According to the lectionary, today is Baptism of the Lord Sunday. It is the day of the year when we remember that Jesus walked out of the wilderness and to the River Jordan to be baptized, immersed in the muddy waters by a man named John. After Jesus was baptized, and with water still streaming from his face, the heavens opened and God spoke. God said the words that Jesus longed to hear. God said the words that each of us long to hear – “This is my beloved, in whom I am well pleased.” And the Holy Spirit broke forth from the heavens and descended and alighted on him like a dove.
And it says at the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel that John had been out in the wilderness a long time, baptizing anyone and everyone. Even the religious leaders and the elite joined the crowds to check out what was going on and what was so special about this message of repentance and belovedness. But in the midst of this sea of humanity, seeking and craving to know God’s love, is when the heavens opened and the word “beloved” was used. God called down from the distant heavens, the far away heavens, that we can, indeed, be close to God… that we can be loved. Matthew’s translation says that when Jesus came up from the waters, God pronounced that his name was Jesus, the Beloved. His name was beloved. It was not just a characteristic of Jesus, it was his name!
And I think Matthew’s emphasis on Jesus’ name being Beloved is important for each of us. You see, Jesus was baptized in the same muddy waters as the throngs of humanity. And all the people of Judea and the whole region were there when God called Jesus beloved. God was not just calling Jesus beloved. God was calling us ALL beloved. So, this Gospel is for us. The name beloved is a name for each and every one of us just as it was a name for every person in the wilderness, gathered at that river. Every person has a name and it is beloved.
And I think this is an important message for us, as Christians, to remember time after time, especially as we begin a new year. You see, this story reminds me that God has a name for me. And that name is beloved. We all have names. We are given names at birth. That name usually means something significant and I try to highlight the names of our babies when we celebrate baby and family dedications here at Royal Lane. Our names speak into our lives and give us agency and give us purpose. And God is telling us in this Gospel text for today that it’s like we are born with a nametag on our chest that says “beloved.”
Thinking about what it means to be beloved brought me back to an old book I read in college, “Life of the Beloved” by Catholic priest and theologian, Henri Nouwen. Nouwen was a professor at Notre Dame, Harvard, and Yale and before he died, was the pastor of a community for people who were differently abled both mentally and physically. Nouwen understood what it meant to see every human being as the beloved of God. He lived it each and every day of his life.
Nouwen wrote the book “Life of the Beloved” as a letter to one of his best friends, Fred. Fred was Jewish and wanted Nouwen to write a book that talked about God for a young Jew and his friends and not necessarily for Nouwen’s own Christian community. So, because of their friendship, Nouwen wrote the book. This was Fred’s request of Nouwen:
“Speak to us about the deepest yearning of our hearts, about our many wishes, about hope; not about strategies for survival, but about trust; not about new methods of satisfying emotional needs, but about love. Speak to us about a vision larger than our changing perspectives and about a voice deeper than the clamoring of mass media. Yes, speak to us about something of someone greater than ourselves. Speak to us about… God.”
“Who am I to speak of such things?” Nouwen answered. “My own life is too small for that. I don’t have the experience, the knowledge or the language you are asking for. You and your friends live in a world so different from my own.”
Fred didn’t give Nouwen much wiggle room. “You can do it… you have to do it…if you don’t who will? Visit me more often; talk to my friends; look attentively at what you see, and listen carefully to what you hear. You will discover a cry welling up from the depths of the human heart that has remained unheard because there was no one to listen.”
Fred wanted someone to listen to his life, to see that he was worthy of love. So, Nouwen wrote a book about how each and everyone one of us is beloved. That is our name. God does not see anyone differently. Since we are the beloved of God we must learn to see ourselves as beloved. If you’re like me, the negative voices are often louder than the positive ones. In my head are voices that say I’m stupid and I’m not perfect, I’m not good enough and I’m a terrible person. Those voices are loud. And those voices often feel louder than God’s voice of love. What I really need to remember is that God shouted from the heavens that I am beloved. You are beloved. We are beloved. Each and every one of us is beloved and that is our name.
I want us to pause and take moment to let this really sink in. So, take a moment and think about what beloved means to you. What images come to your mind when you hear the term – loved or – beloved? Think about those images. What does being beloved mean to you? Have you received unconditional love from someone? If so, how did it feel? If not, what might it be like to receive that love? Just as Nouwen says he heard a soft, gentle voice calling him “beloved,” from parents, friends, teachers, students and even strangers, consider who in your life has been that voice, calling you worthy of love, the beloved. What are your relationships to these people? How is that message expressed to you? Take a moment and think about those people and what they said to you… let that message give you strength.
In Nouwen’s book it says that every time you listen with great attentiveness to the voice that calls you the Beloved, you will discover within yourself a desire to hear that voice longer and more deeply. It is like discovering a well in the desert. Once you have touched wet ground, you want to dig deeper. There are so many loud voices competing for our attention! How will we in this 2020 year choose to listen to those voices the say we are beloved? Think about how we might choose to think and act as the beloved of God. How might we change the ways we engage in the world knowing that other people are beloved of God too?
As Jesus followers, we know that we are beloved and because we know that we are beloved we are freer to share love and goodwill with others. Many historians believe that central to the rise of Christianity was the simple fact that Christians generously loved each other and their neighbors. Historians point out that in the ancient world love and mercy were widely seen as character defects that ran counter to retribution. Retribution demanded people get what they deserved and was seen as appropriate, where mercy extended grace, love, and kindness to people who had done nothing to deserve it.
And Christians valued mercy rather than retribution. Early Christian communities became places where people tended to live longer and healthier lives, for when they suffered sickness, poverty, or mishap they had friends in Christ who provided for their needs. And Christians extended love way beyond the boundaries of family and congregation even into their neighborhoods and cities. In 251 A.D. for example, a great plague struck the Greco-Roman world. Memories were revived of a plague a century earlier in which more than a third of the population died. Fear was everywhere. Those who could afford it fled to the countryside. Those who could not remained in the cities. When they went to the temples they found them empty, the priests having fled. The streets were filled with those who had become infected, their families left with no option but to push them out the door.
Christian communities however took an entirely different approach. They saw it as their responsibility to love the sick and dying, so they took them into their homes and nursed them. This action meant that many people recovered who otherwise would have died. In “The Early Church,” church historian Henry Chadwick comments, “The practical application of charity was probably the most potent single cause of Christian success. The pagan comment ‘see how these Christians love one another’ (as reported by Tertullian) was not irony. Christian charity expressed itself in care for the poor, for widows and orphans, in visits to brethren in prison or condemned to the living death of labour in the mines, and social action in time of calamity like famine, earthquake, pestilence, or war.”
You see, God appears when we love others. God rips open the heavens and calls forth love over all of humanity when we provide charity for others, include others, and show people that they, too, are beloved. And that can make us big enough and strong enough to conquer any need that we have, that this church has, and that this city has. When you know that you are God’s beloved, no negative and hurtful power can succeed against you, not even the “giants” who may taunt you.
Consider David who slew Goliath in Hebrew Scriptures. “David” in Hebrew means “beloved.” It takes a David to knock down a giant. In other words, it takes someone who knows that he or she is God’s beloved to win the fights of life! And we have some big goliaths to slay this year in our personal lives, in our church, in this city, and in this nation. We have some big things to change in Dallas to make sure that everyone is treated as a beloved of God.
We must slay the goliath of immoral bail procedures. The poor are beloved of God and they should not stay in jail longer than someone who has money. They are beloved. We must slay the goliath of racial injustice this year as people of color don’t have the same access to jobs, resources, and wealth that white people do. They are beloved. We must slay the goliath of insecure housing as homes in good neighborhoods make it easier for someone to go to school, get food, and get healthcare. People need homes and they are beloved. We must slay the goliath of religious fear as our siblings in the faith are looking for the same belovedness as we find as Christians. We need to share more meals, celebrate more diversity, and spread more goodwill as all people of faith who believe we are loved. How will we slay our goliaths this year?
Beloveds, we have a lot of goliaths to slay in 2020. And because we do, we must remember that God has named us and we are beloved. Nouwen says “When our deepest truth is that we are the Beloved and when our greatest joy and peace come from fully claiming that truth, it follows that this has to become visible and tangible in ways we eat and drink, talk and love, play and work.” It’s time for each of us to know that we are beloved so that we can slay the giants of discrimination and greed and cruel power in this city. We are in this together and we are all tied together as a human race. It’s time for us to know that we are each beloved and that every person we meet is beloved and the we need to work to end hurtful actions and attitudes that cause us not to see each other in love.
So, again, I bring us back to Fred’s words to Nouwen, “You can do it… you have to do it…if you don’t who will? Visit me more often; talk to my friends; look attentively at what you see, and listen carefully to what you hear. You will discover a cry welling up from the depths of the human heart that has remained unheard because there was no one to listen.” It’s time to listen to the cries of the beloved in this church and in Dallas and be people who create the beloved community.