Monday, January 13, 2020

God's Beloved: The Dangerous Gospel

Sermon for the First Sunday after the Epiphany: The Baptism of Jesus, January 12, 2020
Isaiah 42:1-9; Psalm 29; Acts 10:34-43; Matthew 3:13-17
St. Thomas’ Church, Bath
The Rev. Michael W. Hopkins
30th Anniversary of Ordination as a Priest

 Here is my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.  I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as . . . a light to the nations.
(Conflation of Matthew 13:17 & Isaiah 42:6)

           In 2002, as part of a sabbatical, I traveled to Uganda.  I went primarily in my role as President of Integrity.  A few years prior, I had been contacted by an Anglican priest in Uganda who was ministering to a group of gay and lesbian people there.  Needless to say, this was not a ministry supported by the church in Uganda.  In fact, it had to very carefully fly under the radar.

           As part of my time there, I led a retreat for these folks. If I remember right, there were about a dozen of us gathered together.  Many members of the group did not dare to come because the radar had been breached.  My trip had become known to the leadership of the Church of Uganda and the archbishop had warned his bishops and other clergy to stay clear of me.  I was, he said, a dangerous man who preached a false gospel.

           In preparation for the retreat, the priest who led the group asked me to be firm with them.  There is immorality among them, he said, and if they ever had any chance of being accepted by the church they had to be seen as above reproach.

           The morning of the retreat I took Father Erich aside and told him that I was not going to do what he asked.  My hunch was that these folks were unsure about whether God loved them or not, and that certainly was more important than anything else.

           So I talked to them about the reality that they were God’s beloved.  That God loved them first, that God’s love cannot be earned. It can only be accepted.  And I taught them a hymn popular in the US church, that begins, “I come with joy to meet my Lord, forgiven, loved, and free.”

           I remember three responses.  A young woman asked, “Why has no one ever told us this before?”  A young man broke down in tears, and sobbed in the arms of one of his friends for some time.  And the anxiety that was thick in the room as we gathered, disappeared.

           We are told that as Jesus came up out of the water of his baptism  there was a dramatic scene:  the heavens torn open, the descent of a dove, taken to be the Holy Spirit, and a voice proclaiming, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

           We assume that somehow Jesus had earned these words, especially the “well pleased” part.  He seems to be well into adulthood at this point, perhaps even thirty years old.  So clearly he had gained God’s delight and trust.

           And yet we are given no proof of this.  No one tells any stories about Jesus’ coming of age.  There’s one story in Luke’s Gospel about Jesus as a boy, impressing his elders in the Temple and causing his parents anxiety, but that’s it.  For as much as twenty years of his life there is silence.

           I think this is so because it reflected the experience of the early followers of Jesus, who for a generation or more told these stories to one another before four people, out of four communities, wrote them down.  The experience of the early Christians was that God loved them first, and that their life of following Jesus was a consequence of that love, not an attempt to be good enough to earn it.

           This fits with our own practice of Baptism.  Why do we baptize infants?  It certainly is not because when we do we can predict they will lead a perfect life.  It is because we are convinced that God loves them first and the living out of their baptismal covenant will be a response to that love not a determination of it.

           It is sometimes said that every preacher has but one sermon that they keep trying to preach in different ways.  While this is obviously not true, I am happy to claim this as my one sermon, preached, I pray, continuously and consistently over thirty years.

           You are God’s son. You are God’s daughter.  You are God’s beloved.  But—and this is the only but—so is your neighbor be they friend or stranger or even enemy.  You are God’s beloved first.  Keep letting that great truth sink into your life and live as it were the truth.  Feed on that truth at this Table.  Feed others on this truth in the world.  Do not spend a second of your life worrying about whether God loves you or not.  That is wasted time.

           You are loved. Love others. That is the dangerous Gospel.

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