The world’s longest running study of happiness began in 1938. Dr. Robert Waldinger presently directs this study and co-authored a book about it called The Good Life. Waldinger sums up the study’s results, saying that the strongest predictors of people’s health and happiness throughout life “were the warmth and the quality of their relationships with other people.” Scientifically speaking, he explains, relationships help us regulate stress, and mitigate the destructive effects of chronic stress on our bodies. All types of relationships are beneficial—with friends, spouses, and co-workers, with the person who delivers our mail or someone we see at the gym. As Waldinger puts it: “We get little hits of well-being in all these different kinds of relationships.”
Yesterday was the festival of the Epiphany, which marks the twelfth day of Christmas and the end of the Christmas season. Now, as we enter the season of Epiphany which spans until Lent, suddenly the infant in the manger is a thirty-year-old man being baptized in the Jordan River. My oldest kid takes great delight in pointing out the absurdity of liturgical time. It makes no sense, they often say, that in the span of just one year, Jesus was born, grew up, and died! It’s a fair point, and yet, I love this way of telling time. I love how the story of Jesus gives us a yearly rhythm of spiritual seasons that bring distinct gifts. The season of Epiphany is a time of unveiling, revelation, manifestation—what are the implications of the birth of this child Emmanuel, God-with-us? Who is Jesus for us and for the world?
Today’s Gospel scene unfolds beside the sacred waters of Creation itself, embodied by the River Jordan. In biblical history, the Jordan is a crucial boundary between the wilderness and the land of promise, between danger and security, wandering and home, transformation and rootedness. This riverside scene encompassed diverse people—city people and country people—all converging around the striking figure of John the Baptist. In this gathering of people, we see that the baptism of John was not solely a moment of personal purification. It was primarily a ritual of entrance into a community committed to a way of life shaped by God’s values and visions, as opposed to those of the Roman empire.
Jesus sought out the baptism of John because he wished to join himself to this emerging community. The tearing apart of the heavens, the descending of the Spirit and the naming of Jesus as God’s beloved all carried deep meaning for the community as well as for Jesus. If Jesus is God-with-us, his belovedness reveals that belovedness is the identity of creation itself. Belovedness is inherently relational. And relationship is an essential aspect of God’s own character. In the snippet of the creation story we read this morning, God doesn’t create out of nothing. God creates out of relationship, bringing God’s self into dialogue with what already exists—a formless void, darkness, the waters of the great deep. God balances and shapes all of this tumult with light, with the order of day and night. The Hebrew word “swept” describing the movement of God’s wind or Spirit can also be translated as “danced.” Creation is an ongoing dance between God and the world. And love is at the heart of that dance of relationship. So our relationships, in addition to bringing us happiness and health, also show us God’s face in ourselves, in others and in the world. That is the Epiphany.
In The Good Life, Waldinger and his co-author point out that we have to prioritize cultivating relationships. Waldinger says,
We often imagine that, well, our good friends are going to stay our friends forever, and no need to do anything to keep those relationships up. But many good relationships will just wither away from neglect. So we talk about what we call social fitness in the book, which is really tending to our relationships . . . just like we take care of physical fitness.
This notion of social fitness resonates for me. I’ve been very out of touch with a few longtime friends who live far away. So I’ve asked a couple of them if we can set up monthly times to talk. It took a lot of emotional effort, actually, to move myself through all the insecurities that came up as I prepared to do this. We hadn’t talked regularly for so long—maybe my friends had lots of other friends now and just didn’t need a connection with me. Would they say “yes” just to be nice? Would we connect a couple of times and then fall out of touch again? But of course I found that, they, like me, have welcomed the chance to rebuild and sustain our important connections through a regular discipline of contact. One friend set up repeating a Google Meet link that appears in my calendar each month. I click on it and she’s there.
Our Gospel text depicts humanity as a mixture of good and evil. We are both sinful and beloved; it’s not an either/or. We inevitably become disconnected and alienated from our own best selves and from those we love. When under stress we often stray from our core values, allowing ourselves to be influenced and manipulated by empire’s forces of fear, scarcity, and violence. We need John’s baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin. This practice is not about groveling and shame. Repentance is a turning, a returning, an opportunity to find our center again. And forgiveness is a release, a fresh start. Sin, in itself, is not a tragedy; it is, in fact, a necessary part of our belovedness; it is how we deepen our relationship with God and creation. It is only through the transformation that happens in relationships, as we falter and fail and then we learn and grow, as we experience both our brokenness and the gift of restoration that we come to fully know and embody our own belovedness.
For the next few months, I will be participating in an embodied antiracism practice group with some clergy colleagues. As we prepare for the first session, the facilitators asked us to read a piece by Marika Heinrichs, who is a writer, researcher, and practitioner of somatics. I found this piece expresses well the need to allow sin and belovedness to intertwine. She writes:
We live in a culture of conditional belonging. Conditional belonging tells us: “There is a right way to be, and a wrong way to be. If you’re wrong, you’re out.” This is a form of cultural and developmental trauma we are born into, not knowing if our connection—therefore our survival, is secure. . . . [White supremacy] teaches us that the conditions of our belonging depend on proving our innocence and goodness, that we fall within a binary of good or bad, and that if we fail at these things, we risk losing all connection. Making a mistake, being in conflict, causing harm—these things can feel like a threat to our very lives.
Heinrichs goes on to explain that if we are to overcome this culture of conditional belonging, and form true community, we will have to learn to recognize and disarm the ways our bodies react to moments of learning and growth as if they are a threat to our survival.
Epiphany is a season that reveals the belovedness of all creation. In the weeks to come, Jesus will call his disciples to join with him in sharing the good news, the healing, lifegiving message of God’s love for this world. Together with these imperfect followers, Jesus will further unveil the meaning of baptismal community shaped by God’s values and vision. And then, as the Epiphany season draws to a close, just before we begin Lent, we will read story of Jesus’ transfiguration. On the mountaintop, Jesus will shine brilliantly and the voice of God will repeat those critical words, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” On that day of Transfiguration, February 11, we will have a time to tell our own stories of belovedness. So, throughout this season of Epiphany, I want to give you an assignment. Would you ponder how belovedness is being revealed in your own life? Would you watch for the ways God is seeking to be made manifest in the dance of love between you and other beings? And then, would you consider what story you might have to share with the rest of us? For it is in our ordinary human stories that God becomes flesh, that God reveals the belovedness of creation. Amen.