On Being Grounded and Getting Oriented

Zephaniah 3:14-20 | Canticle 9 | Philippians 4:4-7 | Luke 3:7-18

If you think on it a moment, I bet you can think of people who seem as flighty as a helium balloon–not just free spirits who at least have some sense of who they are but people who truly seem to have not even one foot planted in reality. That’s no one here, of course.

On the contrary, we also know people–some people we probably hold quite dear, who are grounded and sure-footed in this world. These people tend to know who they are, where they come from, what they stand for, and often they have a pretty clear sense of what their purpose in life is. If we’re not one of these people ourselves, we may be working to get there. It’s not bad work.

Whether or not we have a firm foundation, when we approach someone or something, we come as who we are, even if we are sometimes the flighty one. Who we are is a mixture of all that our lives have taught us and the circumstances we’ve been born into. Who we are is precious and unique; individually, our worldview, our perspective, is shaped by what we know. In our tradition we say that Scripture, tradition, and reason shape our theology, how we understand God. Similarly, several factors come into play to create the context for our worldview, how we understand and relate to the world around us.

In this crowd here today, we’d be hard-pressed to find people who have exactly the same perspectives. We’d come close, but there would be nuances. We’d be more likely to find others with completely different viewpoints but who are no less firmly grounded in their sense of being, especially in their love of Christ. That’s one of the beauties of our common worship.

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Just because we’re grounded, even in our love for God and God’s love for us, it doesn’t mean we’re perfect.

“You brood of vipers!” John calls his gathered crowd.

I’m sure it sounded harsh to them, too. John the Baptist had a crowd who assembled to be baptized. They heeded his call to a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. These are presumably good people, people who have heard something in John’s message that led them to this moment. Did they really deserve to be berated?

Not necessarily, but John warrants no apology. The Baptist’s admonition is a verbal slap in the face to WAKE UP! There’s urgency and necessity. A matter of life and death.

He calls out to the brood to jar them, to awaken the one lost in the clouds, carried away on every whim; the one so grounded and steeped in tradition that the footing has become shackled and immobile; the one planted in infertile soil, kept alive by synthetic fertilizers of the latest fad, the quickest fix, and empty promises; and the one buried into the ground by shame, guilt, and fear. And there are others still.

Surely it’s by the grace of God that they came to John at all, and he has to keep their attention, catch them while there’s a chance of waking them up. For asleep most of us are no better than vipers, bound to the ground with no footing, venomous, ready to strike, and a threat to those around us. The poison is within a viper. The potential is there in them as it is in us to do great harm. Provoked or afraid, a viper–humans, too–can deal a dangerous, painful, if not fatal, strike.

Even if we think we know who we are, John demands attention. John, the last prophet of the old way and the first martyr of the new, catches us and turns our attention toward God in a way that even he may not have fully understood but that he firmly believed.

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So the crowd in the gospel reading today does not get baptized with water but is sort of instructed in a baptism of repentance instead. Neither ritual cleansing nor repentance were a new thing. Repentance–or teshuva–is a practice of faithful Jews, providing a way to turn away from sin, from ways that are harmful, and to turn toward God, toward one’s true self whom God created to be whole. Repentance was and still is an act that can be done by one’s self or in community.

Jewish ethicist Louis Newman, in discussion with Krista Tippett in the podcast On Being, spoke about a study with professionals–in this case pediatricians and trial court judges, people with immense power. One thing the study found, as I understand, was that some of these doctors and judges had no outlet through which to process, let alone acknowledge their mistakes or biases.

A pediatrician who prescribed the wrong treatment that proved fatal found a safe space within the study’s controlled group to acknowledge the mistake for what it was and to emphasize the need for doctors in particular to admit to mistakes so that they can learn from them.

A judge realized that the power could go to his head and knew he had to be careful since he realized the vulnerability he had in the biases he held. In his court an attractive young woman might get a lesser sentence than someone who fit his mind’s stereotypical convict if he wasn’t paying attention to his prejudices.

Newman says that looking at our shortcomings and knowing our vulnerabilities clues us into what we need to be repentant about. It’s like knowing what triggers us to release our poison, whether within ourselves or onto others. If we let our self-awareness grow dim, we risk harming others and missing the opportunity for wholeness. We don’t want to miss that chance.

Whether we are doctors or judges, tax collectors or soldiers, men or women, young or old, we ask as if with one voice, “What then should we do?”

We could band together with others and provide a safe place to share. Recovery groups do this. John the Baptist offers examples of what one might do if one is truly repentant. Share clothes and food. Charge fairly. Be content with earnings. Preparing the way for the Lord means being honest with ourselves and perhaps even seeing “those people” or “others” as our neighbors. What John says causes me to think we are to consider ourselves and one another bound not to that which makes us sick and angry but bound together in what is to come through Christ: a new covenant of love, a covenant strong enough to hold us when we fail and big enough to provide space for many perspectives.

As Christians, our wholeness is realized through Christ. Sometimes we have to change our footing and get reoriented toward the way of our Lord. We repent and begin anew, often repeatedly. I believe God makes no exceptions for those who seek God’s grace and knows the hearts of all believers in every land in a way I cannot comprehend. What this viper has a chance of doing is not controlling the other vipers in my brood or the ones next door; my chance at wholeness is to align myself with the one who brings peace and pass that goodness along.

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If I trust John has awakened me to a new way, toward Truth, then wherever or however I’m grounded, what’s important is that I’m oriented toward Christ. That gives us all reason not only to repent in all sincerity but also to rejoice.

We have reason to rejoice with our lives turned toward Christ and joyfully anticipate his arrival.

All who have humbly repented know the anguish and discomfort overcome. Repentance is our anti-venom. The peace of Christ is our calm assurance, rooted in our trust in God that all shall be well. Really. Paul was sincere in his exhortation to the Philippians to rejoice and not to worry. The more we live into our whole selves, the more keenly aware we are not only of our potential to fall into sin but also of our capacity to experience true joy. It is imperative that we keep our heading focused on Jesus.

It may only be a moment–a moment from this morning or from many years ago–but we have known joy. If it’s been too long for us, we especially need to heed John’s call and repent, letting go of that which holds us down and riddles us with dis-ease and deceit. Either in prayer or with the support of our community here, we let go of what isn’t true. With integrity we embrace our wholeness through Christ. Whoever we are in the crowd, we turn toward the one through whom our joy is made complete.

The time is drawing nigh.

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“Nothing complicated about it”

When thinking about how we move through the day, I’m more likely to imagine a digital clock ticking the minutes and hours away as we scurry from home to school to work to lessons and sports to home to bed. So much of our day is guided by appointments and obligations, most that make our lifestyle possible and others that make our lives enriched, and we consider ourselves privileged to do all this.

Then I come across something like this, reading out of a book I happened upon in our church lending library:

“In ancient times people found it natural and important to seek God’s will. With little spiritual guidance and in utter simplicity, they heard from God. There was nothing complicated about it. They understood that every moment of every day presented an opportunity for faith to fulfill a responsibility to God. They moved through the day like the hand of a clock. Minute after minute they were consciously and unconsciously guided by God.” -Jean-Pierre de Caussade in Abandonment to Divine Providence*

I confess that I do not in every moment think first about how my next move will “fulfill a responsibility to God.” While I may occasionally think, “God, what would you have me do?”, it doesn’t often enter my mind when I am making my daily rounds around the house or through our city’s streets. I’m more likely to be caught up in my own thoughts about what I have or haven’t accomplished on my unwritten to-do list. We are creatures of habit, and my routine is about what I need to do next, what I’m expected to do. It shouldn’t be a surprise that our society is primarily full of egocentric people, taking care of ourselves before everyone else because our primary thoughts are typically about ourselves. It’s natural for us to put #1 first, whether that be me, my family, my country, etc.

What would it be like if it were “natural and important to seek God’s will,” to hear from God, to move through our day “minute after minute . . . consciously and unconsciously guided by God”? De Caussade has a way with words (even in the translation) that points both toward a simple yet profound beauty. This beauty comes to me even as I see photos of the horror of the Syrian refugees and read the clamor of American citizens advocating for rights to marry or to live without fear.

The guidance of God contrasts sharply to the suffering and oppression at hand. Any action that is born of hatred and violence, of fear and anger, does not align with what I understand to be God’s will, that we love God and our neighbor. Christians aren’t the only ones who believe this, either.

Perhaps that’s why there’s nothing really complicated about it. If we let God’s will guide our next move, we move in compassion. If we believe in God, in God’s unconditional love for us, it is our faithful responsibility to share this love with others, including ourselves. This means that we surrender to the will of God: we surrender to experience the tremendous freedom that is found in the power of unconditional love. It’s not popular. It’s risky and counter-cultural. It makes us vulnerable because we open our hearts and become an easy target. I think God knows this kind of love well.

I’m going to replace the battery in my watch, the watch my husband gave me as a gift. I cannot promise that every time the minute-hand moves that I will first be thinking of God, but de Caussade said we can be “consciously and unconsciously guided by God.” When I fail to ask for guidance, may my faith guide me even when I’m unaware.

*As found in Nearer to the Heart of God: Daily Readings with the Christian Mystics, Bernard Bangley, ed., 2005

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Ultimate Belonging

The Scripture texts for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 24 Year A, Track 1:

Exodus 33:12-23 | Psalm 99 | 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10 | Matthew 22:15-22

Tension continues to escalate between Jesus and those in authority. So much so that now there’s no question about their desire to entrap him—whether it is the Roman authority capturing him for treason or the people’s rejection of him, it doesn’t matter. He needs to be trapped or contained, stopped. The Pharisees and the Herodians are actually united in their anti-Jesus effort, and it makes it easy for us to delineate between the bad guys in their malice and hypocrisy and our pro-God hero Jesus. Because that’s how politics go. We are showered with political propaganda right now, so we are familiar with this. There’s the good and the bad, and we drop our coin into the campaign donation fund or ballot box of our choice. And, of course, we always choose Jesus, right?

Jesus navigates the politics, evading the trick question by going through and beyond it. “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” they ask him (Mtw 22:17). Jesus confounds them by saying, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mtw 22:21).

It seems as clear-cut as a church-state divide, as separate as the spiritual and physical realm. Many a political, economic, and religious interpretation is based on such a dualistic view. Being the faithful Christians we are, however, we remember who is speaking. Jesus is God incarnate, Word made flesh. What kind of line is Jesus drawing? What kind of answer is he giving them . . . and us?

Not an easy one.

First of all, Jesus is talking about money. I’ve already talked politics, and now I’m talking money. (I promise I won’t talk about late-night cable programming.) But economic issues run throughout the Bible. Particular to today’s reading, paying taxes, the tribute to Rome, was not a popular facet of life. Jesus saying to give to the emperor the coin that bears the emperor’s image might save him from treason, but it does not win him popular support. In fact, when it comes time for Pilate to save a prisoner from crucifixion, whom do the people vote for? Not Jesus Christ but Barabbas, who, incidentally, was a hero in the anti-Roman efforts.

Lest we too quickly judge the people harshly, let us remember the moment in the Passion narrative when we in the congregation play the role of the crowd shouting “Crucify him!” Maybe we can see where the people were coming from. They were paying tribute to their oppressors, funding their bondage, and they wanted a way out, a way to return to freedom. It was only a small percentage who believed in whom Jesus was and who anticipated the freedom promised in the kingdom of heaven.

Jesus amazed the Pharisees and Herodians, and they left him—for the time being. Others present might have also been amazed and stuck around, wondering as we do now: “But what is God’s?” If we believe God is Creator, aren’t all things God’s? If we are to render to Caesar, where is the clear line? People make coins with the likeness of people, so it’s okay to pay taxes, to pay for our goods, and to participate in commerce. Ultimately, however, we the people bear God’s image.

In the beginning we are made in the image of God, male and female. Psalmists attribute God with creating our inmost being, of knitting each of us in our mother’s womb (Ps. 139:13). In Isaiah the Lord says, “I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands” (49.16). We ultimately belong to God. The compassion of God that we hear in the dialogue with Moses persists through to the Resurrection and beyond. Again and again we fail to render to God our whole selves, yet again and again, like a good mother, God knows us and claims us. God answers us with forgiveness, with mercy, and with compassion.

That clear line—if Jesus draws one at all—may very well be a circle, encompassing all who realize and recognize the responsibility of bearing God’s image. As God’s, we have a place in the kingdom of heaven, and Jesus brings the kingdom here and now and asks not for a part of us. Just as he sent his disciples to go where he himself intended to go, so, too, does he ask us to give only that which he willingly gave.

And this is what is hard for us, my Christian brothers and sisters. Jesus gave everything. God gave God’s self, not in an act of dependence but of pure love, and we are invited to be united with God, to be a willing participant in the most mutually fulfilling relationship that ever can be.

As wonderful as that sounds, it’s hard.

We are given encouragement from Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians, who apparently got it right. Paul nearly sings their praises for their “work of faith,” “labor of love,” and “steadfastness of hope.” They must be a chosen people because they embody the power and Holy Spirit and conviction that enables them to imitate the apostles and Lord despite their persecution. They “received the word with joy . . . (and) became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia” . . . and to us. I feel a bit like Paul is showing us a stellar progress report so we have a guide for our own assessment.

In a rather compassionate moment himself, I imagine Paul looking into the future ends of the earth and saying to us, “I know it’s hard to get how to give yourself to God. So, here are some basics.”

1.) You are chosen. You are a child of God, a bearer of God’s image. You receive the power of the Holy Spirit at your baptism.

2.) Your work of faith is to remember and proclaim Christ’s death and resurrection.

3.) You have a labor of love: to love God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind and to love your neighbor as yourself.

4.) Your steadfastness of hope for the manifestation of the kingdom of heaven helps you to persevere all trials and tribulations.

If Paul were to write us a letter here at Christ Church, what might he say? How would we measure up to the Thessalonians? Do we reveal God’s image to all whom we encounter? Do our actions measure up to the faith we proclaim? How are we doing at loving God . . . loving our neighbors? How persistent is our hope in the kingdom of heaven?

This kind of Christian life doesn’t have room for duality, for separate realms. There is one God who has gifted us with this life, yet it is hard for us to comprehend, let alone navigate, an ordinary life that is struck through from our very core with the extraordinary. How much of what we give actually reflects our gratitude, thanksgiving, and love to and for God? How much reflects our love of our neighbors? Ourselves?

When I visited a mosque in Atlanta for my world religions course this summer, a Muslim gentleman explained the pillars of Islam to our group of seminarians. When he came to the pillar of alms or charity, he told us that Muslims are to give 2.5% of their assets each year. It is based basically on their savings, and it’s considered an asset if it is over the worth of 22 ounces of silver or 3 ounces of gold. (Three ounces of gold now is about $3,000.) Because they are already expected to be taking care of and giving to their family and place of worship, they are to give it to needy individuals, someone outside their immediate circle. If every Muslim observed this pillar of charity, he told us with all sincerity, there would be no poverty.

Naturally, I wondered if Christians can say the same. (Per 2012 research, there are about 2.2 billion Christians in the world and about 1.6 billion Muslims.) If we gave even 2.5% of our assets—not even 10%—could we eradicate poverty? What if we worked together?

There are some very concrete ways to influence the world for the better. Are we willing to make our church more accessible in every kind of way? Someone has gotten started with the fabulous sidewalk to the education building, for which I am extremely grateful! But how accessible are we to those who don’t look like us?

We can pay it forward to train future leaders. Sending kids to camp, teachers to trainings, and leaders to educational and spiritual retreats are tremendous gifts. My home diocese sponsored me for the recent Godly Play training and for the upcoming pre-ordination retreat, both important in my formation. I am just one person, but consider how many lives I might touch by sharing my experiences of being close to God, my experiences of discernment. We can teach and encourage each other to share and listen to our stories of faith that come from life itself, from living in community, from living in relationship with God to whom we belong.

We are gifted for this work. We are invited to receive the power of the Holy Spirit and become an active participant in kingdom building—not of short-lived Caesar’s empire but of God’s eternal kingdom, starting here and now. Our contributions and input are invaluable in answering these important questions.

If we live amazed at what God gave and continues to give to us, we are paying attention. If we accept our Christian responsibility and act and live generously, giving of whatever resources we can share—be that money, time, joyful perseverance, proclamation, or whatever gift you have—then we are participating in that loving relationship with God and one another.

Some days we shout “Crucify!” with the helpless crowd. We don’t choose Jesus. Some very special times we catch a fleeting glimpse of what it is to experience the ultimate belonging of being a child of God, one infinitely loved and filled with potential to help make manifest the kingdom of God, where no one lives in poverty. The power behind such belonging is threatening, disruptive of clear-cut distinctions and divides. But the power of God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—is not to be contained; it always has been and always will be our key to unity and freedom.

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