A Letter to All God’s Beloved
Sunday, January 8, 2023
Pastor Jason Bryan-Wegner
Baptism of our Lord Sunday
It might not surprise you coming from a pastor that I love baptisms. With each baptism comes an opportunity to have meaningful conversations with parents about what they hope for their children. It is a chance to talk about the power of God to work in our lives, and remind one another of the joy and challenge of raising children in faith. I love that it often leads to questions and conversation about God and faith, and why we even bother. I love that baptisms call all of us, the whole church, to participate in shaping the faith of every Beloved child of God.
We are accustom to baptism happening shortly after a child is born. That’s been the tradition. But it’s not the only time that God calls people into faith. And as our culture has become less religious, it might not be until someone is much older that they find themselves in a church community and experience something holy that calls them to these holy waters. What we can do as a church is create spaces of grace for these people, who may be curious but for one reason or another never had the opportunity to be baptized earlier in their lives.
Hannah and Eric sat in my office one evening telling me about how they met. They had recently been engaged and were planning on getting married at the church I was pastor. In our 2nd session, we talked about their spiritual beliefs and practices. I learned that Hannah grew up in the UP of Michgan and was raised Jewish. I was surprised to learn this because she and Eric were regularly in worship with his parents who were members of the church. I had seen how she would lean over and ask her soon-to-be mother-in-law questions about what was in the bulletin. Hannah told me that growing up there was a rabbi who came from Chicago about every six weeks, so what she knew of her Jewish faith was mostly from her family holiday rituals around Chanukah, Rosh Hashana, and Yom Kippur. When I asked how they intended to practice their faith in their marriage, Hannah didn’t hesitate. She said, “I want to be baptized and be part of this church.” We started a process of baptism preparation, through teaching and conversation.
At the end of the preparation, I asked Hannah when she wanted to be baptized. She said, “On my wedding day. I want all the people who I care about to be there for it.” The first thing I said is, “You know you’ll get wet and it may mess up your hair and make-up.” She didn’t mind. She heard God’s promise. People in her life had nurtured her curiosity about Jesus and shown her something meaningful about Christian faith that she wanted. Hannah came to know deep in her being that she was one of God’s beloved. So, on her wedding day as her dad walked her down the aisle, Eric, his parents, her parents and I met them at the font, the same font that her husband had been baptized in 30 years before, and she was claimed as God’s own, marked with the cross of Christ, and named Beloved.
Whether baptism happens at 28 days or 28 years, in this sacred moment we witness how life, freedom, forgiveness, and a future filled with hope descends upon the one being baptized. Not because of what they have done or not done, or who they are; but because of who God is and what God has done. We get to witness new life in Christ being born right here in front of us. The Spirit making another sinner a saint, out of love and pure grace. It’s nothing short of a miracle.
Here at the font the name we are given, the identity that is revealed is that we are Beloved of God, right along with Jesus. Do you think of yourself that way? Because that’s what you are.
Gerhard Forde and Jim Nestingen write about the power of what it means to be God’s beloved through baptism. “God has made a decision about you”, they write. “[God] hasn’t waited to find out how sincere you are, how devout or religious you might be, or how well you understand the Bible and the Catechism. [God] hasn’t even waited to find out if you are interested or willing to take this decision seriously. He has simply decided.
God made this decision knowing full well the kind of person you are. [God] knows you better than anyone else could — inside out, upside down, and backwards. He knows where you are strong and where you are weak, what you are most proud of and what you would most like to hide. Be that as it may, God’s decision is made.
[God] comes straight out with it: “I am the Lord your God.” This is the decision: God has decided to be your God. For God wants to be as close to you as your next breath, to be the one who gives you confidence and value, to open a future to you in the freedom of the Word. God wants to be the one to whom you turn for whatever you need.
You might wonder: What’s in it for me? If God has made a decision for me, what do I get out of it?
With God’s decision, you receive the freedom of forgiveness. The God who has decided for you is the God who in Christ refuses to hold your past against you, no matter what shape it has had. The God we know in Jesus is the one who takes you as you are — with your strengths, gifts, talents, and abilities, and also with your bad habits, selfishness, pride, and whatever else you might want to conceal. There are no strings on God’s decision and so no strings on you, either. You’re free.
Still, there’s more. The God who has decided for you is the one who opened the grave the first Easter morning, the God who raises the dead. So, when this God says, “I am your God,” the am stands forever. He is, was, and always will be your God. So, no grave will ever be able to hold you. In the silence of death, you will hear Jesus’ voice saying, “Rise and shine. I am the Lord your God.” God’s decision opens your future.
Some of us may not like hearing this because we are more comfortable giving than receiving, we strive to prove ourselves, to show that we are capable or successful or that we should be able to “make it” on our own. That’s the American Spirit, right? To receive such a gift without doing anything, to have the decision made for us feels foreign. God’s gift of life and love, forgiveness and belonging reorients everything else we know about ourselves. And that’s what makes it uncomfortable and wonderful all at the same time.
We like the labels we carry, the accolades we’ve compiled, the identity we’ve built through time and hard work – right? These are natural ways we navigate relationships and society. However, when these identifiers will eventually disappoint us, divide us, or no longer be useful or true. In other words, these identifiers in our lives can be pretty fragile. Your baptismal identity is sturdy and strong. It endures all things. ALL Things. Beginning each day remembering the identity God has given us in our baptism ensures that we keep all the other ways we identify ourselves in proper perspective.
Poet Jan Richardson writes In her book, Circle of Grace a blessing entitled “Beloved is Where You Begin”. She writes:
If you would enter into the wilderness, do not begin without a blessing.
Do not leave without hearing who you are: Beloved,
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: Beloved. Beloved. Beloved.