We sometimes think of the life of faith as a journey in which we are searching for God, Allah, the Tao, the Great Creator Spirit, a Higher Power, or simply the meaning of life. The Gospels take a different approach and portray whatever your idea of a Higher Power might be becomes one of us and comes searching for us. It is, says Jesus, like the shepherd searching for the one lost sheep, or the woman searching for the one lost coin. There are other sheep and other coins, just as there are other women and men, but the God Jesus addresses as Abba, Father, is searching far and wide for every one of us.
As difficult as it may be for us to accept this, it is true. The life of faith is realizing this is true. We might say, ‘Why does God, Allah, Abba, search for me?’ One answer can be found on page 298 in the Book of Common Prayer: Holy Baptism is full initiation by water and the Holy Spirit into Christ’s Body….” It occurred to me one day after many baptisms that if that is true, and I believe it is, than when we come through the waters of baptism the voice Jesus heard at his baptism by John says to us, “You are my beloved….I am well pleased with you.” And so I now believe that at every baptism there are seraphim and cherubim flying around one’s head, singing into your ears, “You are God’s Beloved….God is well pleased with you!” This is who we are. To be imago Dei, created in the image of God is to be God’s Beloved. This is precisely why it is God who is forever searching for us. This is precisely why John Newton, a former slave trader who saw the sinfulness of his life and worked to end the slave trade in Great Britain wrote the immortal words, “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound/That saved a wretch like me/I once was lost and now am found/Was blind but now I see!” Somehow aboard a ship with a cargo-hold crowded with human beings created in the image of God, God found John Newton and the world was changed. Newton learned that not only was he God’s Beloved, but that every single person and creature on Earth is God’s Beloved as well.
For me it happened one day at the first baptism I ever officiated. I was the curate at Christ Church, Winnetka, IL. It happened that a four year-old girl named Eleanor was being baptized and her mother Frances was also being baptized. It was one of those moments that just screamed “precious,” but as the day would unfold it became more theologically important because afterwards we were all invited back to Eleanor and Frances’ home for brunch. That’s where God found me – I, just fresh spanking new out of seminary and quite sure I knew everything there was to know about things like baptism and communion. That would change very soon. As I was standing and having a conversation with someone while eating a piece of quiche and enjoying a glass of wine – so very very Episcopalian – I suddenly felt a tug on the back of my pants leg. I turned and there was Eleanor with an excited and eager expression on her face as she asked, “Can you still see the cross on my forehead?”
She meant, of course, the cross traced with oil blessed by our bishop, The Right Reverend James Winchester Montgomery, marking her and sealing her as Christ’s own forever – fully incorporating her into the Body of Christ and into God’s Beloved community. The cross that also was a sign of her answer to five very basic questions: Will you continue in the apostle’s teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers? To which Eleanor had replied with the rest of the congregation, “I will with God’s help.” Will you persevere in resisting evil, and whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord? Will everything you say and do proclaim the Good News of God in Christ? Will you seek and serve Christ in all people – not some people, not a lot or most people, but all people – loving your neighbor as yourself? And perhaps most demanding of all, “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people – not some people, not most people, but all people – and respect the dignity of every human being? To all of which she had replied, “I will with God’s help.”
All this flashed through my mind as Eleanor waited eagerly for an answer to her question. “Yes,” I said, “We can still see the cross on your forehead!” And we could as off she skipped with a big smile on her excited four -year-old face! And I thought to myself, what a great question for all of us. Can others see the cross on my forehead? But then I went back to eating quiche, drinking wine and talking with others. By the next day I had forgotten what was perhaps God’s most important question for me. Fortunately, like the shepherd and the woman in the stories about the lost sheep and lost coin, God was not through with me yet. Enter the proverbial 2x4!
The next Sunday, a week later, there was a tug on my alb as I was vesting for church. It was Eleanor again, asking, a week later, if we could still see the cross on her forehead! That’s when I got it. The gospel that day was the one that says that anyone who wishes to be a disciple of mine must pick up their cross and follow me. After 12 years of Sunday School, four years undergraduate studies in Religion, three years of Seminary, nine canonical exams in the Diocese of Rhode Island, vocational testing, and a week of General Ordination Exams I had labored under the misconception that Jesus was talking about all the difficult, lonely and disappointing things that happen to us in this life. We say, “She has had this cross to bear for so long.” Or, “He has had so many crosses to bear!” And I labored under the accompanying misconception that at the end of a life carrying all these crosses of mine and trying to keep up with Jesus who is always moving forward at a rapid clip to reach out to those in deepest need, I would lay down all my crosses and say, “Here they are, Jesus. I have carried them the whole way and am exhausted and cannot go on.”
It took a four year-old girl named Eleanor to help me to see that at best Jesus would laugh and say, “Kirk, I have carried all those for you since the moment you were incorporated into my Body! This cross on your forehead, the one that goes before you wherever you go, is the one I want you to carry. It says you are mine and I am yours. It says that we can join with Miriam and the sisters who danced and sang their way out of bondage in Egypt into the freedom of a new land. It says nothing can separate you from my Love. It says you are my Beloved and I am well pleased with you. It says you will join with me in striving for justice and peace for all people and respect the dignity of every human being. Everything you say and everything you do will proclaim my Good News for all people that they too are my Beloved and that I am well pleased with them, and people will see the cross on your forehead.”
I tell this story wherever I go. Because it is the story God searched me out and gave me to tell. Sure, he had to hit me over the head with the proverbial 2x4, but after all our God is a God of second chances. Telling this always reminds me of just who I am and whose I am. And reminds me that to follow in the Way of Jesus is a journey that never ends as we strive for Justice and Peace for all people – not some people, not most people, but all people. And so I can let Eleanor know that there is a whole new part of Christ’s Body, the Church, that has heard her story and are now asking themselves and others, “Can you see the cross on my forehead?” Amen.