I preached this sermon six years ago and appreciated the reminder for me as I protest a new president who has demonstrated through his own words and actions that he is a bully. I will continue to vehemently oppose these actions and words but will not dehumanize by attacking the person.
Do you remember the old saying, “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.”
You ever say that to someone who was throwing words at you? You ever use the phrase as an internal chant to convince yourself that words… hurtful words are just words and thus don’t have the power to cut… to hurt… to destroy?
The reality is that words do hurt us… words do have incredible power… and words, when systematically directed against a group of people can even lead to the use of sticks and stones and other weapons.
The movie “Hotel Rwanda” dramatizes the genocide that occurred there in the spring of 1994. Approximately 800,000 people were killed in about 100 days. The movie depicts the true story of one man, a hotel manager, trying to save his family, friends and others. He succeeded in saving just over 1,000 people.
As we look at this now it’s hard to imagine how in such a short time such violence could occur. Of course there is a long history of conflict… a long history of disagreement and dispute… a long history of treating one another poorly. But it was a long history that did not include genocide. So what changed?
Part of what happened was the result of intentional dehumanization. The Tutsis were called “cockroaches” and worse. I remember the movie depicting this, as the radio stations broadcast story after story attacking “the cockroaches.” It is much easier to kill a cockroach than it is to kill a human being.
Sadly this dehumanization is not limited solely to Rwanda… it is not limited solely to ethnic groups or nations or religions. Name-calling… is a sad reality in all our lives.
This sermon was written yesterday morning… and when I was done, I checked the news… The violence in Arizona yesterday where Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was shot and a judge and others were killed is tragic news for our country… and this tragedy may also have its roots in the toxic political rhetoric that we hear every day.
All of us have used words against others… calling people names in our frustration and anger and hurt. Sometimes we have even participated in the dehumanizing of a group of people through the use of derogatory names… sometimes we’ve participated without even realizing it… sometimes we’ve participated passively when we’ve allowed pundits and politicians and other high-profile people to attack or labels others… without ever calling them on it. And sometimes we even laugh at jokes that are at the expense of others.
We have also been the recipients of words that are… or have been hurtful. As a child, when others knew of my Italian heritage the word WOP was thrown around… it wasn’t until I was older that I learned that a WOP was one who was “without papers.” Or, as we say today an undocumented immigrant or an illegal or words that are worse.
There have been all kinds of words… directed at all kinds of people words that we don’t need to repeat because of their hurtfulness towards groups and individuals… words that we know and have heard and have felt the sting of…
There are also words used that may be a bit more personal such as: stupid, fatso,
lazy bones, idiot, ugly, loser, know-it-all, creep, jerk, crybaby… did I miss any?
How many of us have heard these words applied to us? Words that in our pasts and in our present are painful… take a moment and remember… remember the words that others have called you… remember the words that you have called yourself. I know it’s painful…
Now hear these words… my beloved child… my beloved child… my beloved child… these words… this is my beloved child… were said to Jesus as he came up out of the waters of baptism… my beloved child. And through the life and work of Jesus, these words apply to us too… each of us is a beloved child.
John originally didn’t want to baptize Jesus… he knew Jesus as one who is without sin and one who is more powerful and who will come with a baptism of the spirit and with fire. So why would Jesus need to be baptized? He didn’t need to repent… he didn’t need to change anything in his life… he didn’t need to be made clean.
But Jesus told John that his baptism was necessary… it was necessary that Jesus went into that water… it was in fact where Jesus really started his ministry… down in the water of baptism.
Now our baptismal water in this small font that we have today is clean water… as far as we can see. But the water in the Jordan river would not have looked so pure and clean. It would have probably looked a bit brown as dirt from the river bottom was kicked up…
But it also would have had another kind of dirt, the dirt of all that sin… all that uncleanness that was washed away in baptism. It was in this dirty water that Jesus started his ministry. When we fast forward to Jesus’ death on the cross we are reminded that he ended his ministry between two criminals… two sinners.
Well… isn’t it interesting that he also started his ministry among sinners? In that river where John was baptizing… Jesus went down in solidarity with humanity… in that water where all the name-calling and oppression and opposition and hurt and pain and sickness and death are deposited… Jesus went down so that he would be with us.
When he came back up he heard the words, “this is my beloved son…” Through him we too are recipients of the words… “you are my beloved child.” These are words that reflect the love of God towards each of us… but if we never think of these words they don’t have the power to change us… because if we don’t think of these words we allow other words… those other hurtful and inflammatory words to fill our minds.
You are a beloved child… it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks or says. It doesn’t matter what we tell ourselves… it doesn’t matter what we think… because what God thinks is that each of us are beloved children. In this day of violence in our land, let us as those beloved children of God be participants in the light of Christ. Let us speak words of hope and of love.
In times of turmoil and trouble let us hear the words… beloved child… and remember that in our own times of frustration with ourselves and with others… when we are tempted to demonize or devalue others or ourselves let us remember that we and they are indeed beloved children of God.
At font… These waters were stirred up by Jesus… when we look we see water… but in addition is power… power that came down like a dove… power of the Holy Spirit… a power that is gentle… a power that allows us to love ourselves and a power that helps us to love others. All of us received this power in our own baptisms… it is a power based in love and it is free for all of us… let us remember this each day… as we remember that like Jesus, we and others are beloved children of God.