Sermons

Isaiah 43:1-7; Acts 8:14-17; Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

 

“The blessing of God; Eternal Majesty, Incarnate Word an Abiding Spirit be upon you, remain with you, and remind you that you are God’s beloved child every single day of your life.”

 

This is the blessing I usually give to young people who cross their arms at the time of Communion seeking a blessing.  The words, you might recognize, come from the Gospel story of Jesus’ baptism.

 

Sometimes, while giving the blessing, we make eye contact.  Sometimes, I find myself saying the words so forcefully, I wonder if I’m not scaring them more than assuring them.

 

I just want them to hear what I’m saying.  I want them to believe it. I want them to remember it.

 

 

Sometimes they look at me as if to say, “duh! I know. Why would you need to remind me?”

 

“Because, unfortunately,” I think to myself, “there will be days you need reminding.”

 

I have almost finished reading the book, Boy Erased,  by Garrard Conley. I should probably finish reading something before preaching on it, but the connection between Conley’s story and this Sunday’s Gospel reading was too strong for me to ignore.

 

The book, upon which the movie is based, is a memoir.  It is the story of the author’s journey as a young Christian man who comes to terms with the reality that he is also gay.  

 

The author and I share that journey in common, both around the same age.  But that is where the similarities in our stories end.

 

When I came out to my family, there was an adjustment period for all of us, to be sure.   But the Saturday after coming out, we were all on an apple-picking trip with my then boyfriend. I’m not sure who was the most terrorized on that fall day; my parents, me, or that poor guy I invited to join us.  It was a terror born only of “boy, a lot can change in a week” than it was anything else.

 

When the author’s family learns his secret, he is brought to counseling.  He is brought to his doctor to check his testosterone levels. He is sent to a “Christian” inpatient program that promised to, as they say in those programs, “pray the gay away.”

 

Page after page of this heart-wrenching memoir is filled with the author’s torment between knowing who he was and trying desperately to deny that truth in order to be who it was he had been taught God wanted him to be.  For him, these two desires were two polar opposites. For me, there was no conflict.

 

People often want to interview me to talk about what it was like being a person of faith and being gay.  In fact, I lecture on the topic for fourth year psychiatry residents every year at the Brigham. I love teaching that course and hearing their questions, but sometimes I feel a little bit like an exhibit at the zoo.  “here we have the rare breed of someone who is gay and a person of faith.” “we told you they existed.”

 

I know my story is a deeply privileged one.  I know many, many, many more friends who lost their faith, lost their family, lost their God when their faith told them they needed to choose between being who it is God made them to be and being in relationship with the God who made them that way.

 

I have spent a lot of time thinking about why our experiences were so different, why I was spared the author’s torment.  I never, growing up, heard anything positive about the GLBT community in church, but I never heard anything negative. My priest growing up was not an advocate, and my congregation did not have any openly gay members to serve as role models.

 

So I often wonder why my experience differs so much from those like the author’s, like many of you sitting here this morning.

And I have come to believe it has to do with my baptism, and with Jesus’ baptism that we celebrate this morning.

 

“ You are my well beloved child.  With you I am well pleased.”

 

Those are the words recorded by the Gospel writers from God to Jesus at his baptism.  Those are the words, we believe, are spoken to each of us in our own baptism.

 

Those words speak volumes about who God is, and about who we are in God’s sight.

 

They are spoken to Jesus before he has done anything to deserve them.  His public ministry begins with his baptism.  His ministry comes from hearing these words. They are not spoken to him as a reward for all he has done.

 

Jesus is freed to do what God needs him to do in the world because he is assured of his belovedness.  His belovedness is not bestowed upon him as a result of anything he has done. It isn’t earned. It isn’t the finish line.  It is the unshakable, undeniable, irrevocable truth of his beginning.

 

And of ours.

 

We celebrate Annalise’s baptism this morning.  Today we gather and we promise to remind her every day of her life of her unshakable, undeniable, irrovokable belovedness before God.

 

We do this before she had done anything to deserve it.  She’s done nothing to earn it except dwell obliviously in a state of being only who it is God made her to be.  

 

In infant baptism we proclaim new life before much earthly life has been lived, we proclaim forgiveness of sins before much sinning can get done.

 

I love adult baptisms for the awareness they bring of these promises we make.  And I love infant baptisms because it gives us a chance to proclaim out loud who this child is first and foremost.  We put the mark of Annalise’s belovedness on her with water and with oil before the world can try to put it’s mark on her; to label her anything other than God’s beloved child.

 

We tell Annalise who she is before the world tries to tell her who it thinks she ought to be.

 

When I consider the difference between the author’s experience and mine, I think it comes down to this.  When I was told that God loved me before I could do anything to earn that love or anything to lose that love, I believed it.

 

I had heard it growing up so much, albeit in the abstract, it honestly never occurred to me that it could be different.

 

On that fall day in the apple orchard, I believed God was more concerned about how often I was or wasn’t going to church, than who was my date in the orchard.

 

The stark contrast of my experience and the author’s was explained to me, by the author when he wrote in Boy Erased,

 

“I had learned by now that there was a cumulative effect to beauty.  If people already saw something as beautiful, the object of their affection would continue to receive all possible praise and attention.  Rose is a rose is a rose, Gerturde Stein, my new favorite poet, quipped. Name something beautiful made it so. … Naming something ugly had a similar effect.”

 

He had come to understand who he was as ugly.  And so every part of who he was made him uglier.

 

That’s what we do.  We label things. They are either beautiful, and become more beautiful for their labelling.  Or they are ugly, and become uglier in our eyes, viewed through the lens we have been taught to use.

 

If an immigrant is ugly, so are their motives, their character, their color.

if a prisoner is ugly, so is their soul, their worthiness, their humanity.

If addiction is ugly, then so is the person living with it.

 

Our current adult education offering is simply a chance to meet with our Muslim sisters and brothers who want an opportunity to be known for who they are, rather than the ugly narrative that is so often used to describe them.

Jesus’ baptism in the river Jordan came first.  Before he could do anything to deserve it or fall short of it.  It was a reminder that all that would come after came as a result of his relationship with God; as one who loved God and whom God loved.

 

Living into that truth led him to heal the sick, to eat with the outcasts, to risk everything to let God’s love for the world be known so that the world might do the same.

 

Annalise, you are God’s beloved child.  That is what we proclaim this morning and I pray that there will never be a day in your life when you doubt that.  I promise to remind you every chance I get. We will all promise that in just a little bit.

 

We will never let you forget that.  Don’t let us forget it, either.

 

If the author of Boy Erased is right, that what is labeled beautiful becomes more beautiful for its labeling, then may the same be true for belovedness.

 

May Annalise, who is already beloved by God, become more fully aware of her belovedness as we proclaim her so.

 

And may each of us, already beloved, become more fully aware of our own, and of the belovedness of others that we might act like we are, that we might act like everyone around us is.

 

The blessing of God; Eternal Majesty, Incarnate Word and Abiding Spirit be upon you, remain with you, and remind you every single day that you are God’s beloved child.

 

God’s love for you is not a prize earned at the end of a life well lived.  It is a gift given at the start of one.

 

And, Annalise, don’t you ever forget it.

 

Don’t any of you ever forget it.

AMEN.

 

© 2018 The Reverend Jeffrey W. Mello

 

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