Sermon on Epiphany 1, Year C (BCP)

Trinity and Grace Churches, 11 a.m.
January 7, 2007
Katharine Jefferts Schori

When was the last time someone called you ‘beloved’? I don’t know about you, but it’s not something I hear out loud very often. Most of us do get to hear, at least occasionally, someone say to us, "I love you." But there’s something rather more remarkable about being called "beloved." It’s even more intimate, more embracing, tender, comforting, renewing – more divine.

"Here is my servant, my chosen one, in whom my soul delights." That is what God says to the bringer of justice in Isaiah. "You are my child, the beloved; with you I am well pleased." That’s what God says when Jesus is baptized, and that’s what God says to each one of us as we are baptized – "you are my beloved, I delight in you."

God calls us beloved in baptism, and then invites us to live as a beloved one. Knowing that we are beloved is what gives us the courage to take the new path of living as a Christian. We choose a new path in baptism, as God has chosen us. And we don’t just choose that new way once, but over and over again, for 10 or 20 or 50 or even 90 years. It’s a path that may lead us to surprising challenges, as Isaiah says, to be covenant, and light, giver of sight and liberator – and to be those things for the nations. When you got up this morning, is that what was in your mind – to be light to the nations? or liberator of the captives? That is what this new path is all about.

That path is about God’s work of compassion and justice. The beloved build a new community, a new society, out of love for their neighbors, because they know themselves beloved. God doesn’t just choose the baptized, after all. We are all made in God’s image, Christian and not. There’s a part of us that wants to insist that we’re the chosen ones – well, yes, of course we are – but that there aren’t any other chosen ones. The baptized are those who have had the public opportunity to claim the status of beloved. But it is not unique, much as we might like to think so. All God’s creatures are beloved, but those who know it, and have claimed it and been claimed in baptism, have a special responsibility.

We speak of that responsibility in two complementary ways – as the Great Commandment (to love God and love neighbor as self), and the Great Commission (to go and make disciples of all nations). They are intimately interrelated, and both are reflected in the baptismal promises we will reaffirm in a few minutes. We love God and our neighbors as we make that love evident in a variety of ways: by sharing prayers and fellowship, by our openness to a continuing conversion of life, by speaking and doing good news with others, by seeking justice, making peace, and seeing and affirming the dignity of Christ in all people.

We have partners in this work outside our own communion, as Peter recognizes. He is abundantly clear that God shows no partiality, and welcomes all who do right. The godly is displayed in deed. Peter knows that Jesus comes from God because of what he does – he goes around doing good and healing people. Peter is able to see his fruits, and can tell what sort of family tree he comes from.

Baptism is about that kind of fruit-bearing, feeding, and healing work in all parts of our lives, and that work can be done with greater effectiveness when we find those other partners of whom Peter speaks. That search for others who are also trying to heal the world is part of the Great Commission. Making disciples is not only about baptizing the unbaptized. It is equally involved in seeking out the good and healing work going on around the world and seeing behind that work the act of one who is God’s beloved. Surprisingly enough, we have even called it baptizing something when we want to wrap something good into the church. Patrick did it in evangelizing the Celts, and the church did it by scheduling Christmas at the darkest time of the year on top of a pagan festival. We’re meant to be looking out for the good in this life and recognizing its source. We often pray in the Eucharistic prayer, "open our eyes to see your hand at work in the world about us." Well, God is at work in people who don’t even recognize that there is a God, and when we can recognize that, we have begun to make a disciple, even an unconscious one, and we have perhaps become a better disciple ourselves.

Before I ever went to Nevada, I read about a feeding program on the outskirts of Las Vegas called Friends in the Desert. It was and still is hosted in an Episcopal church, and its primary mission was born in the hunger of men, women, and children literally living in the desert outside their doors. Years after its beginning, it continues to feed 50 to 100 people a day, 365 days a year. The kitchen serves a hot meal six days a week, and on Fridays those who come get a sack lunch for Saturday. The congregation has its coffee hour in the Narthex on Sundays so that the hungry can be welcomed in the parish hall. This ministry is supported financially and by the physical labor of people from all over the Las Vegas Valley – not just Episcopalians, who work a few days a month, but by Mormons and Baptists, Roman Catholics and Hindus, Buddhists and Boy Scouts, student groups and the non-religious. St. Timothy’s has reached out in partnership to claim gospel work that is the baptismal responsibility of Christians, but also the response of others who have intuited something about the beloved nature of all humanity.

Last fall, just before I left Nevada, a friend of my husband’s asked me to visit. This eighty-something Chinese-American man was a long-retired sociology professor and a polite but vocal agnostic. He had decided to stop having transfusions for his terminal blood disorder, and said he just wanted to talk. We had a lovely pastoral conversation and he died a couple of days later. But what struck me more than his desire to wrestle with questions at the end of his life was what his wife said to me. She had come late to the meeting, because she had been at St. Timothy’s helping to feed people. I asked her how or why she had become involved in a Christian ministry, and she said, "well they really know how to make a difference, and they welcome anyone who wants to help." There is some powerful evangelism going on in that place, and it’s going in several directions – at the very least to those who are being most obviously served a meal, and to those who are doing the serving, and to the larger community, overtly Christian and not.

Now that’s the kind of healing, reconciling work we’re all commissioned for when we’re baptized. That is being light to the nations, and giver of sight to the blind, that is being covenant, that is setting captives free. If we know we are that well loved, it’s a lot easier also to see the people we meet as beloved, and to help them know themselves beloved as well. Making disciples may have more to do with helping that awareness of being beloved than anything else.

Jesus knew he was beloved. When he was baptized, he heard, "You are my son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased." I imagine that that is what he finally remembered as he prayed in the garden of Gethsemane. Knowing we are beloved is what will give us the will and strength to walk into dark places, to go into hell for the sake of other beloveds. Knowing ourselves beloved is the source of our ability to keep those baptismal promises.

Close your eyes for a minute, if you will. Relax into those pews, hard as they are. You might imagine that pew as the arms of God enfolding you, as a father or a mother or a lover. Hear the voice of God saying, "you are my beloved, and I delight in you." And again, "you are my beloved, and I delight in you." Breathe in that awareness as you draw each breath, "beloved, delight." Now open your eyes and look around. Imagine God saying the same thing to your neighbors, "beloved." Notice someone you don’t know very well, and hear the same voice, "beloved." Now think of someone who’s difficult to get along with, and hear it again, "you are my beloved, and I delight in you."

Then comes the tough part. In the week that lies ahead, all of us are going to be faced with challenging encounters, whether it’s a driver who won’t yield the right of way, an unthinking stranger in the grocery store, a child acting out, a frustrating co-worker, or a vindictive neighbor. When we are next faced with one of those, can we remember to listen for that voice saying, "beloved"? Even if we can begin to ask the question, "would God say that to him?" we’ve begun to liberate someone from prison – and the prisoner may turn out to be us, or the person we wanted to define as beyond the scope of God’s love.

Being baptized means joining the throng who know themselves beloved. And it means joining the body who will keep trying to see the rest of the world also as God’s beloved. One more time, "you are my beloved, and I delight in you." Remember that tomorrow morning when you look in the mirror – "here is God’s beloved." And go out and meet the world, and welcome the other beloveds with the same passion Jesus did. "Preach the gospel at all times. When necessary, use words." (St. Francis of Assisi)