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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Absorbing God, September 11. 2012

PSALM 19:1-3 & 14
The heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech,
and night to night declares knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words;
their voice is not heard;
yet their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.
  
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
be acceptable to you,
O LORD, my rock and my redeemer.

Psalm 19 is a beautiful Psalm, it declares all the beauty of the earth to be the voice of God. It goes on for many verses claiming that God is like the sun whose heat radiates and extends across the earth. Nothing escapes it’s light and warmth. Later in the Psalm the psalmist makes this same claim about the laws of God.

Often times when we hear the word law we think of rules that we shouldn’t break or precepts that are meant to keep us safe but so much of God’s law is about how we understand ourselves in relationship to God and one another. How do you understand the idea of God’s law? Is it something you feel you have to mind like traffic rules or other regulations? Or does God’s law give you guidance in your most important relationships?

In the story of the Israelites, God’s people are invited again and again to write God’s laws on the hearts. To move towards God while caring for and loving one another. The Psalmist ends this beautiful prose by getting personal. Instead of leaving off only describing who God is the author writes this prayer for himself, “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer.

It’s common to hear this prayer before the sermon in the course of a worship service but the Psalmist isn’t using it as an introduction to an official proclamation moment. Instead, it’s almost as if it’s a reflection or response to who God is. It could serve as a daily prayer or mantra. In light of God’s willingness to enter into relationship with humanity, to enter into the darkness and the shadows, to warm our hearts and to write on them the story of who we are the Psalmist makes this commitment. To respond to the beauty and graciousness of God by mirroring God in their own life and relationships. To absorb God in order to be more like God.

It’s such a simple phrase isn’t it? And yet such a difficult one to live out. I know I am likely to jump in with criticism or sarcasm, ready to shut down someone I disagree with or misunderstand. I often feel the need to be heard or to win in a heated debate. What happens to our relationships to one another when being heard trumps truly hearing another?

There are times in which speaking up and speaking out is necessary but I wonder how turning to God like we turn our faces to the sun and absorb it’s warmth on a summer day might change our tone or capacity for compassion in the most tense or troublesome  moments.

May all that you are God,
all that you have created,
bubble up within us so that
every word that escapes our lips,
every thought in our heads
and every feeling in our hearts,
be an extension of you, O God,
to whom we turn to and rely on.
AMEN
Peace, Shawna
Musical Mediation
Beautiful God
Shawn McDonald

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Lady Wisdom is a Street Preacher, September 10. 2012

PROVERBS 1:20-23
Wisdom cries out in the street;
in the squares she raises her voice.
At the busiest corner she cries out;
at the entrance of the city gates she speaks:
“How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple?
How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing
and fools hate knowledge?
Give heed to my reproof;
I will pour out my thoughts to you;
I will make my words known to you.

I love this image… this character of God. The street preacher, the prophetess. She cries out to us to be attentive, to be filled with the wisdom she offers us. Can you hear her calling out to you?

What does it mean to hate knowledge, or to resist wisdom? I don’t think the character of Wisdom is speaking of intellectual intelligence here. Don’t get me wrong, I have an intense appreciation for intellectual curiosity but the knowledge Wisdom is proclaiming and desperate to share is a knowledge we carry not only in our minds but our hearts and in our whole bodies. It is a knowledge she is inviting us to embody. She is inviting us to get to know God with our whole being.

In our American culture we have established institutions of learning and we think of knowledge as a consumable project, mostly for our brains. We amass words and books and research and formulas. We conduct experiments and read charts and graphs and take surveys. All of this information is filed and processed and sometimes we connect it and integrate it and sometimes it’s in one ear and out the other, we hold onto it fleetingly while we need it and then let it go, allowing new information to take it’s place.

The knowledge of God that Wisdom offers us isn’t imparted in the way we’ve become accustomed to. The secrets of God, the beauty and gravity, the enormity and generosity of God is learned in simple practices like walking along the road with another, daily prayer and in the small tasks that contribute to truly loving one another. The Wisdom of God passes through the eyes of a child, a grandmother, or a stranger.

This embodied experience of God is hidden in unexpected packages. It comes in the redemption found at the very bottom of the pit of darkness, under the scab of broken relationships where the healing is just beginning, and in the still, still voice at the center of your being. Wisdom is that street preacher or vagrant woman you pass unawares. Wisdom is hidden in the depths of the most ordinary people and practices of your day-to-day life.

May Wisdom be your teacher,
May you stop to peer into Wisdom’s eyes,
May you pause long enough to suss her out,
To hear her voice whispering in your ear,
May she fill you with the special knowledge of God,
So that you will be Wisdom too.
AMEN
Peace, Shawna
Musical Mediation
Mumford and Sons with Birdy
Learn Me Right

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