Text: Isaiah 43:1-7
I first met Ms. Lily Rose DeVee over 20 years ago when I came to Raleigh to join the staff of this church. For a number of years she was, to me, the mysterious lady who would arrive fashionably late to worship wearing her big, beautiful hats, gorgeous dresses and fancy jewelry. I remember the first time she spoke to me after a worship service standing at the back door. I felt a bit like I was in the presence of both royalty and a soul sister. Over the years from time to time, we would speak to one another, exchange pleasantries like “How are you doing?” but we never really did sit down for a long “get to know you” conversation until several weeks ago. For most of the last 20 years, I simply admired Ms. Lily from a distance. She never knew it, because I never told her, but from watching her these past 20 years, I gained tremendous courage and strength to fully be the person God created me to be. Ms. Lily had an undeniable presence – a presence that emanated something holy and divine, a presence that emanated courage and strength, a presence that emanated honest struggle paired with authentic living. One could say that, for years, I was a secret admirer of Ms. Lily.
Several weeks ago when I did sit by her bedside as she was dying she shared with me a bit of her story, including her transition from John to Lily Rose DeVee. Her story – like yours and mine – is laced with pain and passion, failure and success, disappointment and great joy. I learned about her childhood days growing up on a farm in rural North Carolina with her Papa and Mama and of her childhood summers visiting family in New York City. I listened as she described her journey from being John to becoming Ms. Lily. And what struck me as I listened to her talk about her life was just how comfortable and at home she was inside herself as Ms. Lily. From an early age, she knew who she was. She knew that although her body didn’t match her gender identity, she was God’s beloved child. It was never a question for her. And more than most, she knew the pain and struggle that it takes to fully live as God had created her. The other thing that struck me that day was that I was right about my first impression of her – she was both royalty and a soul sister. She was royalty because she understood herself as God’s beloved child, warts and all; and she was a soul sister – someone who dared to walk the path of living a life of faith authentically.
For certain, Ms Lily loved and was at home with the finer and more refined things life can offer – precious antiques, beautiful jewelry, fancy clothes, fine dining and the frills and thrills of big city living. She loved all of that. AND, she loved nothing more than getting red clay dirt on her pristine white sneakers from her family’s farm in Statesville, the work of tending a garden followed by hot summers of canning vegetables, the simple childhood days of running in the wide-open fields, playing with bugs and sitting quietly in the backyard awed by the stars that lit the night sky of country living. Ms. Lily Rose DeVee was at home wherever she was because she was at home within herself, and she knew that beyond all her struggles God had called her by name, had redeemed her and that she was, indeed, from John to Ms. Lily, God’s beloved.
Yesterday, here in this sanctuary, family and friends gathered to bid their final farewell to Ms. Lily, and once again I was reminded of how much she taught me, from a distance, about being God’s beloved – created, formed, redeemed, called by name, precious and loved.
Our text this morning is about living life as God’s beloved. It is about seeing ourselves as God sees us: each uniquely created and formed. It is about how we live and act when we are able to see ourselves and others as being the beloved – called by name and redeemed. And it challenges us to hear this word both as individuals and as one human family. In our text, the prophet Isaiah was speaking to the people of Israel – a people who had been exiled, broken and beaten down. They had waded through the deep waters of dislocation and isolation. They had crossed the rivers of hunger and homelessness that threatened to overwhelm them. They had walked through the fire, living in despair with no hope of life getting better. But as they came out of that place of exile, Isaiah was there, as God’s prophet, speaking on behalf of God these words of comfort and hope.
“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you. I gave up everything for you because you are precious to me. Do not fear, for I am with you…you are my beloved.”
Spoken first to the Israelites, these words are not just for the chosen people of ancient Israel, they never really were – they are for you and me and every single human life – for we are all God’s chosen people. Dark skinned, light skinned; same-gender loving, different-gender loving; rich, poor; Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, Jewish, atheist – it doesn’t matter. We are all God’s beloved.
Some years ago, Henri Nouwen, wrote a book entitled, Life of the Beloved – Spiritual Living in a Secular World. In it he describes what it means to live life as God’s beloved. Writing to his friend Fred, Nouwen begins:
“…I have been wondering if there might be one word I would most want you to remember when you finished reading all I wish to say. Over the past year, that special word has gradually emerged from the depths of my own heart. It is the word “Beloved,”…Fred, all I want to say to you is “You are the Beloved,” and all I hope is that you can hear these words spoken to you with all the tenderness and force that love can hold…The greatest gift my friendship can give to you is the gift of your Belovedness. I can give that gift only insofar as I have claimed it for myself. Isn’t that what friendship is all about: giving to each other the gift of our Belovedness?
…It certainly is not easy to hear that voice in a world filled with voices that shout: ‘You are no good, you are ugly; you are worthless; you are despicable, you are nobody – unless you can demonstrate the opposite.’ … [But] every time you listen with great attentiveness to the voice that calls you the Beloved, you will discover within yourself a desire to hear that voice longer and more deeply. It is like discovering a well in the desert. Once you have touched wet ground, you want to dig deeper.”
Nouwen goes on to say, though, that we can really only hear that we are Beloved when we are able to claim our brokenness. He makes the point that our brokenness is as unique as our chosenness and our blessedness. The way we are broken is as much an expression of our individuality as the way we are blessed. As fearsome as it may sound, as the Beloved ones, we are called to claim our unique brokenness. Nouwen writes, “The great spiritual call of the Beloved Children of God is to pull their brokenness away from the shadow of the curse and put it under the light of the blessing.”
Yesterday, as I was greeting people leaving Ms. Lily’s funeral, a lady walked up to me to thank me for the service. She said, “I am 75 years old and for most of my life I have lived with the burden of being born a man but being my most authentic self when dressed as a woman. It hasn’t been until recently that I decided that who I am is not a burden but a gift. So here I am today, dressed as my most authentic self and it is truly a gift, not a burden.” …from the shadow of curse to the light of blessing.
“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you, I have called you by name, you are mine.”
Living life as the beloved is walking the path that calls us to consider transforming our burdens into gifts. Often when we hear that we are God’s beloved, we shrug it off, we dismiss it, we think to ourselves, “I don’t feel very beloved.” Instead, we know what it is like to feel small, to feel wrong, to feel alone, to feel unloved and unlovable. And if we haven’t been able or willing to, as Nouwen says, “pull our brokenness away from the shadow of curse,” we are, in some ways, separated from that promise of love and belovedness that Isaiah spoke of. I have wondered this week what it would mean to put our shadows and our burdens under the light of the blessing of God’s love. Can you imagine laying down the weight of your judgments and your criticisms? Can you imagine admitting the broken places and allowing them to be part of you, but not all of you? Can you entertain the notion that you can be called from the very place in which you sit, to be beloved?
Twenty-five years ago when Ms. Lily began cross-dressing, it must have felt like such a burden. Surely she had to compromise, to wedge herself into slivers of authenticity while battling the world that did not understand; the world that often rejects us and despises us when we live as God’s beloved. But as I listened to people talk at Ms. Lily’s funeral yesterday, there was no denying the gift she gave others by being her truest, most beloved self. She blessed her burden and lived into herself; in so doing, she blessed those around her, and gave them the gift of hope of being God’s beloved along with her. Our burden may not be so dramatic as living in this world as a cross-dresser, but we each carry a burden. And I have been wondering how it might change us if we were willing to pull our brokenness away from the shadow of the curse and put it under the light of the blessing. Today, Isaiah challenges and invites us to think about what our lives might be like if we transformed our burdens into gifts and truly lived as God’s beloved. All I really want to say to you this morning is: You are God’s Beloved. We are God’s Beloved.