The Colorado River from the Congress Avenue Bridge, Austin, TX.
When Bodhi was born, both Ken and Bonnie, his proud grandparents, called me separately to make sure I knew. This kiddo was a church kid from the start.
I dropped by that afternoon to meet Bodhi and visit his parents. Admittedly, I wasn’t feeling great when I left the house: I was stressed, and I had gotten tied up in other matters so that it was it was almost rush hour in Springfield by the time I left. It was just one of those days everyone has when I was wondering why I do what I do and what the heck I was doing in Massachusetts. Then, because of my adversarial relationship with my GPS and my newness to the area, I got lost along the way.
But when I got there, saw the joy in his parents’ faces, and held this new little life, it all faded away. I was reminded that there is still hope and love and hope new life in the world, despite all the stress. I remembered, suddenly, clearly, why I do what I do, and exactly what I’m doing in Massachusetts. That was Bodhi’s first gift to me. He helped me remember who I am.
Identity is important to us as human beings.
This week, I had the opportunity to go to Austin, Texas. Austin has quite a reputation and a well-known sense of identity. This is Austin, and this is who it is: as they say, “Keep Austin weird.” It’s an identity thing.
With my friend in Austin, Braxton, at work for most of one day, I set off to explore. Braxton gave me a scavenger hunt of things to find related to Austin’s unique identity: an all-organic hipster food truck. A dude on a stand up paddle board on the river in the middle of the city. A cool cowboy hat. A five way intersection. Hip cowboy boots. Socially woke graffiti. Someone playing the mandolin.
This is who Austin is.
In search of someone on a stand up paddle board, I walked from Braxton’s house over to the nearest extension of the Colorado River: Longhorn Dam and Lady Bird Lake. The Colorado River is an integral part of Austin’s cityscape, but regardless, I would’ve gone looking for it anyway. If there is a prominent body of water in any place I visit, I can’t help but to gravitate towards it. I’ve never been quite sure why — maybe it’s some primal instinct telling me to find water. Maybe my DNA hasn’t caught up to indoor plumbing.
No matter my motivations, to be able to set my feet in the water helps me to feel connected to a place, like I’m really there, grounded, in that place. It helps me to get introduced to who a place is, and it helps remind me of who I am.
Of course, there’s the spiritual stuff too: water makes me think of baptism, of being claimed by God, and of God’s presence in that place. Last summer when I was at Camp Calumet, our synod camp in New Hampshire, and tasked with doing children’s devotions, and I talked about Calumet’s identity, and everyone’s desire to bring Calumet home to their church, and pointed out that what’s beautiful about Calumet is also beautiful about everyone’s church: bread and wine, loving people, God’s Word, and water (in the lake and in the font). And yes, while at Calumet, I spent a lot of time sitting by Lake Ossipee. Water reminds me of who I am, and of whose I am. It’s an identity thing.
Even before I could articulate any connection of water to God or baptism or anything of the sort, I felt it. As a teenager I used to get all mystical when I listened to a Jars of Clay song called “River Constantine” as I stared out across any wide river. My favorite lyrics were, “River deep / Could I know you as well as you know me … will we travel faster, farther than these legs could ever trustworthy be?” (1)
I loved the uncertainty of it all: “will we travel faster farther than these legs could ever trustworthy be?” I was raised in a “name it and claim it” denomination, but I’ve always been a realist. I’ve never wanted God to guarantee me success, as if I were some Old Testament hero. Plenty of people who thought that God was guaranteeing them success have failed, or worse, they’ve been misguided and done terrible things in God’s name. Instead, what I’ve always wanted instead was a guarantee of God’s presence, and that, we all received when Jesus ascended. Water reminds me of that promise of presence, of who I am, and of whose I am. It’s an identity thing.
Today we celebrate the ascension, or as a lady in Amsterdam described it to me once when explaining why the post office was closed, “When Jesus… [mumbles while waving her hand upwards].” It’s not a holiday we easily connect to, here at the end of Easter. We just put the cap on the white of Easter and break out the red of Pentecost for next week and stare up and imagine Jesus floating upwards (like on the cover of your bulletin). But there’s a little more to connect with than that — besides an excuse to climb a mountain (shameless plug: we’re hiking this coming Saturday, meet at the church at 9AM).
Look, we talk about it all the time — the world seems to be going crazy, and a lot of things are uncertain. Though it may feel particularly acute these days, this has always been true, and this will be true for the foreseeable future. There are times when we aren’t sure if we’ll be up to the task of living, much less raising kids, in this time in history.
Though we think of the ascension as an awe-inspiring event, in reality, the world must have been so confusing and anxiety-producing for the disciples: their leader was executed, and then resurrected, and now they saw him carried off into the clouds from a mountain, leaving them with a whole lot of work and hardship in front of them. They lived, after all, in Israel, their homeland that was being militarily occupied by Rome, a superpower.
And so, it’s understandable that in the Acts reading from today, they would ask Jesus for a little comfort: “Is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” (v. 6). I think they were secretly hoping he’d come and kick Rome’s butt and make everything okay and make the road ahead smooth for them.
Of course, he doesn’t. Instead, Jesus responds not with a Roman or Pharisaic butt kicking, but with instructions: they are to be witnesses of what they’ve seen and heard. At the end of Matthew he adds, famously: “I will be with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).
God doesn’t guarantee success or help us spike the football or make the path easy. God does promise love and presence, and we remember those in baptism. In baptism we are beloved. In baptism we are sealed with the Holy Spirit who is with us forever. We remember who we are, and whose we are. It’s an identity thing.
Before I left for Austin, I wanted to do one quick thing to get ready for Bodhi’s baptism today: change the sign. I’d asked Bodhi’s parents the week before to make sure that it was a welcome gesture. We’ve done this for baptisms before, but this time I refined the message a bit. “Bodhi is a child of God” is broadcasting the message that God has already spoken and that we’ll recognize in his baptism in a few minutes. And putting it on the sign was as much a message for the future as the present.
You see, my friend Kathleen grew up Lutheran and has a baptismal banner she received as a baby that says, in felt letters, “Kathleen is Jesus’ child.” As cheesy as she acknowledges that it is, it’s something she treasures on the days when it’s easy to feel abandoned, off course, or unloved. When the message she hears from the world outside is anything but what the banner says, she takes comfort in these words from her home church: she belongs to Jesus. It’s an identity thing. (2)
She is sharp and witty and sarcastic and tough, and she loves that felt banner.
So I hope someday Bodhi will see a photo of the sign and remember that, no matter what message the world gives him about himself, no matter how hard things get or how uncertain the world is, God has already spoken the truth: Bodhi, like all of us, is a child of God.
And we, his church, are here to make a promise to always remind him of his belovedness. I hope that, just as Bodhi reminded me on the day of his birth who I am, that I — and we, his family, church family, and his beloved friends and neighbors — will be able to do the same thing for him in the years to come. No matter what the world says to you, Bodhi, you are beloved. To remind you of that, you have water, and you have us.
It’s an identity thing.
Jesus says, “You are witnesses of these things.” Today, you, no matter what your relationship to Bodhi’s family, are witnesses of God’s love for Bodhi, which is the same for God’s love of all of us — and we have water as a reminder. We are so loved.
We are witnesses. And today we promise that, in the years to come, we’ll continue to remind Bodhi, his siblings and his parents and his grandparents, and each other, of who we are: God’s children. We have water — in the font, in your sink, in the river and wherever you go, as a reminder: you are loved, you are claimed, and you are God’s child, and surely God is with you, even to the end of the age.
This is church, and this is who we are. It’s an identity thing. Amen.
1. Jars of Clay, “River Constantine,” If I Left the Zoo, Essential Records, 1999.
2. Personal conversation (shared with permission) with the Rev. Kathleen Royston, Mount Olivet United Methodist Church, Arlington, VA.