Jesus Christ calls us to be a joyful community that celebrates God's love, transforms lives, and is a force for justice in the world.

Beloved

St. Mark’s Presbyterian Church
The Rev. Bart Smith
Baptism of Christ (January 14, 2017)
Mark 1:4-11 – “Beloved”

John the Baptist was in the wilderness calling for people to be baptized to show that they were changing their hearts and lives and wanted God to forgive their sins. Everyone in Judea and all the people of Jerusalem went out to the Jordan River and were being baptized by John as they confessed their sins. John wore clothes made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist. He ate locusts and wild honey. He announced, “One stronger than I am is coming after me. I’m not even worthy to bend over and loosen the strap of his sandals. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

About that time, Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and John baptized him in the Jordan River. While he was coming up out of the water, Jesus saw heaven splitting open and the Spirit, like a dove, coming down on him. And there was a voice from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.”


That last line sounds fine in the version I just read, the Common English Bible, but it sounds better in the NRSV, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Who hasn’t on a very deep level wanted to hear those words, “You are my child, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased”?

We can’t overestimate this moment in Jesus’ life, especially not as far as Mark is concerned. He begins his gospel with this episode, so everything that Jesus does in his ministry flows from this moment when the heavens split open and the dove descends. Everything he does flows from this experience of God’s love. “You are my child, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.”

Reading and hearing this story the day before Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I can’t help but think of a similar moment in King’s life. In so many ways he has become a misunderstood figure within American life. At the same time his legacy is honored and uplifted (approximately 900 streets in the United States are named after him), Dr. King’s prophetic work is also sanitized as time passes on. What I mean is, people remember his pleas for racial harmony, but often forget his more radical side advocating for an end to the war in Vietnam and for the eradication of poverty. As the years pass since his death, people have cherry-picked his thought to support their own agendas, neglecting the whole of his thought.

That’s true for King’s spiritual side as much as anything. People forget that the movement for Civil Rights was steeped in the African-American church. And not only that, but King’s theological beliefs undergirded and infused his activism; they weren’t a side feature but the foundation. His core teaching was on what he called “the Beloved Community,” that idea that the love of neighbor would characterize all social relationships. It was a vision of a new world, a vision not unlike Jesus’ vision of the Reign of God.

A minute ago I said that King had a similar moment to Jesus’ baptism. It was his “kitchen experience,” as he called it, a conversion of sorts, and it happened at the beginning of the movement in Montgomery, Alabama. King and his family had been receiving death threats, as many as 40 calls a day. Late one night he got a call and the caller uttered a vile threat that, for some reason, struck a nerve with Dr. King. He was able (somehow!) to ignore most of these threats, but there was something different about this one. Fear began to overtake him. He was afraid for the safety of his wife, his newborn son, himself. “If you are not out of this town in three days…” the menacing voice on the line said.

King told people later that he went to the kitchen to make a cup of coffee and calm down. Now, what you need to remember about him is that he had a PhD in theology from Boston University, so what did he begin to do while sitting at the kitchen table? I can relate to this: “reflecting on what his graduate theological studies had suggested to him regarding the ‘theological and philosophical reasons for the existence and reality of evil,’ he said he was left feeling weak.” He was leaning on his intellect, trying to think his way out of the problem. Has that ever been true for any of us?

Raphael Warnock, who currently pastors Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, tells the rest of the story this way:

“Realizing that his mother and father could not help him, it occurred to [King] that he had to turn to the God of his parents, ‘that something in that person that your daddy used to tell you about.’ ‘And I discovered then that religion had to become real to me and I had to know God for myself.’ It is there, while in prayer, that King ‘heard a voice,’ saying, ‘Martin Luther, stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo, I will be with you, even until the end of the world.’ [1]

The voice said, in other words, “You are my child, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

People said King was different after that. He had been raised in the church, of course, as a son and grandson of preachers. He had been to seminary, he was serving a church. But something changed in him when he heard and felt and took to heart his belovedness, God’s love for him, on a very, very deep level. That was a turning point for him. People who knew him said it was perhaps the most significant night of his life. His sense of his belovedness gave him the stamina to walk lonely paths and the courage to face death.

His vision of beloved community was rooted in belovedness. “You are my child, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

I hope each of us has heard that voice at some point, in one moment or in several. Now, you might say, “I’m not the type to hear God speaking to me, Bart.” The truth is, I’m not either, not in the sense of audible words. That’s true for some people, though. A former colleague of mine and friend grew up in the South in the 50s and 60s, a time when it was not safe for her to admit to herself nor anybody else that she was a lesbian. After struggling with hate and denial and shame for years, she was walking around a track one evening when she heard a voice whisper clear as day, “I love you just the way you are, just as I made you.” It changed her life.

“You are my child, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

For some of us, we don’t hear a voice, but we have an experience, sense a feeling, or internalize the affirming words of others. But the thing is, believing, trusting, truly taking to heart God’s love is hard for us because of any number of contrary forces– our sin, our shame, or doubt. Father Greg Boyle, a priest who works with gang members in Los Angeles, writes: “Whenever human beings bump into something too good to be true, we decide its not true.” And then he goes on to tell the story of a former gang member named Chuy:

“I drive Chuy home and as we pull up to his [apartment] he tells me that lately he’s ‘been having one-on-ones with…you know…God.’ ‘I don’t understand it,’ he says as he turns and looks at me. ‘The Dude shows up.’ I find this pretty charming and chuckle at first. Then I see Chuy is as serious as can be. “I mean…why would he do that?’ he asks , allowing his tears free passage. ‘After all the bad I’ve done. Why would he show up?”

“You are my child, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

If we are to pursue the beloved community, in which love is the “law of the land,” or the law of our neighborhoods, our schools, our churches, or even our own families and friend circles, we have to be grounded in our own belovedness. It is, to quote an old prayer, “our starting point and our haven.” That’s what baptism is for us: it binds us to Christ and because of that is a reminder of the essential truth of who we are. It’s our core identity, buried underneath all those other identities we assume for ourselves or labels others stick on us.

While in seminary, I had the opportunity to preach to a small congregation composed entirely of people experiencing homelessness. I was preaching on the Letter to Philemon, the shortest text in the New Testament, where Paul tells a slave owner, Philemon, about his former slave Onesimus to see him, “no longer as a slave but more than a slave—that is, as a dearly loved brother. He is especially a dearly loved brother to me. How much more can he become a brother to you, personally and spiritually in the Lord!” I asked what I, a Presbyterian seminarian, thought was supposed to be a rhetorical question, “What boxes do people put us in? The assembled congregation started answering out loud with their own “boxes:” They call me “bum,” or “stupid,” or “junkie.”

If only we lived the beloved community, if only we lived in a world in which people put us back in our original box: “You are my child, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

My prayer is that each of us would hear, see, feel, experience… trust… God’s voice. May we know our belovedness in our depths so that we can join God in building the beloved community.

[1] Raphael G. Warnock, The Divided Mind of the Black Church: Theology, Piety & Public Witness (2014), p. 39. 

[2] Gregory Boyle, Barking to the Choir: the Power of Radical Kinship (2016), p. 31.


Renewal of Baptism [3]

The congregation faces the font. 

Let us pray…

O God, we hear your voice
and we see the way of Jesus set before us.
But it’s hard, dear God, to try again and again
to live up to our baptismal vows
and maintain our resolve to be your people in the world.
In repentance we ask you to forgive us.
Set us once again on a holy path that leads to you. Amen.

Our God created new life forms and brought them up from the waters of chaos,
embraced them, and called them good.
Jesus, baptized in the river Jordan by John the Baptist,
became living water for us and embraces all of us.
Jesus embraces those who are poor, oppressed, marginalized
and all others who come seeking.
We follow Jesus with our Baptism,
marking a starting place for new life and new ways of being.
We join Jesus in love and service.
Let us prepare our hearts and minds to see, feel, and hear again the vows of Baptism…

Do you renew and affirm the promises made at your Baptism? I do.
Do you recognize the call of God to be God’s people always? I do.
Do you embrace the way of Jesus in faith and ministry? I do.
Do you accept the nurture of the Holy Spirit who renews your spirit each day? I do.
Do you accept and embrace others who seek a liberating faith in God? I do.

Let us pray…

We thank you that you claim us,
that you wash us, strengthen us, and guide us,
that you empower us to live a life worthy of our calling.
In the way of Jesus, make us as water in a dry and thirsty world.
Establish us to be places of refreshment.
Root us and nurture us in love,
that with all your people, that we may rightly and justly serve you.
Fill us with your fullness
that our lives may overflow in service and love. Amen.

[3] “Seeking Higher Ground, Service Prayers for Baptism of Christ Sunday” was written by the Rev. Rosemary McCombs Maxey, an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ.


The Blessing [4]

Begin here:
Beloved.
Is there any other word
needs saying,
any other blessing
could compare
with this name,
this knowing?
Beloved.
Comes like a mercy
to the ear that has never
heard it.
Comes like a river
to the body that has never
seen such grace.
Beloved.
Comes holy
to the heart
aching to be new.
Comes healing
to the soul
wanting to begin
again.
Beloved.
Keep saying it
and though it may
sound strange at first,
watch how it becomes
part of you,
how it becomes you,
as if you never
could have known yourself
anything else,
as if you could ever
have been other
than this:
Beloved.

[4] Beginning with Beloved: A Blessing by Jan Richardson

Featured image: John Baptizing Jesus, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN