Beloved, Precious, and Powerful

Passage: Isaiah 43:1-7; Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
Date: January 13, 2019
Preacher: Rev Laurie M. Newman
Guest Preacher:

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One of our deepest desires is to belong. And most of us have at some point have felt the pain of not belonging. Before I went to seminary, I studied in Chicago for a master’s degree in literature and religion. It was one of the most difficult periods in my life. The academics were fine, but emotionally, I was lost. I had left the Miller-family nest, enjoyed, graduated, and moved away from a splendid college experience to the big (COLD) city. I was supporting myself in a job with a demanding, moody boss. I yearned to belong somewhere, to someone. That winter, I wandered into a small, liberal, United Church of Christ congregation. They were very warm and welcoming. The community seemed okay with having more questions than answers. One Sunday, the congregation received new members, including a man who had publicly expressed his struggle with scriptures, doctrines, and belief in God. On his joining and baptism, the congregation said, with one voice: “Welcome, Ron. . . You are one of us!” Moved by his authenticity and the congregation’s welcome, I decided to join, too. Soon after, I became the volunteer youth group leader and sang in the choir. Life in that congregation was an important step toward my call to ministry a few years later.

The ritual of baptism is a symbol that the church holds as a container for our belonging to God and one another. At times, we have struggled with who is included and who isn’t. But despite our human barriers, God’s love persists.

The passage from Isaiah was a message to people who were in exile. Vulnerable to those more powerful, they lost their home, their community, their very center. The message from Isaiah is like that of a parent who promises to stop the bully and make things right.God’s compassion is for the oppressed, and God’s desire for justice and loves extends to all: for Seba and Egypt; for Muslim, Jew, and Gentile; for the Buddhist and the atheist; for the difficult boss; for the repugnant leader; for the stranger you passed on the street. There is no wall around God’s grace. Grace is a gift that the institution of the church does not regulate.

Belonging and being loved are human needs and sometimes very hard to come by.

On this Sunday, every year, we remember Jesus’ baptism and the meaning of baptism. In baptism, the message from God is “You are beloved, and precious, and beautiful to behold.” This doesn’t mean that we escape the pain and suffering of life. But it does mean that unshakable love is forever with us to see us through the hard times. Janet Wolf, pastor of Hobson United Methodist Church in Nashville, says that baptism is “This holy moment when we are named by God’s grace with such power it won’t come undone.”

Grace and love that won’t come undone. Think about this for a moment. What if every single one of us believed this? Beloved of God, precious and beautiful to behold. What if each child was treated this way by their parents and friends? What if this belief was held by the decision-makers in Washington? What if every world leader believed this and treated others accordingly?

Do you remember the book and the movie The Color Purple? Albert wanted to marry Celie’s sister, but their father married off Celie to him instead, without Celie’s consent. She was abused by her father first and then by Albert. Albert says to Celie: “You’re black, you’re poor, you’re ugly, you’re a woman, you’re nothing at all!”

I hope this is not the kind of message that you have ever received. But some have. It’s difficult to heal from that kind of abuse and even from more subtle, unappreciative messages. But Westminster gathers each week to be reminded that we belong not just to our family of origin, not to our profession or work, and not to our nation, but to a God who is faithful, loving Kindness itself. God’s love is unshakable.

Recently, a man we don’t know called the church office and asked to have his baptism revoked. We don’t know what gave rise to his request. He wasn’t a current member. We reassured him that he is not on our membership rolls and is released from connection to the church. But, the fact is, we can’t erase baptism. God’s love is unshakable. Institutions can let us go and let us down. But God’s love remains.

“When you pass through the rivers, I will be with you; when you walk through fire, you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.” When I began this sermon, I was thinking of the survivors of the Paradise fire, and the survivors in Indonesia, after the tsunami, and all others devastated by flood and fire. Those suffering the ravages of war. Central American refugees, afraid to return to their home countries because of violence. I was thinking of those in this congregation who’ve experienced the loss of a dear one, a child, a mate. Those struggling with cancer, Parkinson’s disease, ALS. Those who are contemplating the end of their lives. Those struggling with mental illness, compulsions, and addiction. Those going through rejection and divorce. Those falsely accused and fearful. Those laboring with no pay and no clear sense of how long they will be unpaid. In all the ways we live in exile, God’s grace will not be undone. God’s love is unshakable.

God’s love that walks with us through fire and flood is not a guarantee that we will be spared suffering and loss. We can’t foresee how God brings us back from exile. Remember what happened to Jesus—he was not sheltered from pain but lived his life authentically, courageously, grounded in God’s love. And love, grace, and forgiveness ultimately triumphed.

Lutheran pastor and artist Jan Richardson tells the story of a woman named Fayette in Nashville, Tennessee. She was a part of the Hobson UMC. Fayette lived with mental illness and lupus, and she was without a home. When she took the new-member class to join the church, Fayette would ask again and again, “And when I’m baptized, I am. . .?” The pastor, Janet, said the class learned to respond: “You are beloved, precious child of God, and beautiful to behold.” “Oh, yes,” Fayette would say, and the class would return to discussion. On the day of her baptism, she was immersed and came up, sputtering, “And now I am?” And the congregation sang, “Beloved, precious child of God, and beautiful to behold,” as she danced all around the fellowship hall.

Two months later, the pastor received a phone call. Fayette had been beaten and raped and was at the county hospital. Janet went to visit and saw her from a distance, pacing back and forth. Fayette turned, saw Janet, and said, “I am beloved, precious child of God, and. . .” Catching sight of herself in the mirror—hair sticking up, blood and tears streaming down her face, dress dirty and torn, she started again: “I am beloved, precious child of God . . . God is still working on me. If you come back tomorrow, I’ll be so beautiful I’ll take your breath away.”

The grace that cannot come undone returns us from exile. 

In the few moments of silence that follow this sermon, I invite you to close your eyes, breathe deeply, and sense the presence of the community around you. Even if you have never met the people sitting next to you, in front and behind, God’s love is in our midst. Breathe it in.

I’m closing with a verse from a song I’ve sung you before. The words came to me in a prayer. The tune is a traditional Irish tune.

You are My Beloved (verses 1 ) © Lyrics by Laurie Lynn Newman, tune:Salley Gardens

Though the way is unclear, I am with you.When the road seems long, I am here.
In the dark of your doubts, I am with you.When you wake in the night, I am here. 
Refrain:I have loved you from the beginning.I will love you as others come and go.
You are indeed my beloved. So rest, be still and know.