Beloved by God

Isaiah 43:1-3a
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
Sermon by Rev. William J. Kemp

For many years, William Willimon was Dean of the Chapel at Duke University. He is now a United Methodist Bishop in Alabama. He tells the story of how as a high school student going out on dates his mother would bid him goodbye with weighty words, “Don’t forget who you are.” “You know what she meant,” he says. “She did not mean that I was in danger of forgetting my name and my street address. She meant that, alone on a date, in the midst of some party, in the presence of some strangers, I might forget who I was. I might lose sight of the values with which I had been raised, answer to some alien name and engage in some unaccustomed behavior. ‘Don’t forget who you are,’ was her maternal benediction as I left home.” 1

Fred Craddock is from the Disciples of Christ tradition and has been a teacher of preachers for many years. He tells of an experience he had as the “chaplain for the week” at the Fannin County Hospital in Georgia. A baby was born the week he was serving as chaplain – a rather unusual experience in that little 30-bed hospital that is usually filled with elderly patients.

It was about nine o’clock in the morning and he saw a group of people gathered, looking through the nursery window. He took a peak and saw the tiny baby that had caught the attention of the clan of people gathered about the window.

Craddock asked, “Is it a boy or a girl?” “It’s a girl,” the reply came quickly. “What’s the name?” “Elizabeth.” “Who’s the father?” “I am,” came a voice from the middle of the crowd.

Because Elizabeth was crying at the top of her lungs, Craddock thought that perhaps the new father was concerned, and so he said to the young man, “Don’t worry. She’s not sick. It’s good for babies to scream and do all that. It clears out their lungs and gets their voices going. It’s all right.”

The young father replied, “Oh, I know she’s not sick. But she’s mad as all get out.” Craddock replied, “Really? You think she’s mad?” The young man replied, “Well, wouldn’t you be mad? One minute you’re with God in heaven and the next minute you’re in Georgia.”

Taken aback by that comment, Craddock replied, “You believe she was with God before she came here?” “Oh, yeah,” was the immediate reply. Craddock said, “You think she’ll remember?”

The father said, “Well, it’s up to her mother and me and the whole the church to see that she remembers and never forgets God.”2

Baptism is one of the gifts of God’s grace that helps us to remember. In baptism we hear our name in a way that we don’t hear it when we read the words our parents filled out on our birth certificates. We hear it pronounced by the voice of the Lord that is over the waters; a voice that is powerful and full of majesty.3

What do we hear? “I have called you by name, you are mine.”4 Yes, those words were first addressed to the nation, Israel, at a time when she felt beat up by everyone, including God. The comforting words of the prophet reminded the people that neither flood nor fire, no any of life’s trials, would overwhelm them so they need not be afraid. “I will be with you … I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.”5

Because of Jesus, we can still hear the prophet’s words, but in a most personal way. I have called you William John, you are mine. You are my beloved son. Yes, that word was heard first by Jesus at his baptism. It was his ordination to ministry, his empowerment for ministry, a ministry that brought the same word to each and every person he touched: You are God’s beloved child, with you God is well pleased.

Isn’t it a bit much to say that God is well pleased with us, imperfect and disobedient people that we are? No, because God doesn’t make junk and God always looks more at what we can become than at what we have done. Jesus trusted God’s love for him completely. He loved God completely. No wonder he turned the world upside down. Don’t you think that if we trusted completely God’s love for us and, in turn, loved God completely that we could do the same? Jesus said if we believe in him we would do even greater works than he did.6

In baptism, God calls us by name! Maya Lin who is the designer of the Vietnam Memorial explains why her remarkable work has come to have such a strong grip upon the emotions of the American people. "It’s the names," she said, "the names are the memorial. No edifice or structure can bring people to mind as powerfully as their names." I remember an old Peanuts cartoon in which Charlie Brown says, “I love [humankind], it’s people I cannot stand.” Not so with God. God not only loves humankind (“For God so loved the world”7) God loves each and every one of us – by name! (“that God gave his only Son”).

Not only does God call us by name, in our baptism God says, I like you. I really like you! Judi Creneti tells me that at the end of every session of Godly Play (the Sunday School class for first and second graders) the children gather in a circle, hold hands and say, We are God’s beloved children. WOW! For children to hear that each and every week (and where else will they ever hear such a word except in the Christian community?) and for them to grow up believing that word can only help them to develop a healthy sense of self-worth as well as to learn to value everyone else as a child loved by God.

One of our jobs as a congregation is to help them remember that, by helping them to remember their baptism and by remembering our own baptism. A few weeks ago, Pastors Elizabeth and Tricia sent us all an e-mail urging all of us to acknowledge “the privilege of spending time with our younger people and sharing our lives and learning with them … Know that it takes a village or better, a whole church family, to raise children well. We, as a congregation, communicate the love of God to them by the depth of our care.” Then they listed all the names of our children, youth and college students.

Here, gathered as we are in the name and good company of Jesus Christ, everyone can sing as we can sing no where else:

I count if I am ninety
Or nine of just a baby
There’s one thing I am sure about
And I don’t mean maybe.
I am the church…8

Unfortunately, over the centuries Christians have preferred to argue about baptism, such as its theological meaning, the proper age at which it should be administered and the amount of water used. This year we read the story of Jesus’ baptism in Luke’s gospel. It might be better if we only had his version because it is wonderfully ambiguous and void of details that might lead to heated arguments. We don’t know from Luke if John actually baptized Jesus, that is only inferred, or if it took place in a river, or if Jesus was sprinkled, poured or dunked. Luke simply writes, “Now when all the people were baptized and Jesus also had been baptized …” Luke focuses more on what happens after one is baptized. Read the whole third chapter. “What should we do?” the crowds asked.9 Luke’s short answer can be heard in a verse from the prophet Micah: “Do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God.”10 For Jesus, his baptism led him to enter a life of prayer so he could grow in relationship with his heavenly Father.

A Presbyterian and a Baptist were arguing. The Presbyterian asked the Baptist if he considered a person baptized if he was immersed in water up to his waist. “No,” said the Baptist. “Do you consider him baptized if he is immersed in water up to his neck?” Again the Baptist’s answer was: “No.” “Well now,” said the Presbyterian, “suppose you immersed him up to his eye-brows? Would you consider him baptized then?” “No,” came the answer. “Well, then, there you have it!” said the Presbyterian. “It’s only the little bit of water on the top of the head that counts!”

Come on, people of God. In this hate-filled and fear-filled world, aren’t there better ways for us to direct our energies? I confess that I abbreviated the lectionary reading from Isaiah 43 by ending with verse three. After the bulletin was printed and the power point finalized, I realized that was a dumb decision. The fourth verse reads, “Because you are precious in my sight…”

Precious! I have not seen the controversial movie, Precious, but it has been on my list of must-see-movies ever since I read a short article by Barbara Bush in Newsweek11 in which she encouraged people to see it. Her interest in the film grows out of her life-long devotion to fighting illiteracy.

Precious is the story of an obese and illiterate African-American teenager growing up in poverty in the 1980s. One columnist writes, “Precious is an ode to refusing to die. She is a girl struggling to live an unlivable life, 16 years old, illiterate, sexually abused by both parents, mother of two children (one with Down Syndrome) sired by her father, physically and verbally beaten down by her monster of a mother and yet, somehow unable to give in to the idea that she is nothing and her name, nobody.”12

I wanna say I am somebody. I wanna say it on subway, TV, movie, LOUD. I see the pink faces in suits look over top of my head. I watch myself disappear in their eyes ... I talk loud but still I don't exist

Mrs. Bush writes that what saves Precious from a life of despair is a teacher who helps her learn to read and write. At one point Precious expresses the feeling she has that nobody likes her. “But I like you,” the teacher protests. And she says it in a way that reveals she doesn’t say just it to make Precious feel better, but because she really does like her. It confirms my long held conviction that teaching is among life’s higher callings.

I wonder if Precious would have been able to learn to read and write if she didn’t have a teacher who really liked her. And I can only imagine how her life could be transformed to the nth degree had she heard this word from the Creator of the universe: Precious, do not fear, for I have redeemed you: I have called you by name, you are mine … you are my beloved daughter, with you I am well pleased. To hear that word and to feel it in the refreshing and cleansing waters of baptism is the difference between life and death. Our calling, the highest calling anyone can have, is to remember our baptism, to remember that we are the daughters and sons of the living God and to regard every person in the way that God has regarded us, whether or not they have been touched by the waters of baptism.

1 Remember Who You Are, (Nashville: The Upper Room, 1980), p. 105
2 Craddock Stories, pages 126,127, adapted
3 See Psalm 29, the appointed Psalm from today’s lectionary
4 Isaiah 43:1
5 Isaiah 43:3
6 John 14:12
7 See John 3:16
8 Song by Avery and Marsh
9 Luke 3:10
10 Micah 6:8
11 December 3, 2009
12 Leonard Pitts, Miami Herald, November 25, 2009