Dearly Beloved
A sermon preached by the Rev’d Jered Weber-Johnson
Saint John the Evangelist Episcopal Church
Saint Paul, MN
Lent 1
Year A

So, I blame Barbara for starting it, and Margaret for not ending it this Wednesday, but it would appear that we are in the midst of a clergy music showdown. If you haven’t been following along, we’ve heard from Dolly, the queen of country, Mr. Cash, the Man in Black, Mick and the Stones, and Rod Stewart only a few days ago on Ash Wednesday. Last Sunday, as she was leaving, our Preacher in Residence, the Reverend Barbara Mraz in her exit through the greeting line, leaned in to me to say, “If we’re really doing this, I call dibs on Prince!” Well, Barbara, you never tell your fellow competitors your strategy. Here we are on the first day of Lent and I am wearing purple, and I feel compelled, nay, even encouraged, to say:

“Dearly beloved, we have gathered here today
To get through this thing called life.”

Sorry, Barbara! I had to do it! If it makes up for it, I can give you Dylan…or Madonna…

Dearly beloved.

I love this opening line. It is what we say at the beginning of a marriage ceremony – “Dearly beloved, we have come together in the presence of God to witness and bless….” and there are some forms of the funeral service in other traditions, that begin similarly “Dearly beloved: we are gathered together today on this sad occasion to say goodbye…”

Dearly beloved…

I wish we could begin each liturgy, each gathering of God’s faithful, with words like these – Dearly beloved, a reminder of who and whose we are. For it is only with a true and honest appraisal of who and whose we are that we can even begin to get through this thing called life, to get through the trials and temptations and wilderness spaces of our human story. With such a reminder, we are sent into the challenges and joys of a lifelong partnership like marriage. With such a reminder we are galvanized to face our deepest grief.

It is with just such an affirmation of Jesus’ identity and relationship that precede both liturgically in the lectionary, and chronologically in Matthew’s gospel, this story of Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness. Though it occurs later in the gospel, last Sunday we listened in on that mountain top experience of Jesus and his disciples, Peter, James, and John, at the Transfiguration, when a voice from the heavens proclaims “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased.” And, this story from last Sunday echoes and resonates with what is said just before today’s lesson, at the baptism of Jesus at the hands of John the baptist, in the Jordan, when these words were first spoken over Jesus, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with whom I am well pleased!”

Dearly Beloved, we have gathered here bearing the marks and scars of this thing called life, carrying in our hearts and bodies the hurts and hangovers, the bruises and bumps, the memory of the changes and chances of this mortal life. But, we are gathered here too, to be reminded and encouraged by the declaration of who and whose we are – beloved of God.

Pastor David Lose at Mt. Olivet Lutheran Church here in the Twin Cities writes about listening to his children trying to figure out the connections of the parents to their grandparents – something my own children have done a number of times – “Tigger is mom’s dad!” and “Nai Nai is dad’s mom, right?”

Lose says, “Listening to them figure all this out, I realized how incredibly and entirely relational identity is. While we tend to think of our identity as highly personal and something we developed, discovered, or even created on our own — ‘I took some time to find myself’, etc. — it turns out that our identity is firmly and unavoidably rooted in our relationships…” he continues “I can’t be a [parent] without kids, a [spouse] without a [spouse], a teacher without students, a citizen without a country of other citizens…”

What a powerful yet simple realization to make. It is the core truth underlying what Archbishop Desmond Tutu often preaches about, the Zulu concept of Ubuntu, the idea that “I am because we are.” There is no “me” without “us.” What the gospels do is expand that concept to include divinity. “We are because of the great ‘I Am.’” What’s more, we have come to understand that the essence of our relatedness to God and thus to one another is framed in the language of Belovedness. It is this status that undergirded and galvanized Jesus in his encounter with the Tempter in the wilderness, and it is such a status, beloved, that runs radically counter to the way that the world would have us understand ourselves and our relatedness to one another.

The story this world would have us believe is that we have not because we take not – yet Jesus, famished, resists the temptation to turn the stones into loaves. The story the world would have us believe is that we can satisfy ourselves and our ego by grabbing status and acquiring power. But, Jesus resists this temptation to claim a kingdom of his own, resting in the knowledge that he is the inheritor of a different kind of kingdom, a peaceable one, God’s kingdom. Calling upon the memory of that status bestowed upon him in his baptism – a reliance on the truth that he does not need these things, that his identity and sustenance come from a good and loving God, Jesus resists the temptations. He is dearly beloved, and he trusts this with his whole heart and body and mind!

We too share in that status, that identity and relatedness. We are all dearly beloved, incorporated into the Body of Christ, nourished by the bread that is his body, restored in a baptism like his, raised to a new life like he was, empowered to bring healing and justice in a world that is broken and hurting. We may not enter the wilderness willingly like Jesus, but we can go into that place of trial and testing with the deep reminder of God’s love for each of us. We can go, knowing that we are a part of a beloved whole, a beloved community, that insists on walking alongside us, so that when we are tempted to deny our truest and most beloved selves, they’ll be there reminding us all the way, speaking God’s words of deep affirmation “you are my child, my beloved, in whom I am well pleased.”

Poet Jan Richardson says it best in her poem Beloved is Where We Begin, and I end with her words:

If you would enter
into the wilderness,
do not begin
without a blessing.
Do not leave
without hearing
who you are:
named by the One
who has traveled this path
before you.
Do not go
without letting it echo
in your ears,
and if you find
it is hard
to let it into your heart,
do not despair.
That is what
this journey is for.
I cannot promise
this blessing will free you
from danger,
from fear,
from hunger
or thirst,
from the scorching
of sun
or the fall
of the night.
But I can tell you
that on this path
there will be help.
I can tell you
that on this way
there will be rest.
I can tell you
that you will know
the strange graces
that come to our aid
only on a road
such as this,
that fly to meet us
bearing comfort
and strength,
that come alongside us
for no other cause
than to lean themselves
toward our ear
and with their
curious insistence
whisper our name:

My friends, whatever wilderness you find yourself in this morning, whether it be grief or despair for the world, or the pain of losses you’ve endured, whatever lies you are tempted to believe that the world and the Tempter have thrown at you – that you are not enough, that you are not good, that you are not loveable, that you are not just as God intended you to be – I am here to remind you of the truth:
“Dearly beloved, we are gathered together today to get through this thing called life.” You are beloved. We are beloved. And, we will get through together. Amen.

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