‘Sticks and stones may break my bones, but cruel words can’t hurt me.’ Ever heard that? Ever said that? It is intended to help those who are bullied and abused. Yet it is not true. Sticks and stones may indeed break our bones, but cruel words may actually hurt far worse. They can even threaten our very integrity as a person. Yet, fortunately, praise God, that is not the whole story, as our Gospel reading dramatically reveals today.
Years ago, when I worked in a hostel for ex-offenders, we had a very pitiable young man join us. Let’s call him Billy. He had just come out of an institution for juvenile offenders and had a record of all kinds of petty crime. He had been a bit of a nuisance and a menace to many others. His biggest menace however was to himself. For Billy was a highly addicted glue sniffer: a habit which not only increased his offending but, more significantly, destroyed his gifts and personal integrity. Which is at the heart of the crying shame of most criminals: not simply that they imperil and destroy the gifts and integrity of others, but that, above all, they imperil and destroy themselves and their huge potential for love...
Ratboy: imagine if you had spent 18 years of your life constantly addressed as Ratboy, or Ratgirl. Treated as a Ratchild and in no other way. How would you feel? How would you act? How would you regard yourself? Billy is not the only one. Actually, in some ways, many of us have a bit of that experience, don’t we? When we are repeatedly called names, don’t we begin to feel something of them inside ourselves? When we are treated as rats, as sub-human, don’t we sometimes start to act that out? Maybe it is just me, but I see a huge amount about. Even in our so-called multicultural, tolerant,
society in Australia, I see people repeatedly called names which not only hurt, but which undermine their gifts and integrity. I hear women – of all backgrounds and stations in life – called by a horrendous variety of demeaning names, whowever they are and whatever they do. I hear people ridiculed and far worse, simply for being who they are: people of a different race, or of a different sexuality, or of a different outlook. I hear many politicians name people ‘illegals’ and worse, simply for being in desperate search of life. And I repeatedly hear people called ‘losers’, simply for being in a
different position to others. Losers?! What is that about? Is it just American nonsense we have imbibed, or a way of simply hurting others? Australians used to call people ‘battlers’, conferring dignity on those doing it tough, mainly for no reason of their own. Now they are called losers and wonder why even noble battlers start to lose their dignity and purpose.
‘Sticks and stones may break my bones, but cruel words can’t hurt me.’ I don’t know about you, but I reckon cruel words have hurt me, and still hurt me. Every cruel word that has hurt me continues to fester in me and makes me feel, think, and act like Ratboy, Billy. Maybe I am a ratchild, we can start to feel and think, deep inside ourselves, even when we know, on the surface that this is not so. Maybe I am a freak, disgusting, unnatural, illegal, a pervert, an idiot, a bogan, a loser, or one of the hundred or more savage put-downs for women. Maybe, even, we might start to think, we all are. After all, doesn’t our religion teach that we are all sinners, all losers? Isn’t that why we come to church, to fess up to
God about all of that? Well, no, actually. That is the kind of religion that Jesus got so upset, so angry. For Jesus was so sad about the way people can use religion to suppress, undermine and abuse themselves and others. Yes, of course, said Jesus, we all fall short of God’s glory. That is what sin means. Yet calling other people sinners is often simply a way of putting people down, especially those who live and think differently to ourselves. Above all, it is a way of judging others and it is only God, says Jesus, who can rightly judge. So stop dwelling on your sin, and other people’s sin, says Jesus,
and turn, and look at God. For how does God look at us, all of us? By what name does God call us? By what name does God call us? Look it up, now, in our Gospel reading. What does God say to Jesus at his baptism? Ratboy? No. Loser? No. Sinner? No. This is what God says: ‘This is my Son, my Beloved, in whom I am well pleased.’ ‘This is my Son, my Beloved, in whom I am well pleased.’
That’s what baptism means, everyone: it means to be named by God, as God’s child, as God’s beloved, as a person in whom God is well pleased. All who is baptised should know that: that, whatever other names others have called us, or will call us, this is our real name, this is our true identity. You and I are sons and daughters of God. You and I are Beloved. You and I are well and truly pleasing to God. For, just as Christ was, so we are too. That’s truly revolutionary stuff, if we can but feel it, know it deep down in ourselves, and live it out. Sure we are still sinners. Let’s not forget that. We have to keep on working at getting rid of all that rubbish in our lives. But, above all, we are children of God, beloved
ones, well pleasing to God. Remember that, above all. For we will never get rid of sin by dwelling on it. That never works. It is only by looking at God and seeing what God really sees in us that we can truly grow and flourish. Sin just falls away when when we see what God sees: that we are not, ultimately sinners, but God’s very own sons and daughters; that we are not ratboys and girls but truly Beloved; that we are not horrible in God’s sight but deeply, deeply, pleasing.
How hard that is to believe! It is has taken me the whole of my baptised life, and I am still struggling to believe it! Do you believe it? My spiritual director, Patrick Oliver, has a wonderful way of putting it. Maybe that is why God has sent me to him to help me believe it properly?! Patrick talks about the difference between living in what he calls the Glare of life, and what he calls the Gaze of God. In the Glare, we feel that we have to live up to something, and we are in constant fear of judgement. We are, like Billy, living out the names or the expectations given to us by others, many of which we continue to internalise. It is hard, harsh and often humiliating. In the Gaze of God however, we know that we have nothing to prove, nothing to do to be accepted, because we simply are accepted. We are simply loved. Do you belive that? Do you believe God loves us, and does not judge us? Do you believe that God calls each of us Beloved, not a ratchild? If you are anything like me, part of you often feels that there must be something in us that God does not accept. If you are anything like me, you probably sometimes hide away from God, especially when you are fearful, overcome by sin and shame, or feeling like a ratchild. But that is precisely when we do need to look at God, and let God look at us. For God never Glares at us. God only Gazes at us, and that gaze is an eternal gaze of love. God loves us. God really loves us. That’s what is so hard to believe, isn’t it?! But that is the Gospel we proclaim. For God is well and truly pleased with us.
Let me conclude by showing a wonderful little gift I received at Christmas. Some of you may recognise it, as Kathy Appleby also made some lovely cards from it. For me it is like a little icon of today’s Gospel reading. The bird seems to me to represent the Holy Spirit in our baptism. In the background there is music and a world that flourishes. And there are three key words, the heart of our Gospel: ‘you are loved’. ‘You are loved’, you are beloved. Our baptisms are ‘pledges of (God’s) love’, ‘goodness gracious’, for in God’s sight we are ‘excellent’. Can you imagine?’ That’s our calling folks, the gift and joy of our baptism. In the only name that really matters, Jesus Christ, Amen