A sermon by Rev. Robin Bartlett
preached on January 13, 2019
at the First Church in Sterling, MA
Jesus' Baptism Sunday
I read a story in the Manchester Union Leader this week about a New Hampshire hiker named Pam Bales who followed a sneaker trail up Mount Washington in October to rescue a hiker in distress. In near blizzard conditions, she found a hypothermic man who had hiked up that morning before her, shivering in his shorts and t-shirt. She found him just sitting there in the snow above tree line. He was unresponsive to her questions, so she gave him a name (John). She gave him warm clothes and a hat and covered his body with hand warmers and foot warmers—everything she had in her pack. Despite his protests for her to leave him, and at great physical risk to herself, she put her micro-spikes on his sneakers and force marched him for 8 hours in freezing cold temperatures and deep snow all the way down the mountain and into his car. He mumbled a few words to her before he drove away and she never saw him again.
Pam Bales risked her life to save this man. She didn’t want to die herself, but she refused to give up on him. Though she could not fathom why he would put himself and other hikers at risk by not checking the weather and bringing the proper gear, she gave him a name. She gave his life particularity. She regarded him as worthy of saving.
Remember that Mr. Rogers song?
It’s you I like,
It’s not the things you wear,
It’s not the way you do your hair–
But it’s you I like
The way you are right now,
The way down deep inside you–
Not the things that hide you,
Not your toys–
They’re just beside you.
But it’s you I like–
Every part of you,
Your skin, your eyes, your feelings
Whether old or new.
I hope that you’ll remember
Even when you’re feeling blue
That it’s you I like,
It’s you yourself,
It’s you, it’s you I like.
That’s how The Reverend Mr. Rogers spread the Gospel of Love on TV…with the power of the word “you.” He was a televangelist, but he didn’t suggest that if you believed the right things about Jesus you’d get a new car or house like Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker did. Mr. Rogers didn’t even mention Jesus or God at all. He simply sang that song to children every week. It’s you I like. Every part of you. And children loved him for it. He gave their lives particularity. He regarded them as worthy of saving.
Fred Rogers was criticized widely for this approach to child development. He still is. Everyone from parents to preachers to teachers to politicians fret that this theology has led to the downfall of society. It’s dangerous to tell kids they are loved the way they are. Our children think they are special snowflakes. This “everybody gets a trophy” nonsense is what’s wrong with kids today.
Many of my more Conservative colleagues worry that focusing on God’s extravagant love for us in absence of God’s wrath and judgment has led to a whole generation of unrepentant, self-obsessed sinners…the “me generation.” The “selfie generation.” Many of my liberal colleagues suggest that focusing solely on God’s grace makes people too comfortable with their own complacency with injustice in an unjust world.
Maybe they are all right. Who knows.
But if the goal of “me-culture” is supposed to be sky rocketing self-regard, it doesn’t seem to be working. The way I see it, we are more self-loathing than ever before. In an increasingly individualistic world where self-reliance, choice and freedom are the highest values, consumerism becomes the main mechanism for self-fulfillment.
We aren’t told we are loved enough, if you ask me.
Our value no longer comes from our status as Beloved children of God, but from our status as consumers in the marketplace. The result is that we feel as though we are never enough. The result is that we have forgotten that we belong to each other.
The Gospel tells us a different story. Our scriptures say “You are precious and beloved in God’s sight. YOU. You, you and you. You are God’s child, the beloved. In you, God is well pleased.” No mistake or sin or injustice or face lift or range rover will change who you are to God.
“You” is a more powerful word than “me.” Like the word “me”, “you” is particular. It is specific. It is personal. But to hear the word “you” is to be regarded by another. You matter. The word “you” gives us particularity to someone else. It makes us worthy of saving.
Love makes you a you.
Human babies are the only offspring in the mammal species that need love to stay alive. In fact, we know from studies done in orphanages that if human babies—even if they are fed and dressed and bathed properly—if they are not held regularly they can experience both psychic and physical death. It’s called “failure to thrive.”
We are loved into existence. We need to be held in order to experience healthy psychological development. When we are born, we do not know that we are separate from our caregiver. Newborns believe their mothers are just an extension of themselves. This is why it is so critical that we respond to their every need in the first weeks and months.
It is only through the process of being held and regarded by another that we begin to know ourselves to be separate entities. Caregivers mirror back to us our smiles and sounds, and we realize we are a self. We become not just a ”me” but a “you.”
You are loved into your you-ness. Love is what makes you a you. Love is what makes you not just part of another person, but your own person.
Once you realize that you are a separate entity, the next stage of development is to realize that you are part of a larger “we.” That your circle of love extends beyond you and your mama and into your family and your community and the world.
Baptism is simply an outward sign of an inward grace—an affirmation that you are part of a larger “we.”
In our scripture from Luke, John admits that though he has the power to baptize with water, someone far more powerful is coming after him. He’s not even fit to untie the sandals of Jesus, John says. And yet, Jesus waits until all the people have been dunked into the River Jordan, and then presents himself to be baptized. I wonder what John was thinking in that moment. I wonder if he was shaking in his sandals. “Why would God himself want me to baptize him? I’m not even remotely worthy to do this, and here he is bringing up the rear.”
The Holy Spirit descends upon Jesus like a dove in this moment, and the heavens open up. God’s voice booms down, “YOU are my son, the beloved. With YOU, I am well pleased.”
Baptism confirms Jesus’ status as beloved with the power of the word “you.” An outward sign that he, too, was part of the larger “we.” Karoline Lewis says that maybe “Jesus needed to hear “you” so as to recognize who he needed to see. It’s hard to pay attention to another when you have never had another pay attention to you.”
Imagine for a moment that we paid attention to other people the way we are paid attention to by God. Hear these words from Isaiah again:
Do not fear, for I have created you, I have formed you. I have redeemed you. I have called you by name. You are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. You are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you, I give people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life. Do not fear, for I am with you.
Pam Bales treated John, the unprepared hiker, this way. “Do not fear, for I am with you,” she said. She called him by name. She gave him particularity. She told him he was worthy of saving.
She had no idea what happened to “John” after he left the parking lot at base trail. She had no idea why he was on that mountain without proper gear, or whether or not he got treatment for hypothermia and got home. She never so much as found out what his real name was.
Ty Gagne writes:
(Pam) Bales would not get an answer until a week later, when the president of her rescue group, Allan Clark, received a letter in the mail, and a donation tucked between the folds.
I hope this reaches the right group of rescuers. This is hard to do but must try, part of my therapy. I want to remain anonymous, but I was called John. On Sunday Oct. 17 I went up my favorite trail, Jewell, to end my life. Weather was to be bad. Thought no one else would be there, I was dressed to go quickly. Next thing I knew this lady was talking to me, changing my clothes, talking to me, giving me food, talking to me, making me warmer, and she just kept talking and calling me John and I let her. Finally learned her name was Pam.
Conditions were horrible and I said to leave me and get going, but she wouldn’t. Got me up and had me stay right behind her, still talking. I followed but I did think about running off, she couldn’t see me. But I wanted to only take my life, not anybody else and I think she would’ve tried to find me.
The entire time she treated me with care, compassion, authority, confidence and the impression that I mattered. With all that has been going wrong in in my life, I didn’t matter to me, but I did to Pam. She probably thought I was the stupidest hiker dressed like I was, but I was never put down in any way — chewed out yes — in a kind way. Maybe I wasn’t meant to die yet, I somehow still mattered in life.
I became very embarrassed later on and never really thanked her properly. If she is an example of your organization/professionalism, you must be the best group around. Please accept this small offer of appreciation for her effort to save me way beyond the limits of safety. NO did not seem in her mind.
I am getting help with my mental needs, they will also help me find a job and I have temporary housing. I have a new direction thanks to wonderful people like yourselves. I got your name from her pack patch and bumper sticker.
My deepest thanks,
Bales was deeply moved by the man’s gesture and his reference to the fact that she made him feel that he mattered. She said, “Some people have asked me if I tried to find John. The thought of searching for him felt wrong. As I’ve reflected more on this story and its relation to the issue of mental health, my response to the question about finding John has evolved. I have in fact found John, and he is very close by me. John is my neighbor, he is my good friend, a close colleague, a family member. John could be me.”
Beloved, You matter to God. You matter to me. Every part of you. You, in the particular. You are worthy of saving. On this day when we remember our baptisms, let us remember to use the extravagant, wasteful Love we are given to show other people that they matter, too.
Reverend Robin Bartlett is an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister, with dual standing in the United Church of Christ. She is the Senior Pastor at The First Church in Sterling, Massachusetts.