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Named and Loved

“Named and Loved”

January 14, 2024 Cobleskill United Methodist Church, Pastor Anna Blinn Cole

Mark 1: 4-11

Baptism of the Lord

Mark 1:4-11

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.’

The Baptism of Jesus

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.’

Last summer I journeyed to the Isle of Iona and it was a long trip. Let’s take a quick look at how I got there   I had to drive in a car, ride on two planes and that took one entire day.  The next day there was a train ride, a ride in a ferry, a ride on a bus, a very big bus on very small roads, and a ride on another ferry.  This trip was long.  And I showed you what it was like because each stage in the journey was like pulling back a layer from the hard shell I’d made around myself.  Each stage of the journey was another chance to leave behind the to-do lists and responsibility that forms my identity in the regular world.  And it wasn’t until the final stage of the journey, that clear ocean and rocky coastline, where I walked out onto the beach with its cold sand and let that frigid water touch my toes that some sleeping part inside of me finally woke up .  The part of me that I can see when I can clear away the expectations of others.  The part of me that emerges when I am in the present moment.  The part of me that suddenly understands that I am okay as I am without doing anything.  The whole of me that I know to be loved by God.  

As I was standing there on the beach with the cold water making my toes go numb and the wind whipping into my face, I understood the water to be changing me, jarring me out of the busy and overwhelmed self I had left behind and waking me up to the self whose only identity was as God’s beloved.  

And as I looked down, it wasn’t just me that the cold water was changing. What astonished me was that all around my feet on the sand were glowing embers of color.  Blue.  Teal. Brown.  White.  Green.  Shards of broken glass.  But I was not afraid of them.  They were no longer dangerous.  Shards of broken glass that, as I bent to pick one up, were the smoothest and softest version of glass you can imagine.  Sea glass it’s called and it’s certainly not unique to Iona.  Every seaside community has at some point in its long history used the ocean as its trash can, throwing broken glasses and plates and medicine bottles and crocks into the ocean, out of mind, out of sight, like trash going into the trash often is.  But the ocean cannot make this trash disappear.  So what is broken and sharp gets tossed about by the current until one day, centuries later it washes back up on the beach.  Changed.  Its corners are rounded, its bright glossy shine is softened into a warm glow.  

Finding these glowing embers of reclaimed trash made beautiful by the work of God’s mighty ocean became a spiritual practice that filled my downtime between walks and worship on Iona.  As if these shards of glass and pottery made smooth by the water were somehow a metaphor for pilgrimage itself, I was drawn to them; captivated by them.  Ordinary water was somehow infused with the Spirit, bringing awake what had been sleeping, making holdable what had been sharp.  It was an epiphany. 

We are in the Season of Epiphany.  A season in which we look closer at the ways the divine is showing up in our midst.  We spent all of Advent following the story of two families, Zechariah and Elizabeth, and Mary and Joseph, as they journeyed toward the birth of two very special children.  One who leapt for joy in his mother’s womb and went on to spread the news and prepare the way, John.  And the other, Jesus, whose humanity was so closely intertwined with God’s divinity his birth changed the way we understood life itself.  And finally, in today’s story, some 30 years after their births, the two men have a powerful encounter with water.  John has been baptizing in the name of God those who wish to smooth their sharp edges in the Jordan River.  But then something unexpected happens.  Jesus, the one John has been saying will come, does indeed come.  But not in a righteous and condescending way to swoop up converts.  He comes to the River Jordan to touch the water and to be changed.  Humbly, along with the others there, he comes to be baptized.  Jesus, the Emmanuel, God with us, and yet human and ordinary like us, wants to be changed by the water and the Spirit.  He needs something that only God can do through that moment.  And as his cousin John is baptizing him in the river, the curtains are pulled back, there is a dove descending, and a voice comes from heaven saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

In her artwork for this scripture passage, artist Rev. Lauren Wright Pittman depicts Jesus submerged

underwater during his baptism; she writes that she is imagining all of creation celebrating and affirming his calling in this moment. She says: “This is what trusting your belovedness feels like—muscles and bones relieved of gravity’s burden, serenity, weightlessness, oneness with creation, and the warmth of God’s love permeating every cell of your body and every corner of your soul.”

We are changed…by the water’s cool touch, by the way it stirs us from our old ways, but also by the way the Spirit moves through its drops to refine us into our true nature.  

When God spoke from heaven that day, God gave Jesus a new name.  You are my beloved.  Thirty years into his life and it wasn’t until this moment that every other story we love about Jesus began.  The way he called his disciples.  The way he loved the sick.  The way he included women and children at the table.  The way he went to the edges of society and found the lost and the least and drew the circle wider.  All of that love began when he was named by God as Beloved.  

Beloved is where he began.  Beloved is where we begin.  Everything else flows from that naming.

 A couple years ago when a small team of us were working on our new church mission statement.  We all knew love was where it needed to start.  And once we had written Be loved, it became clear that this ideal for our community also was a statement of our own identity.  Beloved.  We cannot be loved, unless we trust our own belovedness.   

Martin Luther King, Jr. used the word “Beloved” often to describe the community of people who share a desire to live out God’s love.  He called it The Beloved Community.  This was a love directed toward both friend and enemy.  A love seeking to preserve and create the fabric of a new kind of community.  He would say it is how we know what love is in the first place, experienced perhaps first in our homes, and then in community.  Working against the triple evils of racism, poverty and militarism, King believed that the Beloved community was not just an ideal, but a reality we could accomplish together.  The power of love experienced and lived out together.  

Dr. King’s life was cut short at age 39.  Being 39 myself, I cannot imagine both the tremendous amount of love he ushered into this broken world at such a young age, and simultaneously what a large amount of life he had to look forward to.  Tomorrow we celebrate what would have been his 95th birthday and we seem a long way from the reality of The Beloved Community. 

The world is full of sharp edges.  We continue to allow poverty to disproportionately affect people of color in this country.  In the world, militaries try to rule each other with war, oftentimes divided and incited by race and religious difference.  The Church struggles to practice an authentic love that sees past differences and accepts people for the beloved children of God that they are.

Is the Beloved Community even possible?   

In his book Life of the Beloved, Henri Nouwen shared an epiphany with us.  Is the Beloved Community possible?  Yes.  And this is how it starts, he writes: “I must tell you that claiming your own blessedness [will always] lead to a deep desire to bless others. . . . It is remarkable how easy it is to bless others, to speak good things to and about them, to call forth their beauty and truth, when you yourself are in touch with your own blessedness. The blessed one always blesses.”

The world can’t change until we are changed.  The world can’t be loved by us until we understand how loved we are by God.  It starts with claiming our own belovedness.  It continues by not forgetting.

When I got home from Iona, I found I needed a reminder of the wholeness and love I felt when my feet were in that water.  And so I took some of the blue and white pottery pieces I’d found on the beach, edges all worn smooth, and formed them into the shape of an Iona cross, with the iconic circle made from smells also found on the beach.  I thought it would be fitting to mount them on a piece of wood that had also been changed by the water.  We were at Skye Farm for Labor Day Weekend and I asked Terry if he’d ever seen a piece of driftwood there that was flat.  We both knew it was a far-fetched idea. Flat driftwood?  He said he’d keep an eye out.  Well, don’t you know, about a week later he reported that he had found a piece of firewood that had been carried by the Hudson River and landed near his cottage.  Its edges were smoothed and it had a big flat spot.   So I put my sea pottery on the wood and every time I look at it I remember that stripped away feeling where only my core identity was what mattered.   I am beloved.  

Have you been baptized?  If so, do you remember it?  I don’t remember my baptism.  I was a one-month-old baby.  Even if you were baptized more recently, it’s still easy to forget the truth of that moment.  When God calls us beloved.  But remembering it can be a gift, and the season of Epiphany is no better time.  God pulls back the curtains when we most need it, and reminds us that we are beloved.  And the absolutely ordinary gift of water is the most perfect method.  The waters of our baptism change us.  We are given a new name by God.  We are beloved.  Every time the shower hits your face in the morning, or the first big splashing jump you take into a cool pond this summer, or the frigid water that comes out of the pipes to wash your hands.  Let the water wake you up to your core identity.  You are not defined by what you do or what others expect of you or what you achieve.  You are God’s beloved.  And as soon as we reclaim this core identity, the sooner we’ll have the capacity to be the love to others.  

The Bravest Thing We Can Do

By Sarah Speed

Trust your belovedness.

Let it be a protest,

an act of resistance,

a song of celebration.

Trust your belovedness in a world

that is rarely satisfied.

Wear it like a badge of honor.

Speak it as confidently as your last name.

Tattoo it to your heart.

When outside forces

chip away at your sense of self,

when life asks you

to hand over the keys,

remember the water.

Remember creation.

Remember how it was good,

so very good.

Let that truth hum through your veins.

Sing it so loud

that it drowns out the weariness of the world,

for the bravest thing we can ever do

is trust that we belong here.

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