Scripture Text: Matthew 3:13-17 & Isaiah 42:1-9
In 1922, author Margery Williams published her first book called, The Velveteen Rabbit, subtitled: How Toys Become Real. In the story, a boy receives a simple, stuffed toy rabbit made of cheap, velveteen fabric for Christmas. When the Velveteen Rabbit arrives in the nursery, the mechanical and more expensive nursery toys look down on him because they are more “real” than him, because they are worth more than him. Yet the Velveteen Rabbit becomes the boy’s most beloved toy. And as the boy drags his beloved rabbit around through the woods and wilderness behind his house, the beloved toy becomes more and more worn, torn, and shabby. But the Velveteen Rabbit doesn’t mind because he knows that he is the boy’s beloved.
When the boy comes down with scarlet fever, the Velveteen Rabbit snuggles with the boy until he is well again. But the doctor orders that the Velveteen Rabbit and all the other toys in the nursery be burned in order to disinfect it. As the Velveteen Rabbit is placed upon the burn pile of toys, blankets, and books, he remembers a conversation he had with the Skin Horse – the oldest toy in the nursery. The Skin Horse told him, “Real isn’t how you are made…[i]t’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.” In remembering that he is the boy’s beloved toy, the Velveteen Rabbit cries a real tear – calling forth the magic Fairy of the Nursery who carries him out to the woods, kisses him, then tells him to run and play. And with that kiss, the Velveteen Rabbit becomes a real rabbit – made real through the boy’s unconditional love.
One of the things that we long for, that we desire, that we need in order to survive is to know we are loved and to offer love in return. Unfortunately, many of us have learned – through our culture, our personal experiences, even our families – that love is earned. That love is not guaranteed. That love is conditional. As a result, we come to believe that love is equated with making others happy, proud, or pleased. That if we upset, disappoint, or displease someone, we can cause them to love us less or even stop loving us at all. And many of us learned this as children from our own parents. And if we are taught that a parent’s love is conditional, that a parent’s love depends upon being “good enough,” then we’ll struggle our entire lives feeling not “good enough”, feeling undeserving of love in future relationships – with our friends, our family, our spouses and partners. We will even feel we are undeserving of God’s love.
All children should believe that a fundamental reality of life is that your parents love you unconditionally. And parents should teach this unconditional love – both through our words and our actions. Something I tell my own children is, “There is nothing that you can ever do that will make me love you less. There is nothing that you can ever do that will make me love you more. My love for you is not based upon what you can accomplish, how happy or proud you can make me, or even what you do for me. My love for you simply is. I love you just because you are.” I tell them this because I want my children to know that their worth is independent of another’s opinion of them or what they can do for someone else. That their self-worth, their belovedness, is simply part of their existence.
Now, do my actions always line up with my words? No. Like everyone else, like every single person in this room, I screw up time and time again. I too cause pain and hurt and suffering upon the people with whom I have relationships. But since love can only exist within relationships – and no relationship is perfect – love will always come with pain and hurt and suffering that, in the end, will leave you feeling (and often times even looking) like the Velveteen Rabbit – worn, torn, and shabby. But unconditional love also comes with grace, forgiveness, and mercy. When you discover you are loved unconditionally, when you finally connect to your belovedness, that is when you become Real. And you want others to connect to their belovedness as well – no matter how worn, torn, and shabby they are.
In Matthew’s Gospel, we find Jesus approaching John to be baptized. But John doesn’t get it. He doesn’t understand why in the world Jesus would need to be baptized. John is preaching for people to repent – to change their lives – and to be baptized – to make a public profession of that life change. Yet John knows that Jesus’ life is already turned towards God’s will. There is no reason for Jesus to be baptized nor is John deserving to baptize Jesus. But Jesus insists, saying, “Do it. God’s work of putting things right all these centuries, is coming together right now in this baptism.” So, John baptizes Jesus. And when Jesus rises out of the waters, the Greek tells us that the heavens are literally “torn apart” and the Holy Spirit descends in the form of a dove and lands upon Jesus. Then a voice speaks, saying: “This is my Son, chosen and marked as my beloved, delight of my life.” In his baptism, Jesus publicly declares what was once privately known. That Jesus is a child of God. Beloved of God. In whom God delights. And that belovedness is so great that God will tear apart the heavens to proclaim it.
Matthew describes Jesus’ baptism this way NOT to say that Jesus’ baptism is unique. NOT to say that the church baptizes because Jesus was baptized. Instead, Jesus says, in his baptism, we see the coming together of “God’s work of putting things rights all these centuries.” So what Matthew IS saying is that what happens in Jesus’ baptism, happens in ALL our baptisms. That when you are baptized, you are making public what was once private: That each and every one of you is a child of God. Beloved of God. In whom God delights.
Do you ever think about that? Have you ever realized that? Not only are you a child of God. Not only are you beloved of God. But that God delights in your very existence. And the very fact that infants and children are baptized before they can even know God, also means that you are beloved just because you exist. Not because you deserve it. Not because you earned it. Not because you are good enough for it. Not because you said the “magic words.” You are beloved of God just because you exist. And you are so beloved of God, that God is willing to be torn apart in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, so that you can know and connect to your belovedness.
And you have been beloved of God for a very long time. Longer than you can possibly comprehend. You’ve been beloved of God since before the creation of the world. And just like the Velveteen Rabbit, you are made Real – you come into existence – because of this powerful, unconditional, and infinite belovedness.
Yet so many of us go through life feeling unloved – of not knowing that we are beloved. So many of us – like the mechanical and more expensive toys in the nursery – assume “false” personas and “mechanical” religious practices just to get through life. Why is that? It’s because we are so fearful of the pain and the hurt and the suffering that comes with being beloved. So much so, that we would rather to live as someone we’re not or avoid love altogether.
The Skin Horse tells the Velveteen Rabbit: “Real isn’t how you are made,…It’s a thing that happens to you…”
“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.
“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”
“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” [the Rabbit] asked, “or bit by bit?”
“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”
How many of you “break easily” without others to tell you of your worth, to tell you who you are? How many of you are defined by your “sharp edges” because you refuse to risk the pain of rejection again? How many of you are physically, emotionally, and spiritually exhausted because you work so hard at appearing “carefully kept” on the outside, that no one knows just how worn, torn, and shabby you are on the inside? And so many of us do this that even though we are together, here in this congregation – we are all alone. Together. Strangers to one another.
And that’s because you are not yet your true, authentic self. You are not yet Real. To become real, you have to connect to your belovedness. And your belovedness is something you can’t achieve, become good enough for, or even deserve. You are beloved because you exist and God delights in your existence. And once you know within yourself that you are beloved – it doesn’t matter if others see how worn, torn, and shabby you are on the outside. Because your worth no longer depends on that.
The Skin Horse tells the Velveteen Rabbit, and us, that this realness, “…doesn’t happen all at once. You become. It takes a long time.” And the same is true of your baptism. Your baptism doesn’t happen all at once either. The day of your baptism is when you are first told: “This is my child, chosen and marked as my beloved, delight of my life.” But your baptism isn’t over in that moment. It begins a process. A process of continually connecting to your belovedness. “You become. It takes a long time.” In fact, your baptism isn’t complete until the day you die. In the Church we call this process “discipleship” or “Spiritual formation.” And your baptism is the beginning of this life-long process where growth happens NOT by listening to feel good sermons, staying in your comfort zone, or avoiding vulnerability. You grow in your discipleship, you live into your baptism, you mature in your faith by taking the unknown, uncomfortable wilderness journey alongside other unknown, broken, and lost people, forming loving relationships with them – complete with the hurt, pain, and suffering that comes with it – and supporting one another with grace, forgiveness, and mercy along the way. In doing so, you become vulnerable to each other, and together discover your belovedness. Together, discover not only WHO you are, but WHOSE you are. There is no other way to live into your baptism.
As New Testament Professor Dr. Karoline Lewis says, “Baptism assumes the wilderness – not to test our loyalty – not to tempt God’s commitment – not to get us to turn on the Spirit… the wilderness is part of what it means to be the People of God…We are reminded that with baptism comes wilderness and that wilderness is not an individual affair. The Israelites were not in the wilderness alone. They had each other. Jesus was not in the wilderness alone. He had the Spirit and the promise of God’s declaration. We are never in the wilderness alone. Our baptism propels us into community and if ever we rely on baptism as only that which safeguards our own individual security, [then] we have misinterpreted [Jesus’ own baptism].”
As soon as the Israelites pass through the waters of the Red Sea, they travel the wilderness together for 40 years so that they forget what it means to be a slave and connect to their belovedness as the children of God they’ve always been. As soon as Jesus passes through the waters of baptism, he enters the wilderness for 40 days. And when Jesus comes out of the wilderness, he begins his work, his calling, his ministry – of helping others connect to their belovedness by walking their wilderness journey alongside them, regardless of their appearance, their past, their religion, their gender, their political affiliation, their education, or their job. And Jesus does his ministry NOT to earn God’s love, NOT to feel good about himself, NOT to look good in front of others, but because he already knows what it feels like to be beloved of God. And Jesus wants others to experience their belovedness too.
Baptism is NOT an individual act. Baptism is a communal act of the entire congregation. Both those being baptized and those witnessing the baptism take vows. Vows to love and support one another on the wilderness journey. Vows to be in Christian relationship with one another – with both the good and the bad. The baptism of one among us has consequences for all of us. Baptism pushes against American ideologies of independence and personal responsibility and reminds us that we are interdependent – that we are responsible for one another. As a Rabbi once put it, “Cain asked God, ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ And God’s response is the rest of the bible, which teaches: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
Baptism is also NOT about your individual security – your individual salvation. Baptism is about the Kin-dom of God. (I say Kin-dom because in baptism we become siblings in Christ, therefore, we are all kin.) And as such, in our baptism we are marked, called, and ordained to the priesthood of all believers. And as a priest of the kin-dom, each of you is called to share the Gospel in such a way that those OUTSIDE the church can also connect to their belovedness. This is a minimal expectation of discipleship, of spiritual formation, of growing in your faith. Jesus never told his disciples – “Just stay here. Listen to my sermons. Say your prayers. Take care of each other and forget everybody else.” Jesus actually leaves them all behind and places the entire responsibility for his ministry on the Disciples. Commissioning them to: “Go out and train everyone you meet, far and near, in this way of life, marking them by baptism…[and] instruct[ing] them in the practice of all I have commanded you.” But of course, the Disciples run and hide in fear – because it’s scary to share the Gospel. So, God sends the Holy Spirit to set their tongues on fire and chase them out into the streets – where they proclaim the Gospel to everyone present. (We call that event Pentecost.) And that commission that was given to the Disciples is also given to each and every one of you at your baptism. That commission is meant for ALL of Jesus’ followers. We are ALL meant to connect with our belovedness, and in response walk the wilderness journey with others so they can connect with their belovedness.
Imagine what the world would be like… maybe the world is too big. Imagine what just this congregation will be like, when we – every single person in this church – makes the intentional effort to connect with our belovedness daily. When each one of us makes an intentional effort to help just ONE other person OUTSIDE this congregation to connect with their belovedness. Imagine what will happen when we stop depending upon the affirmations and opinions of others to know our self-worth and accept the fact that we are already worthy. When we stop avoiding getting to know new people out of our own fear of rejection, and enter into deep, vulnerable relationships with them. When we stop worrying about appearing perfect and pristine and honestly let our shabbiness show, just a little. Or, as a 90’s reality show once put it, “What would happen when we stop being nice and start being Real?” As Real as God loves us to be.
It’s not easy. It’s really uncomfortable. And it will be messy at times. But you know what? – Not only will we become Real as individuals, our relationships will become Real. Our relationships will be less about shallow, socialized, one-sided politeness and more about deep, authentic, mutual vulnerability. We will really know each other. And because of that, we will become less fearful. Because when we truly know each other, and learn just how worn, torn, and shabby we all are, we quickly discover that we are not alone in the wilderness of this world.
Whether we realize it or not, we vow to do this – to walk the wilderness together, to support one another, to build these deep, vulnerable relationships with each other – at every baptism. Today, as we baptize Jayden, Kole, and Raelynn, as we officially welcome Courtnie into our shared ministry and mission, we make vows – to both them and to God – “to guide and nurture [them] by word and deed, with love and prayer” and to “encourage them to know and follow Christ and to be faithful members of his church.” All of us vow to be in deep, authentic, vulnerable relationship with them. We vow to travel the wilderness of life with them. And if you cannot or will no do that, then I ask you to be honest with yourself and with God, and NOT take those vows.
You will also reaffirm your vow to “devote yourself to the church’s teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers, and through your study and service, share in the church’s worship and mission and fulfill your calling to be a Disciple of Jesus Christ.” Nowhere in that vow do you promise to be happy, to be comfortable, or to be safe. You vow to fulfill your calling to become a Disciple of Christ. And almost all the original disciples were executed because of their calling. Jesus was crucified for it. Do not be fooled. There is nothing easy, comfortable, or safe about truly being a Disciple of Christ.
Do you trust enough in your belovedness to fulfill those vows with more than just words, but also with actions, so that you live into your calling to be a Disciple of Christ? So that you become Real?
Or will you allow fear to consume your belovedness and fall back into your false pristine persona that says, “I can’t do that. I don’t know enough about the bible. I’m not comfortable with that. I’ll help but I won’t be in charge.”? All of which feel safer – but all of which keeps you from connecting to your belovedness.
Are you willing to receive your belovedness that already exists – complete with wilderness relationships and all the pain and hurt and suffering that comes with them?
Or will you keep trying to achieve something that isn’t real, that simply doesn’t exist – defining yourself by other’s opinions, your sharp edges, and your external appearances?
It’s the difference between having a deep, messy, faith or a shallow, superficial, religion.
Which do you want?
Who are you?