Sermon for Sunday, January 8, 2017 || Epiphany 1A || Matthew 3:13-17
Two years ago I did a sermon series during the season after Epiphany, and I enjoyed writing it so much that I thought I’d give it another shot this year. When I was putting together the materials for our pledge drive last fall, I wrote a paragraph that really energized and focused my share in our collective ministry. The words appeared on the back of the stewardship brochure, and they read: “At St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, we see, name, and celebrate the presence of God in our lives, our church, and our neighborhoods.” The paragraph continued on in a missional vein, but that first sentence, especially the verbs “see, name, and celebrate,” really sparked for me.
See. Name. Celebrate. Wonderful verbs at first glance, but then I started living with them. I don’t know about you, but my eyes don’t work very well, even when I’m wearing my corrective lenses. So seeing is hard. Naming involves gaining intimate awareness of something, and who has time for that? Finally, celebrating often feels like betrayal – with some much wrong in the world, how could we possibly find cause for celebration?
So these verbs – see, name, celebrate – once so pregnant with possibility started to tarnish as I lived with them more and more. Then something happened right before Christmas that turned everything around for me. I watched Return of the Jedi. We’re starting the year off right with a Star Wars reference. On Dagobah after Master Yoda dies, Luke Skywalker heads outside and encounters the glowing blue spirit of Obi-Wan Kenobi. Luke questions him as to why Obi-Wan lied about Luke’s parentage. “Your father,” says Obi-Wan, “was seduced by the Dark Side of the Force. He ceased to be the Jedi Anakin Skywalker and became Darth Vader. When that happened, the good man who was your father was destroyed. So, what I told you was true… from a certain point of view.”
“A certain point of view?” repeats Luke.
A teachable moment for Obi-Wan: “You’re going to find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view.”
Our own point of view. Perhaps, I was approaching those verbs backwards. I do think God calls us to see, name, and celebrate God’s presence, but as with all the good things in life, this starts with God. God seeing. God naming. God celebrating. God has been seeing, naming, and celebrating ever since the Creation story in Genesis. God names the day and night and everything else. God “saw” the creation and celebrated its goodness. So what if, for this sermon series, we try to look at things from a certain point of view, from God’s point of view? What does God see, name, and celebrate about us? And how can we incorporate that divine point of view into how we interact with God’s creation?
So for the rest of today and for the next seven weeks, we will imagine our way into God’s eyes and try to see ourselves as God sees us, using the Gospel lessons as a guide. We only have eight sermons, so the list is far from exhaustive, but by the beginning of Lent, we will have given thanks for God naming us Beloved, Befriended, Gifted, Blessed, Enlightened, Unfinished, Finished, and Transformed.
We begin with Beloved. Jesus comes up out of the waters of baptism, and the voice from heaven says, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” In our own baptism, we celebrate the reality that this wonderful statement of love and affirmation is meant for us, as well.
What does it feel like to be beloved, to be the object of someone else’s love? My kids can’t quite say their “L’s” yet, but when they say, “I yuv you, Daddy,” my heart soars. How could they possibly know what love is? Of course this questions turns itself around on me. How could I know? And that’s when Charles Dickens comes to mind. He says in The Old Curiosity Shop, “It is not a slight thing when [children], who are so fresh from God, love us.” They feel the love of God undiminished by the changes and chances of this world, and they choose to direct it to us. What amazing grace is that! This is not just biological process or brain chemistry; this is one soul bonded to another with the adhesive of God’s love. That’s what makes our hearts soar – recognizing that we are loved.
To be the Beloved of God is to accept that love for what it is – an undeserved gift, which we could never earn and never lose. Our baptism does not bestow belovedness. Baptism is a celebration of our recognition of belovedness. God sees us, warts and all, and names us Beloved. And God celebrates each and every time we claim that identity.
For in claiming the identity as God’s Beloved, we know we can’t possibly be the only ones. That would not make any sense, especially if belovedness can’t be earned. If we can’t possibly be the only Beloved of God, then who else is God’s Beloved? And that’s when the only possible answer to that question hits us with its tremendous, unshakeable beauty. Everyone is God’s Beloved.
And just like, our vision can change. We imagine God seeing, naming, and celebrating the belovedness of each person, of everything in creation, and our point of view shifts. It’s like when you buy a new car and suddenly start seeing that make and model everywhere. Did everyone buy them the same day you did? No. You just never noticed them before.
God sees and names us as God’s Beloved. That’s God’s point of view. When we enter this reality, we see, name, and celebrate that each person we meet is the Beloved of God. This is the true and primary identity of each of us. Living in this reality means affirming in word and deed the dignity and value of all people. Living in this reality means locating our worthiness in God’s love, not stealing worth from others by putting them down to build ourselves up. Claiming belovedness is the best way to beat the bully. Claiming belovedness is also the best way to stoke your own reserves of compassion for those on the margins, who we’d rather ignore to make our own lives a little more pleasant. Being God’s Beloved does not allow for such a heartless option, for they are God’s Beloved, too.
Thus, imagining how God sees us is not an entirely pleasant exercise. Being beloved is at once comforting and conflicting. We rest in God’s love and feel the pinch in our souls that so many are out there feel no love at all. And so we decide to do something about that. We’ll turn to this something next week when we imagine God befriending us. For now, dwell in the truth of God’s point of view: You are the Beloved of God. And so is everyone else.