Sermon, January 10, 2016

You Are Mine…I Will Be With You…I Love You
Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder
The Congregational Church of the United Church of Christ,
Bradford, Vermont
January 10, 2016   First Sunday after Epiphany, Baptism of Christ,
Dedication of the Pastoral Search Committee
Isaiah 43:1-7; Luke 3:15-16, 21-22

This congregation’s Identity and Aspiration Statement
describes very specifically what we feel
God is calling us to be and do.
Today’s passage in Isaiah is also an Identity Statement,
a more general one that applies to all God’s creation.
It includes us. It includes you.
Listen to what God is saying to you:
“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you!”
That means you have nothing to be afraid of,
nothing to worry about, you do not have to carry
the burden of past faults and flaws,
you can let go of concerns about your future,
because God redeems you, God returns you
to mercy and grace each time you stray.
“I have called you by name,” God says.
“You are mine.” That is your identity.

The voice of God thundered over the River Jordan
saying, “You are my child, the Beloved;
with you I am well pleased.” Isaiah allows us
to hear God saying that to each one of us.
God says, “You—you!—are my beloved child;
with you I am well pleased.” Can you rest into that love?

We tend to think, God can’t mean me, I’m not worthy,
but this is not about who we are, it is about who God is.
God is the Spirit of love that created us.
Love is just what God is and does.
Isaiah helps us take in the enormity of what it means:
“When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.”
Think about what waters you are passing through
or what fire threatens to burn you—
the waters of your own faults or flaws,
or fire inflicted on you by others’ faults or flaws,
the dark waters of anxiety or depression
or fire of anger or resentment,
the waters of unwelcome changes or losses you grieve,
or fire of temptation or addiction, obsession or compulsion.

God knows what you suffer,
what your struggles are, what wilderness
you are wandering in lost and alone,
and God speaks to you just as you are,
saying, “I am with you.
You are precious in my sight, and honored, and
I love you.”

Listen to what God is saying
to you—you!—right now: “I love you.”
God is not saying I will love you
but only when you are perfect.
God is not saying I will love you
but only when you are just a little bit better.
God is not saying I will love you
but only when you have suffered in hell
for all eternity for your faults and your flaws,
or when you have walked around feeling guilty
and beating up on yourself for a few years.
I love you, God says. I love you! As you are.

Do you understand? You are home, you are safe,
this is your identity. This is who you are,
God’s beloved child. If we can accept this
and live as if it is true, it will change everything
in both our inner and outer lives.
God says, “I will bring your offspring from the east
and from the west I will gather you.”

This part of Isaiah was written after the community
had fallen apart, the people had lost their way,
they had acted badly toward one another,
they had forgotten the God of love and mercy,
and then war had come, and exile,
and the people were divided from their home, and
from each other and from their true selves in God.

So what does God do in response to them
when they have gone so wrong?
God tells them not to fear, for I am with you.
God promises to gather them back together again.
This is what God’s love does.
It gives us the Holy Spirit that is always working
to hold things together or bring them together
in a world where people stray and things fall apart.

God loved Jesus and gave him the gift of the Holy Spirit,
and it drove him into the wilderness
where he learned through his struggles to depend entirely
on God’s limitless, steadfast love.
Jesus came out of the wilderness
full of God’s love flowing through him
as purely as the world had ever seen.
Jesus came out teaching that love is everything,
that loving God and loving our neighbor as ourselves
is the whole meaning of all the law and the prophets.

Love is the force that holds the universe together.
Things fall apart, elements scatter,
and love recombines them into something new.
My mother was a great one for adages.
One of her favorites was,
“You can catch more flies with honey
than with vinegar.” Love is the honey
that God uses to catch us and gather us back.

Jesus taught us to love even our enemies,
and thank God he did,
because how else could we love ourselves?
We are our own worst enemies.
The Apostle Paul said, “I do not do the good I want,
but the evil I do not want is what I do.” (Romans 7:19)
Evil is God’s enemy, and yet God says even then,
to us as much as to Paul,
“You are mine…. I am with you…. I love you.”
“You are my beloved child; with you I am well pleased.”
God loves us in our imperfections and even in the evil we do,
and if God can love us that way, then we can love ourselves,
and love our neighbors and enemies as ourselves.

Today the search for this congregation’s next settled pastor begins,
and yet some of us are still feeling the pain
of losing past settled pastors,
and it pulls our hearts in two directions,
because our love wants to hope and believe
and celebrate this new beginning
yet at the same time our grief or anger
or guilt or shame or blame is holding onto the past.

Part of the answer to those mixed feelings
is to continue deepening the work we have begun
to find forgiveness and to establish new habits
of healthy communication and loving community.

Even more important, though,
we need to hear the strong, loud and clear voice
of God speaking through Isaiah, saying,
“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you….
You are mine… I will be with you… I love you.”
God is saying to us today,
“This is my church, my Beloved
body of Christ; with you I am well pleased.”

We stand on the banks of the River Jordan redeemed.
Here is the Holy Spirit coming down like a dove.
Look at that stained glass window
of the white dove coming down on the baptismal font.
The Spirit is in this building, and in our baptism,
and within each one of us right now.
Before us lies the path through the wilderness,
and here are our tasks:

to fulfill our Identity and Aspiration Statement, to “make this
an increasingly welcoming, loving, helpful congregation
where we take the love we find here
out into the world around us;”

and to find a pastor to walk with this congregation
on the next stage of the journey.

Love will gather people to these pews
and love will keep them here.
Love will attract just the right pastor
and love will make the next era flourish.
All God asks is that we accept God’s love
and the gift of the Holy Spirit
guiding and empowering us
to walk in the ways of love,
and that we allow God to gather us
and hold us together as one
wherever our paths may lead.
So let us pray in silence, not with words,
but letting every breath say yes to the Spirit
and every heartbeat say yes to God’s love…