From the Rev. Joe Hensley, Rector, St. George’s Episcopal Church
Fredericksburg, VA | Epiphany I Year C, Jan. 10, 2016.
1st Sunday after the Epiphany Year C January 10, 2016 The Rev. Joe Hensley St. George’s Episcopal Church
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“You are my son, the beloved, with you I am well pleased.” These are the words from heaven that Jesus hears spoken after his baptism in the river Jordan. You are the beloved. Two weeks ago we celebrated Jesus’ birth, the incarnation, God becoming human with us. Part of the blessing that Jesus brings us is belovedness. Jesus, the son of God, receives the affirmation of God’s loving kindness, and we are also heirs, through hope, in him of that legacy. Those words spoken to Christ are meant for our ears also, if we will hear them, “You are the beloved, with you I am well pleased.”
We spend a lot of time, though, convincing ourselves that we are not beloved. I wonder how many of arrived here this morning with some nagging voice of criticism about ourselves or someone else. Just to get ourselves in the right frame of mind, turn to your neighbor and tell them, “you are beloved!” I hope we are feeling a little better.
When Jesus arrived on the scene, the people of God were not feeling all that beloved either. The glory of Kings David and Solomon had long since passed. The prophets for centuries had been promising a messiah who would come to set things right again. So when John the Baptist starts baptizing people in the river Jordan, people came in droves, thinking that maybe he was the one to restore the people of God to their former greatness. And if you asked Jews at the time who exactly were the people of God they would tell you that it was only those living in Judea. For centuries earlier, the descendants of Jacob had divided into northern and southern kingdoms. The north was conquered. Historians can’t agree on exactly what happened, but the residents of the north lost their connection to the traditional faith of Israel. They were seen by the Jews of the southern kingdom as unclean and unfit to be called the people of God. Many of these people lived in the region of Samaria and thus were called Samaritans. You may remember a parable about the good Samaritan in which Jesus tries to make the point that it is the capacity for mercy and loving kindness, not religious pedigree, which is the basis for relationship in the kingdom of God. So what I’ve been getting around to is that God’s historic people, the descendants of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob had been divided and conquered for centuries when Jesus arrives on the scene. They had lost touch with their belovedness.
And so in the short reading we heard from the Book of Acts this morning, something is mentioned which is quite extraordinary given what I have just been describing. The first verse we heard reads: “When the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them.” When the apostles at Jerusalem, which was part of that favored southern kingdom, heard that Samaria (their unclean long lost cousins) had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to baptize them with the holy spirit. This is remarkable. For centuries Jews in Jerusalem wanted nothing to do with Samaria. But the Jewish followers of Jesus in Jerusalem have begun to see things differently. Because of Jesus, his chief disciples, Peter and John, are now going into Samaria to baptize, to lay hands and call upon the Holy Spirit so that they too can know their belovedness as children of God. What is happening here is a significant act of reconciliation. Dignity is being restored, peace is being made after centuries of estrangement. This is the power of God’s love.
We live in a world that is sorely in need of reconciliation. We live in a world where old divisions like the one between Jerusalem and Samaria continue to give birth to fear, distrust, prejudice, and abuse. We live in a world where debates and angry arguments drown out the calls for dialogue and reasonable discussion. And what it boils down to, I think, is that we have lost a sense of our belovedness and the belovedness of our neighbors. We are the beloved. God spoke these words to God’s people through the prophets. Isaiah said on behalf of the Lord, “you are precious in my sight and honored and I love you.” Jesus hears the voice from heaven and then passes that message on to us, “you are the beloved.” Of course, we do not always act like the beloved. We are still becoming the beloved God calls us to be. But there is hope for us, beloved ones! We are and we are becoming the beloved ones of God. Alleluia!
Henri Nouwen was a Roman Catholic priest in the latter part of the 20th century. One of the most famous books he wrote is called “Life of the Beloved.” In that book he says that we need to change from viewing life as a painful test to prove that we deserve to be loved to living it as an unceasing “yes” to the truth of that belovedness. We spend so much time and energy trying to prove that we deserve God’s love. We keep finding reasons to say, “no,” I’m not really worthy. No, you are not the real deal. No, no, no, God has the wrong person. Instead of saying, “no,” how can we find ways to say “yes.” I’ve preached about that word, “yes,” before. Yes to our belovedness! Yes to the belovedness of others! This is our life’s work. This is the challenge of living in a beloved community.
Beloved community was and is a phrase that prophets have used to describe what we are about. When we welcome Natalie Finstad to join us the first weekend in February for a weekend we are calling The Compassionate Community, what we will really be talking about is this idea of remembering our belovedness through spiritual practice and community action together. What does beloved community look like? It looks a lot like what is happening here at St. George’s, but we can go much deeper.
There is a story told about a group of people in the southern part of Africa known as the Babemba. In the Babemba culture, if a member of the community commits a serious crime against the community, the entire neighborhood gathers around the accused. They form a large circle, young and old and everyone in between. I’ve told this story several times to groups of school children. And when I ask them what they think will happen next after the circle has formed around the accused, they have often said things like, “they are going to yell at them.” Or “they are going to put them in jail,” or “they are going to throw things at them.” So they are usually surprised when I finish the story. The accused stands in the middle of the circle and is forced to listen as one by one, the members of the community recall every good thing they can remember about them. Every story of kindness, every anecdote about a positive deed is told in great detail with nothing left out. This storytelling can go on for hours and sometimes days. When every last story has been told, the accused is welcomed back into the neighborhood and a celebration is held. People ask me if this is a true story. Honestly, I have tried to track it down, and I’m still looking. Whether this actually happens or not, this is what beloved community can look like. This is what reconciliation and healing can look like. We are here to remember that God loves us and we are here to help others remember the love they have forgotten. In a moment we will renew our Baptismal Covenant, and those promises we make to God and each other are really all about remembering God’s love for us. We are here to look for a way to say “yes” to that love: over and over again.
Samaria accepted the word of God. And they received the Holy Spirit. Peace and wholeness and an end to centuries of division is possible, says the scripture. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.” Thanks be Jesus Christ, thanks be to God. We are and are becoming God’s beloved children, and yes, we have some good work to do.