In his sermon entitled “Being the Beloved,” Henri Nouwen begins by saying, “It is an honor to be here this morning to share my faith with you, and at the core of my faith is the conviction that you and I and we are the beloved sisters and brothers of God. We are the beloved children of God. And one of the enormous spiritual tasks we have…is to claim that, and to live a life based on that knowledge.”
Nouwen was a great theologian, an author of more than three dozen books, and advocate for human rights; his 40-year ministry truly embraced what it means to be a beloved child of God. In his famous sermon, he bravely asks his audience if they have fail to live up to God’s expectation? And so I bravely ask you the same. How many of us fear we have enough stress on our plate that by adding the responsibility of living as God has called us to live could do more damage than good? How many of us manage to get by hiding inside the status quo? But we are not ordinary. We are God’s beloved children. As part of God’s beloved family, we are called to make a daily commitment to our Lord. It is a job, above all other jobs that we have piled up on our plate.
About three and half years ago, while I was still barely holding together my stressful life in advertising, Kathleen and the girls went away for a sleepover, leaving me in charge of “watching” my son. I say, “watching my son,” because I have now learned that as a parent I am not allowed to say “baby-sitting” when I am watching over one of my own. As my wife pointed out I am the parent, not a babysitter. And as the parent, it is my job to watch over my children.
As many of you can attest, entertaining a super-powered 2 year-old boy for an entire day can be exhausting. While I was not a rookie at this job, on that particular day I was ready to throw in the towel. To call it quits. I was tired and defeated, and needed a hot shower and a wee dram of single malt scotch. Since Sean needed a good scrubbing too, into the shower we went. In case you were wondering, he did not get a scotch.
As the heat of the water began to erase the tension I was feeling, I watched Sean entertain himself by using the squeegee to wipe off the steam building up on the glass walls and door. He would start at one end and move to the other end. But as you can imagine, the steam was relentless. No matter how diligent Sean was at moving that squeegee, the hot water continued to fog up the glass. Nonetheless, my son embraced this never-ending task with great joy and enthusiasm. As the beloved children of God, we too are called to embrace God’s never-ending love with the same kind of childlike excitement, even when it feels like we can’t go on.
To be a part of God’s family, to enjoy the perks that come with it, requires work. The day we accepted Jesus as our Lord Christ, we became the Beloved employees at God, Incorporated. Each one of us assigned a certain task, tailored to fit our strengths to ensure nothing less than success. You might be glad to know the coffee at God, Incorporated is spiked with God’s never-ending love that keeps us refreshed and alert around the clock. It is a special kind of love that Peter described in today’s reading as being destined before the foundations of the world and was made manifest in Jesus Christ, for our sake. This has been God’s plan for us since the beginning. And so we look towards Christ to see what is required of us to get the job done.
Peter, as we know, was one of the Apostles. He had both the privilege and the pressure of serving side-by-side with Jesus. It might not be fair to compare us with him, since Peter had received personal training on discipleship. But if you recall, he too struggled as we so often do. Working for God is not easy. But with Jesus as our mentor, our spiritual guide and our personal trainer, we can achieve our calling. And so it is towards Jesus we direct our hope.
Peter advises, “gird up your minds, be sober, set your hope fully upon the grace that is coming to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” While we are to be alert, ready, and active, our real job is to set our hope on Christ. This hope is a great instrument of moral and spiritual discipline. Like a body builder, we must actively train if we are to strengthen our spiritual core. In Romans 15, Paul said, “The further you advance in the spiritual life, the more will you need strength to resist temptation or to bear outward trials bravely, brightly and patiently; and the more you can do this, the more true hope you will acquire.”
As God’s beloved employees we are called to actively participate in God’s Kingdom. And so we must work out our hope every day. No matter how much we desire to throw in the towel, we must resist such a temptation. We must have our minds ready and our hopes set on the coming of Christ. But as you might have guessed, it takes work to make our hope perfect.
But how do we prepare our minds for such action and hope when there is so much out there vying for our attention? Peter simply says to “be obedient children, not to be conformed to the passions and desires of our daily lives, but to be holy in all that we do.” This is not a particular where, when, or to whom kind of list Peter has assembled; it is as Jesus taught, we are called to be holy all the time, in all places, towards all perople, and in all things, because God is holy in all ways and all works. Both inside and outside the church, in all manor of conversation, we are called to be holy simply because God is Holy.
Now because of this blinding light over here I can’t see very well, but how many of you just rolled you eyes? How many of you are thinking it would be easier to remove stem from glass while the shower continues to emit hot water than it would be to live a holy life? Raise your hand if you are afraid to take up the challenge to pursue such an endeavor, fearing you might fail or what others will say about you? What is the point in putting in the work day after day after day?
But what if, like my son, we embraced our calling with great joy instead of with reluctance? What if we took up the challenge, not by resisting or fearing but by celebrating and rejoicing? The English mystic, Julian of Norwich wrote, “The greatest honor we can give Almighty God is to live gladly because of the knowledge of his love.” We are empowered by the Holy Spirit of God’s love, we have Jesus Christ as our mentor and guide, we have the living Word of God at our disposal, so is it really impossible to live a holy life? Or have we just lowered our standards so far that trying to live in such a way isn’t even worth entertaining anymore?
While I was watching my son work so diligently in the shower, I thought about the repetition one must endure to paint the Golden Gate Bridge. Dangling hundreds of feet above the icy cold San Francisco Bay, competing with the harsh conditions that blow in from the Pacific, these brave souls walk the beams and wires, looking for the littlest rust spots to repair.
Starting at one end, they work their way, one mile, to the other end. Find a rust spot, dab some paint. Find another rust spot, dab some more paint. Over and over they repeat this mundane task. By the time they are finished, it is time to turn around and start all over again. What is their reward for performing such dangerous and repetitive work? Job security, I guess? As long as there is rust to be had there is a job to be done, right?
But what if we lowered bar on their job requirements? Logic tells us that if they didn’t get out their paint brushes and climb the beams and get to work, then the salt air would gnaw away at the steel; weakening the bridge’s strength. If they did not do their job, as repetitive or as dangerous as it is, then that big, beautiful structure would eventually corrode and crumble into the sea.
We too require daily maintenance to stay on track. We take vitamins, we exercise, and we try to maintain a healthy lifestyle. But what about a daily routine to ensure a holy and hopeful spiritual life? Are we practicing prayer and mediation? Do we get up every morning and praise God for the life we have been given freely or are we complaining about the life we have created for ourselves? Are we feasting on the Living Word of God or choking on the rumors passed down by friends? When we do not remain active in God’s love, rejecting what is asked of us because we fear we cannot handle anymore on our plate, we too expose ourselves to the corrosive elements that destroy our spiritual, and eventually our physical body.
We are made justified by the grace of God for our faith, but our work doesn’t stop there. As God’s beloved children, we are to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, and might. We are to teach this to our children, write it on our gates and doorpost, and remember it when we lie down at night and when we wake to greet the morning. When we shower and when we paint, when we worship or when we are upset that things aren’t going our way, the first thing we are called to do is to love the Lord our God. God is our boss, and God will judge when our job is complete. And as far as I am concerned, that is one retirement party I am willing wait a long, long time to enjoy.
Peter says “If we invoke as Father, the one who judges all people impartially according to their deeds,” then we must pick our paintbrushes and squeegees, and get to work. Our paycheck has already been issued in the gracious sacrifice of Jesus; this spotless lamb has paid the ultimate price to set us free. Through Christ we come to trust our boss, and so we must work diligently to ensure rust does not set in.
We do that by living a life focused solely on God. It is in this action that the infinite depths of God’s never-ending love are revealed to us. It is here we learn what it means to love one another with a sincere heart. When we can trust God to be our boss, accepting our beloved status, we are able to fearlessly climb the beams and fix the corroding relationships with our fellow sister and brothers.
Christ commanded us to love God first and foremost. Only then we will be able to truly love our neighbors and our enemies. When we love, as God has called us to love, we have no reason to wage war against one another, to hoard material goods and blessings from those in need, or slander someone’s good name behind their back. Instead, we honor one another, we share as equals, and we live life abundantly. You do not have to roll your eyes. These are not impossible ideals. These are simply the wishes of our Lord Creator, who in the Penthouse office, is watching over us.
We are not expected to be perfect, nor are we to do this job alone. No matter how badly we screw up, this boss of ours does not fire us. Instead, God uses each failure as a lesson to help us get better at what we are called to do. And when the job gets too hard, Jesus has promised to take our yoke, to bear our burden, and to carry our cross. God’s love is so great that God was willing to be humbled into human flesh to live and to work and to die for us, so that we can be eternally free from the pain and suffering of sin. In return, we are called to live a life that glorifies this sacrifice.
Yes, this is a full-time, 24 hour, 365 day a year job. And yes, it is for life. When we are happy, sad, sick, tired, rich, poor, exhausted, lonely, filled, emptied, painting, scrubbing, healing, crying, laughing, eating, starving, begging or giving, we are always on call. And even though we can’t get fired, we still have to show up for work; if only to perform the mundane routine of daily maintenance.
My wife reminded me, that as a parent I am never off the clock. As her partner, we have to make sure our kids are healthy and happy, both physically and spiritually. Besides the basic necessities of food, love and shelter, we constantly have to be good examples because their little eyes are watching us as much as ours are watching them.
As God can attest, a parent’s job is never finished. And neither is ours. But we never ask God why do you work so hard or why you put in the time repeating the same thing over and over and over again to us. We know why. As our holy parent, God is our example and God does not quit. As beloved children of God, we look to our heavenly parent for strength, guidance, and support; especially when all we want to do is lock ourselves away in a hot shower.
In the closing of today’s reading, St. Peter offers these encouraging words, “All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of the grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord abides for ever. And this is the Good News that was preached to you.” The word of the Lord is love. Love for you, me, and we. God’s love is never-ending, it never throws in the towel. To me, that is good news.
As you leave here today, leave with God’s love pounding in your heart. Embrace your Christian vocation with the joy of a child playing in the water. Take the steps, walk the beams and wires to repair the rust spots that pop up in your life. The daily maintenance you do will keep your faith strong and your hope focused, in spite of the elements that try to corrode you. Let us pray:
Glorious Father, you have employed upon us a great, yet wonderful task. You have encouraged us and strengthened us to use our God given talent for your glory. You have not laughed at our failures, but stood by us even in our worst moments. Your grace and mercy endure forever, for that we are eternally grateful. Send us out into the world, to glorify you name in all that we do, and continue to empower us with your Holy Spirit so that we can do the work that your Son, Jesus Christ has taught to do. It is in his name we lift up this prayer. Amen.