The Rev. Peter Faass
Eighteen years have passed since the last time we heard about Jesus in the Gospel of Luke and today’s story about his appearing at the River Jordan to be baptized by John. Eighteen years earlier Jesus was twelve years old and he and his parents had gone to the Jerusalem Temple for Passover. Eighteen years since he engaged with the rabbis at the Temple in deep theological conversations.
And now he is a thirty-year old man, ready to embark on his life’s mission to bring the word of God’s salvation to the world.
What happened in those intervening years? Biblical scholars speculate. Did he remain in Nazareth taking up the family trade of carpentry? Did he travel to India and learn the mystical ways of eastern religions? Whatever he did, he was sure to have engaged – as all young people do – in thinking about his life, who he was called to be, and of what worth he had in the world. And as a thoughtful and reflective person, he had most likely arrived at the realization that he was unique, made in the image of a loving God, and that that he was to honor that uniqueness by living out who he actually was, in gratitude to the One who made him.
He also must have known that at some point he needed to leave the protections of his family and their village of Nazareth. He had grown from being a youth into adulthood. It was time to go out into the wider world to live out his realities – the truth he had discerned - of his own life.
Jesus had grown closer to God in those eighteen years, and when John the Baptist appeared, “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” and people were flocking to John to be baptized, Jesus knew that there was a movement toward God taking place. It was a movement propelled by people’s desire to be whole and healthy, in a renewed relationship with God. For Jesus, John’s emergence was God’s call to him to do likewise: To be who he was called to be and in so doing be whole and healthy. To be, as they say, true to oneself.
In that moment when he emerges from the baptismal waters God affirms what Jesus had realized when he tells him: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased." The voice of God comes to him, acknowledging that he has made the right decision.
How that must have resonated with Jesus. God his father affirming his decision to be who he was, to be true to himself. While Jesus knew the path ahead would be fraught with perils, with people saying he was a phony, an apostate, a danger, he had God’s approbation – God’s love to sustain him - and that was enough. It was more than enough.
When I was twelve years old I came to understand there was something different about me. While other boys began dating girls and talking about the fascinating mysteries of the female sex, I became poignantly aware that I did not share this attraction. I was very aware that men were fascinating and of interest to me. But it was also crystal clear that this attraction was not to be shared with others.
My then church community, was clear from the pulpit, in Sunday School, and in general conversations, in conveying that my attractions were wrong, sinful, and not condoned by God. Much of the negative things the church and family and society say how being gay gets deeply embedded in our psyche. And we begin to believe them. These beliefs are hard to shake and cause self-doubt. They make you question your worth as a person.
In the ensuing years, as I grew older and reflected on my sexual orientation, I had few places to turn. But I did reflect and pray on this issue often . . . a lot . . . every day. Often this reflection was conflicted. For a while I joined a charismatic Christian group in high school, desiring to pray away the gay. My fervent prayers at the time were for God to heal me and make me “normal.” After about a year of that and no discernable reply from the Almighty, I gave up on the attempt.
In retrospect the lack of response was actually the response. In time I came to understand that. We don’t always recognize our epiphanies in the moment. While I can’t pinpoint an exact moment, I know that as I entered college an epiphany came over me and I heard the voice of God saying to me, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased. Be who I have made you to be. Be true to yourself, and all will be well.” That approbation from God has come to mean everything for me.
I spent another ten to twelve years maturing into that truth. Interestingly enough – and by no intentional design - it was at the age of thirty that I came back to my practice of faith, albeit in the Episcopal Church and not my old denomination.
The path forward through those years has sometimes been fraught with peril. People have called me a phony Christian, an apostate, a danger, and some way less savory things as well. But that epiphany of God’s approbation – God’s love - has sustained me and that was enough. In fact, it has been more than enough.
Regretfully that approbation of who I was, was not so quick in coming from my mother. But time and patience and the power of motherly love eventually brought her around as well. When in 1992 I told her that I felt a call from God toward ordained ministry, she did not rue my giving up a good paying career, and what I knew she believed to be a successful life. She didn’t say gay people would have a tough time in ministry. Rather she became my greatest supporter and cheerleader. She knew the road before me would be fraught with perils, but she sustained me on my journey with her love. Her love was a manifestation of God’s presence in my life and in that presence I once again heard the words, "You are my son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased."
We all parent in various ways: As biological and adoptive parents, as grandparents, teachers, extended family, clergy, as the church community. And we all know young people who struggle with issues of identity and self-worth; about what value their lives have. Some are LGBTQ, others struggle with issues like body imaging, race, religion, class. They all carry heavy burdens in the guilt and shame baggage that society often heaps upon them in their struggles. Our responsibility as faithful Christians is to nurture their being thoughtful and reflective people. God calls us to help guide them so they arrive at the realization that they are unique, wonderful people, made in the image of a loving God, and that that like Jesus and all of us, they are to honor their uniqueness as children of God, living their lives with integrity and in gratitude to the One who made them.
In a nutshell, we are to be the voice of God telling them, "You are [a child of God], [you are] beloved; with you I am well pleased."
We do this for many reasons. There are many in society who tell them otherwise, including religious communities. There are many who bully and harass them. There are many who shame them and rob them of their human dignity. There are many who disown them and throw them into the streets to fend for themselves. And there are many who believe they can change them and make them “better.”
A recent writer of a letter to the editor on Cleveland.com bemoaned the growing number of state legislatures that were passing laws prohibiting so called “conversion therapy” for LGBTQ people. They wrote that, “the goal in [conversion] therapy is not conversion but healing.” They went on to say that legislation should be written to, “guard licensed therapists from limitations on their healing art.”
The reality is that “conversion therapy” is pseudo-science; a travesty that is discredited by all legitimate medical associations. It is not healing, it is not art. It is profoundly damaging, a form of torture that wreaks havoc emotionally, spiritually, mentally, and often, physically on those compelled to engage in it. I have never meet anyone who has been successfully “converted” from being gay into a straight person. I have met plenty who have suffered terribly and unnecessarily as they were hounded into denying their authentic selves.
In a few moments we will renew our Baptismal vows. These vows are not just a bunch of hollow words that the clergy are compelled by the Book of Common Prayer to have us recite on certain feast days on the liturgical calendar. They are our holy vows to heal the brokenness of this world, just as Jesus did. They are the foundation of our faith in Jesus, because they reflect the values he incarnated for us. These vows are meant to be a plumb line hanging in our lives, guiding us into right behavior toward all: Seeking and serving Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves. Striving for justice and peace among all people. Respecting the dignity of every human being. This is our work as followers of Jesus: loving people for who and where they are. All the time. To all we encounter. No exceptions. Ever.
These holy vows are what allow us to proclaim to all God’s children: "You are my [child], [you are] beloved; with you I am well pleased." Amen.