You Are Mine!

How many of us are familiar with the encounter game, Who Are You? The rules are simple, a partner asks you over and over again “who are you?” and you have to come up with a new and different answer every time. Who are you? I am Craig Swan. Who are you? I am a husband and father? Who are you? I am an Episcopal Priest. And so forth and so on until you begin identifying who you are at the very core of your being. Ultimately, the final answer is always the same no matter who we are. Who are you? I am a beloved child a God, created by God in God’s image and intimately known by God even when I was still in my mother’s womb.
This is whom each and every one of us is, a beloved child of God created in the image of God. This is what Isaiah assures the down trodden and dispersed children of Israel in this morning’s Old Testament Reading. “ Thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you: I have called you by name, you are mine.” Do not fear, for I am with you.” 
I can’t think of anything more comforting for a people whose lands have been occupied by a foreign army and whose people now live in exile, dispersed throughout the empire in an effort to eradicate their identity as the children of Yahweh. These words comforted Israel because they assured Israel that God had not forgotten them and that God’s promise to them would one day be fulfilled.
 I can’t think of any gift we can give our children greater than the assurance that they too, no matter what, are always beloved children of God. This is part of the inward grace of Baptism. As a sacrament it is an outward sign of the inward grace of knowing we are God’s and no other’s. A little later this morning we will be baptizing two children. Their parents and Godparents will vow on their behalf their allegiance to God in Christ as they denounce the forces of evil. Then, after I have christened them with water in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, I will mark each of their foreheads with Oil and pronounce them marked as Christ’s own forever.
I have to be honest, up until recently, I had never given much thought as to what it means to be Christ’s own, God’s own, forever. As a cradle Episcopalian and having been raised in a devout household, I have never really struggled with my faith. My relationship with God has always felt second nature. Even though God and I have had our disagreements, I have never experienced a sense of my life of being devoid of God’s presence. 
For this, my life has been truly blessed. But, this is not the experience most people have when it comes to their experience of faith. And it is certainly not the experience Maureen’s and my young friend Joshua has had in his journey with God.
Josh entered our lives just over two years ago. Basically, he and a friend just appeared at St. Luke’s on a warm September Sunday Morning during his first year at the community college a couple of miles up the road from us in Camillus. Needless to say, Josh stuck out at St. Luke’s. Not just because he was new, and not just because he was under twenty, but because he came in carrying a combined Prayerbook and Bible. (a tell tale sign he was a priest in training.) At coffee hour that morning, Josh quickly confirmed my suspicion when he introduced himself to me as, Josh, from the Diocese of Rochester, and yes, he was hoping to become a priest. It was not long before everyone in the parish came to love Josh, it helped that he is extraordinarily outgoing and the fact that he looked more like he should have been entering his freshman year of high school than college, which made him more endearing to every grandmother in the parish. And if this wasn’t enough, he sealed the deal with the congregation that Halloween, after I had invited everyone to come dressed as their favorite saint, Josh came wearing a black cassock with a name tag which read, “Hi, I’m Fr. Craig.”
It wasn’t long after that, that Josh would be at the rectory with the hand full of other college students to watch football with Maureen and join in what we began to refer to as “family dinner” . A joke because the only two people related to each other were Maureen and me.
When Josh returned to campus for his second year, he began sharing with us his excitement over the tattoo he was planning to get. This Maureen and the college kids encouraged him to do while I, like his parents, rolled my eyes and simply shook my head. However, a few week later, despite his parents’ disapproval, Josh arrived at church sporting the Jerusalem cross he had just tattooed on the inside of his lower left forearm. When I asked him what the significance of the tattoo was, without missing a beat he said, “because every time I look at it I am reminded of my Baptism and that I am marked as Christ’s own for ever. “
Being marked as Christ’s own is significant to Josh. Already, at nineteen he knew first hand what it was like to feel totally devoid of God’s love. Some writers would claim he had experienced of the dark night of the soul. My sense is that it was something totally different, what Josh experienced at such a young age was a sense of being totally unworthy of God’s love. 
What I left out of my introduction with Josh, is in addition to telling me he wanted to be a priest, he also quite bluntly told me he was gay. In a homily he wrote for St. Luke’s last year he shared the spiritual turmoil he endured as he came to accept his sexuality.
In this homily he discussed growing up in a small, socially conservative farming town north of Rochester. He shared how after he came out he was literally excommunicated by the parish priest at the Catholic church he grew up in and the bitter arguments he had with his parents as they struggled to accept their son’s sexuality. What he talked about most powerfully was how he came to accept that he was still a beloved child of God despite his sexuality.
With Josh’s permission I am sharing his story this morning and the following excerpt from his homily are the words he used to describe his spiritual struggle when coming to terms with God. 
I am an openly gay man. I grew up in a religious and social atmosphere that was as stuffy and strict as the air lock at Carrier Dome, where being openly gay was not really a social norm. From very young I was taught that being gay was wrong. I was taught that to be gay, was to be somehow intrinsically disordered. Not acceptable. You can imagine that when I came to the realization of my sexuality, I was absolutely terrified.
For two solid years I lived in a place of self-loathing. I believed that If only I could change my sexuality, I would be able to be loved by God again. In the efforts to change myself, I hopped from church to church. At one point, I tried being a Pentecostal, ya know the ones that speak in those mystery languages when they were “slain in the spirit”? I was one of those for a while. I attended that church in the hopes that it could find a way of “curing me”. They obviously did not succeed. There was also a time where I simply did not go to church at all, sick of not finding answers.
I roamed around the spiritual life for quite some time. I was lost in a turbulent ocean of teachings and doctrines that would rock me back and forward until I ended up completely lost within myself and with God.
Every single night, I would pray only one prayer. Only one. I would ask God to take away this fault, deformity, and defect I felt I had. I felt completely isolated and alone. It was like God turned his eyes away from me. When I reflect back on that time in my life, I can only muster up an image of extreme chaos inside. There was no light in my eyes. None to have and none to share.
One night, I changed my prayer. I simply asked God if he loved me at all. In that very moment, something incredible occurred. It was as if God spoke to my heart, and said “I love you just as you are. You are mine. You are my son”. That moment changed my life. I discovered for myself just what God actually thought of me; that he rejoiced in me, exactly as he made me.
John Newton when accepting that God really could love him despite all the wrong he had done, penned he words, “ Amazing Grace how Sweet the sound.” Likewise, Joshua responded to God’s grace, not in words, but in the form of a tattoo that reminds every hour of every day of whose he is and by whom he is loved. For he, like each and every one of us is a child of God, created in God’s image and unconditionally loved by God, Today through the waters of baptism and by oil Ellie and Sienna, two beloved children of God, two children created in God’s image will be marked as Christ’s own forever.
“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you: I have called you by name, you are mine.” Says the Lord


One Comment Add yours

  1. Dorothy Pierce says:

    What a wonderful sermon, Craig!

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