I’ve always had a special appreciation for the regional expressions of the American South. I know every region has its own storehouse of phrases and metaphors, but there is something particularly descriptive about the ones used by Southerners.
I suspect it comes from the high value they put on conversation there; until the advent of air conditioning, people would sit out on their porch in the summer and it was too hot to do much of anything except tell stories and exchange gossip, and both of those activities lend themselves to creative wordsmithing.
So, when you’re talking about the weather, you don’t have to stop at saying it’s going to rain hard later; you can say “it’s gonna be a frog-strangler.” Now think about how hard it’s got to rain to drown a frog; pretty vivid, right? If someone gets really angry there over something relatively minor, they “pitch a hissy fit,” which supposedly refers to what happens if you dunk a cat in a bucket of water: it goes bonkers, hissing and spitting and flailing in every direction until you let it go.
If someone seems worried or apprehensive, you might say they are “as nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs.” I guess they have a thing for cats as well as vivid imagery. And, of course, there’s the legendary “bless your heart,” which can be an expression of genuine sympathy, but is often a way of pretending you’re expressing concern when you’re actually marveling at someone’s glaring faults or foolishness: “I swear, I saw Mr. Smith ushering at church today, and bless his heart, he had a new hairpiece on that looked like a raccoon had died on his head.”
One of the lesser-known expressions, though, is used when you’re meeting someone and trying to connect with them over small talk, such as at a party or after church or at a community function. When you meet people in those settings, especially people who come from more traditional contexts, they won’t ask, “What do you do?” which tends to be the default small-talk question in most areas of the country, because we tend to rely on our work as one of if not the most important sources of our individual identity.
Instead, they will ask, “who are your people?” It’s a less vivid phrase, but it has a lot of layers in its deceptively simple language. “Who are your people?” is a question about where you come from, how you were raised, what kind of morals you were taught, what role your family has played in the community, and so on. You see, traditionally, Southerners haven’t really believed in a purely individual identity, and they’ve believed even less that your profession or income sheds any meaningful light on the nature of your character. “Who are your people?” is a question that gets at a different notion of identity: that who you are deep down has much more to do with the family and community that you come from than with the work that you are doing now.
Now, “Who are your people?” might sound unfair, even oppressive, if you come from a family or community situation that you’d rather not talk about or be associated with, or even if you’ve simply lived a very different life from what your background would suggest. And that’s a fair point. But we who come out of Western European culture, and especially those of us here in the U.S., also tend to overestimate our own independence and self-determination. We worship at the altar of rugged individualism, fervently believing that we can each be anything we set our mind to, regardless of where we come from, but ignoring the fact that we are indelibly shaped by who and where we come from, even (and perhaps especially) if we dedicate ourselves to getting as far away from that as possible.
When it comes to identity, most of Western European and North American culture can be traced back to Descartes’ famous philosophical declaration, “I think, therefore I am.” By that, Descartes meant that the only thing we can really know is our own interior monologue, which proves that we exist. But virtually no ancient society would have agreed with that understanding, certainly not first century Judaism or Greco-Roman thought. And even today, many cultures, particularly in Asia and Africa, define existence and identity communally rather than individually.
In South Africa, for example, the Xhosa people have a word for this: ubuntu, which essentially means “we are, therefore I am,” or as Archbishop Desmond Tutu has often put it, ubuntu means “a person is a person through other persons; that my humanity is caught up, bound up, inextricably, with yours.” Our identity, our very being, is not reducible to ourselves as individual atoms; rather, we are always bonded together with others in molecules of meaning. Our identity, our very being, is always answering the question, “who are your people?”
When we think about baptism, we often individualize it, break it down to whatever is happening to the individual who is experiencing it, even if that individual is experiencing it alongside others who are also experiencing it at the same time. But that’s not how Jesus or John or anybody else in this story or in first-century Judea would have thought about it.
John is not out in the wilderness simply calling individuals to a baptism of repentance; he is calling the whole nation of Israel to repentance for having abandoned its covenantal responsibilities to God, for accepting the corrupt power of the temple priests in Jerusalem to maintain their relationship with God. And those who come out into the wilderness, from “Jerusalem and all Judea,” as Matthew says in this same chapter before our reading today, are coming out to be part of a renewal movement, to claim or reclaim their identity as part of the people of God, and to change their lives to reflect that identity in how they live.
Which is part of why this story about Jesus’ baptism is important enough to be included in the Christian calendar every year, the first Sunday after Epiphany; important enough, in fact, to be included in all four Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry. Christians are often confused about why Jesus needs baptism, even insists on it when John the Baptist himself asks, “why are you coming to me?” John’s baptism, in particular, is about repentance; why would Jesus need to repent from anything? The answer is because of who his people are.
Baptism is not, is never, an individual act; it is an act of God for the people of God; it welcomes individuals into the community of God’s people and aligns them together as a people in God’s will. To paraphrase Archbishop Tutu, it means that not just our humanity, but our identity, our very being as children of God, is bound up, inextricably, in one another through the power of the Holy Spirit, the same Spirit that descends upon Jesus in his own baptism as the voice of God declares, “this is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well-pleased.” In being baptized, Jesus is making clear as he begins his ministry that he is not operating as a charismatic individual, not standing apart from the people of God but standing right in the midst of them as one of them.
It’s a little surprising how easily we lose sight of that crucial truth; how easily we reduce baptism to, at best, a beautiful ceremony that marks an important transition in an individual’s life which the rest of us observe from the sidelines. But that’s not how it’s supposed to work. I’m reminded, of all things, of arguably the most famous tackle in the history of college football. It took place in the 1954 Cotton Bowl, when the University of Alabama was playing Rice University. Rice had an All-American fullback named Dicky Moegle who was having a fantastic day against Alabama.
In his first score, he had run the ball 79 yards for a touchdown, as if the Alabama defense wasn’t even on the field. Not long after, Moegle was handed the ball again, found a gap in the defense and sprinted through it, and suddenly there were about 90 yards of open field in front of him, with no defenders in sight. Moegle flew down the side of the field in front of the Alabama bench, which was on its feet staring in dismay. Suddenly, out of nowhere, Moegle was flattened by a textbook tackle, still 40 yards shy of the end zone. The only problem was, it wasn’t from an Alabama defender; it was from Tommy Lewis, a member of the Alabama offense, who had been sitting on the sidelines watching this unfold.
Lewis actually leapt off the bench, not even wearing a helmet, and tackled Moegle as he went by on the field. Moegle ended up being awarded a 95-yard touchdown run because he clearly would have scored without the illegal play. After the game, it was clear that Lewis hadn’t intended it as a cheap shot or an attempt to cheat. Tears streaming down his cheeks, he told reporters, “I didn’t know what I was doing. When I had him tackled, I jumped up and got back on the bench. I kept telling myself, ‘I didn’t do it, I didn’t do it.’ But I knew I did.” Breathing in deeply, he concluded, “I guess I’m just too full of Alabama.”
Now, for all you Penn State fans here today, the point of this story is not, “how could anybody be that full of Alabama?” The point is that Lewis certainly know who his people were; he identified with them so completely that he literally couldn’t tell that he as an individual wasn’t supposed to even be on the field. All he knew was that his people were in trouble, and he could do something about it.
It seems ridiculous, and in the great scheme of things it is, no matter how much you might love football. And yet, I can’t help wondering what it would mean if we as Christians were as full of Christ as Tommy Lewis was of Alabama; what it would mean if we identified so completely with God’s people that we not only were willing to cross any boundaries and break any rules that try to keep us on the sidelines when our people are in trouble and we can do something about it, but we did so without even stopping to think, regardless of how foolish we might look in the process.
Now, we do have our moments, moments in which we throw caution to the wind and reach out to people when the world is telling us that it’s not our problem, that it’s not our place, even that it’s not our responsibility because “they” aren’t one of “us” or “we” aren’t one of “them,” and what can we really do about it, anyway?
Our calling, then, is to have not simply moments but a movement, a way of life, the way of those baptized in Christ, who himself was baptized and went into the world ahead of us because he knew that “we,” his people, are in trouble, and he could do something about it. This baptism is his commissioning as Lord and Savior for God’s people as part of God’s people, and it sends him out into a ministry that has him cross any boundary and break any rule, including death itself, in order to help God’s people, which is, finally, everyone, because every human being bears the image of God to show that we belong to God. Those are God’s people; all of them.
And so those are our people; all of them. And as we follow Christ as Lord, as we love and serve them as one of them, may we overhear God’s voice saying, “in you I am well-pleased.