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Being the Beloved

  • January 10, 2021
  • 10:30 AM

Sermon for 10 January 2021 (Baptism of our Lord B)

Offered by Nathan Ferrell at The Episcopal Church of Saint Mary

Texts:             Genesis 1.1-5; Psalm 29; Mark 1.4-11

Title:               Being the Beloved

“And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased’” (Mark 1.11).

My friends, what is the freedom that comes to us when God claims us as Beloved?

Have you ever played the board game called Catan? It’s a bit like Risk, which we used to play a lot when I was young. Our entire family was together over Christmas, which meant that we had a lot of time to play board games together. So we did, and this was the first time that I had played Catan.

The basic task is to claim territory on the board in order to build settlements and cities, and you do this by laying down roads.

Claiming territory – that’s one way of thinking about what God does with us in baptism.

Each time a person is baptized, God is laying down a piece in the game of life and is claiming more territory within the human community.

Slowly but surely, God is claiming territory. When we submit ourselves to baptism, or when we are brought to the waters of baptism, we are allowing God to claim us as part of the relentless forward march of God’s territory.

Remember that the Gospel of Mark is presented like an invasion. There is no retrospective look back to genealogy, to the many ancestors who have gone before, like in Matthew’s Gospel. There is no sentimental telling of the birth of Jesus, like in Luke’s Gospel. Nor is there a theological reflection of God speaking Light into existence, like in John’s Gospel, although that would fit well with today’s reading from Genesis.

Instead, Mark launches the Gospel story straight out with a minimum of words. Here comes the Messiah, get ready! That is why Mark is always represented by the lion, like on the cover of our Book of the Gospels – the lion who struts right in and stakes claim to his territory.

Now that mental image makes me think of other images which I saw on television this week: images of angry, violent people strutting in to our nation’s Capitol and staking claim to the halls of Congress.

Capitol rioters

Far right extremists attack our nation’s Capitol

What we are dealing with right now in America is fanaticism. There is a group of our fellow citizens who feel like they are being lied to, being deceived, that powers and principalities beyond their control are taking something essential away from them.

In response, they feel that they MUST act, they must take matters into their own hands and fix the wrongs that they see.

Sadly, this kind of extremism is nothing new. It occurs in every culture and every society on earth – and in every generation.

Have you heard of the Children’s Crusade back in the Middle Ages? It was the Spring of the year 1212. A young lad in France and in Germany, both at the same time, experienced visions and heard a voice calling them to gather the Christian youth of Europe for an epic quest to retake the Holy Land from Muslims.

The official Third and Fourth Crusades had recently failed miserably and these young peasants felt inspired by God to complete the task left undone by those aristocratic knights and nobles.

These were the common folk. They were a starving ragtag band, but they had a clear objective. Jerusalem MUST be ruled and governed by believers, by Christians alone. As if claiming territory – physical territory – was God’s primary objective.

No one knows exactly how many were involved, but perhaps up to 20,000 children and adolescents, boys and girls, along with some rootless unemployed workers and wandering artists, gathered together and marched to the shores of the Mediterranean at Genoa.

Along the way, many had succumbed to starvation and disease as they crossed the Alps. And when they finally reached the sea, their troubles only increased. Some accounts say that the leaders of the crusade had promised that God would split the Mediterranean in two, just as with the Israelites at the Red Sea, so that these faithful children could reach the Holy Land on foot.

Well, THAT did not happen, and now they were stuck. They could not find any merchants willing to transport them all for free (more than 10,000 children by that point!), and they had no money to pay for such a monumental undertaking.

Some turned around and reluctantly walked back home. Some may have walked down to Rome to appeal to the Pope for assistance, but he quickly told them to go back home. Being defenseless and far from home, many of these young people ended up being trafficked by malicious adults who sold them into slavery and into lives of ill repute.

My friends, what IS fanaticism? I am no expert, and I’m sure it is many things, but one thing seems certain: fanaticism is a way of thinking that is obsessed with a particular outcome.

For all of the Crusaders, there was a compulsive obsession to make sure that Jerusalem was governed only by Christians.

Now, here is the challenging thing for people to recognize when it comes to radical extremists: these people are always certain that their cause is good and right, that they MUST achieve their purpose in order to accomplish something good in the world.

Whether it’s the Crusaders, or David Koresh and the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas, or the 9/11 hijackers or those who ransacked and looted our Capitol on Wednesday, these people always feel that they are the few who truly understand reality, that they are part of something truly good – even if others do not understand it, and that they are the ones who must act to bring their good purpose into being.

What is the antidote to fanaticism? And perhaps more importantly, how do we make sure that WE ourselves do not get trapped and pulled into an extremist mindset?

As I stated earlier, I am no expert on this. I am sure there are many things to consider, but it seems clear to me that one crucial item is this: to let go of your demand for a particular outcome.

I heard an interview with one of the rioters at the Capitol and he said, “No one is helping us, and so we have to do this ourselves.” Do you see the mindset? We HAVE to do this. That’s the mental framework of the fanatic. We HAVE to stop Congress from acting. We HAVE to knock down the World Trade Center. We HAVE to tell the world the truth of Revelation.

Whatever the particular compulsion happens to be, the mindset of the extremist is always demanding that their action MUST be done. Or else.

By contrast, the mindset of the disciple of Jesus is entirely different. God speaks over us in baptism and says, “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism, and marked as Christ’s own forever” (BCP p.308).

That’s it. End of story. There is nothing that we have to do. Nothing!

When the Lord Jesus comes to be baptized by John, did you notice how Jesus is completely passive?

Yes, he makes the decision to go down into the Jordan valley, to join the crowd going out to see John. But then, everything else happens TO him. He is baptized BY John, the heavens are torn apart and the Spirit falls on him, the voice of God speaks over him. He receives the blessing in the same way that we do at Baptism. It is done FOR us, and it does not depend on us.

And do you know why there is nothing we must do? Because this is God’s world, all of this is God’s project. Look back at the very beginning in Genesis.

In the beginning, God created. God speaks and waves of light-energy begin to sweep across the galaxy. God speaks and things happen, and life comes into being. And guess what? God doesn’t need US to do anything. What a joke that would be! That God might NEED us to do something.

No, the truth is that we are the recipients of all the good things that GOD does, and God is perfectly competent and capable to create this world, and to bring it to completion, without our assistance.

When Jesus came up out of the water, “a voice came from heaven [and said], ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased’” (Mark 1.11).

What is the freedom that comes to us when God claims us as Beloved?

It is the freedom simply to BE, to BE who God has created us to be in this good and beautiful world, without any compulsive requirements to accomplish any particular goal or objective.

Of course, there are things we have to do, and it is good to have goals and dreams. But, to be healthy and fruitful, these things must be built on the sure foundation of knowing that we are claimed by God, just as we are, fully loved and fully cared for.

If you ever hear a voice driving you to obsession, to compulsively accomplish some particular outcome, even if it appears to be good, reject that voice!

And turn back to the living God who invites you simply to be, in freedom and in peace. Amen.

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