February 6 2011
The Beloved of God
It's African American History month. Let’s test your knowledge of African American history. Who was the first African American to appear on a postage stamp? Paul Robeson, Fredrick Douglass or Booker T. Washington? Who was the first African American to win the Nobel Prize for literature, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison or Richard Wright. And in 1993 her book Beloved won the Pulitzer Prize. Guy Bluford is the first what: African American killed in the Civil War; the first African American tenured professor or the first African American to walk in space? He was on the space shuttle “Challenger.”
Another famous African American is Malcolm X. In his autobiography, we learn that, as a junior high student, Malcolm was a star. Despite the fact that he was living in a foster home, he was an A student and was elected president of his class. One day he had a conversation with his English teacher, whom he liked and respected, about his future career goals. Malcolm said that he wanted to be a lawyer. His teacher responded, ‘That’s no realistic goal for a nigger,’ and advised him to consider carpentry instead. The message was clear: you are a black male, your racial group matters, plan accordingly. Malcolm’s emotional response was typical – anger, confusion and alienation. He stopped participating in class, left school and eventually moved from his predominately white Michigan home to live with his sister in Roxbury, a Black community in Boston.
Despite the advancement of Colored People in that last century, messages of hate and discrimination are still clearly alive and active today. Women, people of color, people of different sexual preference and orientation – these folks have to work harder, walk up the steeper uphill climb to success, deal with rumors, jibes, bad jokes, insults and innuendos. It’s happening in Cleveland, in our schools, libraries and restaurants; in neighborhood gyms, in programs and agencies.
Because of powerful media forces influencing the way our children think, speak, walk, dress, style their hair, pierce and tattoo their bodies, we dare not dismiss such influences as ‘times in which we live.’ To the contrary, we must recognize, realize, and conceptualize ways to engage our young people in critical thinking about these issues and help them learn to make appropriate choices. The moral fabric of our future society depends on good people bringing the young ones back into the fold, where they feel that they live in a village where everyone is cared for and every single person matters, has a gift to give and a story to tell of overcoming. This village centers on the church; in Cleveland, on the west side, it is this church in particular. St. Paul’s Community Church is relevant, dynamic and real. It is here that we learn about LOVE -- The only power great enough to counteract the forces of evil. Love counteracts discrimination. Love overcomes hatred. Love is stronger than the media forces. We choose to love.
We choose to love because God loved us first. From birth, our role model, rabbi and friend, Jesus, knew without a doubt that he was loved. Did he know LOVE more deeply than the rest of humanity? Yes; did he express LOVE more fully than the rest of us? Yes; and did he demand justice with love with more power and passion than the rest of us? Yes. At his baptism, when he was ordained to preach, teach and minister, the Holy Spirit descended upon him, and God spoke to him. He knew that he was the Beloved.
We too can choose the life of the beloved – My Words alone fail to describe God’s movement in our lives. But, for the sake of a sermon, I will use four words from Henri Nouwen, a Yale and Harvard professor, author of many books and priest. He uses the words from communion: Taken, blessed, broken and given. As Christians, as the Beloved of God: we are called to become the bread for the world: bread that is taken, blessed, broken and given. Henri Nouwen said that these are the four most important words of his life. They are the antidote for negativity, violence and hatred that pervades society.
First, as the beloved, we are Taken: when I know that I am taken, I feel chosen by God. Being taken means being chosen, separated out. We have been seen by God from all eternity as unique, precious beings. Long before your parents admired you or your friends acknowledged you or your teachers encouraged you, you were chosen. The eyes of love have seen you with eternal value.
But this does not mean that others are rejected. With God everyone gets some attention. When one is taken, there is enough room and plenty left over. Love makes us all fit around God’s table. Think of God as being like the man in his eighties going to visit his wife in the nursing home every day for years and years.
Al’s wife, Cora, was helplessly and hopelessly disoriented through Alzheimer's. Al would come over every day with a bowl of ice cream to give to Cora. By the time that Al drove from his home over to the center, the ice cream would be melted. I watched him take that melted ice cream on a spoon and feed Cora as if she were a newborn baby bird. As he put the melted ice cream into her mouth and patted her on the cheek, I saw. There was nothing but pure love; no chaos, no manipulation, no questions and answers. I saw for sure the genuine love of God between two people. I knew that love was true and I knew that quality of love was from God and I was totally convinced of the truth of that moment. It was a vision. I had seen true love in the flesh right before my eyes. Holiness. Pure holiness. Goodness. Pure goodness. I had seen a love that I wanted in my marriage.
That is what it means to be taken. God choses us and God’s love is directed at us for our pure good. God’s love includes us; it includes all people – rich and poor, big and small, smart, not-so-smart, kings and paupers. Each person is taken and is called forth to be the beloved on the journey together with others. Understanding that we are taken is the first part of the formula for being the Beloved. Next up, blessed.
Being blessed means having good things said of you. Being blessed brings God’s affirmative power right down on top of your head. It is like the Holy Spirit descends like a dove and plants some spirit seeds right into your soul. More than a word of praise or appreciation; more than pointing out someone’s talents or good deeds; more than putting someone in the light; to bless is to say “yes” to a person’s core, the place of their deepest yearnings for attention and love, their “belovedness.” The blessings that we give to each other are expressions of the blessing that rests on us from all eternity. It is the deepest affirmation of our true self. It is constantly surprising us with inspirational richness and beauty.
Fred Craddock tells a wonderful story about a young minister, newly graduated from seminary, serving his very first church. The first week on the job, he gets a call telling him that an elderly member who has given her life in service to the church, is in the hospital. Mrs. Thompson is so weak she can't even get up out of her ICU bed, and the doctors don't hold much hope for her recovery.
All the way to the hospital he's thinking about what he will say to this saint of the church, what words of comfort he can give her to prepare her for her eminent death. He arrives at her room, he sits and talks with her a few minutes, just medical small talk really, nothing earth shattering. And then she says, “I want you to pray.” “Yes, of course, Mrs. Thompson,” he says. And he asks politely, "And what exactly would you like me to pray for?" "Why, I want you to pray that God will heal me, of course," she says matter-of-factly.
So he starts, “Dear God . . . please be with us now” and, just as she asks, the pastor asked that God will heal her, even though he's not really sure that can happen. And he prays fervently for God to intervene in this woman’s life. When he says "Amen" the woman immediately sits up in the bed, saying, "You know, I feel good. She moves her legs and says, “I think it worked! I think I'm healed!" And she gets out of the bed and begins to walk towards the door. She has to hold onto the chair, but she gains some momentum, and then she proceeds out the door to the nurse’s station. A moment later, she is running up and down the hallway of the hospital, shouting, "Praise God! I'm healed! Praise God! I'm healed!" She goes running around the entire floor in a state of euphoria, telling everyone of her amazing transformation.
Meanwhile, the minister is off balance. He was totally unprepared for the miracle. He stumbles down the hall, walks down five flights of stairs, leaves the building and out into the bright sunlight, walks all the way across the parking lot and somehow manages to find his car. As he fumbles with his keys, gets in the car, he looks heavenward and says, "Don't you ever do that to me again!"
Sometimes our blessing shakes us up. A voice comes down from heaven saying, "This is my Beloved son, or this is my beloved daughter; with whom I am well pleased!" That blessing sustained Jesus through all his ministry, it sustained him through all of the support and the denial, through the praise and blame, through the admiration and condemnation, God’s blessing sustained him through the peace and violence that followed. We, too, are taken, and we are blessed. And like the body of Jesus in front of the authorities, we are also broken. We are faced with the facts of life that all humans look forward to: pain, difficult relationships, suffering at the hands of others, feelings of abandonment and isolation. But these tough times only make us stronger and more courageous.
Out of our brokenness comes the strength and guts to pursue the true calling that God puts on our lives. Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross is an expert on death &dying. When she was doing research for her famous book, interviewing thousands of terminal patients, she met a cleaning woman in a large hospital. This woman spent her days mopping floors, scrubbing toilets, emptying wastebaskets and tidying up patients' rooms. She was mostly behind the scenes in her daily tasks, but, Kubler-Ross noticed one day, that she always found a way to show kindness to all the patients. The woman explained to Dr. Kubler-Ross that she could quickly see the anxiety in someone and respond tenderly. Her own journey, with the fear and tragedy she had experienced, helped her know, feel and then express God's love. She had been up and she had been down the mountain. You see, she said, the worst time in my life was when my three-year-old son was ill with pneumonia. We brought him to the public health clinic, and he died in her arms while she waited her turn. All of this could have embittered her, she said to Kubler-Ross, "But, you see, doctor, the dying patients are just like old acquaintances to me, and I'm not afraid to touch them, to talk to them, or to offer them hope."
This woman was a "Special Counselor.” She was taken by God for a specific purpose; blessed with courage, strength and determination; was broken into most difficult of human situations – losing a child – and then God used her for healing. She knew she was taken. She knew of her blessings. She was not afraid to go straight into the brokenness of humanity and finally, she was given by God to help other people deal with their most important issues of life. She was a pipeline of grace given to broken people in a broken world. Taken, blessed, broken, given.
What gives me hope in these tough times are the stories of people who have given themselves as bread for the world. Dr. King was beloved. He told the striking garbage workers in Memphis a day before he died, that he knew he was going to the mountaintop but would never reach the promised land. King, taken, blessed for sure, he also understood his own life was broken, it was a sacrifice, and he understood that out of the brokenness was the change that opened up new opportunity for God’s beloved society. This was the time when King and Malcolm X had become friends and began working together. Malcolm X had come to a new understanding as well, realizing that the face of the international Muslim community was totally multi-cultural and mixed with people from the all the colors of the world. The Beloved come from around the globe. As disciples, we are called to proclaim the good news of the grace and hopefulness that comes to everyone that we meet. In the face of the Holy one that shines as bright as the brightest star, in front of indescribable beauty and miraculous divine work. We are taken, blessed, broken and given to others. Being bread for the world is the call of the Beloved.