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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Boundaries of Limitless Love

Acts 10:44-48 | Psalm 98 | 1 John 5:1-6 | John 15:9-17

I’m not exactly sure why, but this is one of my favorite verses: “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” Maybe it’s because reading this every time feels like Jesus is speaking to me (I hope you feel Jesus is speaking directly to you because I really feel like he’s almost whispering this to me). There’s intimacy here of a beloved friend. And joy. Ah, sweet joy. If you’ve ever seen the movie Inside Out, they capture the inner workings of our mind-controlling emotions, and I think they do it quite well. Joy is one of my dominant emotions, and she wants to be fed and seen and expressed and complete . . . whole. For me, joy made complete feels nothing less than a mountain-top experience: radiant like the sun soaked into every pore, full-bloom, fulfilled and ready to burst into love outpoured. That’s my joy, but it’s not always mountain-top highs. Sometimes it’s more subdued in those everyday moments that still bring that sense of fulfillment, contentment, abundance, and desire to share all of that with those around me–not by force but by mutual desire.

Jesus says he’s told us the things to complete our joy. We’ve all heard them. So why aren’t we all walking around 100-percent joyful all the time? Jesus says he’s given us the key. We have full access.

Peter has the key, too. (Literally, doesn’t he hold the keys to the kingdom of heaven? Mtw. 16:19) Peter’s love has been reaffirmed in Jesus’ resurrection (remember he has to repeat his love for the Lord three times, enough to counter his three denials, yes?), and Peter continues the work of a disciple, proclaiming God’s love and the power of belief in Jesus Christ. And like Philip evangelizing to the eunuch last week, Peter is crossing social norms to evangelize to the Gentiles.

When I read these verses, I can’t help of thinking of Peter as being sort of a Great Showman, like Barnum speaking to new recruits, surprised to learn that they are truly gifted. If we read these verses in the context of Chapter 10 from the beginning, we get a better sense of Peter’s attitude through his resistance to eat unclean foods (though he’s been told all things have been made clean) and his continued resistance to associate with the Gentiles. Maybe Peter just really doesn’t want to be there. These aren’t his people, aren’t his friends. They’re of a different culture, from a different neighborhood. He’s been brought up not to associate with this kind.

But bless Peter for following Jesus, for going into forbidden relationships with love of God put above all things–even above himself. Low and behold, the Holy Spirit shows up, gifts the Gentiles and opens Peter’s eyes and mind again to realize: who can withhold the power of Spirit? Who could dam up the water God makes abundant to baptize those who desire it? For the grace and power of God are free to all and are not limited by social labels or barriers. Thanks be to God!

Last week I mentioned the “loving, liberating, life-giving” theme of General Convention. This week I found myself wondering: why liberation in regard to our relationship with God? God’s grace and power are free, unconditional, and limitless. But Peter’s story illustrates perfectly why we need liberation. We, with our beautiful, blessed free will, don’t have to recognize or even realize God’s grace and power, and we’re awfully good about creating all the boundaries and barriers that separate us from one another and from God. Separate from God, it’s a race to see who or what has the most power in our lives. Even within the Church, there’s competition or at least comparison to see who has the biggest, best, most.

Even if we had the greatest Sunday attendance, biggest, best building, I don’t think that would make my–or our–joy complete. That’s not what Jesus was saying. But what Jesus did say gave us the keys to our own liberation so that we can live into that loving, life-giving way he made so readily available to us.

Jesus says:

  1. Get off your high horse and abide in my love.
  2. Keep the commandment to love one another as I have loved you.

That’s it. That’s the key.

Getting off our high horse means putting God first. God’s love shown through the love between Father and Son. Effortless yet requiring everything. In their very nature. Selfless, whole, unconditional. Chosen. Beloved. Jesus loves each person with this kind of love, and we’re called to be loved and love in return, to abide in this love. Soak in it until we’re saturated. Be loved, beloved. Abide can mean accept. Can we accept our belovedness?

If we can accept our belovedness and abide in love, the second point is easier, though not easy. It’s easy to love those who share our station, beliefs, and opinions. It’s not as easy to love with any manner of grace those who differ completely, especially if they challenge us directly. But it does get easier. If we can try to comprehend how beloved we are, even with all our faults and imperfections, we begin to truly believe that “others” are beloved, too. And even if I don’t like what someone does or how they live their life or what they profess, I can at least try to love them as Jesus loves them. The doors that closed in Jesus’ and the apostles’ faces as they brought peace were closed by people Jesus loved. Yet he didn’t force his way in. That’s true love, right–freely given to be freely received. I guess God’s unconditional love is conditionally manifested–we have to unlock its potential.

Thursday was the National Day of Prayer, right? And it wasn’t until I was reading about it on their website that I realized our National Day of Prayer is particularly Christian. This works for me, for us Christians, but I wonder about the millions who are about to start their prayers and fasting for Ramadan next week, those who sit in silence according to their philosophy and as a means of contributing to their right living, or those who whether they go to church or not when they’re outdoors they marvel at creation, its beauty, and feel close to something they can’t quite name. This is why we keep Time to Breathe as a time set apart for silence, meditation, prayer, or whatever it is you call your time to sit and be, your time to abide in your belovedness.

I want to give myself accolades for being so open and loving, but then I’m walking to the square on Friday evening, having parked at Christ the King. The weather’s gorgeous, the place abuzz, and then this car with two huge Confederate flags waving above it, nearly as big as the car, passes by for everyone to see. I can’t hide my face, for that’s how I feel about it. I notice a couple who doesn’t exactly look like they’re from around here, though maybe they are, and I read their lips as they say something like, “Did you see that? Really?” They look my way, their face matching my expression, and I say, “Classy, isn’t it?” “I know, right?” was their response. And then I realize what I’ve done, in my out loud voice. I’m so glad I wasn’t in my clericals, but then I was in my All Saints’ shirt, where “All are welcome.” All except that guy, right?

I may not agree with that guy, but I can love him as a neighbor. I won’t agree with what he’s suggesting, and I would stand between him and a friend should he pose a threat or my friend threaten him. Violence works both ways, and it’s not the way of love. It gets complicated fast, and it demands our sense of presence and awareness to truly see the love of God in all things and above all things.

That’s what all of this love business is about: manifesting the power of God’s love in our lives.

In society it looks like justice. In relationships it looks like mutual respect and nonviolence. In our education it looks like wisdom. In our prisons it looks like reconciliation and redemption. At our table it looks like radical hospitality.

All of this is readily available to us, just waiting on the next willing heart to open to receive the power of the Holy Spirit. What’s to come when we unlock the love of God in our lives truly surpasses our understanding, but it might be something like joy made complete.

 

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