On the Baptism of Christ, and Betty White!

         I’ve heard it said that all prayers are answered, yes, no, and not right now. This has proven true in my life, and I’ve come to appreciate that the hardest of these answers, by far, is not right now.

         I thought about that this week as I was watching a documentary on Betty White. Betty met the love of her life on the gameshow, Password. The host, Allen Ludden, and Betty immediately fell head-over-heels in love with each other, and happily started a long-distance relationship, because the incredibly talented and by then remarkably accomplished Betty White lived in Hollywood, and Allen was based in New York.

         So Betty would find reasons to fly to New York to be on the show as often as she could. And when Allen would see Betty he wouldn’t say “hello”, instead he would say “will you marry me?”

         Betty resolutely said no. Not because she didn’t want to or didn’t want Allen to ask – she wanted both those things. She said no because she was also in love with her career, and California, and didn’t want to live in New York. She also wasn’t sure if she was able to be a mother to Allen’s daughters.

         To show he thought all of these things would be fine, Allen bought a ring, and offered it to Betty with a more formal proposal. And she said no. So Allen did what any logical person in love would do, and wore it around his neck on a chain at all times, including when they vacationed together.

         When Easter rolled around the next year, Allen sent Betty a stuffed bunny, wearing very fancy earrings, so Betty called Allen up (they were still living on different coasts), and instead of saying hello she said “yes”. She laughs and says it was the bunny not the earrings that got her to say yes.

         They got married, Betty moved to New York, and was quite grateful when 4 years later Password was moved from New York to Hollywood.

         And they had, what everyone who knew them said, was a remarkable love-affair until Allen died in 1981.

         I cannot imagine how difficult that must have been for Allen. To hear “No” repeatedly, and to keep asking because he knew she was the one he wanted to spend his life with.

         It seems as though it was difficult for Betty as well, because until her death last week, Betty talked about how she wished she could have that year back, the year she says she wasted being uncertain and saying no.

         And while Allen probably would have liked that time as well, I doubt he would say it was wasted time, rather I imagine he would say it was time spent with great expectation and excitement for the moment she would say yes.

         Expectation is a profoundly human emotion, I think. It’s one where we don’t know exactly what to do or when to do it. This is not to be confused with those times when we know what is expected of us, or even what is expected of others, and are trying to meet those expectations.

         I’m talking about waiting for the line to turn pink or not on a covid or pregnancy test. Allen waiting to hear if this time is the time Betty will say yes. Waiting to hear if you got into your dream college. Waiting to hear if surgery for a loved one went well. Waiting to hear what the biopsy results are.

         It’s the anxiety producing expectation that I find to be so profoundly human.

         And it is that anxiety producing expectation that is at play in the Gospel reading today that I would like to talk about.

         Let’s set the scene, briefly.

         Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures we have these moments of God breaking in, sending someone to help in times of great need, often those are Jewish people, but not always.

         The Prophets are easy to identify, they usually say “Here I am” when God calls.

         But there are also all of the Judges who were lifted up to help the Jewish people, including Sampson. And then there are the ones we don’t know much about, like Jael (of driving a tent peg through a ruthless general’s head), and even Cyrus the Great of Persia who conquered Babylon and liberated the Jewish people from captivity.

         Scripture tells us God sends these people. And there’s an expectation that God will send someone again, and soon. Because, Israel has been occupied and ruled by the Romans since 63 BCE.

         The occupation was not a welcome one. There were constant clashes and fights. There was repression and heavy taxation. It was an unhappy and unwanted union.

         The Jewish people, with a legacy of judges, or messiahs – meaning someone sent by God – were anxiously expecting the arrival of this savior who would free them from the Roman tyranny.

         And I have to tell you, the Lion of a Man that was John the Baptist, kind of fit the bill.

         He was weird, like, really weird. He dressed funny. He had a strange diet. He was essentially homeless by choice. He spoke loudly and looked like the kind of guy you would want on your side in a bar fight.

         He was passionate and boisterous. He was utterly dedicated to God and to helping free others from the bondage of sin.

         He was probably what the people were looking for to be the messiah who would save them from the Romans.

         And John, to his credit, was like, no. The one who is to come is so much more than me. So much stronger than me. The one to come, that will be who saves you!

         I think, though I wasn’t there, that as Jesus emerged from the water as John baptizes him, and the heavens break open, the Holy Spirit descends and God’s voices says “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” I think, when that happens, the people are expecting Jesus to be Zeus, or Thor. Ok, probably they weren’t expecting a Roman or Greek God. But someone who fit that bill. Someone who would wipe out the Romans with strength and military might to set them free.

         And instead they got, Jesus.

         And he was not what they were expecting.

         Put as simply as I can, they wanted Jim Brown, the imposing, strong, leader, and amazing athlete, they got John Lewis, the smart, measured, charismatic, politician, peaceful revolutionary with a passion for justice.

         Jesus wasn’t even what John was expecting. In fact, in a few chapters we know that John is having second thoughts about Jesus because he sends word to Jesus to ask if he is the one they are waiting for, or if they should expect another.

         In Christianity there’s talk about Jesus being counter cultural, and a radical revolutionary. And he was all of that. But he was all of that in a way that was in an of itself, counter cultural and radically revolutionary.

         God came to earth not with what humans expected power and might to look like, but instead, as an infant, totally dependent on others, who grew into a man that today would likely be dismissed as a pacifist, socialist, hippie.

         John the Baptist, to be fair, would be institutionalized. Jesus probably would be too.

         Over the centuries the image of both of these men have been broken down and reformed into more palatable things; their personalities, their ministries, even their looks have been completely white-washed to make them more palatable and easier to follow.

John’s role has also been diminished, and he himself has been dismissed to the fringes of Christianity’s origin story.

         It’s hard to be the one who paves the way! If we go back briefly to Betty White, she was a pioneer and groundbreaking woman. She did SNL a few years ago with a cast of women who have been able get where they have because of the work Betty did to pave the way.

         I myself stand in the shadow of the Philadelphia 11, of the Bailey Whitbecks and Linda Grenz’s (and I know you all don’t know Linda, but she was my boss in Rhode Island and in the second group of women ordained, the Philadelphia 11 were the first, and Linda was ordained next to  Pauli Murray who we now understand was the first trans person ordained, and also a civil rights pioneer who gave Thurgood Marshall the legal idea that ended up winning Brown v. Board of Education but got no recognition).

         I walk in their footprints. And they had to work SO HARD to be able to leave footprints at all.

         John the Baptist worked really hard. He was adamant. He was murdered, by the state, before Jesus. His execution burried in a story about a King’s greed. When in reality, he didn’t just speak truth to power, he screamed truth to power and demanded to be heard. Even though he knew, HE KNEW it would cost him his life.

         And Jesus. That brown skinned, kind man, who hung out with those who were absolutely marginalized by society. He hung out with the sick, the poor, criminals, and those who were deemed unclean or unworthy by society.

         He healed people that most people wouldn’t go near, even doctors. He listened to them. Made them feel human and worthy. Even over the objection of his own disciples.

         His revolution didn’t have weapons or military power. His revolution was to say “this is not the way of God. Follow me! Be kind and care for one another. Don’t horde wealth at the expense of your neighbor in need. Certainly don’t exploit your neighbor for financial gain. Care for one another as you care for yourself. Love God, love yourself, love each other.”

         His revolution was not what was expected.

         His revolution, it turns out, was not particularly welcome.

         In order to gain acceptance, in order to meet expectations, over time his revolution was changed. And now stands as something akin to “Jesus loves you, no matter what”, and that’s it.

         Leaving God, anxious with expectation for when creation will come around to live the way God intended.

         There’s this human quality of expecting things to be and work out the way we want them too. But this puts us in the place of God. It puts our will, our wants, our expectations onto God.

         But the thing is, we aren’t God. And until we are willing to live like we believe that we aren’t God, we’ll never change. Because our expectations will remain as though God will come around to our way of thinking.

But God won’t. We have to be the ones to change. We have to be the ones to be different.

         We have to be the ones who love, who act out of love, who embrace opportunities to grow and change, to repair broken relationships. We have to do it. On earth. Now. We have to stop demanding that we are right and that everyone else come around to our way of thinking.

         All of our ways of thinking are wrong.

         All of our expectations are wrong.

         All of us are really lucky that God, much like Allen Ludden, is remarkably patient and certain that we will come around.

         Because God keeps asking, and sending different people, gifts, ideas. It is up to us to get out of our own way and say yes.

         Betty White regretted till the day she died the year she didn’t spend loving her husband.

         Before she died Betty said that when she gets to heaven she expected Jesus or Peter, whoever answered the gate when she got there to say “heeeeeerrrrrreeeeee’ssssss Allen!”

         And she lived the rest of her days in expectation of that moment.

         This week, I invite all of us to consider what are the things, where are the places, where we are putting our expectations on others, and on God? Perhaps around Covid related behaviors. Maybe we can notice this while we watch the news or scroll on social media.

         All of us do this. All of us put our expectations on others and on God.

         How is God failing to meet our expectations? How are we failing to meet God’s?

         And what can we do to change our answer when God asks us to take God’s hand and walk together through this life?


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