Saturday, March 6, 2010

Do or Die

Do or Die
Luke 13:1-9
3rd Sunday in Lent
7 March 2010 

We all know the story and the images well by now. On the afternoon of January 12, a catastrophic 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Port au Prince, Haiti, the capital, was absolutely leveled. Nearly a quarter of a million people were killed. 300,000 more were injured. Roughly a million were rendered homeless. It is a devastation we can scarcely imagine.

The next day, a well-known televangelist went on the air and gave an explanation as to why this terrible thing had happened. He said, “Something happened a long time ago in Haiti, and people might not want to talk about it. They were under the heel of the French … and they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said, ‘We will serve you if you’ll get us free from the French.’ True story,” the televangelist said, “And the devil said, ‘OK, it’s a deal. Ever since, they have been cursed by one thing after another.”[i]

And so one of history’s only successful slave rebellions got twisted by this man into a pact with the devil, resulting in a curse, resulting in a natural disaster, resulting in unimaginable pain and suffering, including the pain and suffering of thousands and thousands of children. They must have deserved it, right?

It is human nature to look for explanations for why bad things happen. The easiest explanation has always been to blame the victim. There is some psychological comfort that comes from telling oneself that terrible things only happen to terrible people, people who deserve them. The implication is that if we live the right kind of life, we can protect ourselves from calamity. And, conversely, if certain awful things haven’t happened to us, we must be living right.

This impulse seems to be as old as time. It certainly was the case in Jesus’ day. The popular assumption was that misfortune was punishment for sin. This was the way they, like our famous televangelist, made sense of otherwise senseless tragedy. This was the way they preserved God’s character, too – if God is a good God, and a just God, and an all-powerful God, then disaster must be the result of human sin.

One day, some people approached Jesus with some shocking bad news. Pontius Pilate had massacred some Galileans who were in the temple praying. The Galileans had brought their animal sacrifices for their offering, and now their own blood mingled on the temple floor with the blood of the sacrificed animals. They must have done something to deserve it, right?

Jesus responds in no uncertain terms. “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No!” And he goes one further. He moves from news of deliberate evil to news of accidental disaster. “What about those eighteen people who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them?” he asks. “Do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No!”

He says it elsewhere, too. The disciples once asked him about a man born blind – who sinned, this man or his parents? Jesus said neither one, it was nobody’s fault. And elsewhere he says this: the sun shines on the evil and the good; rain falls on the righteous and the unrighteous.

Whatever meaning you might make from evil, or accident, or natural disaster, Jesus is clear. It is not about what’s fair. It is not about what’s deserved. It is not about God’s judgment.

Jesus never goes along with simplistic answers to difficult questions. Horrible things happen, and there are no easy or satisfactory explanations. He erases our neat, old equations between catastrophe and condemnation, between tragedy and punishment, between ruin and retribution. He is unequivocal – this is not how God works.

What this means, of course, is that all of us are vulnerable. We are fragile. Life is precarious. At any moment, everything we know could be shattered. It happens every day, to people just like you and me. And all the right living in the world won’t change that.

In light of that, Jesus’ next words are a warning. The Galileans who were murdered and the people who were crushed by the tower – they were no worse than anybody else, and their deaths were not a judgment on their lives. Still, Jesus reminds us, their sudden deaths should cause us to look at our own lives. The clock is ticking on all of us, and we never know when our time will run out. “Unless you repent,” Jesus warns, “you will all likewise perish.” He does not mean we will be killed for our sins. All of us are going to die regardless. The question is how we are spending our lives in the meantime. Jesus is using death as a metaphor for judgment. When the last second ticks for us, how will our lives be judged? The time to repent is now. The time to turn, to take hold of a new way of living is now.

Then Jesus tells this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to his gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?”

Told in the context of talk of repentance, this is the picture Jesus paints of our sin. This is what our failure looks like. Sin is about something so much more than morality. The tree isn’t doing anything bad, per se. But it is standing there taking up precious space, soaking up sunshine, drinking from the soil, and never yielding any fruit. It gets everything good it needs and does not bear anything good or beautiful in return. It does not give back.

This is too often our story, too. We hear the word sin and we think of a series of moral laws about private virtues. But Jesus consistently shows us that sin is more fundamentally about a failure to do what good we can. We soak up the sun of God’s goodness, we’ve been given so much sweetness and nourishment and light. Do our lives bear generous fruit that reflects the richness of what we’ve been given? Are we giving back joy, are we giving back kindness, are we giving back love? Are we growing into the fullness of our good purposes?

In Jesus’ story, what happens to a fruitless tree is that the owner decides to cut it down. John the Baptist had warned of this, saying “Even now the ax is lying at the roots, poised to strike.” Jesus’ listeners wouldn’t have been surprised. They would have known the popular folktale about a palm tree which did not bear fruit. The owner came to chop it down. The tree itself spoke: “Don’t cut me down! Transplant me to a better place, and I’ll be fruitful.” And the owner said, “Nope. If you haven’t done it by now, you never will.” And he toppled it.

There were other versions of this story of the talking palm tree – in some of them, the tree doesn’t bear any dates; in other versions, the tree does bear fruit but drops it all into a river. But the endings are all the same. The owner gets his ax.

But not in Jesus’ story. The gardener intervenes. He protests: “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.”

After three years of fruitlessness, there is no reason to think that the tree will begin producing now. But the advocate-gardener takes a risk; he makes an extravagant pledge to pour his care on it anyway. In a region where fig trees produced lavish harvests with little care, this gardener vows to go to great lengths for one failed tree. Will his risk pay off? The answer to that is up to you and me.

In so many ways we have not tended the good lives we’ve been given; we have not produced fruit. We stand under the sun of God’s love, rooted in the soil of God’s provision, and yet our lives are too often barren of the sweetness, the goodness, the fullness that they should yield. Even so, the gardener advocates for us. He pleads for us, he lays down his life for us, he feeds us with himself, he drenches us in the outpouring of his love and of his life. What response can we make, but to take hold of what he gives and give back our own lives?

The conversation with Jesus started with the question: is tragedy God’s punishment for sin? Jesus’ answer is a definitive No. He reminds us instead that tragedy can happen to anyone at any time, and with a life as fragile as that why would we waste what little time we’ve got? He invites us to see what life we’ve got as gift, all of it an act of God’s mercy. In light of such grace, he gives us a choice: Repent or perish. Do or die. We can wither where we are, let our lives dry up no matter how much goodness we’ve been given to share. Or we can repent, turn, let the life Christ laid down nourish our roots. We can take hold of our promise. We can let our lives bloom.


Saturday, February 6, 2010

Lord of the Broken Nets

Lord of the Broken Nets
Luke 5:1-11
5th Sunday after the Epiphany
7 February 2010

It was an interruption that changed everything.

Interruptions have the power to do that, you know. Most interruptions are mere annoyances – the telemarketer who rings you as you sit down for dinner, the co-worker who stops by your desk just as you are making progress on your inbox, the child who talks over the punchline on your favorite show. But some interruptions change our lives. The phone that rings at 2:00 in the morning. The water that breaks four weeks early. The breaking news that interrupts regularly scheduled broadcasts. One moment changes everything.

For Simon, it had been a night like any other night. He and his fishing partners had spent the whole night fishing. But for all their work, they had come back to shore with nothing. They stood there next to their boats, washing their nets, ready for a hot breakfast and a long nap. And up walks this man who just steps into Simon’s boat, sits down, and starts teaching. A crowd is pressing in on him, anxious to hear the word of God, and so he delivers it, sitting in Simon’s fishing boat.

Luke doesn’t tell us whether Jesus asked permission or offered explanation. He doesn’t say how Simon responded to the interruption. He just says that Jesus got in and started teaching. And Simon and his friends didn’t leave. They had worked all night for nothing, and surely felt bone-tired and ready to go. But they didn’t. And when Jesus was done speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.”

Simon explained, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing.” In other words, “We’ve already tried that, it didn’t work.” Some people might’ve stopped at that, turned around, and headed home. But Simon’s head was filled with what Jesus had been teaching. It is clear from the crowds who press in that this man offers a compelling word. Simon is compelled too; he doesn’t turn away. He goes on, “Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.”

So they push off from shore and do what Jesus says. They throw their empty nets into the deep water, and pull up a staggering haul. Their nets begin to break. They have to call their partners over from the other boat to help them bring it all up. They struggle to bring up the catch; it fills both boats. And the boats begin to sink.

Can you see it? Can you smell it? Fish flopping everywhere. Nets creaking, straining. Boats tilting, tipping. Tired men groaning, tugging, struggling with their catch. Where there had been nothing, now there is more than they can handle.

It’s the first miracle in Luke that does not involve a healing or an exorcism. Jesus hasn’t commanded the sea or the fish. He has not told the fisherman to do anything unusual. He simply comes to them in the midst of their ordinary work, and tells them to try again, and to go deeper, and they do.(1) What they pull up defies all expectation and brings Simon to his knees.

He knows that what has happened is more than just the best fish tale ever. What he has caught hold of with his nets is a miracle, and he responds to the divine power of it, falling before Jesus and saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” But Jesus won’t have it. “Do not be afraid,” he tells Simon, “from now on you will be catching people.” And they bring their boats to the shore, and leave them there – stinky fish, breaking nets, and all – and follow him.

What a story! Even so, some of us shy away from it. We have heard this story used towards a kind of triumphal evangelism. We have heard it used as part of church growth campaigns. We prefer to relegate it to children’s Vacation Bible School lessons, so that we don’t have to deal with it so much ourselves. It makes us feel guilty, or uncomfortable, or anxious. We do not want to be, in the more familiar words, “fishers of men.” It is unseemly.

But what if we could set that aside? What if we could let Jesus interrupt our preconceived notions and our well-defended habits? What if we just let him come in, enter our ordinary lives, right where we are? Maybe he comes to us after a long day’s work, when we feel like nothing we have done has made a difference. We are ready to be finished for the day. Try again, he urges. Go deeper, he says, calling us into depths we haven’t explored, spiritually, or emotionally, or in some other way we’re unprepared for. Do we resist, and insist that we’ve already tried and failed?

Maybe he comes in the same way, right here into our church. Some here have worked so long, and so hard, for the sake of this church, and for what? Some days it’s hard to see that any of it makes any difference. We worry. We despair. We wonder what we have to show for all our years and all our work and all our faithfulness. And there he comes. Try again. Go deeper. Do we resist? Do we insist that we’ve already tried and failed? Do we give up? His call to put out our nets into the deep water – that’s an invitation to go farther than we have, to move out of safe water and known places, and see what happens when we let him lead.

If we’re willing to respond to such an invitation, we could find ourselves faced with unexpected abundance and blessing. Instead of coming up empty, the fishers’ nets were filled with a stunning wild bounty. Can we believe that God will lavish abundance on us too, if we risk going further and going deeper than we thought we could? Scripture tells us that God can do abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine (Ephesians 3:20). Do we believe that? Are we willing to risk asking and imagining and seeing where God leads us?

If we really believed in the God we say we trust, then we would know that no net we have is enough. No resource, no ritual, no habit, no tradition, no understanding, is big enough to contain what God means to bring. We can never be prepared for the abundance God means to provide. A boatload of blessing – and more – is available, but it will strain and even break our previous structures.

Maybe that’s what we are afraid of. Maybe we are not afraid of failure, but of success – success in the form of unpredictable abundance and blessing. When Simon confesses his sin, isn’t it interesting that Jesus’ response is, “Do not be afraid”? Jesus knows that this is the way we are. When faced with the possibility of abundance, when challenged by the breakage of our old ways, we are afraid. We want to keep doing things the way we’ve always done, whether they’ve worked or not. Whether they’ve helped us or others, or not.

This past week was the Feast of St. Brigid, one of the patron saints of Ireland. Brigid helped shape Irish Christianity in the middle of the fifth century, when it was still new to Ireland. She was known for her hospitality and generosity. In stories about Brigid’s life, she is remembered as a person who worked miracles of abundance among the poor – abundance of food, or drink, or healing, or justice. She taught that “every guest is Christ,” and though she was not generally known for turning anyone away, she was wise and discerning with how she ministered to those in need.

One day, a man with leprosy approached her saying, “For God’s sake, Brigit, give me a cow.” Brigid told him to leave her alone. Possibly this was not her first time dealing with the man. He persisted. “Give me a cow!” Brigid asks him if she can pray to God to remove the man’s leprosy. “No,” he replies. “I get more this way than if I were clean.” Brigid insists that he “take a blessing and be cleansed.” And he acknowledges that he is, in fact, in a lot of pain. And so she prays for blessing for him, and he is cured. (2)

It’s easier – less risky, less costly, less work – to stick with whatever we’ve got, to do what we’ve always done, than to open ourselves to blessing and abundance that may require something more of us than we expected. Jesus calls us to cast our net into deep waters – to risk moving towards possibilities we cannot yet see, or predict, or understand. If we follow, who knows what wild bounty we may haul in? In the process, there are habits and practices, attitudes and understandings, in our lives and in our church life that will stretch and maybe break, and maybe even sink. Are we up for that? Are we willing to follow the Lord of the broken nets? Are we willing to trade what we’ve got for what he wants to give?

In the end, it was not just fish that were caught that day at Galilee – Simon and his friends were hooked, too. They could not resist the draw of this man Jesus. He would call them into dangerous places. They could not foresee the outcome. But they had experienced a moment of untamed, unmitigated, abundant, amazing grace, and they could do nothing but respond. They left behind the nets, the boat, and the catch. Because in the end, the real grace wasn’t about the gift, but the giver.

God is ready to do abundantly far more than we can ask or imagine. What is it that you would ask, for yourself, and for this church? What do you imagine? What can you dream? God’s dream is bigger. God’s bounty is wilder. God’s provision is more outrageous.

Everything we’ve got is just a net, or a boat. We have to be willing to let what we’ve got be stretched, be broken. In some cases, we may need to be broken, ourselves. But God will provide more than we can ask or imagine, as long as we’re willing to keep following Jesus, and to go deeper than we’ve gone before, maybe to places we cannot yet see or expect.

And if we really fix our lives on following him, if we really stake our church on him, then we will find ourselves drawing a net of love out into the world and hauling more people towards unexpected blessing and grace. The haul may not look like what “experts” call “success.” It may look like dozens of children from Hikone Housing, coming to know the love and dependability of God because of people here who showed that love. It may look like scores of children and families in Nandasmo, Nicaragua, who are strengthened and empowered by the bonds of Christian friendship with sisters and brothers here. It may look like a new kind of movement to confront the problems of homelessness in this city with courage and conviction, while caring for those who are homeless with compassion and greater resourcefulness. [Maybe it will look like a holy zeal to share the love of Jesus in every way we know how.] Or it may look like something we have not yet dreamed.

Jesus said, “From now on you will be catching people!” Who knows what that catch will look like – all we know to do is throw out our nets, let ourselves be stretched, let our boat be rocked. And keep on following him.

[1] New Interpreter’s Bible. “Luke.” Gail R. O’Day. 118.

[2] The Reverend Jan Richardson, Also thanks to her for the phrase “wildest bounty,” which she found in Alice Curtayne’s biography of St. Brigid. Curtayne wrote that Brigid ministered to the poor with “a habit of the wildest bounty.”

Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Core Reality

The Core Reality
Psalm 19
Third Sunday after Epiphany
24 January 2010

One of the things our boys are learning in kindergarten is that everybody can be a scientist. They are learning to be curious, to be open-minded, and to investigate the world around them. Their teacher tells them that when they encounter something that looks or smells disgusting, instead of responding with, “Eww, yuck!” a scientist says, “How interesting!” It is their new favorite phrase. For them, every day has become an opportunity for scientific investigation, and there is no realm of life that cannot be approached with a scientist’s quest for knowledge.

Our contemporary culture, which excels at compartmentalization, prefers to divorce science from other facets of life. The most famous such split is the supposed divide between science and religion, which are seen to be not just distinct from each other, but in conflict. Science and poetry are also seen as completely separate fields, but this can’t really be the case, can it? There is an inherent poetry in equations, for instance – rhythm, symmetry, something like rhyme, and certainly beauty. When science shows us something new about the human body, or about the earth, or about the skies, we are brought into new awareness of how vast is the mystery of life. It is hard not to be struck by wonder and by awe, at such new discoveries. These are the same responses that poets are going for. And of course mystery, wonder, awe – these also lie at the heart of faith.

A few nights ago, one of our little scientists approached us and asked if, for his birthday, we would let him take a special trip. When we asked him where, he answered matter-of-factly, “To the center of the earth.” When I asked him how he would get there, he had an answer for that too, “A rocket drill.” His brother chimed in, “That sounds exciting. I want to go. I’m dying of curiosity to see what’s at the center of the earth.”

We know what science teaches us about what is at the center of the earth. And of course we know that it would be not only impossible but also unpleasant to attempt to take a little day trip there. But the impulse behind this birthday request is possibly universal and certainly profound – the desire to know what is at the core of reality. What is the center of life? What lies beneath that part of reality we can see? What holds everything together?

Our psalmist has some thoughts about that. He has a poet’s sensibility, a scientist’s quest for truth, and the attentive delight of a child. He starts not by pondering the center of the earth, but by pointing our gaze towards the edges of the universe.

The heavens are telling the glory of God;

and the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork.

Day to day pours forth speech,

and night to night declares knowledge.

There is no speech, nor are there words;

their voice is not heard;

yet their voice goes out through all the earth,

and their words to the end of the world.

In the heavens God has set a tent for the sun,

which comes out like a bridegroom

from his wedding canopy

and like a strong man runs it course with joy.

Its rising is from the end of the heavens,

and its circuit to the end of them;

and nothing is his from its heat.

On a January weekend in Michigan, we might not agree with that bit about nothing being hid from the sun’s heat. But even grey skies and barren trees and icy wind tell of God’s glory, though for some of us it may sound more like tiny whispers than like a voice that goes out through all the earth.

The psalmist here is reflecting an ancient belief that the sun, and the moon, and the stars produce a harmony of tones by their movements, and that this harmony is sounded day and night from one end of the earth to the other.[i] The voices of the universe are not in human language – as the psalmist says, “there is no speech, not are there words; their voice is not heard; yet their voice goes out through all the earth.” And what they are telling is the glory of God.

The psalmist knew that creation is gorgeous enough in its own right, but there is a gift beyond that gift – what creation teaches us about God. Beauty, power, persistence, whimsy, usefulness, harmony, fierceness, interdependence, wildness – all of these will teach us about who God is, all of these will teach us how to praise God, if we pay attention.

And yet we know we cannot look at creation and see only good; there is tragedy and terror in it too. The horrific damage of the earthquake in Haiti is too fresh on our minds to be glib about how pretty nature is. Creation deals cruel blows. Theologian Paul Tillich once wrote, “Praising the glory of nature does not mean speaking of the beauty of nature alone and forgetting its overwhelming greatness and terrible power. Nature never manifests shallow beauty or merely obvious harmony.”[ii]

How do we reckon with the wild and terrifying freedom of creation? Natural disasters leave us horrified, bewildered, and enraged. They lead some of us to question God, and some of us to question if God even exists. It is the central perennial question of faith: how can God be both all-good and all-powerful and still allow such terrible things to happen? It’s a problem that cannot be settled, not entirely, and not entirely satisfactorily, not on this side of eternity.

But we can learn something from the psalmists about engagement with cruel realities. The psalms speak of God as refuge in times of destruction and distress. The psalms tell us that in response to fire and earthquake, in God’s temple all say, “Glory!” The faithful did not deny evil or tragedy, but even those things led them towards humility and reverence. It caused them to bow before the great mystery of a God who has set such a complex and uncontrollable universe in motion. It led them to respond with praise to the fierce, untamable nature of a God who is beyond our understanding or control.

But God wants more than our reverence; God wants a relationship. The psalmist, who had us looking up to the skies, now directs our eyes toward the Torah, God’s instruction. Like the sun in the sky, the Law of God revives the soul, rejoices the heart, gives light to the eyes. God’s instruction, which has been built into the very structure of the universe,[iii] has been made more explicit in Scripture.

What the psalmist is trying to help us see is that the same God whose power is proclaimed by the cosmic witness of the universe has also directed a personal word to humanity. The implications of this are staggering. The God who set the stars in the farthest galaxy also address us intimately, warmly, directly. The God who created the whole vast universe also came seeking a relationship with each of us.

God’s instruction, in creation and more overtly in Scripture, is meant to draw us into that relationship. The psalmist declares that what God’s Word accomplishes in our lives is all the good things God wants for us: vitality, wisdom, joy, enlightenment. Creation’s voice goes out over all the earth, and yet we do not hear it. But we have been given this book, and if we listen deeply, we do hear God speaking words of life.

The problem is, we’ve treated Scripture more like rules that we can’t live up to than like a relationship we’re willing to embrace. We find ourselves unable to do the things we know would keep us in harmony with God, or with each other, or with the world, or even with ourselves. We fail, and we hurt each other, and we do great damage to other people and to ourselves. And so the psalmist acknowledges our faults, and makes a petition for forgiveness. A psalm that started at the outer edges of the cosmos bends down now to the one place that matters most to God – the human heart.

Whereas creation is for us music without words, the Scriptures have been for many of us words cut off from music. Not because the music isn’t there, but because in our human limitation we have not been able to hear it, and accept it, and dance with it. So finally, God brought the music and words together for us, in the life of Jesus. His life, and death, and resurrection said the Word we needed to hear, the Word that is already written in the skies, and in our Scriptures, but that we couldn’t seem to see, couldn’t hear – that Word was Love, and only Love.

This is the core reality. This is what holds at the center – God’s love for us, and for our world, from the expanding edges of the universe to the shifting floors of the sea. When we turned away, and our love failed, God’s love remained steadfast.

We look at our creation and divorce it from any sense of reverence and connection with our creator. We look at our Scriptures and we read judgment. We read constraint. We read irrelevance. But the only thing God has ever been trying to say was, I love you. The only thing God has ever wanted is for us to live in the freedom and the refuge of that love, that we might honor and care for each other and our world.

I love you! he tried to tell us through the stars and the moon and the sun and the trees. But we couldn’t hear it. I love you! he tried to tell us again through the Scriptures. But we couldn’t accept it; we thought it was only a law we couldn’t keep. I love you! God told us one more time in Jesus, and tells us still.

In the 14th century, a 30 year-old English woman named Julian of Norwich received the first of several revelations from God. The most famous one, and the one you’ve probably heard quoted, was about a hazelnut. Her visions went on from there, for 15 years, and she continued to ask God what it all meant, when finally she received this answer:

What, do you wish to know your Lord’s meaning in this thing? Know it well, love was his meaning. Who reveals it to you? Love. What did he reveal to you? Love. Why does he reveal it to you? For love. Remain in this, and you will know more of the same. But you will never know different, without end.[iv]

Love. If we yield to it and embrace it, we will know more of the same. But we will never know different, without end.

That Sacred Word, the Word that spans the universe and stretches across the pages of Scripture and finally took on flesh to reach down to the depths of our sad dark hearts – that Word is saying just one thing, and always only one thing, and never anything different, only more and more of that one word. I love you! I love you! I love you!

It only says that one thing, and it only wants one thing in return – to shine like the sun over your whole life.

[i] Paul Tillich. “Nature Mourns for a Lost Good.” The Shaking of the Foundations. 80.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] NIB. 750.

[iv] As quoted in An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith. Barbara Brown Taylor. 34.

Saturday, January 9, 2010



Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Baptism of the Lord

10 January 2010

If you had gotten to be the one to pick the name on your birth certificate, what name would you have picked? Would it be something more original that what your parents chose? Or maybe less original? Is there some name you have thought would fit you better than the one they picked?

[I went through a period in my childhood when I insisted that my friends and family call me “Lisa.” I’m rather glad it didn’t stick, since about 10 years later a juggernaut of a television show debuted, with a main character named Lisa Simpson.]

I knew a woman who went through a divorce in her early 40s and changed her name. Not her last name – her first. She had been called “Susan” all her life, but suddenly she felt like her real name was “Sophia,” which means “wisdom.” Her children had given her the name when they were playing make-believe, and she embraced it as her true identity, letting herself be named by her children instead of her parents. She felt like it gave her a fresh start on a new life following the breakdown of her marriage. I only met her after she was already going by Sophia, and I thought it suited her perfectly – she was wise, and her wisdom was hard-won. But I understand that the change in her name was rather difficult for her friends and family to adjust to. Claiming who we really are can be hard on those who thought they already knew who we were.

Most of us don’t get to choose the names that other people call us. Our parents name us something, and that’s what we go by, or some variation of it. Along the way, we pick up other names, too. Smelly Elli. Fatty Patty. Spacey Stacey. Schoolmates think they are so clever in their cruelty.

Most of the names we live under are a little more subtle than that. To name something or someone is an act of creation – it creates a reality. People in our lives say things to us or about us, and those things help create our sense of our identity. Stupid. Ugly. Lazy. Failure. We don’t choose these names either, but if we’re shackled with them long enough, we begin to consent to the truth in them. We begin to see ourselves through those lenses. We will never be smart enough, or good-looking enough. We don’t deserve to be happy or successful. We can never work hard enough or accomplish enough to get the approval or love we seek. We can never throw off our old names. Or at least it seems that way – in part because those names have sunk down into our hearts. We have let them claim us.

Others of us have worked hard to build our identities into something rock solid and unassailable. We mean to make a name for ourselves. Hard worker. Successful. Attractive. Brilliant. We have put an awful lot of stock into our self-made identities, and we can do just fine with them for a long time – until something like illness, or aging, or disaster, does something to shake those identities or even shatter them.

Jesus had a mighty big name to live up to. His name meant “God saves.” In this morning’s gospel story, he gets a new name, too. It doesn’t replace his old name, it simply clarifies it. He comes to the River Jordan, where John is baptizing people. The people there are getting washed in the river, repenting of their old ways, rising from the waters to embrace a new life. Luke tells us that these people were filled with expectation. They were there at that river’s edge looking for something, hoping for something. The gospels never explain why Jesus sought baptism, too, but they agree that he did. Luke’s focus is not on the baptism itself but on what happens next.

He tells us that after all the people had been baptized, and after Jesus also had been baptized, Jesus was praying. Luke is the only one to note this detail. In this Gospel, it is the first thing Jesus does after coming up out of those waters, and throughout his Gospel, Luke will show us Jesus praying. In Luke, at the most significant moments of Jesus’ life, he stops to pray. It is the pattern of his life and of his ministry.

In this instance, while he is praying, the heavens are opened, and the Holy Spirit descends upon him like a dove. And a voice comes from heaven, saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.” His name has now been augmented, deepened. He is called Son. He is called Pleasing. He is called Beloved.

Before his temptation in the wilderness, before the work of his ministry, before his long road to the cross, before a mocking sign calling him “King of the Jews” is hung over him on that cross - these are the words that are hung over his life: Beloved, Pleasing, Son. Living under the reality of this claim, he moves out in freedom and with courage to love, to serve, to teach, to die. The names that God pronounced over him would ultimately undo the mocking claims that others would make about him. He was freed from having to prove himself, or defend himself. He didn’t have to exercise any power or control but love. He could live like this because he knew who he was.

In his baptism, Jesus identified with us. Some would say there was no need for the sinless one to submit to a baptism of repentance. His descent into those waters, though, was a sign of his solidarity with us. God speaks in this morning’s Old Testament reading from Isaiah, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you…” and in Jesus this was visibly, physically so.

Just as in his baptism he identified with us, so in our baptism we take on his identity. We are baptized into Christ. No words came down audibly from heaven when we were raised from those waters, but the truth is still the same. God speaks over our lives, too: “You are my child, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” The words are offered not because we are good, but because we are loved. They are not an approval of our success but the ground of our being. We are named by God’s grace, and the power in that cannot be undone by any other name or claim.

This is already so, whether we are living into it or not. God has already said it: You are mine. You are Beloved. With you I am well pleased. Beloved is already our name. The hard part is not earning that name, but accepting it.

Some of us spend our whole lives looking for evidence that we are okay, we are accepted, we are loved. We seek, we grasp, we clutch at things, or experiences, or people that will make us feel like we matter. It is from this gnawing neediness that we make some of our worst decisions. We use people. We act out of selfishness. We try to prop ourselves up by pushing others down. We react out of fear and out of meanness, instead of out of love and assurance. Would we do this if we knew who we really were?

What would our lives look like if we, like Jesus, were free from having to prove ourselves, or defend ourselves? What if we, too, didn’t have to exercise any power or control but love? What if we already knew we had what we needed, so that we didn’t have to work so hard to try to get it from other people or from things? What kind of life would you live, if you had that kind of freedom? And power? And assurance?

The reality has already been written over our lives, the name has already been spoken as truth: You are mine, God says. You are the Beloved. With you, I am well pleased. The naming has already been done; how do we go about claiming it?

Maybe it would help if we understood these words from God not just as a claim but also as a call – a call to intimacy. Beloved – it is such a powerful and intimate word. In it is an invitation. If you are someone’s beloved, you belong to them in a way that you belong to no one else. And if you are someone’s beloved, you also spend time with that person, intimate time, opening yourself up to know and to be known, to give love and to receive love. You can be sure of that love, because you spend time getting in touch with it. Jesus showed us the way. The first thing he did when he came up from those waters was to pray. If prayer were to become the pattern of our lives, maybe we too would live more fully out of the power and the freedom of knowing who we really are.

In our struggle to claim the identity we’ve been given, we might also find some strength in recognizing our place in a whole family of beloved children. Janet Wolf, former pastor of Hobson United Methodist Church in Nashville, Tennessee, tells the story of a woman named Fayette, a homeless, mentally ill woman who joined the new member class at Hobson. Fayette was captivated by what Reverend Wolf had to say about baptism. Wolf spoke of baptism as “this holy moment when we are named by God’s grace with such power it won’t come undone.” During the class, Fayette would repeatedly ask, “And when I’m baptized, I am …?” And the class learned to respond, “Beloved, precious child of God, and beautiful to behold.” Fayette would respond, “Oh, yes!” and then the class would get back to their discussion.

On the day of Fayette’s baptism, Fayette went under, came up sputtering, and cried, “And now I am …?” And the congregation all together responded, “Beloved, precious child of God, and beautiful to behold.” “Oh, yes!” she shouted back. And she danced around the fellowship hall that day.[i]

Fayette claimed the power of those words, and she did it, in part, by relying on other people to remind her of it. We don’t claim the words alone, but together. This is part of what the church exists for – to remind each other who we are: beloved, pleasing children of God. We struggle to believe it on our own. But we come here, together, to be reminded that we are more than our shortcomings, our pettiness, our anxieties, our mistakes. We are more than what we have done, and we are more than what has been done to us. We are the beloved.

There is power in that. There is freedom. Can you sense that? To understand ourselves as entirely loved, entirely claimed, and so so precious, in an ultimate and irrevocable way. If we can receive that reality, if we can give ourselves to its truth, we can be set free for a whole new kind of living. A life of giving, joy, service, embrace, goodness, kindness, gentleness, fearlessness. If we can live into our real names, we can go out from this place, apart and together, to help others know themselves as beloved too.

All of us have a lot of names. Most of them are ones we did not choose for ourselves. Some of them are names that need to be thrown off like a worn-out coat. But there is a name that still holds. A long time ago, God spoke it over Jesus, and then God spoke it over your life and mine. Every day is an opportunity to immerse ourselves again in the reality of it, like baptismal waters washing over us. You are mine, God says. You are my child. You are the beloved.

Let’s live like it.

[i] Janet Wolf’s story comes from The Upper Room Disciplines, 1999. I found it quoted in The Painted Prayerbook at