wallet, and I’d asked myself many times whether she’d found it, and I’d hoped to ask her about it the next time I ran into her.

After discovering this hoard of unread messages, I realized that I’d basically spent all of 2017 neglecting and offending people without even knowing it. Some of these people probably gave me the benefit of the doubt. But the truth is that if I were in their shoes, I’d probably be filling the silence with all kinds of speculation about why this person was ignoring my message. Sometimes, it’s not that we have to give others the benefit of the doubt when they let us down; it’s that we have to give ourselves the benefit of the doubt instead of imagining why someone else appears to be giving us the cold shoulder.

I spent a chunk of time this holiday break contacting people to apologize for missing their messages. (I also figured out how to fully shut down Facebook messenger.) But I have to admit it’s highly likely that I’ll spend much of 2018 neglecting and offending people without knowing it. Maybe we all will, to some degree.

Like in 2017, I’ll do this in all areas of life that matter most to me: family, ministry, and friendships. And when others let me down, I’ll probably imagine what I did wrong rather than treating the limitations of others with grace.

That’s why beginning this year with the words of today’s gospel is so important. The gospel comes from the opening chapter of Mark, at the very outset of Jesus’s own ministry. John is proclaiming a baptism of repentance, but we learn there’s more to baptism than just forgiveness of sins. Jesus’s baptism is one of full affirmation that he is beloved and pleasing to God. A voice from heaven tells him, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

From this point on in Mark’s gospel, Jesus actually spends a lot of his brief earthly ministry neglecting people. Jesus gets off to a good start later in this chapter, healing many people who are sick and casting out many demons (Mk 1:32-34). But the next day, when people are trying to find this powerful healer, Jesus heads to the next town. Eventually, so many people seek his help that he can’t enter any town openly (Mk 1:45). Later, Jesus asks his disciples to get a boat ready so he can escape from the crowds of people who need his healing, and who are trying just to touch him (Mk 3:9-10).

Even though the gospels are full of stories about Jesus healing and freeing people, there were also crowds of people left behind by Jesus, who needed healing and didn’t get it. Mark’s gospel draws our attention to them.

I wonder how often Jesus had to return to the moment of his baptism and to draw on the voice that kicked off his ministry with the words, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Jesus got to hear these words before he’d really done anything, and before he’d ever let anyone down. Jesus’s belovedness and pleasingness to God was a fact, which was never at stake in anything that Jesus did or didn’t do from that moment on. It wasn’t at stake in the ways that his own earthly limitations let others down, and it wasn’t at stake in the ways that his closest disciples let him down.

Our belovedness, and our pleasingness, are also with us at the beginnings and outsets of our lives: at our birth, at our baptisms, in our ministries, and in this new year. Yes, we will neglect and offend others without even knowing it. But we will also attend to and build up others, especially when we know how beloved and pleasing each of us can be to God. Amen.