Preached by Rev. Ted Hicks on January 14, 2018.
This Above All
Tom Jackson is a Metis singer, actor, and humanitarian from the Prairies, born a bit north of here in fact. I saw a recent photo of him and, for a 70-something, he’s still a bit of a hunk, if a grey-haired one these days. A few years back, he was a speaker at the Hospice and Palliative Care Conference I attended in Winnipeg. Jackson sang some songs, told some jokes, and shared some stories about death, dying, and grieving. But what I remember most was how his talk began. After his introduction, he strolled slowly to center stage with his guitar slung over his shoulder, looked out into the audience, paused, and then – in his rich, warm, resonant voice – leaned into the mike and almost whispered these words: “I have many things I want to say to you today; but this above all: I love you.” There were few hearts not melted in that room that day.
Today’s Gospel passage, from Mark, says more than one thing. But this, above all: “I love you.”
But let’s start at the beginning where our first scripture takes us this morning: the beginning of the bible; the beginning of time itself. I invite you to imagine that moment of creation with me, bringing the Genesis story and the scientists’ Big Bang Story together for a moment. Imagine all the potential of the universe held tightly bound up in that little seed-like ball of energy at the centre of nothing and nowhere. Then, God speaks, “Let there be….”, and God-energy explodes outward yearning to be expressed, to expand, to create. Think of all the potential held within that seed. The potential … for creativity and intelligence and imagination; for beauty and harmony and order and connectedness; for life in all of its variety and vitality, and, this above all, for love. For that is the heart of the universe, the heart of God, the basic impulse for Creation. Love. Love is the origin of everything that is. Love holds it together and heals it when it is stretched to breaking. Love is its ultimate destiny, for us and for all creatures.
We are surrounded by air every moment of our being, even if we can’t see it. We breathe it in and we breathe it out. We cannot live without air. In the same we, we are surrounded and saturated with love, everywhere, every moment, even if we can’t see it. God is love and that is the core energy of all Creation which can never be stifled. We cannot live without love.
As most of you know and many attended, I have been here at St. Andrew’s all weekend leading a workshop. There has been a practical purpose for this workshop: to help you as a congregation prepare your profile as you search for a new minister following Amanda’s call to First Church Regina. How do you understand who you are as a congregation now, at this new phase and fresh start in your history? How do you find words and images to help potential candidates determine if God is calling them to ministry here? Understanding who you are as a congregation, how then does that help you visualize the kind of person you need to minister to you now? What are the particular qualities and skills and experiences in ministry candidates that might help you most live more fully into what God is calling you to be as a congregation? How can you best articulate that in your profile to help potential candidates see themselves reflected there? I hope the Session and Search Committee will be able to take something away from that workshop and this weekend that will be practical and helpful in continuing to prepare that profile.
But underneath that very practical purpose, the workshop had another current running through it. And that is, to help you all work from a generative rather than a problem-solving perspective, both in your search for a new minister and in your on-going life together as a community of faith, as the people of God, as followers of Jesus. We are so used to identifying problems and then developing strategies to solve them or, worse, feeling powerless and defeated in the face of problems that seem so onerous and unsolvable. The problem with problems, though, is that they are inherently negative. When we start from the perspective of problems we are starting with a negative viewpoint, a negative attitude, and negative energy. And that negativity works against us right from the start – infecting every aspect of our living, including our life together as a congregation. But, when we let go of problems and look for the potential within the congregation, we go deeper and get in touch with the life force at the heart of the church. We discern and begin to nurture the seed of life that God has planted in the church from the very beginning and which is still there and ready to burst forth out of the walls we have encased it in by our problem-based thinking; the desire to live that continues to turn towards the light and reach for the sky, even when circumstances deals it one blow after another. And what is that seed, that deeply buried impulse for life? Well to go back to Creation and the Big Bang, it is the energy of love that is the life force at the heart of all creation, at the heart of each and every one of God’s beautiful and varied and beloved creatures, at the heart of the church itself as the people of God and the followers of Jesus.
I called the workshop yesterday, “Reaching for the Sky”. I choose that title based on an experience I had some years ago and a story I told yesterday which I will briefly retell for you all today. I was walking through the woods one day, on a fairly steep bank sloping up from a river canyon. My eyes were drawn to a young cedar tree that had been blown over in a windstorm. Its roots weren’t fully broken off and exposed because the tree had hit another previously fallen tree and been suddenly stopped in its fall. And where it hit that horizontal log, it broke and splintered, though did not snap in half completely, so that some of the trunk was still intact. The top part of that young cedar ended up pointing straight down the cliffside but held together by the small part of the trunk still intact and still connected to its roots. And just before the top of that tree touched the rocky ground far below, its tip had turned upwards and was growing straight back up towards the light from the sky breaking through the canopy of other trees all around it. Despite its trauma and its injuries, the life force within that tree was not extinguished. Its will to live remained vital. Its potential as a beautiful, healthy cedar tree was determined to fulfill itself despite all the blows it had encountered.
To me, that story of survival, of the will to live, of an energy and a life force within that will not be denied speaks of the church. God has planted within the church a desire to fulfill itself. We are so used to looking at its problems and injuries, of which the church has so many, and tried to fix it. But what if, instead, we looked at its potential, and tried to nurture into fulfillment the original seed of life, the original calling on the church, and to free it to be what it longs to be?
What is God longing for the church to be, including here in St. Andrew’s in Saskatoon? Well, God is longing for the church to be exactly what it already is: a wellspring of love overflowing from its deep source within and spilling out to wash and refresh everyone around it. The church is one thing and one thing only that really counts, this above all: a community of love, in which each and every person knows themselves as Beloved of God without exception or condition or limit; a community of love in which, knowing ourselves as Beloved, we see each and every one else in our faith family as also Beloved of God, even those we may not particularly like or understand; a community of love in which, knowing ourselves and each other as Beloved of God, we see each and every other person we encounter along the paths of our daily lives as equally Beloved, even if the rest of the world does not see them that way and they do not even recognize it in themselves. What kind of minister do you need? One who will love you into the fullness of your unique self, Beloved of God, each one.
So, with that, back to the story of the Baptism of Jesus, which is a declaration of God’s love for all humanity, all creation really.
To fully grasp how this passage declares God’s love for us, we need to understand something of the significance of Jesus’ baptism. One of the abiding teachings in the Christian tradition is the incarnation – how Jesus is God’s presence for us in this world. The Fourth Gospel, especially, calls Jesus the Word-Made-Flesh. God has come to live amongst us in Jesus, declares that mystical telling of the story of Jesus. Matthew’s Gospel calls Jesus, Emmanuel – “God-With-Us” in English – echoing the ancient Hebrew prophets. So, when Jesus chooses to be baptized, it is a way for him to indicate his complete solidarity with humanity. He is not removed from us; he is one of us – washed in the same river, so to speak.
Henceforth, whatever happens to Jesus, happens to us. When Jesus is insulted and reviled, so is everyone who has ever been misunderstood because they do not follow the socially accepted customs. When Jesusiscrucified,everypersonofintegrityisputtodeathforstandingupforwhattheybelieve. BecauseGod has sent Jesus to dwell among us and because Jesus has declared his solidarity with us through his baptism, whatever happens to him happens to us. And, likewise, whatever is said to Jesus is also said to us. So, when a voice from heaven speaks to Jesus after his baptism and says, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased,’ this same voice is also saying to you and to me, ‘You are my child, my Beloved, with you I am well pleased.’
One of the most difficult challenges we face in our lives is to believe that we are lovable and loved. We may have many experiences throughout our lives that have worn down our self-image and our self-esteem. And it may be true that, in some of the relationships we have had over our lifetime, we haven’t been loved – or at least loved well, because the dysfunction of the other person made their love conditional and prickly; or worse, abusive even. But God’s love is not like that. It is fully and freely given through Jesus to every one of us without exception, condition, or limit. It can be a difficult challenge to accept that, in God’s eyes and heart, we are loveable and loved; but it is also gloriously freeing when we do.
So I invite you this morning to stand on the bank of the Jordan with Jesus. Walk out into the river. Hold your breath and abandon yourself to the water. Go down, right under the water. Then, as you rise from the water, take a fresh full breath. Shake the water out of your hair. Listen, as the words spoken to Jesus are spoken to you. ‘You are my child, my Beloved, with you I am well pleased.’ Let those words wash over you. Bathe in those words. Soak in them, until they are soaked into your very soul, and your self-image and your self-esteem soften and expand and grow back into their true shape and size again.
When God sent Jesus into the world, he had many things to say, but this above all: “I love you.” Amen.