This first week in the New Year is notorious for resolutions, especially when it comes to our exercise and eating routines (code for diets). And while I haven’t made a New Year’s resolution in years, just a week ago, the first day of the year, coincidentally, I stumbled upon an exciting new exercise app. So I downloaded it onto my phone. Now, every morning, all I need to do is decide whether I want to run or walk, on the roads outside or on the treadmill inside, and determine how much time I have to devote to it, and instantly, the voice of a personal trainer talks to me through my headphones, and leads me in a personalized workout. Throughout the time, the trainer gives instructions, shouts out words of encouragement and inspiration, and keeps me focused. And in just this one week, I have come to look forward to my time with my virtual ‘trainer,’ and these words of encouragement help me stay on the path to good health.
Now as I was running this week, and contemplating this morning’s Gospel between shouts from my trainer, I started to wonder, what if we all had an app with God’s voice to inspire, encourage, and keep us focused every day of the week? Because, at least for me, God’s voice is sometimes awfully hard to hear.
It wasn’t always like that. Let’s back up in time, way back, all the way to the first chapter of Genesis. Because there, on that very first page of the Bible, is the familiar story of God’s work of creation. And you’ll remember, after each day of creation, God’s voice said, “it is good.” In fact, after humankind was created, it was better than good. The author of Genesis writes, “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.” God’s voice was present in creation. Crystal clear. And it was good.
But before very long, human voices of guilt . . . shame . . . selfishness . . . hatred . . . became louder and louder, and began drowning out God’s voice. And God’s message of “very good” became muddled. Prophets and patriarchs, matriarchs and martyrs all tried, desperately, time and time again, to turn up the volume on God’s voice, but had only varying degrees of success. And then Jesus entered our world. And following his baptism by John, there was that “very good,” creative voice of God again, saying “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” It was a voice that affirmed Jesus’ identity, a voice that conveyed Jesus’ mission, and a voice that said, this is “very good.” Yet as powerful as that voice at Jesus’ baptism must have been, it wasn’t enough. Jesus needed to hear God’s voice over and over again throughout his years of ministry, both during times of strength and weakness, and most certainly, as he faced suffering, betrayal, and pain at the end of his life. Over and over again, Jesus tuned to God in prayer, ultimately, I believe, so that he could hear God’s voice of belovedness.
Well, we too, have heard this voice of God, as people who have experienced and been reborn in the waters of baptism. In baptism, God says to us, “You are my Beloved,” full stop. It doesn’t matter what we do for a living, what we own, how popular we are – or aren’t – our identity as God’s beloved children in baptism is marked and sealed forever.
But, like Jesus, we need to hear that voice over and over again; the voice that encourages us, that leads us, and helps us stay on the path of righteousness. And because we don’t have that app with God’s voice (at least, I don’t), it is up to us to pray, meditate, and worship, to seek and allow space for that voice in our own lives – and, for those times when prayer, meditation and worship are not quite enough, it is critically important that we be that voice for one another.
From the first day I met him, I was that voice for Brian Canivan. As you know, I met Brian 3 years ago, after his mother called out for help saying he needed some spiritual support. Following an accident 20 years ago, Brian suffered from brain injury and was confined to a wheelchair. The world told him he was someone to be cast aside, thrown into a corner, who had no value or hope. And my message to him, the first and every time I visited, was that he was God’s beloved child, made in God’s image. I told him over and over again, and together with other parishioners from this congregation, we lived that truth out, telling him by our actions and our lives that he was God’s beloved.
Well, just a few weeks ago, I drove down to Camden to see him one last time before he died. I knew I had just one thing to tell him. “Brian, you are created in God’s image, God’s beloved child . . . God’s delight.” And in those powerful moments together, I realized that even as I said those words to him, I was hearing them for myself. Brian’s belovedness reflected my belovedness, and on my drive home that day, I realized that not only was knowing Brian a gift and a privilege, I always left our visits secure in my own Belovedness. Brian was that voice of God for me.
This afternoon, down in Burlington, we are going to commend Brian to God’s loving, eternal embrace. It is sad for many reasons. Not the least of which is that, in doing so, I am losing Brian’s particular voice of my own Belovedness. So as this New Year moves into its second week, I find myself yearning for an app which speaks God’s voice. I want that voice of reassurance that encourages and empowers us. I want that voice that was present in creation, saying “it is very good.” I need that voice from baptism that says “I am God’s beloved.” But the thing is, we don't need an app to hear this voice. And even though Brian can't speak directly to me anymore, we have each other. It is vital that we be that voice for one another. Over and over again.
Yesterday, during our Women’s Christmas Retreat, we had the opportunity to offer “Blessings” to one another. We offered tangible gifts, along with profound words of blessing, and essentially what these blessings were was an echo, over and over again, of God’s voice of Belovedness. It was a beautiful thing – and yes, it was “very good.”
My hope and prayer, and desire, is that in this New Year, we can focus on flexing our “belovedness muscles.” In both words and actions. In the ups and downs of our communal and personal lives. In our places of strength. And our places of vulnerability. Because as we live into the covenant of our own baptisms, seeking to serve God in all people, we claim God’s voice of Belovedness for ourselves, and become God’s voice of Belovedness in the world. Amen.