Beth A. Faeth January 14, 2018
Scripture Mark 1:4–11
The wailing always gets my attention.
My youngest daughter, Hannah, is on the cusp of turning 14. When you encounter her, you might describe her as shy, quiet, with a sweet smile. These things are all true. Hannah is also wickedly funny, very smart and loving, and quite spirited. She has given me permission to say these things and tell this story, lest you think I might be talking behind her back. Hannah was the easiest baby in the world. And then she turned 2. And from that very moment, everything changed. With affection she is known in our home as the resident drama queen, embracing her role with enthusiasm. From when she was 2 until about 10, I had to train myself not to overreact to her over-the-top emotions regarding everything from what we might be having for supper to whether it was raining outside. I learned quickly, as Hannah’s mama, to not panic when I heard the plaintive cries of Hannah’s distress, but instead to decipher them via decibel level and vocal timbre. Pain, frustration, sibling angst, downright anger—all would take on a different tone in Hannah’s wails.
Whatever the case or the cause, the wailing always gets my attention.
One experience is particularly memorable. At home on a cold winter’s day I suddenly heard the familiar beginning of one of Hannah’s wails. This cry was not one of pain, nor one of indignation towards her older sister, not even one of frustration over an attempted task. This wail was a most distinctive “I think I am going to be in trouble so I am going to create a scene so as to confuse, distract and catch Mom completely off guard.”
Coming quickly to my daughter’s aid, she presented me with her offense . . . a beheaded angel that had been accidently launched from its Christmas display due to a few of Hannah’s notorious speed-of-light movements. Broken in two, the distressed figure looked as pathetic as Hannah sounded. With words of assurance, a comforting hug and an introduction to the miracle of superglue, the situation was quickly remedied. The angel was repaired and Hannah, having received an affectionate blessing, quickly moved on in the story that is her amazing life.
Wouldn’t it be something if all brokenness could be quickly repaired with a small bottle of strong glue and all children’s cries could be soothed with a hug and a kiss?
While the beheaded angel may be an interesting metaphor for the brokenness in the world, we know that the reality of people’s shattered spirits is palpable and permeates every facet of our personal and collective lives. Here, in this sacred time together, we lift up prayers for those enduring a myriad of crises. Even while we try to focus and appreciate this time of worship, our minds can’t help but wander to the grave concerns in our lives, fretting about ones we love, consumed by the broken places that litter our overworked world and cannot be fixed with any amount of powerful glue.
The wailing—our own voices or the cries of others—calls out for attention. And there is another, a divine other, who hears our cries and in our brokenness names us, redeems us, restores us.
But now thus says God, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.”
Many years ago I had a church member boldly approach me one Sunday after worship. This was a stoic woman, strong and stalwart. She wasn’t particularly warm and fuzzy. She was smart and articulate and she was really good at getting things done. She could also be fairly critical—of just about everything. Always matter of fact, she said, “Beth, I appreciate your Sunday morning messages. All of them. But really? I just want to be reminded that God loves me. That is what is missing in my life.” Her comment took me aback. She didn’t appear to have that particular need. I would have thought, by her personality and world outlook, that she did not have much of an emotional connection to the Divine. She rarely used loving language, she moved through life with grit and determination. She spoke her mind and didn’t worry if she offended. She was, in a word, hard. And lo and behold, she needed to be reminded that God loved her. Of course.
Can we ever be told that we are loved enough? Is it ever a message of which we might tire? That in God’s eyes we are holy and beloved, chosen, bestowed a special blessing? That right there, in the waters that consume and the fires that ravage, in the broken, belittled places of our lives, God is. God waits. God redeems. God names. God claims us, calls us God’s own. When we open ourselves to this understanding—regardless of age or stage or previous belief—a seed of meaning is planted in the basement of our soul to give us courage for the facing of these strenuous days.
The scriptural prophets were charged to bring divine messages to their communities. Most often the purposes of these communications were to change people’s minds as well as their ways. And often, their words were harsh, difficult to hear and painful to bear. Unlike most other biblical prophets, though, Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40–55) is filled not with warnings over wrongdoing, but with encouragement to reevaluate Israel’s past and future. These words are composed for a desolate people, exiled and struggling with a multitude of loss—loss of homeland, loss of Temple, loss of neighbors and family members, loss of identity, loss of trust in God. Brokenness abounds. And with nothing to call their own, when all that they knew as familiar and holy had been stripped from them, the people cry out, lamenting God’s absence in their lives . . . much in the same way we do when in despair: Where is God in the midst of all this?
The prophet speaks an intimate word from God, a reminder that although they believed that God could only be found within the sacred walls of their now destroyed Temple, God has been with them in the fire and waters of exile. That God is indeed with them, with us, in the smoldering ash heaps of our brokenness, claiming us as people of hope and blessing. “Do not fear,” God charges, “For I am with you. I love you, and you are mine.” Into this despair comes a preposterous word—neither fire nor flood will separate exiles from God and God’s saving acts of grace. That the very reason they are able to face another day is because they are not alone, the Divine is with them. The passage doesn’t promise there won’t be fire and flood, but rather that those elements will not overpower the faithful.
This scripture from Isaiah is paired with Mark’s interpretation of the baptism of Jesus. Each year in the church calendar, the Baptism of Christ is celebrated the Sunday after Epiphany. In the crisp, fresh pages of a new calendar year, we are offered a renewing reminder that as Jesus broke through the waters of the Jordan river, the voice of God rang from the heavens: “You are my child, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.” In that transformational moment, Jesus understood his mission and ministry. And through the baptism of Jesus, we, too, are named and claimed by God. This God will break into the brokenness of our lives—if we allow—and be with us as we walk through the fires of our life. Being chosen by God, marked by the waters of baptism, is a reciprocal gift. God is hoping we will live in such a way that others will know we are blessed. God’s love is only real through the way we live it out in the world. It helps if we remind ourselves each day of to whom we belong. That, indeed, we are loved. On this weekend when we honor the tremendous legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., even as racism continues to permeate every facet of our daily living, our sacred and secular institutions, our nation’s capital, let us remember King’s words:
When our days become dreary with low-hovering clouds of despair, and when our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, let us remember that there is a creative force in this universe, working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil, a power that is able to make a way out of no way and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows. (A Testament of Hope: The essential writings and speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr.)
In November and December, almost 600 of you took a congregational assessment survey. You were asked a multitude of questions about the state of Plymouth Church, your satisfaction with how things are here and what you hope and pray the church could be. This week the results were shared with the Leadership Council, Deacons and Transition Planning Task Force. And soon they will be revealed to all of you. The results were informative. And not surprisingly, you all have pretty strong opinions about life at Plymouth Church. Thank you for participating: We were told that our participation was the largest sample ever completed by a congregation. Way to go! What you value holds true to Plymouth’s legacy: exceptional worship and music, a dedication to bold social justice, an unapologetic commitment to being a progressive spiritual voice in a world where this is seriously lacking. One of the three top priorities proclaimed from you through this survey is to “create more opportunities for people to form meaningful relationships.” I applaud this, because to be in community together, especially spiritual community, means to be in meaningful relationship together. However, I also know this—that if we are to have authentic, significant relationships, rooted in love and covenant, than we must first understand ourselves as loveable humans, we must first trust in our own worth and gifts. We simply cannot be in any healthy, transformative relationship unless we first acknowledge a love of self. A greater love of self comes directly from accepting that even in our brokenness, we are worthy, we are lovable, we are good. This kind of knowledge stems from a Divine source. Trusting in God’s love for us allows us to create the kind of relationships we long for.
In his collection of sermons entitled Strength to Love, Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote, “In his magnanimous love, God freely offers to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. Our humble and openhearted acceptance is faith. So by faith we are saved. Man filled with God and God operating through man bring unbelievable changes in our individual and social lives.” (p. 51) While King may not have used the kind of inclusive language we desire, the message is clear . . . when we trust in the kind of unconditional love God offers us, we have the ability to induce magnificent, necessary change in the world. And we are also able to fully love one another. The congregational assessment also showed that our spiritual vitality is low—not surprising, our consultant says, for progressive churches whose theological stance is wide-ranging. While we may not agree on a set of beliefs, we must be rooted in some kind of faith foundation in order to be church together. Perhaps our starting point is to claim ourselves blessed and broken, and that God loves us within our blessedness and brokenness to shape relationship and equip us to serve each other and the world.
Rev. Janet Wolf once served as the pastor of Hobson United Methodist Church in Nashville, Tenn. Hobson UMC is a wildly diverse congregation that includes, as Janet has described it, “people with power and PhDs and folks who have never gone past the third grade; folks with two houses and folks living on the streets; and, as one person who struggles with mental health declared, ‘those of us who are crazy and those who think they’re not.’”
Years ago, a woman named Fayette found her way to Hobson. Fayette lived with mental illness and lupus and without a home. She joined the new member class. The conversation about baptism—”this holy moment when we are named by God’s grace with such power it won’t come undone,” as Janet puts it—especially grabbed Fayette’s imagination. Janet tells of how, during the class, Fayette would ask again and again, “And when I’m baptized, I am . . . ?” “The class,” Janet writes, “learned to respond, ‘Beloved, precious child of God and beautiful to behold.’ ‘Oh, yes!’ she’d say, and then we could go back to our discussion.”
The day of Fayette’s baptism came. This is how Janet describes it: “Fayette went under, came up spluttering, and cried, ‘And now I am . . . ?’ And we all sang, ‘Beloved, precious child of God, and beautiful to behold.’ ‘Oh, yes!’ she shouted as she danced all around the fellowship hall.”
Two months later, Janet received a phone call.
Fayette had been beaten and raped and was at the county hospital. Janet described her visit: “So I went. I could see her from a distance, pacing back and forth. When I got to the door, I heard, ‘I am beloved, . . .’ She turned, saw me, and said, ‘I am beloved, precious child of God, and . . .’ Catching sight of herself in the mirror—hair sticking up, blood and tears streaking her face, dress torn, dirty and buttons askew, she started again, ‘I am beloved, precious child of God, and . . .’ She looked in the mirror again and declared, ‘and God is still working on me. If you come back tomorrow, I’ll be so beautiful I’ll take your breath away!’”
The wailing will continue. Our cries, those of the ones of we love, and the despair of those in every corner of the world will threaten to consume. We are a broken people. More than ever before, we need the reminder of God’s love to sustain and uphold us. Broken and blessed, because nothing that we do can remove the identity that God conveys upon us. Fires will ravage, floods will overpower yet God loves us too deeply and completely to ever let us go. Broken, blessed and beautiful to behold. Broken, blessed and beautiful to behold. This is who we are, beloved children of God. May this knowledge give us the strength, the courage and the conviction to live fully as God’s people in God’s community known as Plymouth Congregational Church.