God’s Dream: The Way of Love

2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19 | Psalm 24 | Ephesians 1:3-14 | Mark 6:14-29

Wow. Coming back to you from General Convention and revisiting the beheading of John the Baptist doesn’t quite match up with the Good News I experience. I’ve spent the nearly past two weeks being surrounded by Episcopalians from all over the world, worshipping with hundreds and, at times, thousands of others. We had a revival, folks! We sang and clapped and nearly danced at our seats not just in English. We sang in Spanish and offered prayer responses guided by our chaplain who was raised in South Africa. It was a joyous, mountaintop experience, though there were times we could tell we had a mountain to climb as we pulled ourselves through long legislative sessions and voting processes guided by parliamentary procedure. It was joyful, and I felt the presence of God in our midst in our prayers, laughter, and our being mindfully present to each other.

So I understand the story of David rejoicing in the street as he and others carried the ark of God. For them, this ark contained the actual presence of God, which makes it all the more significant for who carried it and where it was located. It was a big deal, and in their music and dancing, I feel a kinship for the rejoicing taking place.

But there’s something else in that story, too. There’s one who looks on with “disdain in her heart.” Michal, daughter of Saul, is not happy. Maybe she’s bitter that it’s not her father carrying the ark and being celebrated in the streets. The darkness of her disdain contrasts sharply to the joy surrounding the ark of God.

I sense an echo of a similar disdain in Herodias, wife of Herod, former wife of Philip his brother. John the Baptist didn’t approve of their relationship, and while Herod didn’t necessarily appreciate John the Baptist’s judgment, he somewhat protected him . . . in prison. He protected him until in an evening of joyful merry-making, he promised the dancer anything she asked for. Dutiful daughter she was, she consulted her mother who seized the opportunity to quench her disdain and kill John the Baptist. As if he had been double-dog-dared in front of all his friends, Herod granted the request of his oath rather than protect the one he knew to be holy and righteous (something he repeats with Jesus).

So where’s the Good News in this?

I commend the Epistle this week for giving us a reminder of God’s blessing to us: grace and salvation through Jesus Christ. God wants for us to live into our grace and salvation, to live into the holy and blessed ones we are created to be. This state of being is already available to us, but we tend to get so inwardly-focused that we forget that we have a life centered in Christ.

That’s easy to say, but why, then, do we get bogged down with enmity, spite, and disdain, if not outright hatred? One might say we lose our way.

You’ve probably heard Presiding Bishop Michael Curry mention the Jesus Movement, how it leads us to becoming Beloved Community, which is, after all, God’s dream for us. A movement truly involves moving, changing, maybe even transforming. Lucky for us, at this General Convention, he gave us a resource for living into a Jesus-Centered Life, and he and his evangelism team simply call it “The Way of Love.” It’s appropriate, I think, that for us to live into God’s dream asks of us to walk the Way of Love. Truly, this is the Way that Jesus showed his disciples from Day 1.

We received these handouts at worship the first night, I think it was (I’ve been to a lot of services lately!). I have a few more and can order more if you don’t get one or if you’d like to have more to share with others. These little things outline the practices for Jesus-centered living. There’s no fancy acronym: just The Way of Love.

  1. Turn – PB Curry knew it wouldn’t take if we started with “Repent,” but that’s what it means. We realize we’re losing our way, and we want to turn toward Jesus in our lives so we can live into our blessed grace and salvation. So we TURN: pause, listen, and choose to follow Jesus. I think of a tune from a Richard Scarry video my kids used to watch when they were little: “Stop, look, and listen.” When we come to an intersection, crosswalk, or crossroads, we have to stop and listen, and we make a conscious decision about where we’re headed.
  2. Learn – We’re not walking blindly. We have guidance, and we get it from reflecting on Scripture each day. If we want to live like Jesus, we have to know what that looks like, sounds like, tastes like, and maybe even smells like. What did Jesus do in his life and say in his teachings that offer us instruction?
  3. Pray – We not only ask God for help and give thanks, but we listen. We set apart time each day to dwell with God, to abide in God’s presence. We might not yet be able to pray without ceasing, but we practice prayer every day.
  4. Worship – You all know the importance of gathering weekly in community to thank, praise, and dwell with God. We come to the altar for solace and strength, courage and renewal. We offer our prayers together and experience very tangibly that we are not alone. We receive the Real Presence of Christ. I tell people all the time when they are looking for a church to “go where you feel the presence of God.” (I certainly hope you all will be back next week!)
  5. Bless – Sure, it’s the priests and bishops in the church who bless in the name of the Trinity, but we all bless one another when we share our faith and when we unselfishly give and serve as so many of you do. When we experience the joy of being in the presence of God, we almost can’t help ourselves but share that with others. On the first day of walking in downtown Austin, we were approached by a homeless man (one of many there). My companion, maybe more experience at navigating larger cities, managed to walk on, but I made eye contact at the same time he was asking for money. He had joy in his bright, light blue eyes as he said, “Hey, you see me,” and gave me a fist-bump. He proceeded to walk with us to our destination and then go on his way, but I learned a bit about Ricky as we walked, though I realize it may or may not be true (especially the part about Stevie Nicks). I hope my seeing him with light and love of Christ was more of a blessing to him than the money I gave.
  6. Go – Throughout the gospels, especially after the Resurrection, the disciples are told to GO! Several of the sermons admonished us to GO! Go outside the church and do the work of the Lord. Because we have to move; we can’t stay comfortable, even if it’s within the confines of our church. In our going, we are told to “cross boundaries, to listen deeply, and to live like Jesus.” We don’t have to go far, but it is worthwhile to go where we don’t feel comfortable. Maybe that’s volunteering at the animal shelter or food pantry, where you experience sadness or smells that you’d rather avoid. Maybe it means going to the Salvadoran restaurant that you don’t go to because they speak mostly Spanish, and you’d be the minority. Jesus was always going to the other side, talking and eating with people he wasn’t supposed to. How often do we do the same?
  7. Rest – Finally, we also have to rest, to “receive the gift of God’s grace, peace, and restoration.” Jesus would go apart from the crowd. To do good work, we have to be well-rested, restored, and whole–mind, body, and soul. It also acknowledges that God is the one who’s doing the deep work; we’re not in control. We can leave for a while, and good work continues. (There’s nothing wrong with a good, long nap when it’s needed, either. I took one Saturday afternoon when I realized how much softer my bed is than the one I’ve slept on for almost two weeks!)

These practices outline The Way of Love for us, and they’re circular, not linear. They invite us to assess where we are and begin again when we feel ourselves losing our way, maybe even experiencing a hardening heart. They’re grounded in Holy Scripture and the life of Christ, but most importantly, they’re rooted in God’s blessing, God’s dream for us. God’s dream for us is ours to be had when we walk in the Way of Love, the Way of Christ, and that’s Good News for us all.

(Be sure to click on The Way of Love link for online resources and a message from the Presiding Bishop!)

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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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