Raymond Carver, one of the finest writers of our time, died before he should have. He had lived a hard life including alcoholism, until near the end he found the love of his life and pulled things together. And then lung cancer hit. Just before he died he wrote a fragment of a poem, that goes like this:

And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.

That’s not such an unusual wish, I would guess. Isn’t that something we would all like to say when our life comes to an end—that we have been beloved, that our lives have been defined by receiving and giving love?

“Beloved” is the word that Jesus heard in our gospel lesson today as he began his ministry. Stepping down into the Jordan River, Mark says the heavens opened, and a voice came from heaven saying, “You are my son, my beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

It’s also the implicit message in our first lesson today, the opening words of the great poem that begins the Bible. “Let there be light!” God declares. And immediately God sees the light and declares that it is good. And after each of the days of creation God confirms the same thing, until the last when he affirms, “It is very good.”

Belovedness, goodness—that in fact is the core message of the Christian faith, the simplest, and in many ways wildest assertion of all: That for reasons we can’t begin to fathom, every one of us is beloved by the heart of reality. Many Christians grew up hearing that the deepest truth of our lives is our original sin, our rebellion and rejection of God. But both of our lessons say that the deepest truth of the world is not original sin, but original blessing, a world that God creates in gladness and calls beloved.

Mark tells the story vividly—with the heavens being torn open, the Spirit descending like a dove, and a voice speaking from heaven—all of it a vivid language to describe a reality beyond words—that Jesus experienced himself as delighted in, believed in, held by the one he called Abba, an informal word for Father, something like “Daddy.” And that awareness was so overwhelming that Jesus spent the rest of his short life trying to get others to discover it for themselves.

Belovedness. My guess is that most of us spend a good deal of our lives searching for a sense of belovedness. Therapists tell me that the search for belovedness is at the bottom of most of our human struggles. We Christians believe that God took on a human face in Jesus of Nazareth, and the face we see in him bears the look of compassion and delight. So how painful it is that religions themselves have so often failed to communicate this bedrock reality. In fact, you hear more and more these days the notion that religion is one of the great perpetrators of hate in the world, and is actually a big part of the world’s problem, not part of the answer.

Just list the conflicts—Israelis and Palestinians, Irish Catholics and Protestants, Hindus and Muslims in India and Pakistan, Moslems and Christians in Serbia and Croatia. Each side has its own vision of God, and often that god is a projection of the fears, resentments, and angers that one group has held against another.

Anger and division have invaded our Episcopal Church too, where different portions of our denomination are declaring that they have no need of each other and are perfectly willing to pull away and part company.

A Roman Catholic writer named Roland Rolheiser says that both conservative and liberal Christians these days have been holding up a God whose primary facial expression is a frown. The God of conservatives, he says, is looking at the world and seeing moral laxity, sexual promiscuity, and laziness. This God is often angry at us sinful human beings. The God of liberals is different, Rolheiser says, but is also mostly frowning. This God is worried, hypersensitive, politically correct, a workaholic. This God is frowning in disapproval at the world’s selfishness and lack of social conscience.

Now I am sure there is much about our lives as human beings that saddens and even angers God—our self-absorption and greed, and our lack of compassion for the suffering of the world. But the God we see in Jesus is nevertheless not a God of bitterness and rejection, but of relentless compassion and eagerness to forgive and start again.

Well, if belovedness is what Christian faith is all about, how did this faith lose the fire of that original vision? Over the centuries Christianity has often become a matter of believing the right set of things. Agreeing to correct doctrines. It began to emphasize that the whole point of faith is not what we do in this life but what will happen in the next—are we going to be saved or not? And so Christian life often became a set of requirements and rules to get our ticket punched for heaven.

But Christianity was and is about a relationship with God in Jesus Christ, about living in Jesus’ way, knowing God in our lives, and about our growing deeper, wiser, and more open-hearted in how we live our days.

Jesus’ whole ministry is shaped by the experience recorded in our gospel today. “You are my beloved child in whom I am well-pleased.” And he seems to have spent the rest of his ministry after that moment living out of a consciousness, a way of seeing the world, shaped by this moment. Because he knows his own belovedness, everyone and everything he saw was also beloved.

And so when Jesus saw the heart-broken, the deathly ill, the hungry and the poor, he saw them all as beloved. As Roland Rolheiser suggests, it is as if God kept whispering in his ear that same blessing all along—“You are my beloved, my child, in you I am well-pleased.” And because he felt that so intensely himself, he couldn’t keep from seeing everyone else the same way.

There’s a contemporary Buddhist parable that opens to us what this is really all about. One day the Buddha, badly overweight, sat under a tree, and a handsome young soldier came along, looked at him and said, “You look like a pig!” The Buddha replied, “Well, you look like God!” “Why would you say that?” asked the surprised young soldier. “Well,” said the Buddha, “we see what’s inside us. I think about God all day and when I look out that’s what I see. You, obviously, must think about other things.” (From The Holy Longing, by Roland Rolheiser.)

What we see outside us is profoundly shaped by what is inside us. Because Jesus had lived moment by moment with a deep sense of God’s love, when he looked at the world around him, everyone was radiant with God’s light. The whole world was beloved.

The essence of Jesus’ experience was his belovedness, but there is another dimension to this story. His experience was not one cut off from the world around him. John the Baptist was offering a baptism of repentance. The people of Israel were coming there to be cleansed from their sins and failures. Jesus chose to go into the water of their sin with them. And it was there in the rough and tumble of a dusty, raucous crowd that he experienced God’s belovedness, not in a remote mountain, not off by a beautiful lake.

The monk and writer Thomas Merton first entered a Catholic monastery in 1948, and for the first decade or more he devoted himself to leaving behind the world and seeking to know God’s belovedness for himself. But some years later he had his own Jordan River experience on a day he had left the monastery to run some errands in nearby Louisville, Kentucky. This is how he describes it in his journal:

In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness…to take your place as a member of the human race…I have the immense joy of being…a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate…If only everybody could realize this!…There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.

It was belovedness Merton experienced, just as Jesus had at the Jordan River. Merton, like Jesus, was able to see the holiness of every creature, of the earth itself, all of it shining like the sun.

The importance of the baptism of Jesus is not that it happened once for him two thousand years ago, but that it is meant to happen for us too. This is a revolutionary insight, this belovedness. If we could know our own belovedness moment by moment and could look at the world through those eyes, wouldn’t that change the angry, conflicted world we’re in?

If we really knew our belovedness, what would happen to the ways we live with each other at work and at home?

What might happen if we Episcopalians actually saw the belovedness of those with whom we deeply disagree?

What would happen if we really saw the belovedness of a mentally ill street person babbling away to himself, left to drift from street grates to shelters?

What would happen if we saw the belovedness of a child orphaned by the AIDS epidemic in southern Africa? What might we do? Just before Christmas I met a couple here after church, both of them doctors, who are raising their children in Kenya where they work to ease the misery of God’s beloved ones there.

Knowing our own belovedness can help us slow down the rat race we live in, honor the goodness of the day in front of us, love those near to us, serve those who need us.

Belovedness is the gift buried in us all that the church is here to help us uncover. Has belovedness ever broken through to the center of your spirit? There is no more subversive message to all the powers that would shrink and control human life. Belovedness healed broken marriages and unlocked the prisons of addiction. It has brought down dictators, has spread a faith around the globe, and has carried people in crisis through the darkest times. It is the key that can change the life of our city, our world, our church, even this cathedral.

And it starts with a handful of people who begin knowing this belovedness for themselves—who somehow discover it in the support of a friend, or a gesture of help when they thought it impossible, in the silence of prayer or in the words of a book, in serving those who need us or in a piece of bread and a sip of wine that say “You are my beloved.” And when they glimpse it, they will begin to see everyone shining like the sun.

And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.