Rev. Sarah Mount Elewononi
February 2, 2014
You are God’s beloved
Last month I changed the message on the sign board out by the road. “You are God’s Beloved, Learn More” followed by the church website address and time of worship. The banner on the website and our bulletin board beside the pastor’s study proclaim the same message. You are God's Beloved.
You are God’s Beloved. This is the idea I want us to think about in the next few weeks. Not only that, I hope it goes beyond our thinking, and sinks down into our hearts, where we will know we are loved of God because we have had a fresh experience of that love. A love that will fill us with joy and set us on fire to be about our Father’s business of bringing the kingdom of heaven here on earth.
Not Feeling It
I don’t know about you, but I don’t always remember this truth about myself. That I am beloved of God, that I am blest. I don’t feel like the kingdom of God belongs to me. It is not always easy for me to feel comforted when I’m caught up in my deepest pain. I can go along for a while on the surface, but there is a pain in my soul made of old wounds. My pain can be summed up as not feeling good enough. It’s a pain that comes from trying harder and harder to earn love, and yearning to hear the words, “Well done. I’m proud of you.” More importantly when I screw up I long to hear the merciful words, “I forgive you, and no matter what you are my beloved!” At times like this I don’t feel filled. I’m not “satt und zufrieden” satisfied and at peace. At times like this my life feels rather futile.
Do you have times like this? When you feel the opposite of beloved of God? Are there times when life feels futile – that in spite of your best efforts and hard work you only experience frustration and loss?
When our lives are in a funk like this some of us eat. We eat comfort food. It might be sweet, or salty, probably with some fat. But no matter how much we eat we aren’t satisfied.
Some of us try to feel better by going shopping. “Retail therapy” is supposed to lift one out of depression. Go out and buy the latest fashions. I actually met a guy once who got rid of his living room couch every year and bought a new one. There was a study done in 2001 that found 33% of shoppers in the European Union had a “high level of addiction to rash or unnecessary consumption” and ended up with debt problems. Far from being a therapy researchers at Melbourne University are calling it oniomania “compulsive shopping disorder.”
Some of us may try to get out of our funk by working harder. We put in more hours, get less sleep. We work and work to try to make something of ourselves, or to accumulate wealth, and maybe climb the ladder of success so we can have the “good life.” But we never seem to get there. In the end all that work seems futile. Instead of feeling blessed we feel cursed.
The prophet Micah understood this feeling of futility. If you read the rest of chapter six you will find it in the form of a curse. “You shall eat, but not be satisfied, and there shall be a gnawing hunger within you; you shall put away, but not save, and what you save, I will hand over to the sword. You shall sow, but not reap; you shall tread olives, but not anoint yourselves with oil; you shall tread grapes, but not drink wine.”
How many people all around us feel cursed, not blessed; that life is futile, not full? And when people are feeling like this, the last place they think they want to be is in a holy place. Walking under a cloud of doubt and frustration with life, feeling unlovable and cursed the first feelings such people are likely to have when they enter a place made to encounter the living God is shame, discomfort, guilt. It’s really not surprising that very few people who are not part of a church will ever set foot in one on their own without an invitation.
But even those of us who are here in the church struggle with separation from God. I’m sure I’m not the only Christian who has habitually been going to church my whole life who struggles with not feeling worthy of God’s love. When I look over my life I doubt that I am meek or humble enough; I know I am not pure in heart; I’m not always a peacemaker; and often my desire for righteousness is not strong enough to be called hunger and thirst. Though I memorized these beatitudes in Sunday school I often doubt that my life looks much like the ones Jesus called blessed.
We may be sitting in the pews, but we have devised ways to also avoid truly being in the presence of God. We look at how other people are dressed, rattle off the written prayers without even thinking about the words, think about other things while the scripture is being read, focus on all manner of things around us rather than fully be in the presence of the living God. We go through the motions of worship, but it doesn’t make that much difference in how we live day to day.
Micah understood people like us. He saw how the people of God had fallen short of living according to God’s laws. They were walking around under a cloud, feeling the futility of life. He saw that they were neglecting to care for one another. They were impatient, they cheated and stole from one another in the market place, each trying to get the most for the lowest prices with no concern about fair wages. The wealthy had no concern for the violence being done for their gain. If he were here today Micah would draw our attention to the violence done to the farm hands who grow our food, being forced to breath in pesticides; and to the workers who make our clothing under slave conditions; and the violence done to our land, air and waters through pollution.
Micah also saw how many of the people of God, those who still dared to enter the Temple tried to make it all okay through their worship. The people of God in Micah’s day went in and bowed in prayer. They tried to make up for their sins by giving burn offerings – that is offerings that were totally given to God. They tried to assuage their guilt with more valuable gifts, like young calves. For us that might translate to our pledges, or countless hours of volunteer work for the church. I know that one of the less holy reasons I became a pastor is that I wanted to prove once and for all that I was good. But even if I tie my whole life to the work of the church, if I’m not right with God, if I don’t know deep, deep down that I am God’s beloved, that I am blessed, and if that state does not show in all of my interactions with other people then my offering is futile.
Such offerings can’t wipe away guilt and shame. Micah used exaggeration to make his point. If a regular burnt offering or tithe isn’t enough maybe something bigger will work. Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams? With ten thousands of rivers of oil? How about human sacrifice? Shall I be like Abraham and offer my firstborn, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? Would that cancel my sin?
Micah doesn’t answer our question. You see the whole premise is wrong. The whole idea that we can make an offering so that God will love us is based on the idea God’s love can be earned.
In response to our sinful way of life we hear God sigh. In response to those of us who think that what we do in this sanctuary for an hour each week, or the money we give to charity can buy God’s love, give us a ticket to heaven. When we act this way we hear God sigh. Like a weary parent, who has done everything possible to prepare us to live happy, successful, blessed lives, God laments, “O my people, what have I done to you? In what have I wearied you? Answer me! Don’t you remember?”
Remmbering is the key. In Micah God helps the people to remember how this whole thing started. Remember. I brought you up from the land of Egypt. Remember. I redeemed you from the land of slavery. Remember I sent Moses, Aaron and Miriam to lead you. Remember how Moses presented you with my law of life while you traveled in the wilderness. Remember I gave you bread from heaven and water from a rock. Remember when King Balak sent the prophet Balaam to curse you, but I turned that curse into a blessing. Remember when you crossed the Jordan river from Shittim to Gilgal, and Miriam played her tambourine and you danced for joy. Remember all the ways I, the Lord have reached out to you and saved you. Remember.
Move forward through the history of salvation in the Bible ,beyond Micah and the Old Testament Prophets, to Jesus. Remember that God came to us as Jesus the Christ, fully human, yet fully God. Remember what Jesus taught about living as God’s holy people in the Sermon on the Mount and in his parables. Remember Jesus’ example of sticking up for the oppressed, the persecuted, the outcasts, the ones about to be stoned by descent law abiding citizens. But even more importantly remember that Jesus loves you. That the Son of God stretched out his arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come into his saving embrace.
Remember the women who found the empty tomb met an angel, a messenger from God who told them Jesus was raised from the dead. Remember that they shared the good news with others, and that the risen Jesus walked with disciples to Emmaus teaching them, and how they recognized him in the breaking of the bread. Remember that a man named Saul, who committed violent crimes against human beings and especially disliked followers of Jesus, was stopped in his tracks and blinded by the Holy Spirit for a time and after being nurtured in the community of believers he became a new man in Christ. Remember that since Christ was raised from the dead we all have the possibility of being raised, to live our lives differently than before, to know we are blessed, to know we are God’s beloved.
The gospel message for us today, the good news for those of us who struggle with knowing and acting like we are citizens of heaven, members of God’s beloved community, is remember. Remember what God has done, not simply as something that happened to other people a long time ago, but remember in a way that helps you see who God is, and who you are now. This is the challenge I make to the members of the Bible study. Every time you meet strive to ask yourselves – what is this passage saying about who God is for us today? What is it saying about who we are now?
Remember Through Song – Pete Seeger
Maybe you think you don’t like history. Maybe you have trouble remembering. There are many tried and true ways people of faith have improved their memory to make salvation history come alive. I will share two with you today.
One way is song. At dinner last night Grace was trying to remember our telephone number and she surprised us by getting most of it right. Joe coached her, making up a song to go with the numbers. Words set to music stick in our heads. The best song writers know how to make ear worms, those tunes that stay with us for many hours of a day. These are the songs that are made for everyone in the congregation to sing. Or if the verses are complex great song writers make a chorus that everyone can remember. We sang one for our first hymn today. Rejoice and be glad, blessed are you holy are you, rejoice and be glad yours is the kingdom of God!
Pete Seeger was great because he knew the power of music to help us remember. And though there were times in his life that he thought of himself as an atheist, Pete did so much to help our nation remember God’s salvation history. Think of just a few of the spirituals he sang:
We are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder - a song about climbing from the sin of this world toward the glory of God’s heaven;
O Mary Don’t you Weep – “Pharaohs’ army got drowned” – a song about the Exodus from slavery to salvation.
Michael Row the Boat Ashore – reminding us that God sends angles like Michael to help us cross over Jordan river to eternal life in the kingdom of God,
Swing low sweet chariot – full of hope that God will swoop down and pull us out of the troubles of this life,
Jesus Walked this Lonesome Valley – reminding us of Emmanuel, God with us – even as we walk it by ourselves, Jesus is with us;
What Wondrous Love is This? – reminding us that God bore the dreadful curse for our souls;
Oh What a Beautiful City (Twelve Gates to the City) reminding us that God will not stop until the work is complete, the Heavenly Jerusalem is built and we dwell there with God;
We Shall Overcome that anthem which gave such hope to those fighting for justice during the civil rights movement. It still gives me shivers whenever I join hands with people gathered for a Martin Luther King Jr. breakfast because the song continues to give us hope even as we realize the work for justice is not complete.
Pete Seeger has helped us to remember who God is – holy and righteous and just – and who we are before God – beloved and blessed people, called by God to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God. Pete prophetically used his songs to remind us that we keep falling short of God’s expectations for us. We fall short in the way we treat workers, in the way we treat people who look different than us, in the way we treat people from other nations, and in the way we treat the earth, air and water God gave us. But with that conviction Pete also gave us music to offer us hope by reminding us of a God who has saved us and forgiven us over, and over, and over again.
We must remember rightly so that we become aware of the ongoing presence and power of God in every age, including ours. And when we remember rightly then, and only then, we will be able to do God’s will. Then we are enabled to live each day in harmony with what we say each week during worship. We are empowered to take care to treat others with justice (even those in China who make our clothing, our computers and nearly everything we buy at Walmart, Target and the Christmas Tree Shops). When we remember rightly how merciful God has been toward us we are given the strength of character to extend mercy to everyone (even those who make bombs and wound large crowds close to home). When we remember rightly that Jesus walks the most lonesome of our valleys, including the valley of the shadow of death with us, then we are glad to walk humbly with him as he leads us to the green pastures and still waters of the kingdom.
Another tried and true way that Christians rightly remember our place in salvation history are the sacraments. The sacraments as acts of worship, are outward and visible signs of the inward and spiritual grace of God. When they are done properly the sacraments can wake us up to the presence of the holy God in our midst.
In baptism we remember that the God who creates us calls us beloved, blesses us, and forgives us for not living as he intended us to live. In the prayer over the water we remember that God redeems us and turns us into holy people who do the holy work of justice and mercy. “You are beloved” is the message spoken by God the Father when the Holy Spirit rested on Jesus at his baptism. It is the message each of us who has been baptized is supposed to remember.
You know the water at the doors of most Catholic and Episcopal churches? It represents the waters of baptism. People stop by and touch the water upon entering the sanctuary as a physical reminder that they have been embraced by God’s eternal love. They are beloved. They are blessed. Today as you come forward to communion I invite you to touch the waters of baptism. You can cross yourself, or not, as you wish, but touch the water to remember your baptism and be thankful.
If you recognize that you have not been fully living out the baptismal way of life as a new creature in Christ; if you are a backslider; or if you never actually felt the living God’s forgiveness, mercy and grace at work in your life, I pray that as you touch the water the Holy Spirit may begin to work in you in a new and mighty way. And if you have never been baptized, you are still invited to touch the water and ask God whether he is calling you into life in the community of the Church.
The second sacrament we offer this morning to help us all rightly remember that we are blessed and beloved as the Community of Faith is Holy Communion. Communion is powerful, but it is not magic. The training and ordination of pastors and priests does not teach us magic words to turn ordinary bread into the body of Christ, or the Welches from the grocery shelf into the blood of Christ. All our training is meant to make sure that the congregations we serve remember rightly. Remember God calls us to repent of our sins, to humbly seek a life of peace with one another seeing every other human being, even our worst enemy, as a beloved child of God as we are.
The Great Prayer of Thanksgiving over the Elements contains no magic words, no hocus-pocus. It simple helps us to remember that God is creator of everything; that we turn away and our love fails, but God remains steadfast and merciful, slow to anger and quick to forgive. The prayer helps us to remember that God has delivered us from captivity and trains us how to live holy lives. The prayer helps us to remember Christ who told us to do this in remembrance of him and his mission to release the captives, help the blind to see and give liberty to the oppressed. We are reminded that being part of the body of Christ means we are called to share his healing with the sick, feed the hungry and associate with sinners. We are empowered to do these works of mercy because we remember – and when we try to do them on our own without tapping into the power of Christ, we fail miserably every time. Most importantly Communion is meant to help us remember that Christ is really present with us, here and now.
If you haven’t noticed by now I’ll say it plainly. This kind of remembering is not memorization of facts and figures, long ago dates and knowing that King Balak lived in Moab and Balaa was son of Beor. This kind of memory we need to cultivate here in our church is one that draws us into the story of God’s salvation, one where we come to experience the saving grace of God ourselves. It is a corrective memory so that each one of us can look back over the hardest parts of our life and see God’s grace at work, though we didn’t notice it then. It’s a habit we can cultivate, to remember every morning when we rise and every night when we lie down to sleep that we are God’s beloved, we are blessed and our lives are fruitful.
As we share in communion today I invite you to remember anew, and look for your place in this story of salvation. Let us eagerly come forward to receive the blessing of God, bread from heaven, the cup of salvation, as free gifts, outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual Grace of God at work here among the people of South Walpole UMC. I invite you to walk forward humbly. Kneel, or if your knees won’t take it, bend the knee of your heart and let God feed you until you are satisfied. May your “eyes be open in the breaking of the bread.”