Beginning with beloved…

A sermon about the time John the Baptist waded into the Jordan and baptized Jesus even though he didn’t want to. (Matthew 3:1-17)

Spiritual identity means we are not what we do or what people say about us. And we are not what we have. We are the beloved children of God. ~Henri Nouwen

Last week we heard the story of the Magi who came to see the tiny child that the skies had announced with a shining star and voices of angels and this week we find ourselves peering up at the sky once again, this time, with Jesus. Not baby Jesus, but a grown man who has come with the crowds to be baptized… who has come to this sacred place fraught with history and meaning…

Jesus has come to the river his ancestor Jacob crossed with but a staff…

Jesus has come to the river his ancestor Joshua led the people across on their journey from bondage to freedom

Jesus has come to the river the crossed by Elijah and Elisha – also on dry ground

Jesus has come to the river Elisha bid Naaman to go and wash and be healed

This is the riverbank in which John the Baptist has chosen to occupyThis is the riverbank John the Baptist has chosen to protest the powerful and elite and those who are using God’s word like a weapon in the synagogues and in the name of Rome… John the Baptist has returned to this place where God has rescued the people of God before and proclaims God’s power to do so again… he wades into the river and invites others to do to the same… to wade in, and immerse themselves in waters of redemption and transformation.

To be clear… John isn’t baptizing folks so they will be saved when they die. He’s marking them and reminding them of their entire salvation history and inviting them to claim it. John has become the prophet he was born to be and his words are powerful! Come and be baptized and live like the claimed, liberated, loved, empowered, powerful people of God you are! Make this day a new day!

Like the prophets that have come before, John chooses to create a movement on the margins and the people come… “the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan” (Matthew 3:5) crowds were streaming to the Jordan for renewal and repentance… not a ritual for rituals sake but as part of a revolution… for the common Jew quashed by the Roman Empire and at the mercy of the Temple Elite repentance meant relinquishing their dependence and their loyalty to the very authorities who controlled their lives.

And according to the Gospel of Matthew, this is where Jesus turns up for the first moments of his public ministry, not the temple or the synagogue, not to confer with the high priests or those in positions of power. Instead he arrives on the river bank – this sacred, contested, political, spiritual and religious space… and asks to be baptized.

This isn’t the first time Jesus and John meet… we know they’ve met before, still in the wombs of their courageous mothers… when Mary sang her own liberation anthem… and I wonder if they hear it’s echo as they greet one another in the flesh on the riverbank.

At first John refuses to baptize Jesus, but Jesus insists… for some Jesus’ insistence is cause for discomfort… why would a sinless man repent, why would God’s own son submit to someone else’s authority, how could this cleansing act have any power over someone already so perfect?

Jesus will defy expectations throughout his life and ministry. He will scandalize the established religious community and disappoint his disciples again and again…. he will refuse the hospitality of rich and sit on the floor of the poor… he will dismiss the wise and encourage children and women and outcast to sit at his feet… he will forgo religious talk for dinner and stories… he won’t claim a throne or pick up a sword – even in the name of righteousness. Even John will one day write him and ask… are you sure you’re the one??

But for now John finally agrees– he plunges the body of Christ… this wholly human wholly divine man under the surface of the Jordan.

I wonder if Jesus’ whole life flashes through his mind’s eye as he sinks beneath the surface. Not just his embodied life, but his life that began at the beginning – when all of creation first burst forth. Beginning with that first infinite breath of God and on and on through his own life, death and resurrection. And then forward through time all the way to ours.

When we baptize today we often say the words, “remember your baptism” – can you remember? Can you tap into this collective memory – can your imagine yourself part of the whole? The ALL of creation? Plunged beneath the waters of God’s making and rising to hear God’s words:

“This is my Child, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

It’s a bold claim – to suppose that these words are for us right along with Jesus. But Jesus spends his life making it abundantly clear: no one is excluded, or exempt or abandoned by God. No one is out of reach or untouchable or too terrible for God to love. Jesus insists on being baptized right along with everyone else and so here we are, right along with Jesus, rising out of the river to hear these words:

“This is my Child, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

 As someone raised up in our Christian tradition and trained up as a Presbyterian Pastor… as someone who loves the communities and ritual we’ve created I worry and I wonder about what we’ve done with this particular sacrament, this baptismal moment… we’ve taken this baptismal moment… a ritual created as an act of protest against the temple authorities, an act meant to symbolize the power of the river, the people, the margins, of God’s ability to turn the world on it’s head and we’ve institutionalized and domesticated it… we’ve written rules about it, who can do it and what they can say and can’t say about it when they do. We’ve treated this moment like a ticket to be redeemed for salvation or a place at the table or to a place in heaven…

But the waters of baptism aren’t meant to save us, they are meant to renew and empower us. They aren’t meant to transport us to safety but to transform us into people who aren’t afraid to live – who aren’t afraid to stand against hate and oppression, who aren’t afraid to love; The waters of our own baptism are meant to stir our communal memory – to connect us to the God story that can hold our story and the next person and the next person’s story… until they are all woven together into one big beautiful, mess of a story and we don’t know who’s is whose and we can’t separate ourselves out or line ourselves up according to who’s the best or smartest or strongest or most deserving and so we all have to accept the fact that when God calls out you are mine, you are beloved, it is with you I am most pleased that God is talking to ALL of us….

When I first encountered this idea, maybe 15 years ago, that in Christ’s baptism, God calls us each beloved – I believe in Henri Nouwen’s book, Life of the Beloved, I was astounded… I wasn’t sure I could believe it about myself – that God would love me like God loved Christ, so I started telling my boys who were tiny at the time, every night at bedtime: “You belong to God, you are belovedyou are mine, you are beloved.” such a simple and yet, such a powerful statement – so easy to say and yet… so hard to believe about ourselves, isn’t it?

What might the world look like if we all knew ourselves to be claimed and loved?What might the world look like if we all knew one another as claimed and loved?

I found this simple truth so hard to hold onto over the years – especially in the times of loss or failure that I finally got it tattooed on my arm… yep. Tattooed. On my arm. You are beloved. Where I could see it. Every day.

cropped-youarebeloved.jpg

Nouwen says the biggest obstacle to knowing God’s love is that we can’t seem to hold on to this simple truth when we are hurt, rejected, abandoned or failures… We can’t believe we are beloved in the face of hatred or abuse and so we acquiesce, we reject ourselves… but what if we didn’t? What if Leelah Alcorn the young transgender woman who committed suicide by stepping in front of a truck in the last weeks had known herself as beloved before she heard the names rejection or abandoned? What if we taught small children to look in the mirror and see beloved before they saw strong or weak, big or small, black, brown or white?

Nouwen says when  truly believe this about ourselves – that we are beloved, we can’t help but believe it about others as well… I know, it’s idealistic isn’t it? But isn’t that what Jesus modeled throughout his whole life and ministry?  A ridiculously expansive grace that even his followers wished he would tone down? What if police officers… What if protesters, What if Americans…. What if Christians… What if Muslims and Jews… What if we saw one another first as beloved? What if that’s where we began?

Instead of tattoos to remember that you’re beloved… I’m not going to ask you all to get tattoos today but I am going to invite you to remember, during the next hymn we’re going to flick and fling and smear this water (in small bowls) on one another – I’d like to invite you to share the love… shower one another with a bit of water and remember…You are beloved.

God doesn’t tear through time and space to confer judgment or rapture folks off to heaven or leave some folks behind. God breaks into the human story to name and claim and love us. “You are mine. You are beloved. That’s the beginning of our story. Don’t you forget it. Amen.

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What do you know?

Sermon for Sunday March 2, 2014 (Narrative Lectionary)

“Human beings must be known to be loved; but Divine beings must be loved to be known.” ~Blaise Pascal

We read John 9:1-41 the story of the Man Born Blind with the refrain, Open our eyes Lord, We want to see Jesus… you should read the whole story of this man born blind and sing a song about seeing Jesus.

 

Sermon: What do you know? 

In our tradition, this is what we call Transfiguration Sunday… in our other three gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke there is a story of Jesus taking three of his closest friends and disciples and climbing to the top of high mountain to pray, while they are there Jesus’ face is transfigured (or changed) – and he shines like the sun, so brilliantly it blinds the disciples…

(Not surprisingly) John doesn’t offer us this traditional transfiguration story. There’s no mountain top or blinding light or God’s voice speaking from the clouds… instead, there is a man, born blind, there is spit and dirt and mud packed on eyes… and there is a transfiguration… yes, there is an alteration but instead of Jesus, it is the man who is forever changed…

I say changed and not healed for a reason… I say changed and not restored… because it’s important that we tune in at the very start of this story and hear some key things about these characters…

Jesus has just left the temple… where he’s been arguing and almost arrested by the authorities for making bold claims about himself, for siding with sinners and for performing miracles… or as we know John loves to call them, signs, on the Sabbath… Jesus is with his disciples and they encounter this man… a man born blind who sits by the temple gates begging… he is not alone in the world, he has a family – parents – who are later called upon to testify but in the social order and religious beliefs of this time blindness such as his was considered a blemish – evidence that someone has done something terribly wrong. So engrained was this belief that when the disciples see him, they don’t pause for a moment to wonder if he’d done something wrong but instead asked the question “Who has sinned? This man, or his parents?”

And Jesus says something radical… something so difficult for us to hear, so hard for us to believe, so very different from everything his culture and ours tells us over and over again… Jesus says, Nothing. Neither this man nor his parents have done a thing to earn this. They haven’t sinned, they haven’t made God angry, this isn’t punishment or shame or castigation.

How many times have you heard the voices in the crowd, on the news, in your own communities, even in your own heads, that heap on the shame… this pain, this difficulty, this difference… it must be punishment. Or it’s the refrain that pops into our head (unbid) when we encounter brokenness, difference or suffering in another… This one of oldest and most harmful stories we tell about God.

There are so many voices… in Jesus’ time, in the generation the Gospel of John was first written for and in our own time, that declare God’s wrathful judgment where it isn’t. There are voices that claim that every disaster and illness even our differences – whether physical or biological, if something sets us apart it must be our punishment. Voices that shame parents of difficult or differently-abled children, voices that claim that God is only interested in loving whom society deems perfect… and yet here is a radical notion. The man who was born blind was just fine… In fact more than fine. The problem wasn’t him, but the community that defined him. Jesus said so. He was perfect – the perfect vessel, the perfect disciple, the perfect teacher to partner with Jesus in a story that would transfigure our understanding of who truly sees… and who is truly blind.

Let’s trace this unfolding scene for just a moment… the man born blind gets progressively more aware as the story unfolds… receiving sight is the signal or catalyst of the change… but he comes to understand… to know who Jesus is gradually as the story unfolds… first his neighbors don’t even recognize him… which seems strange doesn’t it? Another failure to see who and what is right in front of them… at first the man simply describes Jesus as the “man called Jesus”… then when the authorities question him, he realizes Jesus must be a prophet and tells them so… when questioned a second time he asks if others want to become Jesus’ disciple as well… and insists Jesus must come from God… how else could he wield such power?

My favorite part of this whole story is the man doesn’t actually see Jesus with his own eyes until the very end of the story… remember he went away from Jesus with mud covering his eyes… and yet he came to know who Jesus was, what wisdom and power he held… through his actions… through his words… through his touch before he ever laid eyes on him. Jesus comes to him after he is thrown out of the temple and has to introduce himself… “you are speaking to him.” Says Jesus. By then the man has already come to know and love Jesus, and so when he sees him, he worships him.

The opposite happens to the Pharisees (religious authorities) doesn’t it? They can see Jesus from the start… and they can see the blind man… and they can see the way the world works… bad things happen to bad people… and physical differences are blemishes, and people who experience loss or suffering or pain have deserved it. Messiah’s don’t come from working families in Galilee. Messiah’s are royal and untouchable… you don’t know their mothers and brothers… God doesn’t work through ordinary people; and certainly not poor ones. God only lives inside the temple not outside laying around the gates…  and miracles don’t happen on the Sabbath.

The authorities were afraid, and fear always stands in the way of vision. They don’t have a vision for the world working any way but the way they’ve always known, and so they eliminate the possibility of God standing right there in front of them… they cannot see the truth… they can’t even imagine it. They have physical sight but no vision… they have shame but no grace, they have a rulebook but have forgotten whom it’s pointing to and worship the rules instead.

Does your fear ever cloud your vision?

Has God ever stood right in front of you but you couldn’t see?

What gets in your way of knowing this God?

What is the difference between what we see and what we know?

When the religious authorities question the man and his parents, insisting that some one has to be a sinner in this story… there must always be a bad guy mustn’t there? I love that in that moment he doesn’t even care if Jesus is a sinner or a saint…

The man answered, “I don’t know whether he’s a sinner. Here’s what I do know: I was blind and now I see.” (John 9:25)

Here’s what I know… what a great way of understanding how we come to know God. Here’s what I know. Here’s my lived experience. For the blind man it goes like this: I was blind and now I see.

What do you know?

What is your lived experiences of God?

Of life or love, of fear or doubt?

When has someone stopped and seen you? Really seen you?

Jesus spits in the dirt and makes mud and smears it all over this man’s face. This is an intimate and embodied act… have you ever had an experience like that?

Has anyone ever looked at your wounds, or the parts of you the world’s voice, or even your own voice, has declared broken and shameful or a sign of weakness and called it a strength? Have you ever come to know someone so well that you recognize them with out having to lay eyes on them? You know them by their words and deeds…

This is the invitation John extends to every seeker… come and get to know this man called Jesus… this prophet, this one who comes from God, who embodies light in the most unexpected places… come and know him, not by looking but by living… set aside your assumptions and shame and come to know him… encounter him in the generosity of the poor, in the stories of those born blind, or different, seek him out in the life of the ones you thought at first glance were the powerless… seek him out in your own life.

I think there is a reason this story doesn’t often win out in the public discourse we have about religion and faith… for all the grief I give these “religious authorities” I also understand them. I understand the need to have an answer… even a terrible answer can quiet our fears a bit better than no answer. And there are times God feels downright unknowable aren’t there?

Jesus never does get to the question of the man’s blindness – there is no explanation. I was blind and now I see… and that’s enough for the man for now. There so many things in our lived experiences we’d like an answer for. We live a lot of our lives like these Pharisees trying to make logical sense of why the world works like it does… why bad things happen, why people suffer, why it feels at times as if God is very far away. And if we think we have an answer, boy do we cling to it, don’t we?

But we also know there are no simple answers. This is the complex story of what it means to be a people of faith… we draw close to God and move far away and then circle back again. We find community and build families and relationships and at times we stretch them and even break them, and we learn to mend and rebuild and remake them. We are transfigured by our faith over and over again and there is cadence to our lives… a desire to know and be known by God… to see and be seen by Jesus, to love and be loved by one another.

And so we come to know by doing. We come to know the love of God because we enact it here – in this place, in our prayers and when we come to the table and when we go out into the world. We enact it in our lives as we reflect and refract and carry the light of Christ for one another. We take turns leading and following and leaning on the one who seems to have the clearest vision in each moment – depending on one another’s imaginations and trusting God to keep revealing God’s self in our midst. Amen.

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Two-face Jesus? September 12.2012

MARK 8:27-33
Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples,
“Who do people say that I am?”
And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them,
“But who do you say that I am?”
Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.
Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

I don’t know about you, but when I read this text I really feel for Peter. First, it seems as if Jesus is baiting the disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” What are folks saying about me?” And it’s Peter who seems to land on the right answer, declaring Jesus the “Messiah”. This is no small title. For the first time in Mark’s Gospel Jesus has been identified as the one for whom the community has been waiting. Peter steps forward and makes an audacious claim, Jesus is not simply a devout Jew, not just a really compelling Rabbi, not only a prophet but the Messiah.

For a people who can’t seem to get ahead, who are constantly under the thumb of the ruling class, who are pushed to the outside again and again this is a scandalous statement. It’s brave and crazy to imagine that finally, the one who will save them — who will bring them justice and win the day — has come.
And just as shockingly Jesus confirms this news. But then, in an even more incredible twist he goes on to describe what is about to unfold in the days and weeks ahead. Rather than triumph and power he describes a scene of violence and death. His death. He paints a picture of those who will turn against him, his own people, the ruling class, the government, even his own friends.

I grieve for Peter in this moment… this isn’t at all what he thought he was describing when he declared Jesus the Messiah. The one who comes to save them will be arrested and put to death in the most shameful of ways? Peter’s head must have been reeling when he pulled Jesus aside and demanded an explanation.

Have you ever signed up for something and then found out it wasn’t at all what you thought? It required much more from you than you expected? Have you ever believed in someone with your whole heart? Thrown your whole self into following and supporting them only to discover that they weren’t quite what you thought? Maybe you romanticized or idolized them and then they turned around and got real… it turned out they were more than what you imagined, more complex than simply meeting your personal needs.
In this crucial moment Peter finds out that what he thought would save him didn’t look at all like the salvation he’d hoped for. This was his first glimpse at what loving Christ would cost him and at God’s vision for reconciliation that didn’t entail a hostile takeover but instead included a road right through the valley of death before it would emerge into the beauty of a mountaintop resurrection story that could heal the world.

Sometimes it’s those crucial moments, when the rug is pulled out from under us, when the veil is lifted, when we’re confronted by the complexity of life and we begin to see the raw, messy and hard truth of it; in these moments we learn who we truly are and who we are truly called to be.

Peter’s life will never be the same, he’s looked into the eyes of his Messiah and seen the truth. This isn’t the Messiah that he expected but it is the one the world desperately needs.

May the many faces of Christ take you by surprise,
And stretch your imagination,
May the cause of love that is bigger than winning,
and larger than just one life,
turn your expectations on their head.
May this surprising Messiah who is more than we could ever expect
continue to bring new  life to darkest places in your life,
and healing to the world.
AMEN

Peace, Shawna

Musical Mediation
You Can’t Always Get What You Want
Rolling Stones

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Daily Reflection, May 9th

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JOHN 15:4

Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abidesin the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. 

I’ve been thinking about this word abide. What does it mean to abide in someone? To abidein Jesus? The word has several meanings. It can mean to dwell in or to sojourn, which are words I gravitate to. I imagine dwelling in Christ to be an act of centering. Of being reminded of who and whose I am. But as I thought about the word abide I realized that it has other meanings as well. It can mean to follow the rules, to stay put, to stick it out, to wait patiently.There times that we can sit in the quiet space of prayer or even in the chaos of our lives and remember with joy that we are grounded in the goodness of God. Other times the chaos doesn’t seem so joyous and the quiet can be oppressive and lonely. There are moments in which we don’t feel particularly connected to God or one another and in this scripture from the Gospel of John Jesus invites us to hang on — even when the connection seems tenuous at best, he promises a mutually life-giving relationship. Stand by me Jesus tells us. Stand by me and I will stand by you.What does it mean to stand by Jesus in our own time and place? To dwell in and go with Christ?May God be your dwelling place,
and your companion as you sojourn,
May you abide in Jesus in the midst of this complex world
And know that Jesus abides in you,
May your life in God bear the fruits of this connection,
And may it connect you to the world.
AMEN

Peace,
Shawna

Ben E. King, Stand by Me

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