Always in the liturgical year on the first Sunday AFTER Epiphany we are invited to remember the Baptism of Jesus – this recognition of being Beloved by God, how God’s favor rested upon Jesus.  And in this church, on this Sunday, the whole congregation is invited, to ponder our belovedness in God, and how God’s favor rests upon each of us.  You will hear variations of this theme year after year, AND the invitation to come forward  – to dip your hands in the water of life – and be reminded of your belovedness in God – with an anointing on your forehead or hand.  So here we are… Journeying with Jesus down to the Jordan to hear John’s message, and to journey into the center of God’s love.

Last Sunday evening, 25-30 of us celebrated Epiphany by journeying into the center of love, to the light of Christ, by walking an Evergreen Spiral into the center where a Christ candle was lit. From that candle, each person lit a votive candle, and journeyed out of the spiral, pausing for a moment to place their lit candle in the spiral and take a symbolic star that was placed there to remind us that a light goes before us on our journey into Epiphany. I believe it was Leslie Ann who said last year – “We find that our path is lit by those who go before us, and those who come after us will find their path lit by us.”  As I made my journey into the spiral, I reflected on each lit candle, what that journey represented, the joys and sorrows – each light – a beloved one who dared to enter. It’s a grounding thing to place ourselves in the spiral of the earth & the cycle of our spiritual core, returning again to the source of all love -the first love— a love that began at creation & continues into Baptism & beyond.

Baptism invited Jesus to embrace his vocation as God’s unique messenger, teacher, and healer.  These words might also awaken within us our own desire to be loved, affirmed, and called to be God’s companions in healing the world and ourselves.

Henri Nouwen in various sermons and in his book Life of the Beloved – talks about how difficult it is to place our identity in this sense of belovedness in God. The irony when I type out this word belovedness –  auto-correct calls it belatedness instead. Which is much closer to the truth – honestly.  Many of us are somewhat belated in receiving this identity as beloved. We need Remedial training.

Throughout our life we attempt to answer the question – Who am I? One of our 1st responses is “I am what I do.” When I do good things and have success then I feel good about myself. But if I fail, what then.” 2nd response.“I am what others say about me.” It’s very powerful what people say about you. If people speak well, you can walk around quite freely, but if someone talks behind your back or says negative things about you, it’s easy to feel dejected.  It can ruin your mood for the whole day and then some.  3rd response: “I am what I have” – relationships, health, employment, property, material assets – As soon as you start to lose any of those people or things – what is your identity then? So easy to slip into a sense of despair. A lot of our energy goes into these three identities. Zig zag – Up & down.  

Nouwen talks about how the people who love us don’t always love us the way we want or need to be loved, and they are usually the ones who need us as well, which makes it complicated. We all carry wounded & broken hearts. Nouwen encourages us to do 2 things: 1. Have Courage to embrace & befriend your brokenness. Claim your unique pain rather than brushing it away – “It’s not so bad” or “Other people have it worse.”  2. Then put that brokenness UNDER the blessing that says you are beloved. On you God’s favor rests. And allow God to enter in and heal those places of pain, rejection & not enough. One of our enormous spiritual tasks is to claim our belovedness and live lives based on that knowledge. This has the potential to help us to forgive those who aren’t able to love us as well as we desire. Every time you have a temptation to lash out, feel rejected, abandoned or misunderstood or become bitter, CAN you go back and claim more fully and deeply the truth of your core identity in God? You may still experience rejection and loss, but it doesn’t have to define you. As you listen to this voice of love, your life will reflect more the life of the beloved because that is who you are

When Henri went to live at L’Arche, he felt a deep sense of connection & acceptance in a community of people of varied intellectual  & developmental abilities. One day during Mass a woman asked “Can you give me a blessing?” So Henri placed his hands on her head and spoke the familiar words, “In the name of the father…” She interrupted him and said,  “It isn’t working. I want a blessing.”  After mass Henri said to the community, “Janet wants a blessing.” She came forward and hugged Henri. He said  “Janet, You are beautiful. We love you so much. I know you’re feeling a little low right now and you need to hear again that you are beloved.” Janet looked up and said “Yes that’s all true.” Immediately other people started calling out, “I want a blessing, too.”  Then a young man doing an internship at L’Arche who looked like a big, strapping football player said I want a blessing too. Henri offered the simple words, “You are God’s beloved upon whom God’s favor rests,” as tears flowed out of his eyes.  Most of us aren’t courageous to say in our out-loud voice – “I want a blessing, too.” Rabbi David…

Nouwen tells another story about a L’arche member who was hit by a car and hanging on to life in ICU. Henri went to the hospital, and asked the father if he had blessed his son. The father said he didn’t know what Henri was talking about, so Henri explained how the Bible tells us that when a child is leaving, a father often blesses his child for the journey. This father started to cry and said, “I don’t know how to do that.” Henri told this father to whisper in his son’s ear and tell him how much he loved him. The father started weeping, telling the son ALL the things he loved about him. Then Henri told the father to put his hand over Henri’s hand, and together they blessed his head and his hands and his feet for the journey. And the journey just happened to be returning to L’arche to recover. 

Remember the Epiphany Spiral Service I talked about, with candles blazing, lighting the way for each person to enter the journey – no one candle any brighter than the others, except that, 2 years ago, one candle had gone out. I wasn’t aware of it, but Emma who was 4-years old at the time,  journeying the spiral with Neva, spotted that unlit candle– perhaps because she was a bit closer to the earth  – a  bit more grounded so to speak. She insisted on that candle being re-lit so Neva helped her do so, thus not allowing it’s light to remain out – inherently recognizing, that each of us bears a light representing God’s Belovedness within. And reminding that light of it’s place in our community.

The story of baptism is not only a story that we belong to God and are beloved by God; it is a story that we belong to each other as well, that we are a part of a larger story of God’s presence in the world. The more we listen to and claim this voice of love, the more our lives will reflect God’s love and grace and bring more healing into the world and into our own lives because that is who we are.

Henri Nouwen invites us to enter into this experience with Jesus, to listen with attentiveness:

Jesus heard a voice when he came out of the Jordan River. I want you to hear that voice, too. It is a very important voice that says, “I have called you by name, from the very beginning.
You are mine and I am yours. You are my Beloved, on you my favor rests.
‘You are my beloved child. I love you with an everlasting love.
I have molded you together in the depths of the earth.
I have knitted you in your mother’s womb.
I have carved your name in the palm of my hand and hidden you safe in the shadow of my embrace.
I look at you with infinite tenderness and care for you with a care more intimate than that of a mother for her child.
I have counted every hair on your head and guided you at every step.
Wherever you go, I go with you, and wherever you rest, I keep watch.
You belong to Me and I belong to you. You are safe where I am. Don’t be afraid.
Trust that you are the beloved. That is who you truly are…
I want you to hear this intimate voice that comes from a very deep place.
It is soft and gentle.
Claim it for yourself because that voice speaks the truth, our truth.
It tells us who we are.
The spiritual life starts with claiming the voice that calls us the beloved.”