Text: Isaiah 42:1-9; Matthew 3:13-17
Last week in my Clinical Pastoral Education class, my classmates and I watched Won’t You Be My Neighbour, a documentary film about Fred Rogers. The film was so heart-warming that I couldn’t watch it without tears. Though I’ve never seen the popular TV series, Mister Rogers’ Neighbourhood, let alone meeting him in person, it was as if I had known him for a long time, or more precisely he had known me ever since my childhood. Like any great teachers have done for me, I felt understood, respected, and loved by Mr. Rogers.
His message, ‘you are loved as you are’ is so simple yet powerful enough to change anyone’s life. That’s the message I have tried to convey in my reflections. That’s the message I hear pretty much every time I worship in other congregations. The difference Mr. Rogers made was that he actually embodied the message. To me, that is more powerful than what he said or did. Most people are capable of saying all the nice things they can think of, but not many can actually live their message. That’s why we praise and show our respect to those who have lived undivided lives – their words and actions are one in their lives.
The life of Mr. Rogers challenges me to go deeper uncovering my truth – why sometimes I have a hard time believing what I say, and to be honest about my questions, doubts, fears, and struggles. At every baptism I deliver the message of God’s grace, acceptance and love. Sometimes I write a personal letter to the child who is being baptized based on how I believe God would see the child. I admit that often times I say the words I long to hear.
My CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education) training has also challenged me to face what I want to avoid whether it’s my pain, a sense of guilt or shame. I am coming to realize that nothing and no one can prevent me from experiencing the grace of God as much as I can. Often times, it’s me who can’t accept the love or forgivingness given to me for free.
As I have been reflecting on why it is hard to accept such gifts, one insight came to mind. I am afraid of losing myself by truly loving, because to love is to give myself fully to the point of losing myself. That’s why Jesus said, ‘you can’t follow me, unless you deny yourself.’ That makes me wonder if I have ever totally loved anyone or anything. Of course, I always say I love my family, my friends and my community, but the love I give can often be conditional, based on a give and take relationship that I benefit from. The hard truth I have to face and wrestle with is that I only love certain parts of the person but not the person as a whole. I love nature for the comfort it gives me.
I realized that the reason my love was conditional was because I believed that God’s love was conditional even though I was preaching otherwise. I wasn’t able to simply accept God’s unconditional love. Deep in my heart, I unconsciously believed I had to earn love by working hard. The world around me has not been a safe space so I always wanted to ensure safety before I take my next step. Because it was so painful to break or fall, I put protection before trust. To trust is to be totally dependent on the other, and to throw oneself into the hands of the unknown or the unknowable. I have a hunch that many of you share my struggles with love and trust.
That’s why we need to come together to celebrate baptism. It is here in baptism that we learn to love without reasons, and to trust without borders. When Jesus was baptized, there was a voice from heaven, that applies to all of us equally, “This is my child, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Not because he has done anything grand or because he has been good or faithful, but because the quality of God’s love is unconditional, relentless, overflowing and permeating.
In baptism God reaffirms the original goodness of creation as in the beginning, “It is good. Indeed it is good.” God spoke those words out of pure joy. Notice God simply said it’s good, meaning it’s inherently good in itself. Such a message is simple yet powerful enough to change our lives and ultimately to change the world. It is so countercultural that not many people actually believe it. This idea can be a threat to the world that is supported by hierarchical structures – one is always better, higher or more powerful than others based on labels we attach.
It’s interesting that Fred Rogers was also criticized by some people because his idea was perceived as a danger to their world. People protested against the idea that everyone is special and lovable. How powerful is that! I wonder how Jesus’ baptism impacted his life. How much did he treasure his experience of being loved and accepted? The life he lived tells us that Jesus lived the message of baptism to the point that he embodied it. His words and actions were one in his life. Jesus invites us to do the same remembering our baptism. We remember how God loves us unconditionally and relentlessly with overflowing joy. This is how we learn to love without reasons and to trust without borders. That can be our most challenging task, but our most rewarding experience.