Archive for January 10th, 2010

Precious, Honored, and Loved

Well, in spite of the pottery pitcher being SO heavy that my hand and arm shook as I poured the water into the font.  And in spite of the pottery plates of glass beads being so awkward that many beads were spilled leaving our poor new elders scrambling on the floor to catch and retrieve them.  I thought today’s renewal of baptism service went pretty well.  I had fun with the liturgy today.  I used the baptismal font more and played with the water.  I wish I had the time and energy to memorize more of the liturgy.  I think it would make worship more powerful if I did.  But I’m not there just yet.  I am thankful for our new elders…all five of them this year.  And I am thankful for another chance to remember that I (we) are precious in God’s sight, and honored and loved.  Here’s the final version of this week’s sermon.

“You are Precious in My Sight, and Honored, and I Love You”

Isaiah 43: 1-7

Rev. Dr. Teri McDowell Ott

January 10th, 2010 – Baptism of the Lord

“You are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.” This past week I’ve been sneaking into my children’s rooms after they have gone to sleep in order to whisper these words over their heads.  “You are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.” These words are perfect for a mother to whisper over her children’s heads. They are words that just seem meant to be whispered, in a dark room, after everyone is all tucked in and all the good night kisses have been given.  Stroking the soft fine hair of my baby’s head, saying these words felt like a blessing and a prayer, as if I was anointing my children with love.

The prophet Isaiah gives us some beautiful, poetic words today that seem most appropriately spoken between parents and children, husbands and wives, friends or partners.  Words this intimate seem meant to be passed from one human being to another.  But it is not our mother, or our spouse, or our best friend whispering these words to us today.  Instead, it is our God through the prophet Isaiah.

In a way, it is hard to imagine God whispering to us these words,“You are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.” I don’t know if it is just because God is so abstract or if it is my own lack of imagination, but it’s just hard to picture God leaning over my bed, stroking my hair and whispering these words of love.  I can picture my mother saying these words to me, and my husband, even a good friend.  But God?  Does God really love me this much?  Is God’s love for me as real as my mother’s love and my husband’s love and my children’s love?

One scholar writes, “These comforting and hopeful words of Isaiah 43:1-7 are easier to read and write about than they are truly to hear and believe.  [So] this is a passage we need to return to over and over. Words this good—love this uncommon—take time to be believed and absorbed.”[1]

This reminds me of a story I heard Maya Angelou tell once during an interview with a newspaper.  In the interview, Ms. Angelou described how, as a little girl, her Sunday School teacher made her say over and over, “God loves me, God loves me, God loves me.”  And then, when she was finished, her teacher would say, “Now try to know it.”

Now try to know it.  It really is hard to imagine, hard to know, that God loves us this much.  We must return to these words, saying them over and over again, in order to believe them and absorb them…in order to make them feel real.  We must repeat God’s words of love in our heads and in our hearts.  We must enact God’s love through our rituals in worship.  We must remind ourselves of God’s love through the waters of baptism.  God’s love is possessive and protective.  I am yours, God says through the prophet Isaiah and, You are mine, God says through the waters of baptism.

Such a love is uncommon and unreal in the sense of being hard to believe.  It is hard to fathom a God who loves us this much.  It is hard to fathom a God who loves all of us this much.  And it is a love for all of us, for all of creation in fact.  Isaiah stresses the inclusiveness of God’s love.  But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel; Do not fear for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. God’s words of love are for everyone (even every thing) that God has created, and formed, named and claimed.  I am yours, God says, and you are mine.  Such inclusive love is hard to believe, it’s hard to get our heads around a love so grand and so amazing.  But perhaps harder still is following through on God’s command for us to embody this inclusive love and share it with all the world.

As the church of Jesus Christ we are to embody God’s inclusive love. As we begin this new year together, as we renew our baptismal vows today, and as we ordain and install our new elders, it seems appropriate to remind ourselves of our demanding, yet vital task, to embody God’s inclusive love as the church of Jesus Christ.

This week I read about a pastor who goes to a funky restaurant in her neighborhood in order to write and reflect on her sermons.  She goes to this restaurant because as she says, “the music is soulful and the ambience is warm.  The coffee and tea are offered in wide mugs by friendly but not pushy servers.  The art on the wall is provocative.  The feeling is inclusive.”  She gathers there with other strangers who all become temporary colleagues while working on their laptops and sipping their coffee.  They suggest to each other what salads to try on the menu and watch each other’s computers if someone needs to slip off to the restroom.  Then, as she is sitting and working, she overhears one of these strangers say something out loud, sort of to herself.  And the pastor replies, “What did you just say?”  And the woman says it again: “I wish my church was like this.”[2]

I wish my church was like this.  It’s hard to know what the woman meant by this comment.  But the comment did seem to be inspired by an atmosphere of warmth and tangible hospitality.  By music that was soulful and art that was provocative.  By a sense of community in which she was immediately included, even though she was a stranger.  I wish my church was like this.  Well, of course she does.  Of course we do.

Because this is the ideal for which we strive as the body of Christ.  We strive to be a place of warmth, of tangible hospitality, and of inclusive love.  We strive to be a place where all are made to feel invited and inspired.  We strive to be a place where all are made to feel precious, and honored, and loved.  We strive to be a place that embodies God’s inclusive love.

But so often the church falls short of this ideal.  So often we fall short of this ideal.  We get annoyed with each other or offended.  We hurt each other and play silly games.  We take sides and we fan the flames of controversy and conflict.  And we do all this all to the detriment of embodying God’s inclusive love.  We do all of this to the detriment of the body of Christ, the church.

It’s not easy being the church.  It’s not easy living up to this calling.  But we are not here because it is easy.  We are here because it is right, and because it is good.  We can’t be the church all by ourselves.  We need each other.  And God needs us…to be Christ’s body in a hungry and hurting world, to be God’s light in a time of great darkness, to be the bearers of God’s inclusive love sharing the words that are so hard to believe, but so life-giving to hear, “You are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.”

Today we will renew our baptismal vows. Even if you have not been baptized you are welcome to join us in professing your faith in Jesus Christ and promising to live as his disciple.  In a very real, very tangible way, renewing our baptism reminds us of God’s great love for us.  Renewing our baptism reminds us that we are precious in God’s sight, and honored, and loved.  But, also in a very real, very tangible way, renewing our baptism reminds us that we are sent, and challenged, and called to glorify God by embodying God’s inclusive love and sharing it with all the world.

May we all be filled by God’s love today.  So we can then, as instruments of God’s love, go and fill others.

Now to our God who calls us and claims us in the waters of baptism, be all honor and glory, thanksgiving and power, now and forevermore.  Amen.

[1] W. Carter Lester, Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 1, “Pastoral Perspective,” pg. 222.

[2] http://www.achurchforstarvingartists.com/2010/01/this-is-what-church-could-look-like.html

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