Whose We Are

Isaiah 43:1-7 | Psalm 29 | Acts 8:14-17 | Luke 3:15-17, 21-22


The words from Isaiah were surely words of comfort and assurance to the weary Israelites. They were weary from being in exile, far from their land, their home, where their God resided. Even upon their return, things were not as they had been, and it was unfamiliar. But these words from God through the voice of the prophet remind the people who they are and whose they are. As people created by God and for God’s glory (as the psalm also reminds), they need not fear.

To be created, formed, redeemed, protected, valued, honored, and loved by God — that alone is enough for us to take as good news. This God in all goodness and glory is on our side. As the favored ones, we have nothing to fear. “Surely it is God who saves me; I will trust in him and not be afraid” (Canticle 9, First Song of Isaiah 12:2, BCP, p. 86). Strength and blessing are promised to God’s people. All prosperity is ours and ours alone.

Is it, though? Is that the full picture of our inheritance and our future? The fullness of our present moment?

If our strength and peace as children of God were solely about our believing in the Word or even about our baptism in water in the name of the Trinity, then perhaps that would be all we need. But of course there’s more to the story.

We’re told that Samaritans accepted the word of God. In the reading prior to the verses we read in Acts today, the Samaritans saw Philip proclaiming the name of Jesus Christ, healing the sick, raising the lame, casting out demons, and they believed in Jesus Christ, Son of God. They were baptized, but it didn’t end there. Peter and John are sent to them. They lay hands on them, and then they received the Holy Spirit. Now they can continue the good work in the name of Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit.

But there’s even more to the story.

A man named Simon had practiced magic among the Samaritans, and they had been impressed by him, “amazed” (Acts 8:9). Like the Samaritans, Simon found himself being impressed by the works of Philip and realized that he, too, believed and was baptized. Simon stayed by Philip’s side.

When Simon saw what happened with the apostles laying their hands on the Samaritans, he saw something he wanted. He offered money to the apostles. “Give me also this power so that anyone on whom I lay my hands may received the Holy spirit” (Acts 8:19). But Peter denied his money, incredulous that Simon thought he could buy God’s gift. Peter proclaims that Simon’s heart is not right before God, implores him to repent that he might be forgiven–if it’s possible at all. Simon does ask that Peter pray for him, that the curses not come to pass. We’re not told how Simon’s story ends.

So if we believe in the word of God, are baptized, and receive the power of the Holy Spirit–with good intentions, of course–then we’re good, right? Then we can rest in our blessedness?

It wasn’t like that for Jesus. It certainly isn’t like that for us.

John the Baptist said he baptized with water, but one more powerful than himself is coming to who “will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

We like baptism by water. Christendom might not agree on the amount of water, the place, or the age of baptism, but there’s agreement upon water and the invocation of the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to make a baptism valid. We exercise a lot of control and predictability in our baptisms so that they fit nicely within our services and our understanding of our traditions.

But when we start talking about Holy Spirit and fire, people back up really quickly. Trial by fire. Baptized by fire. These phrases don’t necessarily conjure up positive connotations. We’d rather go back to Isaiah and our psalm where we can focus on God loving us and giving us good things; let’s not complicate things.

As soon as we let go to give God the glory, to give God space to work in our lives, we complicate things, and things get out of our control.

Unlike Simon, John the Baptist knew his power would decrease, and gave way to one who is greater. John didn’t seek power or greatness for himself. Not only does he prepare the way for the Lord in his humility, but he also maintains integrity, not bowing down to Herod, calling him out for his cruelty and for taking his brother’s wife. John’s honesty didn’t garner Herod’s favor and actually got him imprisoned and eventually beheaded. John’s simple actions ran contrary to the societal norms. Jesus’s simple Way ran contrary to the norms of the first century. They still do.

Where things run contrary to one another, where there is conflict, there is friction. Friction heats up and can cause fire. Fire can be destructive, but it can also be restorative. Fire can refine things to burn off impurities. Fire gives us heat, energy, and light. Fire is necessary for life. We say our love and our anger burn, and they can burn in destructive or life-giving ways.

When we who are baptized acknowledge that we also have been empowered by the Holy Spirit–gifted in individual and particular ways–and put this power into work in our lives for the glory of God, things are going to get complicated. There’s going to be fire.

The ways of God are simple: Love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength and love our neighbors as ourselves. The ways of the world are simple, too: look out for Number One to be the best. Until these two ways are reconciled, there will always be friction. We have the clearest case of it right now in the fight about a border wall. Except here, we don’t have friction, we have stand-off, realized in our government shutdown.

Richard Rohr in his book about the Trinity, The Divine Dance, says that it’s divine wisdom to be three in one because where there is simply duality, there is likelihood of either/or, us/them, one way or another. With a trinity, there can be ebb and flow, a third way that maintains the whole, unity in diversity, a divine dance. With a trinitarian mindset, we can view the world not solely as us against them but recall that we and they are in relationship with God. Ultimately this puts all of us in relationship with God, drawing us all into the divine dance of giving glory and praise to the almighty, giving us all the responsibility of manifesting the kingdom of heaven here and now.

Remember that Jesus didn’t just stroll into the temple palace and blast the rulers for their disregard of Almighty God. Jesus walked among the people, igniting their power by healing their dis-ease, crossing social and demographic barriers, manifesting a culture where anyone could come to the table and break bread together. He was reminding them of their value, their belovedness. While this may have given a sense of strength and blessing of peace within, the tensions mounted outside in the communities.

But all who have heard the Word of God, who believe, who are baptized, and are gifted with the Holy Spirit feel the fire within–even if it’s latent or smoldering–and recognize the fire outside in all the battles being waged, small and large–too many for me to name. The only control we have is over our own use of our gifts and the fuel that we have to fulfill the promises that we’ve made in our own baptisms.

“When (we) walk through fire (we) shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume (us)”–if we realize that the fire is of God and see clearly ourselves in right relationship with God and one another. If we know we are God’s as much as the one we name “other”. If we can say to the “other” that they are as precious in God’s sight, as honored and beloved as ourselves, then we show whose we really are in all of our thoughts, words, and deeds.

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Come, Holy Spirit!

Acts 2:1-21 | Romans 8:22-27 | Psalm 104:25-35, 37 | John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

Blaise Pascal, I’m reminded, “was a (17th century) French mathematician, physicist, inventor, writer, and Catholic theologian,” as described on Wikipedia. I sought the refresher on a familiar name because I read a little story about him that said he “kept a folded piece of paper with him, a note sewn into a hidden pocket in his coat. Scribbled on the page were intimate truths about God, including this line: ‘Christ will be in agony until the end of the world.’” The author, Isaac Villegas, a pastor of Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, adds “that (Christ’s) agony is love.” Pascal titled the note: The Mystery of Jesus.

Last week I emphasized that at the Last Supper that stretches out in the Gospel of John (also containing today’s reading), Jesus pours out his love for the disciples, and that he had to leave them was not without all the emotions and sentiments of self-sacrificing love–like a loving mother not wanting to be separated from her child. Villegas says that what Pascal identified as truth was that though Christ was glorified, ascended to the throne of God, he bears the agony, the anguish of “an unbearable separation from his beloved, his life straining toward his disciples on earth, his body pressing through eternity and reaching for communion with us.” Apparently the mystery of Jesus is his enduring love for us. And that love has no boundaries. Thanks to the Holy Spirit, this mysterious love is brought to us, be it in a violent wind or sighs too deep for words.

You know I’m not going to get through this without mentioning the Royal Wedding. I hope you watched at least the sermon offered by Presiding Bishop Michael Curry (or at least listened to the music). Truly, I hoped you watched the whole thing, as it was a glorious celebration in our tradition, and it was full of faith, hope, and love. In a week marked by tragedy again in our schools, a horrible plane crash, and any number of tragic turn of events, for a little while we’re reminded of something more than death and suffering. Bishop Curry seized the moment for the glory of God by shining his light on Love, love that has the power to heal the world, to bring about a new world. Knowing he’s preaching to leaders and the powerful, he asks them and the commoners listening from afar if we can think of or imagine neighborhoods ruled by love, communities governed by love, corporations, institutions, nations leading in the way of love. He spoke about the power humans obtained when we learned to harness fire and how when we truly discover love and the power it holds, it will be the second greatest discovery for humankind. It makes sense that so often love is compared to fire: love is as powerful, burns as brightly, and can be all-consuming.

Love is powerful, and perhaps love, like fire, needs room to breathe.

Had Jesus stayed in one place for all time in one form, how constrictive would that be to the Gospel? In Jesus’s leaving and promise of sending the Advocate, what was accomplished? Jesus said he would be betrayed and die and rise again, and he did. Jesus said he would be going to the Father but would send an Advocate, and he did. Jesus promises not to leave us comfortless, and here we are . . . wondering, doubting, not knowing. We hear the familiar story of the wind and the languages, but maybe we think it’s just that: a story.

Fortunately, our tradition is full of stories; it’s our narrative. From this narrative, our tradition pulls the great Truths, especially how we understand God’s love.

And God’s love is disruptive, especially in its full power, especially when two or three are gathered in the name of Jesus Christ.

Martin Luther King, Jr., knew it; it’s him that Bp. Curry quoted. The black and white men and women who gathered at Azusa Street in 1906 that birthed American Pentecostalism, so overwhelmed with Spirit they were that the nation’s segregated order fell away to a “holy, insurgent communion.” These revolutionaries rose up. They found a power that even if they couldn’t harness, they could tap into the power. The power was love, fueled by the fire of Holy Spirit. And it might look like we’re drunk on new wine, so disorienting can the holy experience of divine love and spirit be, even at 9 in the morning. And when we get caught up in the Holy Spirit, we might get really excited and be going ninety-to-nothing toward something we don’t know for certain. But we’re tethered to Jesus Christ in a solid relationship. We’re firm in our foundation as a child of God, bound to God in love. And so Spirit can come and blow like a mighty wind and bestow upon us gifts that help us build beloved community, a new world . . . even if it disrupts the status quo.

We don’t always know what will happen when we’re feeling faithful and brave and sincerely pray, “Come, Holy Spirit! God’s will be done.” Yet we can be assured that more often than not the next thoughts are, “What have I done?” We get caught up in the power of God’s love, the momentum of the power of the Holy Spirit and lose ourselves, maybe, for a bit.

Maybe that’s the point: to lose ourselves in love of God, to let go of our certainty long enough to give Spirit a little breathing room and some space to flourish without trying to fit into the constraints of our realm of what is safe, practical, and not terribly uncomfortable. As Bishop Curry and Archbishop Welby said in an interview after the Royal Wedding, there’s nothing conventional about Christianity. If it seems so disruptive, maybe we need to think of what’s happened to the power of love in our tradition. Where do we feel it stirring today? Is it your own love and yearning for Christ that guides you now? Or is there something burning within, something only you can do? It could be that you’re given the language someone else needs to hear . . . or the idea, or task, or witness. But rest assured, God is with us. God loves us, and all of our beating hearts here today were made for this: we’re made to love, fiercely and fearlessly.

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Autumn is Here

With the ceiling fan on and what feels like an open window, I seek the warmth of a blanket.  It’s time to bring out my wool shawl.

I had the immense pleasure this weekend of retreating in the woods, an annual event now during a weekend when the ground rumbles with the vibration of thousands of motorcycles.  Actually, even in the wooded hills, we could hear the rumble on our hike.  At six o’clock in the morning, though, a couple of us sat on the porch in the rockers, listening for owls in the trees.  The ground was still.  The small throw I had was just big enough to cover my arms, and when we went inside to make breakfast, I could feel the morning chill on my cheeks and hands.  It was time for a fire.  Our morning prayer sounded out, accompanied by the crackle and warmth emitting from the hearth.

That afternoon, I brought my knitting to the parlor room and sat by the dark fireplace.  With door open, the fresh breeze was cool and refreshing.  After knitting and napping a bit, the sun dipped below the trees, and a chill returned.  An hour later, I built a fire, awakening the room with comfort and warmth.  A room in which to share good conversation . . . and more knitting.

Autumn is a season of lamplight and glows from fires, gentle chills removed by an extra layer.  Extraordinary sunlight and brilliant blue skies and days so gray to test your memory and resolve.  There’s the brilliant burst of energy and color, if we are so lucky and conditions are just right.  Then there’s the falling away.  More gray than color.  More darkness.  An expected death.  Quiet.  Freeze.

In Autumn, life is still easy and the harvest abundant.  The colors truly are amazing.  We have to enjoy it while it lasts, for this, too, shall pass.

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