Rev. Danielle K Bartz January 14, 2024
Mark 1:4-11 “Boldly Loved”
T.S. Eliot wrote we are “distracted from distraction by distraction.” How incredibly true this statement is. For many, if not most of us, we tend to move through life one distraction at a time. I know this is certainly true for me – sometimes those distractions are ones I seek out, other times they demand my attention, and periodically they so slowly pile up that I don’t even notice. So, the question that begs to be asked is, ‘what are we distracted from?’ What is the one thing, the fundamental thing, that we need to clear space in our lives and our minds for so we are never distracted from it. I humbly submit my thought that one thing is that we, you, me, and all of humanity, are beloved by God.
Now, back when I was serving my first church as a student pastor during my second year of seminary, I wrote and preached a sermon on Jacob wrestling with an angel, or perhaps wrestling with God, and Jacob refusing to let go until he was blessed. I struggled mightily writing that sermon for any number of reasons, likely the most prominent being that I was young and in a stage of seminary when everything I thought I understood about God and Christianity had been torn asunder but I had not yet built up a more sophisticated faith. But, I didn’t give up, wrestling with that scripture until I found a blessing in it. Which is what I preached about. I preached about the process I went through to write that sermon, and how the process was actually the whole point. And that, perhaps, my honest reflection would speak to someone in the congregation who was maybe also wrestling with their faith.
I honestly don’t remember how that sermon was received by the congregation. What I do remember was my supervisor, the senior minister of that church, didn’t like it at all. She felt that the process shouldn’t be the point, and rather that the point the process leads to should be the point. How I remember her advice is thus: “Keep your process to yourself, nobody wants to hear it.” Well, no offense to that minister, but I disagreed then and disagree now. Perhaps it is my natural suspicion of any sort of declarative statement that encompasses an assumption for large groups of people. Perhaps it is my naturally rebellious nature against authority. Who knows. But I tell you this because I am now going to preach a sermon that is largely about the process I went through in coming up with my earlier stated belief – that we are too often distracted from the fundamental truth that we are all beloved by God and we must work to free ourselves from what distracts us from that. And my prayer is that as I describe my process for seeking this truth, distraction-free, you will find echoes of your own stories, or maybe an encouragement to take a step along the way.
My process went like this:
It started with reading the scripture for today and focusing on God calling Jesus ‘beloved’ after his baptism by John in the Jordan. And the question I found myself asking was, “what does it mean to be beloved by God?” Because I believe we all are. I have, on more occasions than I can name, encouraged you to claim yourself as God’s beloved. When I baptize, I add a line to my liturgy taken from this scripture that goes something like, “please know from this time forward that your name is beloved.” I regularly refer to you as my beloved community. But, what does being beloved actually mean for us, I wondered.
The next day in my Tuesday morning clergy group, I posed that question. We were meeting on Zoom because it was snowing, and because of that we all had Google at our finger tips. Pastor Shawn searched on the etymology of the word, informing us that beloved is the intensive form of the word loved – meaning to be beloved is to be super-duper loved, in other words surrounded on all sides by love. I thought that was great and wrote it in my sermon notebook. Then Pastor Tami said something I didn’t hear correctly. She said that beloved is big love, but what I heard was boldly loved. Well, that resonated, so I next wrote down ‘Boldly Loved’ in my notebook – and titled my sermon that before I had even written it. And then Pastor Shawn once again came through and said, half-jokingly, “to boldly love where no one has loved before.” That is, if you don’t know, a Star Trek reference that got me super excited and that too was written down in my notebook as I told my colleagues that I was going to figure out a way to incorporate it into my sermon – mission accomplished.
A couple of hours later I was looking around on the internet about what others think it means to be beloved and found an old blogpost written by a spiritual director whose Star Word, (remember those?), from 2023 was Beloved. She had done some of the work for me and shared these three quotes: from Henri Nouwen, “Once I have accepted the truth that I am God’s beloved child, unconditionally loved, I can be sent into the world to speak and to act as Jesus did.” Also from Henri Nouwen, “Jesus lived his life from that inner place of love.” And from Richard Rohr, “We are made in love, for love, and unto love, and it is out of this love that we act. This deep inner ‘yes’ that is God in me, is already God through me.” Those are fabulous quotes, excellent sermon fodder, and all three got recorded in my notebook. I still didn’t know where I was going with the sermon exactly, but I felt I had enough to begin outlining it, seeing where the Spirit led me, and I planned to begin that after lunch.
Then I got a phone call, which necessitated several other phone calls – back and forth the phone calls went, seeking advice and making some important decisions. The phone calls, and the work required because of those calls and decisions, took up the rest of my afternoon. Those on the Council may remember an email I sent that afternoon that ended with a rather sarcastic line: “And now I am going to outline a sermon about what it means to be beloved by God.” Followed by a winky face emoji. But my wondering about what it means to be beloved by God had completely been lost in the distraction. In fact, it was lost in the distraction from the distraction because that evening, instead of trying in vain to outline a sermon I instead worked on my novel, which has proven to be an excellent way to distract myself from whatever my brain is choosing to hyper-focus on, which that evening was certainly not what it means to be beloved by God.
The next morning I opened my email and read the UCC daily devotion which opened with the quote by T.S. Eliot, that we are “distracted from distraction by distraction.” It was like a beacon through the fog, reminding me that I had been distracted away from wondering at and about this important truth, that we are beloved by God. I then wrote this sermon, knowing full well that the distractions would continue to pile up, but also with the hope that I might remember, through them all that I am, we are, beloved by God. Boldly loved by God. Surrounded on all sides by God’s love. And that if we can each figure out a way to know this, to fundamentally in our bones, know this, then we too can live our lives from that inner place of love and go forth into the world to boldly love where no one has loved before.
The reality is, my Beloved Community, that our lives are filled with distractions. Some are deeply important, things that do require our attention. Others are less so, some even artificially created by those wishing to divert our attention. We are frequently distracted from distraction by distraction and I doubt this will change. But my prayer and hope is that we can continue to clear away the distractions enough in our Spirits to remember that we are, first beloved by God. This will not be particularly easy a lot of the time. In fact, that is something I love about the way the Gospel of Mark describes God declaring Jesus God’s beloved. The scripture reads the ‘heavens were torn apart’ and then the Spirit descended like a dove. ‘Torn apart’ is certainly a more violent and explosive way to describe that moment. Matthew and Luke certainly don’t do that. One says, gently, the heavens were opened. The other just says a voice appeared. (And, John’s account of the baptism doesn’t align with any of the others). Mark, in my opinion the least dramatic of the Synoptic Gospels, adds quite a bit of drama to this moment. I find this comforting because perhaps God suspected that Jesus too could be distracted from distraction by distraction and needed to get his attention. Hard not to notice when the heavens are torn apart.
I still haven’t figured out a way to describe what it means to be beloved by God, though I like the idea that it means to be boldly loved. But I do know that we are all beloved by God, it is one of my non-negotiable truths of my faith. And I know that at any minute I will be distracted away from claiming that truth upon my life. And I imagine you will likely be too. So, maybe what we can do for one another is to remind each other of this truth. I am beloved by God. You are beloved by God. And nothing can take that away, no matter how pressing the distraction. Probably none of us will experience the heavens torn apart by God to remind us of this truth, though who knows. Until and if that time comes, we can do the job for one another in a more subtle fashion. Not just for each other but for a world that needs now, more than ever, a reminder they are boldly loved. Amen.
Loving God, you have named and claimed each of us as your Beloved. This is something that cannot be changed nor taken away. For this constant love, we give you great thanks and it is in that spirit of gratitude that we come before you now in prayer.
God, there is so much in this world clamoring for our attention. Much of it is vitally important, events that we must give our focus to in order to better understand how to help create your kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. We also acknowledge that a lot of it is simply distraction, meant to keep us from paying attention to what matters. Through it all, be a beacon for us, turning our attention back to you and who and whose we are.
One of the ways we love boldly is by praying for others. Now in these moments of silence, we open our hearts and spirits to you, turning over to you all that we carry…
Good and Great God, you tore the heavens apart to name Jesus as your beloved. As his siblings, we too carry that name and we seek to live into it by following in his example and speak and act as he did. We pray all of this in his name. And now in the way he taught…Our Father…
 I don’t know the original source of this, I learned it here: https://www.ucc.org/daily-devotional/diving-deep-2/?inf_contact_key=1ed2fd0b21c56eb64972a18bda301ef01b0a3f0fd3ee5d9b43fb34c6613498d7