A sermon by The Most Revd Katharine Jefferts Schori, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church of the United States
Isaiah 42:1-9; John 12:1-11
When was the last time someone called you “beloved”? Can you remember having sweet nothings whispered in your ear – ‘my beloved’?
Jesus is called that at his baptism – “you are my beloved, I am well pleased with you” – and again on the Mount of Transfiguration, when it’s followed by a direction to the bystanders, “listen to him.” Jesus’ reconciling work brings us all into the same relationship of beloved sons and daughters, sisters and brothers who can now call one another friends. When we were baptized, the same thing was whispered in our ears – ‘you are my beloved, in you I am well pleased.’ That sense of being treasured, and of knowing it in the depths of our being, is the starting point for loving God with all we are and loving our neighbors in the same way. We really cannot be reconciled with God or others until we begin to know what it is to be loved in mind and body, soul and spirit, simply because we ARE.
That is what the first creation story in Genesis proclaims. Each day, God creates and pronounces it good. At the end of the week, before the day of rest, God surveys all creation and pronounces it very good, blessed, beloved. The second creation story, about Adam and Eve, tells about how relationships get broken – when we forget that we were created good, blessed, and beloved, and that everyone else is as well. Both stories are profoundly true. We are beloved of God, and in spite of the fear, evil, and violence of this world, God continues to love us beyond imagining.
That belovedness is what Holy Week is all about. We are so treasured that the One who loves us so deeply is willing to offer all on our behalf: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” God enters into creation in human flesh, offering incarnate evidence of the depth of that love. As Jesus beloves and befriends us, we’re reminded and commanded to do the same for our neighbors – and the whole world is populated with our neighbors.
Isaiah points to the chosen, beloved servant as one who brings justice and right relationship to the world. This minister of reconciliation is so gentle that a guttering candle won’t be extinguished by his breath, a weak and wasted stalk won’t be knocked down as he passes, and the world will never hear a war cry from his throat. After hearing himself called beloved at his baptism, Jesus goes home to Nazareth and reads this passage from Isaiah in his hometown synagogue – ‘I’ve been anointed to bring good news to the poor, liberty to the captives, sight to the blind, freedom to the oppressed, and the time of God’s favor,’ and “today this is being fulfilled in your hearing.” Jesus claims this work for himself and announces the present year of God’s favor. For God calls all the world beloved and when the world lives in beloved awareness, reconciled in right relationship to God and neighbor, then truly heaven comes on earth.
Jesus’ visit to Bethany is an image of that sort of beloved community. The very name, Bethany, means “house of the poor.” Jesus has friends in that poorhouse – Lazarus, Martha, and Mary. God is friend to the poor, and these three welcome their friend with a love feast, serving a meal and washing his feet. We don’t know what’s on the menu, but when Mary starts to wash the feet of their guest it takes on the character of Babette’s Feast – full measure, pressed down, and overflowing. Her footwashing is over the top – a pound of precious nard, tears and hair to care for beloved Jesus’ feet. Some say that sacraments are supposed to be so abundant they’re almost vulgar – at least so abundant and over the top that you can’t miss the message.
But the stingy world complains. Judas whines about excess and waste: “Why don’t you spend it on the poor?” The scandal of beloved service gets pushback from those who are uncomfortable with radical generosity. We’ve all heard it – in critique of the ‘welfare state’ and social safety nets. The world wants the poor to pay for what they get. We live with messages about distinguishing the deserving from the undeserving. Yet God sees every single one as beloved, even when we cannot. Jesus notes that the poor are always here, and that welcoming the beloved will be needed forever – or at least until we all live into that year of the Lord’s favor. For we are all poor when we know our need of that kind of love.
Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of heaven. When we know our need of God, and God’s radically full and encompassing love, we have found the reality of the Lord’s favor. Yet most of us can’t manage to stay there, to remain confident and certain that we are truly beloved. The people around us who don’t know how they’re going to feed their children or keep a roof over their heads are already ahead of most of us in poverty – and like Mary, they are often profligate in their expressions of love. It is not a waste to give away yourself and your substance. It is the only way to abundant life. Jesus keeps showing us the way.
Where have you found the poor house? Where is your Bethany household of abundant welcome and hospitality?
I met a fellow once in a nursing home, whose sweatshirt said, “Jesus loves you.” On the back it said, “but I’m his favorite.” Yes! We are all his “favored ones,” we are all named ‘beloved.’
Beloved – my penny-pinching cousin? Yes. Your grumpy co-worker? Yes. The ungrateful soul next door or inside our own homes? Yes, beloved.
Beloved – the copilot who brought down the Germanwings plane? Andreas Lubitz seems to have been imprisoned within his own hopelessness. How many others believe themselves unworthy of life and love? Deliver him, O Lord, and rest eternal grant to all who died on that mountainside. Make us servants of the beloved, wherever we go, to all we meet – and particularly to those the world rejects. Help us enter and share that poverty – and the radically abundant love we know in Jesus.
The reconciliation Jesus wrought is open to all. The only response necessary is openness, vulnerability, a yearning to know ourselves beloved. When we’ve tasted it, showering others with that abundance comes as easily as Mary’s poorhouse massage, and nard becomes as easy to spend as breath.
Walk this way, beloved. Walk this Holy Week road with the one who offers love in the face of the world’s fear and rejection. Come beloved, come and follow.
 Mark 1:11; Matthew 3:17; Luke 3:22
 Mark 9:7; Matthew 17:5. In Luke 9:35 he is called “chosen”
 John 15:13
 Luke 4:17-21
 A 1987 Danish film, based on a story by Isak Dinesen.
 Luke 6:20