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The belovedness of community

In the Korean Presbyterian church of her childhood, Mihee Kim-Kort learned the necessity of belonging.

Medjugorje, Bosnia and Herzegovina, August 16 2016: Mosaic of the baptism of Jesus Christ by Saint John the Baptist as the first Luminous mystery

In January, I spent some time with the lectionary text for Baptism of the Lord Sunday.

This year, we were in Matthew’s Gospel where we were led through the conception of Jesus, the birth, the visit by the Magi, the beloved family fleeing to Egypt, and their return to Nazareth. The scene switches in chapter three to John the Baptist, and our lectionary text for the day is when Jesus goes from Galilee to see his cousin John in order to be baptized.

We know the story: John protests it, but Jesus convinces him. And the rest: water, heavens, Spirit of God, a dove, and all who overhear the voice saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:17)

The lectionary wasn’t a part of my childhood church, although these stories about Jesus, his birth and baptism, his ministry and mission, his life, death, and resurrection — these were familiar. I grew up in a Korean Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) mostly immigrant church in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and we loved all things Bible. But while knowing these stories was important, it was the Korean community that was central to my family’s faith identity, and very simply, our survival.

Like many Korean immigrant churches, my parents worshiped in Korean, and this meant they were surrounded by people who looked like them, talked like them, ate like them. For all of us, it was a respite from the rest of the week — a chance to breathe, to remember who we were because it was reflected in the people around us, and in the food, songs and the easy laughter found in that place. It reminded us that we weren’t alone. It showed us that belonging was not only a possibility, but a necessity.

The belovedness of community

Inventory for baptism and the priest’s hand in the Catholic Church. Incense, oil and holy water.

But belonging has always seemed entangled with ethnicity or economics, maybe gender and generations — a bit confusing. I later learned from worship professor Sally Brown (now retired from Princeton Theological Seminary) how central baptism is to faith, and to our belonging. And so we are led to consider how Jesus is manifest in the world after the message of Christmas, that is, the incarnation of God particularly through his baptism. Our denominational resources from the PC(USA) instruct us: “The Baptism of the Lord is closely related to Epiphany and should be considered in relation to that feast. Jesus’ ministry to bring in God’s rule was inaugurated in his baptism. As he came out of the water, all saw the Spirit rested on Jesus and a sign of God’s approval.” Baptism manifests the reconciling activity that would be a through line in all Jesus’ teaching, preaching, healing and turning tables.

Baptism manifests the reconciling activity that would be a through line in all Jesus’ teaching, preaching, healing and turning tables.

But this baptism is also when Jesus hears who he is as God’s son, because it isn’t only about what Jesus is called to do, but who he is called to be.

Doing is rooted in being, and they are always in intimate relationship with one another. This is fundamental, because even before Jesus begins the work that will shake the foundations of all the world’s empires, he will first be driven into the wilderness to face numerous temptations. Alone. He needed the reminder that he is beloved, and his calling, his work, is rooted in that belovedness.

So it is that belovedness we lift up each year as a reminder of our belonging. It appears in all three Gospels, and so it’s clearly significant enough that we should hear it each year at the appointed time — and a message we actually need year round. And yet, this year I was not drawn as much to the belovedness of Jesus as I was to John the Baptist.

In Matthew, the writer depicts John the Baptizer in the usual ways. He’s in the wilderness with his messages of repentance, wearing camel hair, surviving on honey and grasshoppers, calling out the religious leaders, and he’s baptizing people in the Jordan River. He’s an outlier, but an outsider in more ways than one. John the Baptizer is not a part of the genealogy listed in Matthew, or even in Luke, although we do get his back story there. He is a cousin to Jesus through Elizabeth, who is a cousin to Mary. But the story in Luke almost gives us a sense that Mary’s side of the family – between Zechariah’s muteness, Elizabeth’s pregnancy in old age, and here’s John — is, well, you know, “that side of the family.”

And yet, here he is. John has been waiting for this moment. He’s been preparing everyone for this moment. How could someone like John deign to baptize the Messiah, the Anointed, the Son of Man, the Son of David?

Our shared belovedness as belonging

“Jesus answers him, ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.’” (Matthew 3:15)  Jesus asked John to respond to the call in that time and space in order “to fulfill all righteousness.” In the Gospel of Matthew, righteousness looms large. But righteousness isn’t about individual legalism. It is another way of knowing and being, it is prophecies in the wilderness, dreams and visions. It is that other knowledge that comes to us by way of stars and angels that speaks to a reality of the fullness of God that would be promised to humanity. It is that alternative way of relating, of relations, of family, of belonging that recognizes the human longing for connection in all of us. At the time, the people didn’t know what “fulfill all righteousness” would look like. They were expecting kings and warriors, but now we know the fullness of God came to us as a baby named Emmanuel, named “God-with-us.”

In this moment, Jesus invites John to be a part of something bigger, even if it seemed beyond reason. But “it is proper” is not about behavior or rationality, or who’s in or out, but about time. It is about the moment, and attending to what is needed in this moment. John, through this particular moment, this baptism, shows us what it means to “fulfill all righteousness.” John shows us that no matter who you are, where you come from or what side of the genealogy you’re on, we’re all called to participate in belovedness, and to show the ways that God is manifest in the world.

But John’s presence in this baptism is also a much-needed reminder that all of us really do come from somewhere. It’s a reminder that we’re part of and we’re carried by the hopes and longing of others, and that God’s expansive love for us stretches throughout time and space to include every lineage and genealogy, even those branches that fall or grow somewhere else. Our belovedness in God is never separate from the belovedness of the whole human community in Christ.

Although this is the season of Lent, we are given another epiphany in this moment of the baptism of Jesus, that is, the belovedness of Jesus, which is an important manifestation of God in the person of Jesus. But it is also about all of us, about the baptizing community, or the community of witnesses: the beloved community. This is a story about belovedness and belonging. Our shared belovedness – belonging to one another – is what makes all our work for the kingdom possible, and meaningful. And so, much of what I understand about belonging was shaped by the sights, tastes, sounds, smells and gestures that filled the Sundays of my youth: the music of 20 or so members who gathered early to sing hymns in the rented sanctuary before the start of worship (I played the piano and my father was the song leader); rice and soups cooking in the fellowship-hall kitchen for lunch after service; kids running amok around the whole church; and the quiet of the sanctuary when we gathered afterwards with our youth pastor and he led us in singing gospels of his childhood.

The being-with of everyday belonging

The nitty-gritty of belonging, of our shared belovedness, happened on Mondays through Saturdays, and I think our church truly became like a family to us not because we shared the same language or lineage, but because we were a part of each other’s moments – all those struggles and celebrations throughout the whole week. Sure, yes, the church had other gatherings, ones that were made for a different lifetime: Wednesday evening services and Friday evening Bible study, fellowship and dinner.

But it was also the in-between and everyday, when my parents visited people in the hospital
and in their homes to provide consolation, hope and solidarity. I would hear both my father and mother on the phone a lot — listening to other people from the church, their stories, often about work in the U.S., the difficulties of assimilation, and then about relatives back home in Korea, parents and siblings and cousins passing away, or going to college or moving. My parents made space for it all — laments, joy, grief, and they offered encouragement in the listening. Living can’t be measured by the metrics we use for success or growth. It was ultimately about caring for one another, and how family is made and expressed in myriad ways.

Living can’t be measured by the metrics we use for success or growth. It was ultimately about caring for one another, and how family is made and expressed in myriad ways.

The ways the church models these radical structures of care continues to teach me. How wonderful it is that we are given the holy and sacred task of holding space for one another, for this shared belovedness. Not just clergy, or the elders or deacons, not only those ordained, but all of us are called to convey the presence and promise of God’s steadfast love. To be witnesses to one another’s belovedness. And it can happen in what seem like ordinary and everyday acts of belonging: a phone call, a visit, a meal, a prayer.

All of this work is an expression of our belovedness. Being loved, and becoming loved, is a daily walk toward belonging. It’s not just about inclusion or hospitality, but about solidarity, the being-with in all things. Nor is it about ownership or possession, but being a part of one another because we also need each other. This is what grounds all our work, and even our baptism: the beloved community, all those who witness and overhear the message of God’s love. We belong to one another because we are meant for one another.