May 24: The Space Between....
Beloved: do you know who Cameron Dallas is? He is a 25 year old social media influencer. He uses Youtube and Vine to make short videos and in many ways, it has made him a star. Netflix even offered him a show. What about Huda Kattan? She is a social media influencer who is a make-up expert. She has 29 million followers. Then there’s Marian Ezzedine who posts “Cooking with Mimi”; 2.4 million folks check in with her to get ideas about how to make their at-home meals tastier. Together these three influence almost 55 million people.
An influencer is someone who has the power to affect the decisions of others because of her/his knowledge, authority, position or relationship with the audience. For Cameron, it’s all about the relationship that he is building with others via his videos. For Huda and Marian, it’s about relationship and their knowledge—all three of these have a following in a distinct niche with whom they actively engage. 3.48 billion people actively use social media---that’s 45% of the world’s population. Wowza! That’s a lot of influence potential---that’s a lot of folks.
“You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Beloved: God is calling on us to be influencers---yes on social media, but also in every way we can be. We are called to be Influencers: our knowledge is the Way of Love; our authority is that we are God’s Beloved who have been given, and continuously have access to, the Holy Spirit; and our audience is everyone we have contact with----in public, in private, and on social media. And right now, Beloved, we really need to pay attention to social media because it is what is connecting us in new ways, to new folks, and with lots of possibility to share and spread this Way of Love.
This unique time we are living in is providing us a unique opportunity to live into our Beloved interconnectedness beyond our walls, beyond our local community and state, even beyond our nation. Through technology, we can build relationships with folks around the world, around our country, inside our city and within our own Beloved Community. You, Beloved, you are whom Jesus is talking to when Jesus says: You receive the power from the Holy Spirit. This isn’t about clergy and the institution of the church; this is about us as the Body of Christ---as individuals and as a committed community of faith. God wants you, wants us, to be social influencers---influencing the circles around us and beyond us to live the Way of Love.
This means God is calling us (not just me, not just leadership) but all and each of us to figure out how to connect with others---even in this time of pandemic---especially in this time of pandemic. Beloved: listen to the Spirit, discern in prayer, and then share your thoughts of how we might continue to support one another and grow a wider Beloved Community---online, with social media, and also as we do more testing and our numbers change: in small groups maintaining safe, social distance and wearing masks, continuing to stay safe and keep connected.
And perhaps this is just a new way to say the same old thing I always seem to be preaching, but today I want to touch on something specific from our everyday lives, something that is gnawing on my heart and spirit. In the reading from the First Letter of Peter we hear: “Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour.” This verse is an option to be read during the service of Compline or Night Prayer in the prayer book. We used to do Compline to end every day at church camp each summer. And this line always provoked a strong mental image in me: I could see that lion prowling---seeking me out---I could hear its roar.
Now, people may want to “dismiss” the devil saying: Aw, the devil’s not real. But, Beloved, the devil is real. Now, I don’t think the devil is some dude in a red suit with horns and a pitchfork. The original name for the Devil is Ha Satan. This means Adversary. The Opposer. The Devil is anything and everything that opposes God’s life-giving, loving, re-creative force in the world. So, Beloved, sometimes we are the Devil because sometimes our words or our actions or our choices work against God’s life-giving, loving, re-creative force. Sometimes we know this and still move forward with our choices, and sometimes our evil is done unintentionally. That’s why I love the words from the Confession found in Enriching Our Worship. In that prayer we pray: We have denied your goodness in each other, in ourselves, and in the world you have created. We repent of the evil that enslaves us, the evil we have done, and the evil done on our behalf. Ha Satan. The evil that opposes.
Beloved God is calling us to be social influencers who help each other to turn from Ha Satan’s ways and to lean into love instead. And where I see and hear that roaring lion prowling around in our lives, and in my life, is the human tendency to divide. Our reaction to label and to separate. Liberal and conservative. America or China. Black lives or Blue Lives. Fool or savior. These divisions are used as weapons to separate us from one another. We use them and speak them ourselves. Marketers use them to divide us. Facebook and social media bots are using them to influence us toward a certain candidate or away from a candidate---spreading false information and inflammatory posts so that we will live and move from hate and fear rather than love and unity. And, if I confess freely, sometimes my words may even do that. In our need to “be right” we often demean and belittle the other side, the one who disagrees, or the one who has another viewpoint in order to proclaim our rightness.
So, what to do? How then shall we live? God doesn’t call us to be “milktoast” and be lukewarm about the Gospel message. How can we strongly and boldly proclaim this message of inclusivity, of providing for the needs of all because all are equally deserving of having enough---no matter what; how do we stand against racism, fascism, homophobia, queerphobia without language that divides? How do we fight against poverty, injustice, and exclusion while maintaining unity?
Well, if I was in possession of a “how-to” manual, then I could make millions. And friends, the Bible isn’t really a “how-to” manual on this. Our young adults are reading Rachel Held Evans’ book, Inspired, and we have been talking about this---how we come to the Bible thinking it has clear and certain answers when what it really has is a variety of viewpoints, a cacophony of voices, and possibilities of choices and ways forward. And that space there---in the middle of the variety, the cacophony, and the possibilities---is just enough space for that prowling lion the devil to take advantage and push a wedge between us.
So, let’s look to Jesus: Jesus who sits down to dinner with religious leaders, powerful authorities, the elite of the day as well as lepers and sinners, tax-collectors and fisherman—the general riffraff of the day. Based on what he says, we know Jesus has issues with how both, and all, groups choose to live. And yet, Jesus builds relationships with all of them----particularly seeking out those who are disenfranchised, those on the margins and edges, the immigrant and the refugee, the sick and the ostracized---because Jesus knows the powerful and the elite don’t have the same need as these ones. The powerful and elite have resources to meet their basic needs of food, water, shelter, healthcare and the primal need for community and touch. The powerful and elite do not need the Christ to provide that for them. So the Christ goes to the ones who cannot (or because of how society is set up---are not able to) provide for those needs. And Jesus sits with them, heals them, breaks bread with them. Jesus turns to his followers and say: You give them something to eat. You go out, 2 by 2, and heal them. You love them. You have the Spirit, the authority, the influence----you do it.
Let’s think about that table at which Jesus sits with sinners---the tax collector, the Judas, the Pharisee and the religious elite. This table, Beloved, is where our salvation begins. Because this table doesn’t just serve food; it builds community. A new community where everyone belongs---fools and saviors, liberals and conservatives, Americans and Chinese, Black lives and Blue lives. At God’s table all belong. And all share things in common. As one of the young adults said in our conversation: “We all want to provide for our families, have homes, feel secure.” Beloved, The Christ begins with our commonalities rather than our divisions, inviting us to sit at the table based on our humanity, not our exceptions nor our expectations.
I still don’t have all the answers of how we do this exactly---how we live it out as individuals, as families, as cities and as the Beloved Community. But, that’s okay. The Spirit has answers and she is providing situations and opportunities for us to do this work of uniting rather than dividing. Our work is to be mindful of the prowling lion. Oh, it will continue to get the better of us, but our mindfulness can change how we use our authority, our knowledge, and our social media posts to influence one another toward Love and away from Hate. Can we state the Gospel without denigrating those whom we believe are shunning it? Can we actively work from Love and Justice without spitting into the faces of those we think are defying Love and Justice? Even when they don’t play by the same rules? Even when they spit on our faces? Think of those nurses in face masks who go to the protests to open up states---silently facing down their neighbors who raise signs demanding haircuts and their individual freedoms, those neighbors who are terrorizing and not protesting because they have brought their assault rifles. What is it that these nurses do? They stand there. No words. Wearing their face masks and uniform, they proclaim the Gospel. In defiance to hate. In resistance to Ha Satan. In collusion with Love.
Sometimes, Beloved, when I read a Facebook post or a Twitter post that proclaims something I think is foolish or dangerous or hateful, my fingers itch to use my words to flatten the sender of the post like a bug. Or maybe I should say, my tail twitches and I growl from my throat as I use my sharpened lion claws to rip their post apart and reveal their idiocy or their inhumanity or their complete and utter disregard for life.
Anyone else? That space that is between me and the writer of the post is all the space the Devil needs to get me to forget the Christ and respond from the deep, dark pit of my human nature instead of the spark of the divine within me. And when I do, evil wins the moment. And Hate takes hold. And Fear insulates and fertilizes……..
But, Beloved, I have been blessed and baptized to know another way, and thanks be to God, something in my day always brings me back to my senses, back to the Christ. Maybe it’s a friend who speaks the words of love to me or I see an example of love lived out on a screen or read it in a book or I am re-centered in our Belovedness through prayer or song or Word. So many ways---ways and practices that being part of Church has helped me to develop my Christ muscles, that has strengthened that divine spark within me to shine brighter. Frankly, Beloved, sometimes it is simply the Spirit who whispers in my ear: Remember who you are. Remember whose you are. And so I turn—an internal revolution that happens again and again and again.
Beloved, today Jesus calls us to be witnesses---social influencers---influencing and compelling those in our circles---online and offline---publicly and privately---known and unknown---to choose love. Choose unity. Choose our commonalities rather than our divisions. Fools and saviors. Chinese and American. Black and blue. Liberal and Conservative. Saint and Sinner. The world may tell us one is more worthy than another. Our neighbor may demand it. But Beloved, God refuses it. Jesus’ life and ministry denies it. And our infuencer, the Christ, calls us to effect change and revolution in an entirely different way. “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”
And all God’s people said: Amen!
May 17: Love, live, lead
Just when the disciples are most in need of pastoral care---on the eve of Jesus’ departure in today’s Gospel reading---Jesus promises the gift of the Advocate who will come and walk alongside them. This animating Spirit will companion them in their time of great need and fear and uncertainty, restoring life and hope and helping them to live into a new way. Because starting tomorrow for these disciples, their lives as they knew it will be all turned upside down---and there won’t be any going back. The cross lies just ahead.
And Beloved, at this time—as we continue to live in this time of pandemic, this time of moving toward re-opening, as some of us are afraid to go too fast and some are worried about the economic effects if we move too slowly, into our troubled hearts and our wrenching questions and anxieties, into the very real grief and loss that some of our Beloved have experienced firsthand and many of us are feeling at one level or another, the Spirit comes. She is here. Ready to re-animate us, inspiring us again with the Divine breath of the Creator, companioning us toward new life, new hope, new ways of being.
The Spirit is here as we gather—yes differently, but still united and bound together---as we gather to give thanks, to name our blessings, to share our burdens and loss, to speak and sing our story and our Truth. This gathering grounds and roots us in our truest identity as God’s people. People who vow to live lives of caring for one another and all others, lives of compassion and mercy and forgiveness, lives of seeking justice and an end to oppression for all of humanity—no matter their nation, their language, their orientation, their skin color, their faith, their mistakes, their failures, their political party, their socioeconomic status. For people of God know the Truth: that we are one human family, one clan of Creation. So as God’s people, our borders encapsulate all; we do not value one life as more important than another. Nor do we abdicate our responsibility to provide for one another. For we vow to live and move with the eyes and heart of the Christ who came to gather all things together, on heaven and on earth.
The Spirit reanimates and breathes life into us as we find ways to “keep in touch” and build relationship. Through the written words on note cards, the phone calls made more often, the online chats and posts and comments. As we live physically separated, we are renewed by these relationships---and our loneliness is eased, our fears are dampened, our joy is kindled.
And our prayer, Beloved, this ongoing stream of Spirit-breath that moves from us to God to others to us to the world to the need to the loss to the grief to our hearts, and minds, and spirits and bodies. This is the Advocate in action. For an advocate is: one who pleads the cause of another; one who defends or maintains a cause; one who supports or promotes the interests of a cause or a group. And Beloved, as God’s people: our Cause is Love. Our interest is Unity. Our Group is all of Creation.
Beloved, the Advocate’s presence in our lives, our receiving of the Spirit, moves us to then become Advocates for others. Through us, the Spirit is bringing hope as our ministers take Boys and Girls Club meals out to Junction City, to Rosholt and to Almond/Bancroft. She is breathing new life into the hard spaces caused by poverty, unemployment, and this pandemic as the gifts you provide go to help folks get food and meds and provide quarters and soap for clean laundry, with help from our Community Wellness Coordinator, Gracia. The generosity of your gifts inspire our Compassion Response Team to partner with others in our community, like CAP services, to help folks get through this pandemic by granting them funds to pay utilities, rent, filling gaps in their budget. And the Compassion team is working with Migration ministries to help those who so often do not have an Advocate for they are seen as aliens, strangers, and foreigners. But we, we who are God’s people, we have heard God tell us over and over: When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. (Leviticus 19:33-34).
God’s words and call to us are why our Leadership team has just voted to sign a resolution calling our legislators to stop the proposed deportation of our Hmong siblings, for no matter their nation of birth, or their parents’ nation of birth, their home is here. Their lives are here. We belong to one another. And these words of God are why our Social Justice Advocacy team are also inviting all members of the Beloved Community to join in a letter writing campaign to our legislators using your voice to enact God’s word.
Beloved, while we have been in this pandemic now for weeks, there is currently a shifting taking place---as we all long for it to be over, but we also desire to move back to communal life safely. As communities, as a state, as a nation, this is the time when we need guidance and leadership---helping us to discern the best ways for all---the smartest ways for the common good---to restore our economy and our life together.
Did you know the word economy comes from the Greek word for household, and it means the management of material resources for the household?
What household? Yours? Mine? Portage County’s? Wisconsin’s? America’s? Well, yes, sure. All of those things. But here’s the thing, Beloved, as God’s people---we don’t start or primarily move from the smallest economy (mine and yours), because we are first and foremost, stewards and safeguards for our largest economy---God’s household. God’s oikonomia---which is all of Creation. That’s why we who already know God see things differently, and hold things differently, and God hopes: respond and choose differently. Beloved: as God’s people our household is large---all of Creation. All nations, all races, all plants and animal-life, all languages, all people.
And our household is at a turning point. Right now, as we live on the cusp of trying to move out from the oppression of the pandemic into a new life, we are all---every nation, every state, every family, every individual---we are all going to have to decide: How shall we live now? Some may desire to simply return to our old ways. But those ways brought us to this day. We, Beloved, we can be the casters of a new vision, a new way. Right now the Spirit empowers us to weave a new dream, build a new path, lead creation into the greener pastures of God’s Kingdom.
Jesus warned in today’s Gospel that the world “cannot receive, because it neither sees God nor knows God.” Jesus knew the world would be estranged from God—and let’s not fool ourselves, we as Christians are often the estranged as well. But Jesus did not mean that someone who doesn’t know or believe or trust God will NEVER receive. Jesus was telling us that a shifting is required, an internal revolution, a change within so that what was once unknown can become known. This is what we hear Paul attempting to do for the listeners in the reading from Acts today. To make known what was once unknown---meeting people in their own spiritual landscapes, speaking differently than we would to folks of our own faith community---but speaking our Truth, our command, God’s cause of Love in such a way that it can grab hold in places that once knew it not.
Beloved, we know our highest Authority; we know the voice of our Shepherd. We know our Greatest Law, the Law of God’s land: and it is love.
So, then, Beloved: at this moment in history, how can we be advocates for love—this grand cause and proposal of God that we live as one Creation. That we care for all of Creation. That we share the abundance God provides because all are equally deserving? And Beloved, this includes those we consider fools and those we think are saviors. How can we be advocates for love as we have conversations with our government and our representatives---encouraging and, frankly, demanding that we have a new way forward that isn’t crippled by partisanship and division, but instead that our new way of governing will be to work together for the Common Good, the greater good—the gift of rebuilding a true democracy. Where every voice matters. Every voice counts. Where people mean more than profit. Every person is valued and no one is left outside our care and protection.
Beloved, can you feel it? The Spirit is re-animating us, inspiring us to advocate for the Way of Love. Now is the time. Now is the day of salvation. Let us use our voices, our consumer power, our choices and decisions to lead. Lead as God’s people and midwife a new world. Instead of waiting for our political leaders to forge a new way, let us take our cue from Scripture and cry out for a new commandment amongst us: Love one another. Love your neighbor. Through our words, through our actions, through our economy. As God’s people, we cannot be silent. As God’s people, it’s time to roll up our sleeves and take our places at the front of the crowd to take those first steps, at the sides of the crowd to make sure there’s protection for everyone, especially the weak and the vulnerable, and at the back of the crowd to make sure that we leave no one behind—leaving no one orphaned.
Resurrection is upon us. From the tomb steps forth new life. This is our Truth. Now, by God’s grace and strength and spirit, let us love, let us live, let us lead.
Jane Johnson is the pastor and priest of the Beloved Community of Intercession Episcopal and Redeemer Lutheran.