Bishop Mariann preached this sermon to the congregation of St. Mary Magdalene.
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
Friends of St. Mary Magdalene, I’d like to begin by telling you something that you already know: Your rector, the Rev. Dr. Sarah Lamming, loves you. She loves you truly and deeply. Not only does she love you, she delights in you, and she is fiercely protective of you.
Rev. Sarah loves to tell others about you–how wonderful you are, how brave and kind. She describes how creative and resilient you have been in this challenging year; how attuned you are to one another and supportive of each other; and how you continually give generously to assist others in the wider community.
From time to time, priests in the diocese will write to me about their congregations. I hear from Rev. Sarah regularly. Dear Bishop, she’ll begin–or actually, Dear Bishops, because she always includes Bishop Chilton Knudsen–and then she’ll give a warm update about your annual meeting, or Veteran’s Day celebration or some other event. She’ll tell me about a parishioner who has done something remarkable, or send–as she did last month–a screenshot of your Zoom coffee hour. All this and more she communicates with love and pride infusing in every word. When we are together in clergy gatherings, Rev. Sarah always begins by saying how blessed she is to be rector of St. Mary’s.
I also know of your love for Rev. Sarah. It’s evident in everything you say and do, and how you have supported her in this most challenging year. I’ve seen the affection between you when I’ve been blessed to be in your physical presence. I hear it in every conversation. I see it now in your faces. The bond between you is among the strongest and most affectionate I have seen between a priest and congregation. And what a gift that is. It gives you a glimpse into the wondrous, amazing unconditionality of God’s love.
When Jesus went to the Jordan River to be baptized, he was still an unknown figure. We have no record of his adult life prior to his baptism. John seemed to know that there was someone greater than he on the horizon, and there’s indication that he knew Jesus and was even related to him, but as yet, Jesus hadn’t done anything noteworthy or remarkable.
That’s what makes what the voice from heaven said to Jesus so revealing. Jesus hadn’t done anything to earn God’s love. “You are my Son, the beloved. With you I am well pleased.” God loved Jesus for who he was, not for what he had done, or was about to do.
I can hear Rev. Sarah saying to each and everyone in this congregation that you are her beloved. With you, she is well pleased. And I can hear you say those words to her, and one another: you are my beloved. It’s not as if you don’t know each other’s faults and blind spots; it’s not as if your love keeps you from being human with one another–which is to say, imperfect. It doesn’t mean that you feel loving toward one another all the time. But that doesn’t take away the reality and the depth of your love.
Let me read to you perhaps the most famous description of this kind of love from St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. We read this passage most frequently at weddings, which is understandable, but the kind of love Paul was actually referring to is love in community.
Love is patient. Love is kind. Love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing but rejoices in the truth. Love believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. (1 Corinthians 13:4-8)
To experience something of that love is what inspires us to share it, to be the kind of person that can love like that, love like Jesus, all the time.
Gregory Boyle is a Jesuit priest in California who has dedicated his entire life to a ministry of rescue, recovery and rehabilitation of gang members in Los Angeles. Reading about his work, it’s clear how much Father Greg, as he’s called, loves the young men he calls his Home Boys. He sees them in all their pain and struggle and mistakes– and they have made and continue to make dreadful, costly mistakes. But he loves them, and they love him back.
Boyle’s ministry flows from his core conviction that no one, even the most notorious gang members, is beyond God’s love, God is too busy loving us, Father Greg says every chance he gets, to be disappointed in us.
We are forever fretting over things we think ruffle God’s feathers. God is not feathered, though. . . We are always trying to “make a good impression,” but God is not so interested. Dressed for a job interview, a home boy once told me: “I just want to make a good expression.” That’s more like it. Our lives, fully expressive of God’s pleasure, delight, and loving-kindness.
But what do we do, then, with our disappointment with one another, our disappointment in ourselves? What does God do with disappointment? Surely God must be disappointed in us when we fail to love, when we harm one another, when in mean-spiritedness, petty cruelty, or violence we act in the exact opposite ways God would want? Think of how God must have felt on January 6 as the events unfolded at the Nation’s Capitol. Or how God must feel when taking in the countless ways we fall short of this call to love.
This is what Father Greg has to say about God and disappointment:
Disappointment is not the foot God puts forward. There is instead only a redoubling of God’s loving us into kinship with each other. If we truly allow that tenderness to reach us, then peace, justice, and equality will be its by-product. . .“There’s a wideness in God’s mercy,” the old hymn proclaims. In order to experience this mercy and love, we need to accept that there is room for us in it. This can only come when I know that I am accepted especially at my worst.1
For a lot of people–and I include myself here–it’s a struggle to believe and to feel that we are loved–not for what we’ve accomplished or earned, or look like or say, but for who we are, as we are. That’s why the love you share with one another and Rev. Sarah is so powerful and transformative. Being loved by another helps us imagine the possibility of God’s love.
Yet there is a hard truth that lies alongside the gift and blessing of this love. We are loved but not spared from suffering, disappointment and loss.
My 89 year-old mother lives with us now. She has always been healthy and independent. But last year she had a relapse of a terrible illness, and was so sick that my sister and I had to assume control of every aspect of her life. She’s adjusted as well as any of us could expect, and she is stronger now, but not able to live on her own and never will again. She still struggles to accept that truth.
Yesterday I asked her if I could do anything for her before I started my work. Yes, she said. “Make me well and strong, so that I have my life back again.” I wish I could, I told her. “Pray to God that it will happen,” she said, only half-joking. I smiled and said okay, that would be my prayer, and it is, although I know the physical wholeness she longs for will not be hers on this side of heaven. And it’s hard.
This has been a hard week for all of us in this country as we try to absorb what happened at the Capitol on January 6. Those of you who have experienced such attempts to interrupt and overturn the basic functioning of government know far better than others what the consequences of such actions are. Those of you who have been on the receiving end of mob violence and racial hatred know how overwhelming it is, and how otherwise peaceful people can get caught up in it. We have a lot to absorb and respond to in civic society as well as our personal lives.
It’s been part of my spiritual practice for years to spend time each January with the writings of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as our nation prepares to honor his life next weekend. Indeed, in times of struggle–both personal or societal–I often turn to his writings. So I’d like to close this morning with a passage from a sermon King preached at Ebenezer Baptist Church (the same church that the newly elected Senator from Georgia, Raphael Warnock, leads today).
King preached this sermon on a Sunday in 1966. It wasn’t for a big public meeting or in preparation for some event that we now consider historic. It was for a Sunday morning worship service in his community. And it’s clear that King was trying to help members of his community deal with disappointment, hardship and loss.
Don’t imagine that there’s something wrong, he said. Failure is as much a fact of life as success; disappointment as likely as fulfillment. Take your burden, he said, look at it, don’t run from it. Say this is my grief and I must bear it. Look at it hard and ask, “How can I transform this liability into a blessing?”2
He went on to describe the power and the presence of God in those times.
God doesn’t say that you’re going to escape tension; God doesn’t say that you’re doing to escape disappointment; God doesn’t say that you’re going to escape trials and tribulations. But God has the power to give you a kind of inner equilibrium through your pain. So let not your hearts be troubled, Jesus says. . .Come to me, all you that labor and are heavy laden. Come to me all who are burdened down. Come to me, all that are frustrated, with clouds of anxiety floating in your mental skies. I will give you rest. And the rest God gives passes all understanding. The world doesn’t understand this kind of rest, because it’s a rest that makes it possible for you to stand up amid outer storms and yet maintain inner calm.3
After his baptism, Jesus knew that he was beloved of God, and he felt called to spend the rest of his life helping other people that God loved and delighted in them, too, particularly those whose life circumstances suggested that they were farthest from God’s blessings. Jesus lived and died so that we all might hear God call us by name, know God, and live with all the confidence and courage that God desires.
I am convinced that God longs for us to know that we are beloved, that we are blessed, not for anything we accomplish or accumulate or look like. From that blessing, God wants us to go where we most need to go and where we are most needed. God wants us to receive the peace that passes understanding that allows us to maintain inner calm in the midst of outer storms, to persevere in faith, which Martin Luther King, Jr. once described as “taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.”
So hear once again, God’s words to Jesus, and know them to be true for yourselves, and for those you love, and those you struggle to love. Hear them, and believe, and then go and live, as best you can, so that others might know that they, too, are beloved of God:
You are my Son. You are my daughter, my Beloved. With you, I am well pleased.
1 Gregory Boyle. Barking to the Choir: The Power of Radical Kinship. Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition, (p. 25-27)
2 Martin Luther King, Jr., “Guidelines for a Constructive Church,” in A Knock at Midnight: Inspiration from the Great Sermons of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., Clayborne Carson and Peter Holloran, editors, (New York: Warner Books, 1998), 108-09.