November is Commitment Season at First Baptist Church Greensboro, as we remember again who we are and pledge our gifts to the life and ministry we share as a community of faith. Our Commitment theme this year is “As We Go,” based on the benediction we share at the end of each service. This week’s sermon is the first of three sermons on the theme, remembering who we are as “daughters and sons of God.”
Church is not so much a place to which we come, as a place from which we go. The window above the sanctuary entry of First Baptist Church reminds us that just as we enter into this place, light shining in on us, we are sent back out by the same way – the entrance is also an exit – so when our service of worship is over, our service and our worship begin in the wide world.
And as we go, we share together in a benediction. Some Sundays it probably feels like simply a worshipful way of saying “Exit”; sometimes it’s our cue to gather our things like we’re anticipating the bell at the close of Algebra class, but other times it’s much more. From the Latin words bene (well or good) and dicere (to speak) – a benediction is an opportunity to speak good things, to vocalize and experience the blessing of God. It’s a wide, open-eyed moment. Looking at one another. And sharing with one another words of the memory, blessing, and hope that we know through the love of Creator, Christ, and Spirit one. Usually a minister speaks the words, but we all share in the blessing – repeating it in our souls, and in our very lives as we live as those who believe.
I once worked with a pastor who, as my supervisor, insisted that I practice a benediction. One day he asked me to follow him into the empty sanctuary and he sat on the front row and said, “Stand up and show me a benediction.” I felt ridiculous. What sort of silly stunt was this? But still I began, awkwardly, extending my forearms and holding my hands at shoulder height. Then like an instructor to a student he stopped me abruptly and said, “No, not like that. Not a hesitant benediction. Not with your elbows bent. Extend your arms. Open your hands. Project your voice. Don’t look down at notes, look people in the eyes. You’re sending them out. It’s as audacious and important as anything you’ll do.”
These years later, I think I understand – as a pastor – as a church – I’m not sure there’s anything we do that is any more bold and important than to speak a benediction. That is, I’m not sure there’s anything we do that is any more bold and important than to send people out into the world to live as those who know Jesus Christ.
At some point I began to repeat a similar benediction each week: “As we go, remember who we are. We are sons and daughters of God. We are friends and followers of Jesus Christ. And through the power of the Spirit, the love of God is at loose in the world through our very lives.” For the next three Sundays, we’re going to consider this blessing we share – what it says about who we are and who we’ve been and who we can yet be… beloved of God, followers of Christ, loose in the world…
If there is but one word that echoes in our souls, let it be this one: beloved.
It’s the word that tells us that the God who has been acting throughout history – the God who has delivered people from bondage, and helped people cross on dry land, and made tables in the wilderness of our world, and set about the broad work of redemption of ALL, is also the one who has acted in an intimate way in your life.
Jesus learned the word early in his life; the first time we see him as an adult, in fact, he’s standing up to his waist in the Jordan River with John the Baptist. John baptizes Jesus, then the wind blows, the skies part, and a voice comes: “This is my beloved son.”
It would become the source of all that was to follow. Or as Henri Nouwen has written the word Jesus heard at his baptism became like a golden string that Jesus followed for the rest of His life.1
It became the echoing, anchoring word that carried him through all that was yet ahead, for just as soon as he comes up from the water – before his hair is even dry – the Spirit moves him out into the wilderness – a signal that his life would be made on the edges of the world.
And there he had to decide what it meant for him to be who he was called to be. And I think it was in the echo of that word – beloved – that he was able to press through the wilderness – with all of the voices in his head, the burdens he carried, the challenges he anticipated, he had this anchoring word, beloved…
And so the word appears again much later when Jesus stood in another hard place. The cross loomed before him. There would be misunderstanding and suffering and death. And on the Mount of Transfiguration Peter, James and John heard a voice — the voice that spoke to Jesus a second time, saying, “This is my beloved son…” In the light of that word, Jesus was able to leave the mountain for the valley and the hard days ahead and finally even death.
But more than an identity he claimed for himself, it became the great theme of his life and action in this world.
Standing in the Jordan, dripping wet, he looks out and can identify with a whole Judean countryside, as Kathleen Norris has written, this scene is not only the site of identity formation for Jesus, but it is, she writes, where we see what God intends for all of us to be.
All of us gathered out there in all our brokenness, all of us at times feeling out on the edges of God’s activity in this world, all of us hearing so many voices telling us who we are, and sometimes screaming those lies to one another.
And with that word in his ears, Jesus was able to say to all of us: you are daughters and sons of God… God is with you…you don’t have to go somewhere else…the kingdom is near to you.
And, of course, it doesn’t stop there. Long after his hair is dry, Jesus took that word he learned in the water and passed it around, giving it away to those he came in contact with:
disciples casting their nets, lepers whose hope for restoration had long faded, people who had believed all kinds of stories about themselves and their limitations, their sin, their brokenness.
And they loved him, because his word, became their word. His word, becomes our word.
You may have read Toni Morrison’s beautiful novel entitled, Beloved. Her story dates back to those awful slavery days in Ohio. A black slave-mother had lost her two-year-old child and is utterly devastated. The man who carved tombstones tells her that he will carve a tombstone for her, if she can come up with a name in ten minutes. But he says she can only use seven letters because the stone is so small. She wanted to use those beautiful words the preacher had used at the funeral: “Dearly Beloved,” he said over and over, but they were too long. And so she asked the man, “Could we use the word ‘beloved’?” And so the man thought, “B-E-L-O-V-E-D.” And he carved those letters on that tombstone.
What would it mean for us to carve those letters into our lives, to hear that word in the hovering spirit above the waters and the wilderness of our world?
That’s what these whom we have called saints must have heard, and All Saints Day is a way of recalling that the word echoes for them still… they exist, still, in the love of God… and we recall how we have heard this word and remembered this love more clearly because of them.
I heard this word whispered from those earliest moments in church – it’s one of the reasons I’m so grateful to have my family in church, because I know that my children are hearing it even now. And among the many who pronounced it for me, I’ve been thinking recently of one saints of my childhood church, Mrs. Jean Decker, who taught Sunday School, and did the snacks at VBS, and always asked me about my life when I was home. The summer before my senior year of college, my home church has made the decision to license me for ministry – a way of blessing me as I looked toward seminary – something, I confess, I was doing mostly because my pastor father felt it was a good idea.
So I arranged to be home one Sunday early that summer, and milling about the sanctuary I spotted Mrs. Decker in the back. I had heard about her recent health struggles, and noticed she now used a walker to aid her mobility. As we spoke she said, “I haven’t been here in 6 months, but I wasn’t going to miss the chance to pray for you today.”
And later in the service I was invited down front. As the congregation shared a prayer, members were invited to surround me in prayer… family, friends, youth ministers, choir leaders came… and from the back, Mrs. Decker came forward deliberately… with one hand she balanced and with the other she extended her arm and placed it on my shoulder… I don’t remember the prayer, but I know I heard the echo: “beloved.”
The word spoken to Jesus becomes our word, and so as the church of Christ continues after his death, this word “beloved” starts to be passed around in Christian writing to us, we who have heard and believed all kinds of words…
“You’re no good. You’re ugly. You’re worthless. You’ll never amount to anything. You’re lazy. You’re nobody. You’ve made too many mistakes. You’ve neglected too many responsibilities.” And some of us have fought against these words all our lives.
But somehow above the waters of our lives this word hovers.
The heavens open for us, this word spoken to Jesus of the love and pleasure and delight of God also echoes in God’s promises to us, that the God who called the name of Jesus speaks our name…beloved.
And maybe it might do for us the thing that it did for Jesus. It will become our beginning, that will not and can not be undone. It will send us out into the unknowns of these days ahead knowing that whatever comes, we will be anchored by a word: We are beloved.
And we can hear it now, and maybe we can even hear it here.
I mentioned Henri Nouwen earlier, who has written extensively about this theme: beloved. After a successful career as a seminary professor and best-selling author, Nouwen, a Roman Catholic priest, made a dramatic life change. Leaving the academic world behind, he went to work as a chaplain at the L’Arche Daybreak community in Toronto – we have come to know the L’Arche communities more through our growing friendship with Peacehaven Farm – mentally and physically disabled people live in community with those of normal abilities.
Henri describes how, one day, a disabled community member named Janet came up and asked him for a blessing. Henri was distracted by other things, so he quickly traced the sign of the cross on her forehead.
“No,” protested Janet. “I want a real blessing!”
Henri understood, then, how he had been insensitive to her need. He promised that, at the next communion service, he would have a special blessing for her.
At the end of the prayer service, about thirty people were sitting in a circle on the floor. Henri announced, “Janet has asked me for a special blessing.”
He didn’t quite know what she was seeking from him, but her next move left no doubt. She walked up to him and wrapped her arms around him. As he embraced her in return, her slight form was almost covered by the folds of the white robe he wore while leading worship.
As they held each other, Henri said “Janet, I want you to know that you are God’s Beloved Daughter. You are precious in God’s eyes. Your beautiful smile, your kindness to the people in your house, and all the good things you do show what a beautiful human being you are. I know you feel a little low these days and that there is some sadness in your heart, but I want you to remember who you are: a very special person, deeply loved by God and all the people who are here with you.”
Janet raised her head and looked at him. Her beaming smile told him that she had truly understood and received the blessing.
What happened next was unexpected. As Janet returned to her place, another woman raised her hand. She, too, wanted a blessing. She stood up and embraced Henri, too, laying her face against his chest. After that, a great many more of the disabled members of the community took their turn, coming up for the same sort of blessing.
For Henri, the most touching moment was when one of the assistants, a twenty-four-year-old able-bodied college student, raised his hand and asked, “And what about me?” John was a big, burly young man, an athlete. Henri did the same with him, wrapping his arms around him and saying, “John, it is so good that you are here. You are God’s Beloved Son…”
John looked back with tears in his eyes and simply said, “Thank you, thank you very much.”
All of us need to remember who we are, and our world is full of people who might have forgotten, or never heard it spoken before.
So as we go, let’s be the ones to tell them… not with weak arms or quiet voices… but as loudly and boldly as we can.