"Beautiful to behold"
By Sharon Dunne Gillies
“I’ve been praying you here,” Jan Richardson said, beginning her sermon during the opening plenary on the evening of Wednesday, July 18. “I’ve been praying you here as the months, weeks, days and finally hours counted down. Thank you for coming.”
She then invited Gathering participants to reflect on another warm blessing and greeting between women: the one between Elizabeth and Mary in Luke 1:39–45. Jan reflected on what this exchange meant to Mary—“young Mary, pregnant Mary, unmarried Mary”—who had just offered her “audacious yes” to becoming the mother of the Messiah. Jan held her hands out in front of her, reenacting the way Elizabeth blessed Mary.
Jan suggested that Mary lets her loving cousin’s blessing wash over her, seeping into her. Faith and courage restored, Mary responds with the Magnificat, “singing of a God who has blessed the entire world, of a God who has transformed and healed the world.” Jan stressed that Mary talked about God already having restored the world—a completed action—even though Mary’s world wasn’t perfect. And the “fancy theological term” for that?
Just as Mary stepped into the river of hope that Hannah did, we are finding ways to step into the River of Hope. “Hope asks us to look the world full in the face, and see the brokenness and the beauty,” Jan suggested.
The Gathering, with opportunities for celebration and for awareness building on justice issues, will invite participants into this duality. But Jan offered another illustration of the way hope and faith can help us look at difficult situations and move forward. She related a story first told by Janet Wolf in The Upper Room Disciplines 1999 (Nashville: The Upper Room). A woman named Fayette, who lived with serious illnesses and housing instability, came to join a diverse community, which Janet served as pastor. Fayette became enthralled with what she heard about baptism.
Jan retold, “During the class, Fayette would ask again and again, ‘And when I’m baptized, I am . . . ?’ And the class would respond, ‘Beloved, precious child of God, and beautiful to behold.’ Fayette would say, ‘Oh, yes!’ and the class could return to its discussion.”
Fayette suffered a brutal attack, and Janet went to the hospital to support Fayette. Bloodied and dirty, Fayette was pacing the room, saying “Beloved, precious child of God . . .” and struggling to complete the phrase. Finally she said, “I am beloved, precious child of God, and . . . and God is still working on me. If you come back tomorrow, I’ll be so beautiful I’ll take your breath away!”
Jan closed her sermon saying (and simultaneously signing), “So, my beloved sisters who stand in the lineage of Mary and Elizabeth and Hannah and Fayette and all the generations who have stepped into the river of God, I invite you to receive this blessing,
“O my sisters, you who see the world that both dazzles us and causes us to despair, . . . May you be, like Elizabeth, a bearer of blessing and a space of sanctuary. May you sing, like Mary, with a hope that sees a world already made new. . . . May you step into the river of God that knows the way that it is going, that bears you along when you grow weary, that echoes with the voices of those who sing with you and who name you: beloved, precious child of God, and beautiful to behold.”