It’s high drama we hear in the gospel this morning as Jesus begins his ministry. He comes to the Jordan River, where John is baptizing people in a ritual and to cleanse them from their sins. Then Jesus decides himself to go down into the water and be baptized, and as he is praying heaven is opened and the Holy Spirit descends on him like a dove, and a voice comes down saying, “You are my Son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
Now that’s an experience I suspect few of us have had. Many of us have been waiting a long time to hear some voice from heaven telling us who we are, announcing that we are beloved, and offering to guide us on our way.
We have grown up being shaped by the hymns, prayers, and scriptures of the church, which are filled with language about a God who is “up there,” who rules from the heavens above, and a God who is “out there,” who is often pictured as grand, austere, at once a loving and terrifying figure. God was always somewhere other than here, as in “Our Father who art in heaven.” Where was heaven? In the Creed we recite every Sunday we said that Jesus “ascended into heaven.” For most of my childhood, I’ve come to realize, God looked a great deal like the Bishop of Mississippi—old, gray, remote, but kindly—or later, like old Mr. Burns, the bent-over, near-sighted, scholarly priest in my little town. Of course I knew intellectually that God didn’t look like them, but I had to have a picture, and these were about the best I could do.
In a book called The God We Never Knew, Biblical scholar Marcus Borg talks about the images of God that shaped his early life. For him, the prevailing picture, coming from his Lutheran background, was of a remote, often judgmental God. He had come to believe, he says, in God “the finger-shaker,” full of requirements for good behavior.
Eventually that God stopped making sense to Borg—as my “old man” images did for me. Then in late high school I read a book by an English bishop named John Robinson called Honest to God, in which he talked about the “end of theism,” which for him meant an end to seeing God as an object who is up there and out there. Bishop Robinson said that we must search for God not somewhere else but here, in the depths of our human experience. I will never forget the heady excitement I felt as I read this bishop naming my questions and giving them intellectual depth. His dismantling of the God up there made eminent sense. Of course “up” is a metaphor. God isn’t really up there. And he quoted another theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, offering a new “location” of God as “the beyond in our midst.” The problem was, that I couldn’t understand this new alternative. It was too foreign and strange. And so he left me dangling—unable to accept the old pictures of God, but at a loss to find what a new sense of God would be like.
That led to a journey I have come to see as lifelong—of finding fresh images and understandings for who God is and how God comes to us. Every way of imagining God has to draw on some finite part of our world to image for us the infinite and beyond. And so every image of God is only partial, whether it is God as King, Ruler, Father, Rock, Lawgiver, Judge, Spirit, or whether it is one of the less frequent but important biblical images that speak of God as Mother, or Light, or Lady Wisdom, or Lover.
Over these years of continuing exploration, I have become convinced that the heavens do part, that voices do come down from heaven. But heaven, I came to see, is not up there somewhere but in the depths of life here, and the voices that speak may not use vowels and consonants. But in some real way we are “spoken to” from the depths of life, and we can, in some strange way “hear” and be addressed and called by God.
In fact, in Jesus’ own experience at the River Jordan, we can see him encountering a God vibrant and alive in the depths of his life in two particular ways. The first was his breakthrough experience, a profound, intimate, life-claiming sense of being blessed, beloved, and called. “You are my Son, my beloved; with you I am well pleased.׆
My guess is that most of us spend a good deal of our lives searching for a sense of belovedness. Or to put it another way, we spend our lives searching for a blessing, for a profound word to be spoken to us—by parents, by friends and colleagues, by God—that says, “I see the goodness of being in you and will do everything I can to bring it out in you.” Most of the drivenness and anxiety many of us grapple with comes from an inadequate sense of having been blessed early on, and so we spend our lives trying to earn that blessing for ourselves.
Of course all human loving and blessing are imperfect, and so we long for the sense that there is a Perfect Love that holds and blesses us. That is what Jesus experienced at the Jordan River—an intense awareness of being delighted in, loved and at peace here and now. You know, there are countless records of both mystics and very ordinary people having such intense experiences of blessing down through the centuries. Listen to this part of a poem by William Butler Yeats as he describes a moment when this happened for him. You can imagine it as something like experiencing God at Starbucks:
My fiftieth year had come and gone,
I sat, a solitary man, in a crowded London shop,
An open book and empty cup
On a marble table top.
While on the shop and street I gazed,
My body of a sudden blazed;
And for twenty minutes more or less
It seemed, so great my happiness,
That I was blessed and could bless.
From beyond himself Yeats felt blessed and beloved. But it was something happening in the here and now of the depths of a particular moment. Blaise Pascal, the 17th century philosopher and mathematician, carried around during the last years of his life a piece of paper sewn into his coat that described the two hours late one night when he experienced what he called “fire”—the overwhelming presence of God.
Now most of us, I imagine, have never had an experience like those, but my guess is that we have all experienced what we might call ordinary mysticism, or daily blessedness. It’s what happens here at this Cathedral occasionally when the sun comes through a window and a splatter of glorious color paints the arches, and we sense we are suffused with a light that is more than just light; or when we hit the breaking point and the phone rings with someone just checking in on us, and we sense our belovedness again; or we wake up early in the morning and see the sky starting to lighten, or we sit down to dinner with someone we care about, and we know we are blessed just to be who we are and to be alive here; or we see on the television a gaunt mother in Darfur cradling his stick-thin child, and we see holiness shining out of the horror.
We are surrounded by blessedness. We are beloved. The voice that spoke to Jesus saying “You are my beloved” speaks to us in that same word.
But of course it takes time to learn to hear and trust that voice. It’s natural to harbor the notion that if you or I ever actually had an experience of God like the one Jesus had, we just might pray more, go to church every Sunday, and live a more faithful life. But that gets everything backward. For Jesus, living the faith came first. Jesus was first a practicing Jew, doing the things Jews did. That’s what brought him to the Jordan River in the first place. And there the moment could happen when he knew God’s love for himself.
The secret to knowing our belovedness, then, is to do the faith things. Take up the practices that for 2,000 years have brought people closer to God. Don’t miss being in church, find some time in your day to be still, read your way through the gospels a few verses at a time, ask for God to go with you through your day. Find a small group to learn with, find a ministry serving people who are struggling, find ways to be generous with your time and your resources. You could say that it’s the only scientific way to learn: Conduct the experiment called faith, take the steps faith calls for, and see what happens.
The essence of Jesus’ experience was his belovedness, but there was another dimension. His moment in the River was not a private experience cut off from the world around him. It was an experience of belonging, of connection, of oneness. John the Baptist was offering a baptism of repentance; the people of Israel were coming there to be cleansed from their drifting and unfaithfulness and dishonesty and cruelty. Jesus chose to go into that murky water with that dirty, raucous crowd. And it was there, not on a remote mountain, not off by a beautiful lake, that he encountered God.
Americans these days seem to like their spirituality private. It’s about me and my fulfillment, my personal salvation, and my own personal God. But there is no such faith anywhere in the scriptures. God always calls people into life together, into the rough and tumble of being a beloved community with each other. That was Jesus’ experience in the Jordan. He saw God in every face he encountered. He saw everyone walking around shining like the sun. He belonged to them and they to him, because they all belonged to God.
And that explains two new endeavors you will see at the Cathedral this year. One is the growth of a Cathedral community—a community of people here who want to pray together, support each other, worship together, and share in creating a ministry of welcome, spiritual growth, and compassionate service here on Mt. St. Alban. We first know Christ in community, and then this Cathedral community can become a marvelous channel for helping people discover their belovedness.
And the second is, this Cathedral is beginning to learn what it means to be a cathedral for the whole city of Washington. We are beginning to learn how to take our place as members of the human race who have an immense amount to receive from our fellow human beings in Anacostia and Mount Pleasant and Adams Morgan and the 8th Ward, as well as Takoma Park and Arlington and Prince George’s county. We are joining hands with the Washington Interfaith Network, an organization of communities of faith working together on maintaining affordable housing in the city, improving public education, and caring for the city’s homeless.
This Cathedral can’t simply make its solo contribution to the nation’s good. Like Jesus, we have to go down into the water with everyone else, and there it is that we will hear the voice from heaven.
I am convinced that Jesus’ baptism is also our baptism. He wasn’t sent simply to offer a brilliant Spirit-filled performance. In fact, he promised his followers that the Spirit that was in him would be theirs too. The promise of this day is that if we will follow him, learn from him, and stay with him, we too will hear a voice from heaven saying, “You, you are my son, my daughter, my beloved; in you I am well pleased.”