Putting Love First

Matthew 3:13–17, preached by Rev. Jane McBride on January 15, 2023

 “You are beloved.” Someone I know always signs their emails with that phrase. Not “thanks” or “talk to you soon” but “you are beloved.” And first, the practice struck me as kind of cheesy and inauthentic. This person didn’t really know me. Why did he feel the need to tell me this? The more I’ve thought about this habit, though, the more it has grown on me. I realized the affirmation “you are beloved” wasn’t particularly personal. It was simply a reminder of a core truth: we are held in the love that flows, like a river, through all things. Some of us name this loving presence God. And if we could put this beloved-ness first in each and every interaction that would change everything. Believing that you are loved, that I am loved, that we are loved, would shape the way we communicate, and influence our actions. I still think the email signature is a little cheesy. But that’s okay. I just smile now and feel grateful for the reminder.

The scene of Jesus’ baptism functions as a similar sort of reminder. This event teaches us that our identity, first and foremost, is beloved. It’s true that the divine voice is speaking about Jesus specifically: “This is my Son, the Beloved.” However, I believe that this declaration of love is meant to have a wide scope. New Testament professor Diane Chen says that within the Jewish tradition: “Israel’s king was viewed metaphorically as God’s son, ruling Israel on God’s behalf.”[1]

 Jesus is “God’s Son” in the same sort of way. In what he says and does, in who he is, he reveals and represents God. And Jesus always put love first. The sort of love Dr. King preached and lived—love for self, neighbor, stranger and enemy. Love that gives and forgives, love that admits and repairs wrongs, love that never, ever sanctions hate or resorts to violence. Love that heals body and spirit. Love that compels us to rearrange the dynamics of power in order to create justice. 

The dialogue between John and Jesus in this passage also convinces me that God’s declaration of love for Jesus extends to all of creation. When Jesus came to John for baptism, John objected, saying Jesus should be baptizing him. This is an acknowledgement that Jesus has greater status. However, power and humility are not at odds in Jesus; they gracefully and creatively coexist. Jesus responds that he and John are meant to collaborate on this baptism. That is how they will “fulfill all righteousness.” Working together, they will be in right relationship with each other, with the community, with God. Like everyone else, Jesus will be baptized by John, in order to show his solidarity with ordinary struggling people. This is how he will be God “with us.”

 Dr. King, in his public, prophetic work, relentlessly prioritized beloved-ness. He insisted that we love people, “not because they are likeable but because God loves them.” His faithfulness to the ways of Jesus and Gandhi, to the path of organized, non-violent loving resistance to oppression, changed our nation forever. We honor Dr. King for his clarity, effectiveness, and courage. And we recognize that his work is unfinished. We know it is up to us to continue to build a society that puts love first. That may sound abstract, but it’s not. It’s absolutely practical. It means living wages and affordable housing. It means our democracy robustly honors the dignity of all of us. It means that everyone has paid time off to care for family members who are ill or to welcome a new baby. It means that we invest in childcare and education. It means creating a new green economy with equity. It means that the harms of white supremacy and colonialism stop repeating themselves in our time, that, at last, no one gets left out or left behind. 

Here in Minnesota, during this legislative session, we find ourselves with a tremendous opportunity. It’s possible that we could concretely move ahead with the work of love in all those ways I named, and more. I confess, I struggle to find my place, our place, in this work. I’m passionate about justice but I’m not an activist in a conventional sense. I’m shy. I like my quiet thinking space. I aim to influence people, yes, but I prefer to do it here in our safe, familiar sanctuary, not out on the street. If called upon to speak at a rally or protest, I often say yes and then the anxiety sets in. I deal with my nerves by writing everything down. For some reason, making phone calls is ridiculously difficult for me. If I need to contact a colleague or the office of an elected official, often my heart is literally pounding as I dial the phone. 

All that said, what I often find the very hardest is asking you to show up and participate in this work of centering love in our society. For a whole host of reasons: I know how busy you are; I am aware of burdens you carry; I hate pressuring people; I wonder if you will agree with the strategy; I know you’re feeling cynical about politics; I’d rather avoid asking than be told “no.” I hide behind the excuse of “not having time.” Sometimes that’s true. And it’s also true that I often prioritize my own comfort and convenience over exercising the power I have to support change. The bottom line of all of this? There are no professional activists coming to save us. If we abdicate our responsibility, if we don’t show up and speak up, if we leave this critical work for someone else to do, then it may be that no one will do it. On the other hand, if you, and I, along our neighbors and friends and a whole host of other ordinary people choose to step up and step out of our comfort zones and call our elected leaders to move toward a vision of a society grounded in love, then I believe it can happen.

Jesus’ baptism took place in a world that, like ours, was full of violence and oppression. We’ve spent the last two weeks, after all, hearing Matthew’s account of Herod’s murderous jealousy, the holy family’s flight into exile, and their years spent as refugees in hiding. And this wondrous birth that revealed the divine love at the heart of all creation happened among people like us—flawed, fearful people, people who, through their preference for comfort and convenience, were complicit in oppression, people who lacked confidence in their ability to create change.

John, in offering these people Baptism, was probably adapting the practice of mikveh, Jewish ritual baths. These baths provide spiritual cleansing in a variety of circumstances. And for those new to the Jewish community, they serve as a sign of initiation. So the waters of Baptism cleanse and welcome us as well. These waters call us to center our lives in the love whose flow nourishes and shapes the universe. They beckon us to join a community that puts love first. They summon us to build a society shaped by the truth that you are loved, that I am loved, that we are loved. In the verses before today’s text, John urges those being baptized to confess their sins and repent, to make a fresh start, to turn again toward love.

Friends, we don’t have to avoid looking at our sin, or naming the ways we are complicit in the world’s injustices, or admitting the times we have failed to embody love. Because we are God’s beloved. In dealing with us, God puts love first, always. The love of God is not something we earn. We are all worthy of love. This unconditional love is the powerful yet gentle gift that allows us to hold ourselves accountable to being our best selves, without shame or fear.

During this Epiphany season, we are asking one another, “Who is Jesus for you?” and we are listening deeply to each other’s responses. I thank you for all the reflections you’ve offered so far. It’s a gift to hear both your clarity and your uncertainty, your traditional and your out-of-the-box thoughts. We’ll continue to raise up your responses in worship in the coming weeks. If you didn’t have a chance to weigh in last week, you can do it today. If something new occurs to you, you can add another thought. Just a sentence, please. Who is Jesus for you? Write it on the paper in the bulletin or email me. 

Today I am giving thanks for the Jesus who reveals to us that we are beloved of God, and who teaches us to put love first in our lives. Amen.

[1] https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/baptism-of-our-lord/commentary-on-matthew-313-17-6