So, an unusual thing happened on Tuesday, I was working here in the church building and came out of the sanctuary into our welcome area, and there was a man who used to belong to Intercession, but who–when the Episcopal Diocese decided to allow same-gender marriages–who felt we had gone beyond the pale and chose to leave Intercession. So, I hadn’t seen him for 5-6 years.
But there he was and he said he needed to speak with me; that God seemed to have some lessons for him to learn. He started with reminding me that he was a pretty black and white thinker and then he shared that their grandson had recently come out as transgender. And he and his wife loved his grandson and they want to support him, but they had spoken with their pastor, and they believed his choice of lifestyle was a sin. The man was seeking a second opinion of sorts.
I tried to explain that his grandchild wasn’t choosing a lifestyle. She was choosing her life. I asked him what it would be like if he looked in a mirror and saw a woman staring back, and the world treated him like a woman—even though he knew he was a man. The pain that would cause. The unbearability of it. I told him his granddaughter was making it clear that she could not live the lie any longer—that the lie was more dangerous and harmful to her than the pain and struggle that will come from living her truth. We talked longer and further, and I am glad to say that when the man left he felt as if perhaps he would be able to sleep for the first time in a long time. And then I said, Following Jesus so often requires us to unlearn what we have learned in order to grow deeper, and go deeper, with God.
Unlearning….letting go of what we have learned—from society, from our parents, teachers, from friends, from experiences,--even (and sometimes most importantly) from the Church. Unlearning in order to make room for the Truth, God’s truth.
That’s at the heart of what I am taking away from these lessons this time around…
In the letter to the Corinthians, Paul says: Let’s not test Christ, like some of them did, and were killed by the snakes. Let’s not grumble, like some of them did, and were killed by the destroyer. These things happened to them as an example and were written as a warning for us to whom the end of time has come.
This is a way of understanding God that we see and hear all throughout the Hebrew Scriptures: If you are good, God rewards you and if you are bad, then God punishes. It is a way of understanding God that we still, all too often, believe today. This understanding leads us to say things like: Why did God make this happen to me? Why is God doing this to me? We think when bad things happen it is God’s doing. That God is choosing suffering for us; that God is causing our pain.
And then there’s also this nugget in Paul’s letter: No temptation has seized you that isn’t common for people. But God is faithful. He won’t allow you to be tempted beyond your abilities.
This nugget often gets reiterated as: God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.
Beloved: That is bunk. Absolute bunk. And, it’s a very poor interpretation of God’s Truth.
Frankly, Paul’s got it wrong. Wait! What! How can I say that? What’s that preacher woman talking about!
First of all, let’s remember—Paul is processing theology. Just like us, he has become enthralled and enraptured with the Way of Love, and as Paul seeks to expand Jesus’ movement, he is also trying to figure it out and what it all means—just like you and I. And even though Paul is living in the midst of Jesus’ recent life and has had an incredible story of transformation, he still gets it wrong sometimes. Just like you and I.
Too often, we think of Paul as unable to err, but Beloved, Paul is a human, like us. A human being who has become convinced that his life is God’s, and out of utter gratefulness, he seeks to share and spread what he knows of God. But, sometimes, he gets it only partially right, because like us, sometimes he has to unlearn in order to learn.
And the second reason I can say that Paul probably didn’t get it all right: Jesus. In Today’s Gospel the people come to Jesus and say: Didn’t those Galileans die because they sinned? And Jesus says: Nope. Jesus goes on to say: Do you think those that died when the Tower of Siloam fell on them were being punished? Nope.
Nope, Jesus says: And then Jesus says: if you don’t want to die —Then, Beloved: Change your hearts and lives. Live differently. Be transformed. Turn from your ways to God’s ways. Jesus unequivocally denies that God is a God who punishes us due to anger or disappointment. This isn’t the only time in Scripture Jesus says such things, but it is one.
And not only do Jesus’ words today make it clear that God is not a God of quid pro quo. God does not live by tit for tat. We do, but God does not. As Isaiah reminds us: My plans aren’t your plans, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. Just as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my plans than your plans.
Jesus tells us, and then Jesus shows us in his life and death, that God is not a God of punishment. God is a God of covenant, a covenant from which God refuses to walk away. God is a God who delights in life, not death. God is creative and recreative, not destructive. God is loving, life-giving and liberating. On the cross God says: I forgive. God says, come with me to Paradise, God does not say: now you just wait and see what I’m gonna do to you. Boy, are you in trouble. Beloved,God says: Forgive. Come.
Yes, sometimes, like with the Galileans, our actions have terrible and painful consequences—for ourselves and for others. But God does not cause our suffering—sometimes our actions do. Sometimes our words do. Sometimes our choices and beliefs do. And then, God comes to us and finds us in the midst of the healing, the reconciliation, the forgiveness, the mercy and the grace that must follow.
And yes, sometimes towers fall upon us. Accidents happen. Bad luck, bad timing falls our way. Disease happens. God is not choosing those things for us to see how we will handle it all. God mourns with us. God despairs for us. And then God comes. God comes in the healing, the reconciliation, the reparation,the rebuilding that must follow.
If you walk away with nothing else, here is the unlearning I hope sinks in today: God does not cause our suffering. God does not give us suffering. From the Book of Wisdom, chapter 1, verses 13 and 14: God did not make death, and God does not delight in the death of the living. For God created all things so that they might exist; that they might live.
God is a God of life and resurrection. And God, the Creator, knows that pain and suffering will happen, does happen, and in fact, is inevitable. Death and resurrection is part of what sustains and equips this Creation.
Beloved, God’s promise is not if you are good enough or follow the rules closely enough or that if you show up into a church building 52 Sundays a year you will not have pain or suffering. That you can, somehow, avoid death. And none of this—not a lick of the Way of Love—is about getting into heaven. But, when we live the Way of Love–we taste heaven. We experience heaven; we embody it for others and make it reality for others.
God’s promise is not about a golden ticket into the happily ever after. God’s promise is that God will carry us through. Carry us through whatever life brings. Carry us through when our choices have mucked it all up. Carry us through when our boat is swamped in the storm. Carry us through as we stand beside the tombs and wail our pain. Carry us through when we feel alone in the wilderness, when we hunger and thirst because we know that there is more to be had but it seems beyond our reach, when we are besieged by injustice and the cruel inhumanity that we serve up to each other.
And Beloved, our God of the covenant just keeps showing up. God shows up in the silence , during the storms, in the war-torn maternity hospitals and at the empty tables of hunger and poverty. And in Jesus, the promise is that God will show up for us and with us in human form. God shows up in the friends who listen, bring us dinner, write us cards, lift up prayers. The family who comforts us, sits by our bedside while we heal. The strangers who show up just when we need it. The neighbor who reminds us of our own humanity. The child who reminds us that we are made in God’s image.
So, let’s end back up to where we started—with the story where I began. The man who came to see me admitted that he was a “black and white thinker” —often having trouble accepting folks he called “atypical.” Beloved—we often want a binary world: this or that, good or bad, male/female, friend or enemy…..And when things, or people, do not fit our binary schematic—we deem them “atypical” or “broken” or a “mistake.” Recently, someone asked me why God would create someone whose body didn’t match their gender.
All I can say is that God created a Creation that includes male, female, and many other gender identifications. God created a Creation that includes heterosexual, homosexual, asexual, pansexual, polyamorous…..
These spectrums are not only in humanity but are all throughout Creation. What if the unlearning we need to have is that the “normal” isn’t binary? What if Creation’s normal is a spectrum? Not this nor that, but all of the beautiful above. Just imagine what letting go of that learning might do in leading us toward Shalom.
To quote W.H. Auden:
All I have is a voice
to undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.
Beloved, we must love one another or die.
A thin, frail black woman in her seventies stands up slowly in a courtroom in South Africa in to face evil. In front of her are several white security police officers. One of them, Mr. van der Broek, has just been tried and found guilty in the murders of this woman’s son and husband.
van der Broek had come into this black woman’s home---as a white police officer in South Africa. He took her son, shot him at point blank range and burned his body while the other white security police officers partied nearby. Several years later they came back. This time van der Broek and his partners took her husband. She heard nothing of him or from him for two years. Then they came back to fetch her. They took her to a riverbank where she saw her husband for the first time in two years. He was beaten and bound, lying on a pile of wood. As van der Broek and his cohorts poured gasoline on him, she heard her husband speak his last words: Father, forgive them….
This woman stood to face evil in that courtroom on that day. She listened as van der Broek confessed to his crimes. A member of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation commission then turned to this now elderly black woman and said: How should justice be done for this man who so cruelly destroyed your family?
“I want three things,” the woman calmly said. “I want first to be taken to the place where my husband’s body was burned to gather up the dust and give his remains a decent burial.” She paused. “My husband and son were my only family. So I want Mr. van der Broek to become my son. I want him to come twice a month to my house and spend the day with me so I can pour out on him whatever love I have remaining in me.”
“Finally,” she said, “I would like Mr. van der Broek to know that I offer him my forgiveness because Jesus Christ died to forgive. This was also the wish of my husband. So I would kindly ask someone to come to my side and lead me across the courtroom so that I can take Mr. van der Broek in my arms, embrace him and let him know that he is truly forgiven.”
As the court assistants came to lead the woman across the room, van der Broek fainted, overwhelmed by what he had heard. As he struggled for consciousness, those in the courtroom---family, friends, neighbors of the black woman, all victims of decades of oppression and injustice---began to sing softly and assuredly: “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me….”
Love one another as I have loved you. This, this is that kind of love. This is that all-forgiving, sacrificial, lay-down-your-life-for-another Jesus kind of love. This is a love that puts another’s interest first; in fact, this love recognizes that the other’s interest is my best interest.
When I first read this story, I was overwhelmed and inspired. And yet, at the same time, I thought to myself: I don’t think I could do that. I don’t think I have that much love or forgiveness in me. But, I want to. I want to love like this. Oh, Jesus, I want to be able to love like this.”
And that, Beloved, is just the crack the Holy Spirit needs to invade our hearts.
Did you hear what Peter did in today’s reading from Acts? Peter, a regular guy---a lot like you and me---but a guy so swept up in the passion of Jesus, the passion for Jesus--- that Peter decides to trust in a new way, a new path. You see, Peter had been taught that Gentiles were out. They were outside the circle of salvation. But then, God sent a vision and God sent Peter to meet Cornelius—a Roman centurion—and then we hear Peter today as he talks to his fellow Jesus followers and he explains what he has experienced, the vision of inclusion he has been given, and Peter declares that he now believes Cornelius, a Gentile, has already been saved---just like them, the believers---Peter declares that God desires all, even the Gentiles, to be in the in-circle of salvation.
As Peter is talking, the Holy Spirit falls on them all---a radical outpouring of the Holy---and Peter (and the early church) is presented with an opportunity to learn something new concerning divine persistence to act on behalf of those who have been excluded. The early church’s perspective of who was in and who was out, of just who is the Beloved Community, was being changed---not by their own doing—but by the intervention of the Holy Spirit. By the extravagance of the Holy Spirit and the wideness of God’s mercy.
Neither Peter nor Cornelius were able, by themselves, to cross the boundaries that the world and the early church had set between them. Both of them required the Holy Spirit to intervene---to pour Herself out on them in order to love in this bold, inclusive Jesus kind of love.
It’s the same for us. We need the empowerment of the Holy Spirit to ease into the cracks of our hardened hearts and minds---to break down our barriers and knock over our boundaries that keep us from loving others as Jesus loves us. And Beloved, some of these barriers and boundaries have been taught by the Church. Some have been embedded in our structures and systems, so they are part of our culture, society and laws. Some have been taught to us by our history books and our families. All of them need to be demolished. Because in Jesus we see that there are to be no boundaries or borders between God’s people that prevent them from pouring out love upon one another. There are no barriers between God and God’s people---at least none that God has made, but we can certainly do a fine job of building them ourselves.
Beloved: daily we see stories that verify we—as a people, as a nation, as the Beloved---we do not yet know how to live out this radical love and inclusivity, this equity for all of the beauty of human diversity, this stewardship of the entire Creation. But, Beloved, if we are willing---if we allow ourselves to be cracked open, the Holy can and will mend, restore, make new. And not just our hearts and minds and spirits need to be cracked open, but if we are willing to allow our systems, our structures, our cultural expectations, our religious beliefs, our erroneous racial identifications and our petty categorizations of humanity to be cracked open---then not only we as individuals, but we as the Beloved Community, we as Americans, we as global citizens---and yes, even the globe itself---can be put on the track toward wellness and wholeness, to mending and repair.
The Rev. Stephanie Spellers writes in her book, The Church Cracked Open: “Our cracked-open hearts are at last roomy enough to hold the lives and hearts of others……Once your heart is cracked open---or the heart of your institution has cracked open---you are positioned to give your life, privilege, and power away specifically for love of peoples who have suffered under the knee of oppression. This is how we all draw near to our crucified and risen God.” (1875 in Kindle)
God tells us today that the world’s boundaries, divisions, and barriers, they will be defeated. By our belief and trust in the Holy. Because this belief and trust enacted, putting flesh onto our beliefs, is to love one another. As Jesus loves us. Sacrificially. Laying down one’s life. Not waiting until the other deserves it but because this radical love is who we are. And it is who we are because it is who God is. God’s will is Love. God’s will is Love.
C.S. Lewis once wrote: Don’t waste time bothering about whether or not you love your neighbor. Act as if you do.
Act in love, act from love, act through love. The love that recognizes meeting the other’s best interest is meeting my best interest. This love that sees that we are bound to one another because God has bound us together. This is the love that changes the world; this is what defeats evil; this is what conquers our separation from one another, and therefore, from God. As Jesus followers and Jesus lovers, we are not allowed the luxury to think along the lines of: my kind, not my kind. Beloved, for those of us who love God, there is not a single person on the face of the earth who is not our kind.
A devotional I once read talked about how throughout history, people have done radical things to try to please the god or gods they believed in. Animals, and even people, have been sacrificed. Crusades have been waged. Witches have been hunted. Heretics have been burned. Men in white robes with white hoods, calling themselves the Ku Klux Klan, looted and burned, maimed and lynched black bodies in the name of Jesus Christ.
Maybe it’s human nature to want to do drastic and radical things to please God---or perhaps, I should say, maybe it’s human nature to falsely do things in God’s name in order to appease our own notions of who belongs or who is worthy or our own “rightness.” Too often we can convince ourselves that God hates or disowns people or groups of people---and interestedly enough: it is always the same people we hate or disown.
Today we hear the Holy declaring a new nature for humanity, a new radical act to please God: Love. Love everyone, regardless of whether we agree with them, understand or even know them. How? Forgive them---somehow. It might take a lifetime. But even when we haven’t yet reached forgiveness, love them. By working for the benefit of all people---working toward the Common Good---this is how we can love all others. Work for the flourishing of Creation and every human being in it. This is a radical thing to do, a huge thing to do---so huge it requires a God-sized love to do it. The Good News is: that’s exactly what God gives us.
Do you ever wonder how to know what is the right thing to do? What should I do to help this situation? Looking at this sticky mess---what is the right thing? Confession time: I often feel this way right now because there is so much in upheaval: the climate crisis, the economy, the pandemic, our great political divide and politicians who refuse to work together, poverty, racism, insurrection, violence....unfortunately the list goes on...And then we have those more personal upheavals: broken relationships, trauma and tragedy we know personally, illness, loss, grief, isolation.....
How can we know what to do or how to move forward or what the right thing is for each struggle, each upheaval, each weary battle?
Now, Beloved, I know this reading from 1 Corinthians might seem really strange and distant to us, Paul talking about whether it’s right or wrong to eat meat that had been offered to idols and other gods; we might think this really has nothing to do with our lives today. But, Beloved, Paul is simply trying to help out folks in this new church of Corinth when there’s a conflicting issue in their society, in their community—trying to help them determine what is the right thing to do. Like us, Paul is helping the Corinthians to answer the question: How do we live as followers of a new way in the midst of followers of the old way? So, let’s set aside the particular (whether to eat meat or not) and get at the Gospel Truth Paul is offering.
Paul says: You might know a lot about this situation, but knowing alone isn’t enough to determine what is the right, the just, the good thing to do. Paul says the right and good (or we might say: what is meet and right so to do) is found when we look through the lens of Jesus and ask: What will help my neighbor? What will hurt my neighbor? Knowing what is right comes from considering what will be the ramifications of our choices on others. Not how will it work out for me, primarily, but how will it affect my neighbor and the world in which I live?
And Beloved, Paul isn’t just talking about your besties, the fun neighbors you like to hang out with, Paul is talking about the neighbor you don’t understand or who has a different world view or with whom you vehemently disagree. So, maybe, Beloved, this strange reading about eating meat has a lot more to do with us and our reality than we would think.
And here’s the thing, this putting each decision in the context of neighbor requires a great reversal---a metanoia—turning from an inward, self-centered stance to an outward, other-centered posture. And this metanoia requires a letting go of my view and living into a wider view, a Creation view---God’s view.
And here’s where the Gospel Good News comes into the mix. In Today’s Gospel, we are the man with the unclean spirit, the demon-possessed one. Because the truth is, each one of us has our own demons; those sharp edges and ragged corners within us that allow us to believe some folks are less worthy or unworthy. Not worthy of our time, our compassion, our patience or our listening hearts. That some folks don’t know better or do better so their lack of what’s needed to thrive is on them. Those jagged bits of us that knows there is inequity in our society, but it doesn’t affect us personally so we’re willing to let it slide. The bits that let us sit in our comfort while others know no comfort. Those judging, condemning morsels within us that relish in pointing out how others are so very wrong (thank God we are in the right!), and making sure they know we know how very wrong they are.
Beloved, we have demons that keep us separated from friends, families, neighbors, community members; demons of self-righteous anger, pride, lack of humility, unwillingness to be uncomfortable or inconvenienced, and of course, let’s not forget delicious gossip. Yep, we’re that guy---the demon-possessed one. But, Beloved, let us not wallow in regret, shame or guilt. That won’t get us anywhere. That, Beloved, that is a waste-land.
Today’s good news is that Jesus, this Holy One, has authority over these demons. God has sent a prophet among us who can show us how to be truly human, how to be authentically human, our best selves: people who can live into the dream of the Beloved Community.
And our first step toward the Beloved Community is to name our demons, expose our demons to the light and love of this Holy One, this One who saves and restores. This revolution we long for, Beloved, this new world we desire that can transform community, nation, and Creation---this revolution begins small, not big, it begins within us. Begins in our hearts, minds, spirits and bodies. If we truly desire to live into the wholeness and abundance of God’s promises, into this dream of Beloved Community, then we need to be willing to be vulnerable with God: the God who is Spirit and the God who comes to us in the form of our neighbor. God with skin on. This God who longs to know us and to be known.
This year we are calling one another, as the Beloved Community, to take intentional steps into this vulnerability with God through prayer. We are calling on each other to commit to a year of intentional and formational prayer that can strengthen our bonds to one another, to our neighbor and to God. You will hear more about that next Sunday.
Beloved, God is calling us to Galilee---where the Christ heals and restores---heals and restores us, our neighbors, our relationships, our communities, our nation, and this world. Healing and restoration that require our participation, our engagement, our commitment. Come, Beloved. Come and see. Come and follow. Yes, it is hard to walk a new way amidst those who still cling to what has been, but the Holy One is with us. Leading. Walking alongside. Lightening the path and shadowing our footsteps. So, come. Let us walk each other into wholeness; let us walk each other home. Home to Galilee.
Sunday, January 24
This past week, I heard a leader from our previous administration say that America is not multicultural---that multiculturalism is not who we are as America. Beloved, you may agree with that statement or disagree; there does seem to be different understandings of who we are as a nation and as a people. I, personally disagree with this leader; I was taught that we are indeed a nation of many cultures, different faiths and many peoples, but Beloved, here’s the thing: for we who follow the Christ---this Way of Love personified in a person—then our truth of who we are doesn’t come from the definition of a nation. It comes from this Holy One who is Creator of all things---and therefore, we do recognize ourselves to be multicultural because multicultural is surely who God is. If humankind is made in God’s image, then there is no denying that God’s image is one of many languages, many colors, many cultures.
In the first letter to the Corinthians, Paul declares that he expects the Christ to come back soon----so soon, in fact, that Paul advises people not to make their own long-term plans because the time for Jesus is upon us. And Paul knows, and declares, that when the Christ, this Way of Love, breaks back in---then the present form of the world passes away. The present form of this world passes away….
Oh! Beloved! What good news. I long for the present form of this world to pass away---this animosity and anger that paints our landscape, this division and vitriol of humanity that weakens us, this poverty, this injustice of racism, this silencing of the voices of women and the LGBTQ community, this diminishment of refugees and immigrants, this desecration of Creation----oh how I long for it all to pass away….
And Beloved, the passing away of a world only happens when those who inhabit that world change (or as we often translate the Greek of Scripture, when there is repentance—a metanoia---a turning around). When we change our ways, our priorities, our views. When we turn from one way of being to another way of being, of another way living, another way of loving.
Like the people of Ninevah we hear in today’s reading. Of course, our friend Jonah wanted nothing to do with helping the Ninevites since they inhabited a world, this capital city of Ninevah, that was the center of the oppressive state (Assyria) which oppressed Jonah’s people, the Israelites. Jonah had no desire to help them or see them or speak to them. In fact, he ran the other direction. But God would have none of Jonah’s avoidance. Nor will God have ours.
And when, reluctantly and begrudgingly, Jonah decided to do as God asks, well then the Ninevites---they turned, they repented. They believed God. In fact, this translation of the Greek that we hear today as “believed” is too small for what this word really means. They didn’t just believe; they trusted. They trusted God---these non-believers, these misinformed, these non-followers. They believed and trusted God. They trusted there is another way to live, to choose, to share, to be in relationship with God and with neighbors—friend or foe.
Thanks to the work of this reluctant Jonah. The oppressors turned, repented, and then, Beloved, then the consequences that had once followed their oppressive, evil ways----these consequences were set aside, ended, because there was no oxygen to breathe life into the evil and oppression that once had been. And a wave of repentance led to a great reversal. A wave of repentance, turning around, led to a great reversal. Because, as the poet Amanda Gorman put it, we are not broken, simply unfinished.
When we, as individuals, but perhaps more importantly as a people, when we turn from evil ways: name-calling, finger pointing, placing more value on some rather than on all, when we turn from the evil of spreading misinformation, when we turn from demanding what is best for us and turn toward demanding what is best for all, when we step from the chains of self-centeredness that imprison us and turn toward the bonds of sisterhood and brotherhood that are central to God’s dream---then the world turns---turns from upside-down to right side up, turns toward God’s Kingdom come.
An old world passes away and a new world rises up. A world where all have enough because God has provided enough for everyone---as long as we learn to live together rightly and justly, when we recognize that none of this is mine, but all of it is ours, thanks be to God.
Last week’s Gospel told us that Jesus decided to go to Galilee and today, Mark puts it like this: Jesus came to Galilee. Galilee: where Jesus teaches and heals, where Jesus connects to all people, especially the disenfranchised, where Jesus feeds the hungry and quenches the thirsty, where Jesus levels the playing field and liberates the oppressed, where Jesus builds relationships and restores hope. Galilee where the Good News is proclaimed.
Beloved, the appointed time has grown short, the time for Jesus is upon us and God’s Kingdom is near. Turn. Turn, Beloved, toward the way of love. Love of God, love of neighbor, love of self. Turn and choose life. Come to Galilee.
In today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles, Paul asks some Ephesians: “Into what then were you baptized?”
Beloved: how would you answer that question? Into what then where you baptized? Were you baptized into a community? If so, do you mean the community of the church where you were baptized? Do you mean the Episcopal Church or the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America? Do you mean the worldwide Christian community or the community of people who know God by many names?
Were you baptized into a set of beliefs? A series of doctrines? A collection of practices and rituals?
Were you baptized into a new world? A new way of Living, a new way of loving? Into what then were you baptized?
Let’s hear this reading from the book of Acts as it is written in the Message translation:
Now, it happened that while Apollos was away in Corinth, Paul made his way down through the mountains, came to Ephesus, and happened on some disciples there. The first thing he said was, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed? Did you take God into your mind only, or did you also embrace God with your heart? Did God get inside you?”
“We’ve never even heard of that--a Holy Spirit? God within us?”
“How were you baptized, then?” asked Paul.
“In John’s baptism.”
“That explains it,” said Paul. “John preached a baptism of radical life-change so that people would be ready to receive the One coming after him, who turned out to be Jesus. If you’ve been baptized in John’s baptism, you’re ready now for the real thing, for Jesus.”
Beloved: are we ready? To live into this baptism of ours? To take God into our minds and embrace God with our heart…..to let God get inside us? This baptism of ours is just the beginning---when we say these words and make these promises and have the living water poured over us----this is our first response to God’s invitation to live into this new world and to wake up and take part in this new life. But then, Beloved, there is the rest of our lives. Our baptism is our yes to a new authority. That’s right---I said authority. The world tries to woo us to consider other authorities: political, national, material, financial----so many options. Our country is spinning today because we, as a people, seem to be living by opposing authorities. And some of these so-called authorities do not have the Common Good in mind, this Common Good Jesus continually urges us to seek, but instead they seek power, wealth and security for some, but not all. Or they demand a personal freedom to live however they want no matter how it affects others or what it costs Creation or how much it divides God’s people.
But we who have been baptized, we answer to a different authority---and it is God, this God whom we know through Jesus the Christ. This God who is with us….this God who speaks.
Today’s Word tells us that when God speaks…..
Light is created. The sun, moon and stars come into being. Time is born and a new day begins. Order takes shape from the chaos. In the time of Genesis, when God moved over the waters, the waters were a symbol of the abyss…..the dangerous and unknown…..the shadows and the dark deep from which monsters come……And today we hear: God controls the abyss…God brings order from the chaos….God defeats the monsters.
And today we hear that when God speaks, Creation responds: thunder, lightning, earth, wind and fire. When God speaks, nature takes its course: birth, death, renewal and Glory is made known.
When God speaks, we are named Beloved. All are named Beloved, and we are sent forth toward the healing and uniting ministry this Creation needs, freed from our self-centeredness and our self-serving ways---baptized into a new life, a new way of living, a new community---a community whose authority is Elohim, Yahweh, Allah, El Shaddei, this Triune God who is Creator, Redeemer and Spirit.
So with the world around us in upheaval…..with our neighbors so divided…..with our democracy teetering on the edge……we may find ourselves asking: what can we do? What can we truly and actively do amidst this chaos….here on the edge of what feels like an abyss? First of all, we must stop saying: This is not who we are. Beloved, maybe not personally or individually, but collectively----this is who we are. There is no denying it. And as we own this reality, we can then begin to say: But this is not who we are meant to be. This is not who we will choose to be.
Beloved: remember……remember who we are and whose we are…..And Listen…..God is still speaking.
We are baptized into a worldwide community of people who know and are known by God. Baptized into a new life of practices that opens our hearts, minds and spirits to God, opens the door to God’s presence, turning us toward God----that’s what repentance means---a complete turn around from false authorities to the only authority through whom we can know Peace, through whom we can live out God’s good will for all of humankind. Listen and turn toward God. For when this God speaks……..
There is Light, life after death, order from chaos, Creation restored, glory made known, monsters from the abyss defeated.
Beloved, into what then were you baptized? Who is your authority? To whom then are you listening…….?
Beloved it is Epiphany---a word that means revelation…..an aha moment……an awakening.
And tonight’s story from the Gospel echoes all too clearly the Epiphany we need to have right now, today, January 6th, 2021. Herod, a power-hungry leader, was willing to kill thousands of children for the sake of hanging onto his power. In our nation’s capitol, power-hungry leaders, and their followers, were willing to put lives on the line all for the sake of maintaining power. With this Gospel story echoing in our ears, we are seeing and hearing on our screens what happens to humanity when it becomes too enamored with its own power. When the thought of losing one’s power overtakes the human heart and desperation sets in.
Desperation that is then acted out by inciting fear and violence---insurrection and divisiveness----lawlessness and lovelessness…..whether in the country of Egypt or on the steps of a Capitol building. The story playing out in Washington D.C. tonight is the story of Matthew, Chapter 2---our Gospel tonight. When maintaining power is more important to humanity than the common good, the will of the people, the will of the Divine, and Love.
But, Beloved, let us not move---as we so often do---to name calling and labeling one another so we know which side each of us stands on. Yes, we should hold those whose words and actions have led to this violence and this threat to our democracy accountable. We are each called to use our voices, our votes, and our influence to empower our public servants to uphold our nation’s laws and Constitution in order to set our society back on a road of civility and justice.
But, Beloved, let’s not be too quick to let ourselves off the hook. This day was not made in a moment, or even in a 4-year span…..this is a moment that has been in the making since our nation began. And each of us plays a part in it. Now, if you are like me, until these past few years, I have foolishly thought that I haven’t taken part in this growing mess. But we all have. Because since 1776, this nation has not only tolerated, but we have baked into our systems, our institutions, our ways of being, our definition of what is America and American---some pretty abhorrent things: white supremacy, racism, nationalism, fear of the foreigner, toxic masculinity, socioeconomic oppression, classicism.
So, Beloved, if like me you are horrified by what you are seeing on our screens, then join me---join the Christ---in this Epiphany. Waking up to the shadows within our systems, within our culture, within our structures, within our hearts. Wake up and shine the Christ light there. Let us learn our own complicity, and then let us own it. And change it. And become who we proclaim to be. Not only as Christians…..but as Americans. E Pluribus Unum---that’s our motto: From the Many, One.
There is no time for further name-calling and labelling. We must heal our wounds. We must find ways to work toward justice---God’s sense of justice which demands mutuality, diversity and inclusion---we must find ways, and demand our public servants to find ways, to work together toward the Common Good. The Common Good which is an ideal of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and all major world faiths. After all, Beloved, the side we stand on is the same side. We are all on one side---humanity’s side, creation’s side---the side for which our Holy God never ceases to stop working. And neither shall we.
Herod would rather that we remain asleep. That we do not wake up to our complicity; that we leave it as it is. Conserve the status quo; let the power remain where it lies. But, Beloved, we have heard the angels and we have seen this Star. Wake up Beloved. Bring your gifts; pay homage with your lives. We are God’s Beloved Community----E Pluribus Unum.
Jesus wants to know what folks are saying about him. And the disciples say: They think you are the ones from the past who they have heard and learned about: Elijah, Jeremiah---or maybe even that dude down at the river who folks are talking about: John the Baptist.
Then Jesus leans in---getting intimate with those who follow him and Jesus asks: But who do YOU say that I am?
When it comes to our faith, when we are asked to explain what we believe or think---we often fall back onto what we have been taught---dredging up those phrases and answers from our catechisms, our Sunday school classes or our prayers. So often that question: What do you believe? Who is Jesus to you? Kind of makes us freeze. “Oh no!” we think, “I didn’t know I was going to have to answer that question.”
Or worse yet, we think: “My faith is private; people shouldn’t ask me that question.”
But, Beloved, our faith isn’t private. Now, it may be personal, but faith—by the very living example we have in Jesus and the truth we know in the Living Word---faith is communal, collective---not private. Faith is something that is to be shared; yes, in deed and action, but sometimes folks, God desires we use our words, our stories. God desires that we answer the question: Who do you say that I am? not only from learned knowledge, but from our lived experience.
This requires that we mature from simply reading and knowing about God to actually knowing God, having God as a companion, bringing our vulnerable and authentic selves into this relationship with the divine instead of just our spankin’ clean, decked out in church clothes, spit-polished versions of ourselves.
From this real, living relationship---a relationship that is full of doubt, questions, struggles, and a range of emotions---we then have stories to share. Sharing who we know this living God to be in our very real lives.
Who do you say that I am?
Maya Angelou once wrote: “Do the best you can until you know better. When you know better, do better.” Knowing God helps me to know better---and then to do better. That’s why I follow Jesus. Jesus is the lens through which I gaze upon God, learning a better way of life, of being. Jesus is so many things for me.
Jesus is the One who catches me. Many of you have heard these tales, so indulge me: When I was 18, almost 19, I found out that Murray and I were expecting our first child. But we were not yet married, and being our younger selves, uncertain of what to do. I left college for a semester and moved back home, and Murray and I ended up taking a break in our relationship---both of us struggling. You know, I was the priest’s kid, so having your priest’s daughter come home from college, pregnant and unmarried, isn’t the ideal situation. But this faith community of St. Anskar’s in Hartland, Wisconsin rallied around me. They loved me, gave me jobs babysitting their kids, even offered to be my labor coach. Now, my oldest sister was actually my coach, but think about how beautiful this offer was: this person knowing I was young, a first-time mom, probably afraid: this person said: I have done this before, I have been in that moment---I will help you if you need me. Now, that Beloved, that’s the love of Jesus. This community was the living Body of Christ and caught me when I was stumbling and struggling and afraid. Jesus is the One who catches me.
Jesus is the One who comforts and strengthens me. When our fourth and final child, Abe, was born prematurely, he couldn’t breathe on his own. He had to have oxygen; in fact, he was blue. And we didn’t know on that day what other consequences there may be to his arriving 6 weeks early. Lots of possibilities were mentioned: cerebral palsy, blindness, brain bleeds----all overwhelming to hear in that moment. Abe was rushed to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, also known as the NICU. I didn’t even get to hold him. Later that night, Murray brought our other three children to meet their baby brother and then they all went home after what had been a long and anxious 24+ hours for all of us. Then I was in my room, alone---looking at the psalms in my Bible for….something….while the tears flowed and the fear rumbled. I was saying over and over: Help me, Jesus, help me. I was so afraid; I couldn’t even summon up the courage to ask the questions of the nurses that I had about Abe because I was afraid of the answers. And then, Beloved, then Jesus walked into my room. And warmth filled the air. Jesus sat next to me on my bed, took my hand, looked me in the eyes and said: Everything’s going to be all right, Jane. I promise. Everything will be all right. And then Jesus was gone. And so was my fear. My tears stopped. Calm and peace invaded me. And I asked to be taken to the NICU where I asked all my questions. Because I knew---whatever happened, however this played out---here was this baby blessing and we would be okay. Jesus is my comfort and my rock.
But even more than that, Jesus is the One who gives me the breath and the desire to move forward---through tough times, through slow times, through boring, everyday times and through the glorious, once-in-a-lifetime times. Because Jesus comes to me in all those times through the folks I meet, you the Beloved Community, the neighbors we have, the students I’ve known, the colleagues with whom I partner. My children, grandchildren, and sisters bring me joy, laughter, and friendship. Through humanity with whom I rub elbows, Jesus keeps giving me breath, inspiration, and the hope and desire to progress, move forward and to take the next step.
You know, Beloved, the church often says that marriage is holy, a sacrament even, because in the covenantal relationship of marriage, we see the kind of love that God feels for us---particularly in the Christ. This sacrificial love that puts the other in the forefront, that shares the last cookie or runs to the store because you forgot something. This love who listens to your complaints and your triumphs, who laughs at your ridiculousness and forgives your momentary cruelty. This love that refuses to give up, even when it gets really hard, who chooses you again and again and again. When you have morning breath and bedhead, this love that still kisses you good morning and says: I love you. And says the words you need to hear in the moment you need to hear them; this love that loves all of you—even the not so wonderful bits---this love I know in Murray, my husband. And I can say the same thing about my momma---she loves me as God loves me. Who do you say that I am? Because of our marriage and the love of Murray, because of the love my mom has given to me since even before I was born, I know Jesus to be my home---no matter the house or town or state in which I live. How blessed I am to have this love, this love that is the nest from which I can fly high and this love to which I can return home when I need rest.
And Jesus is the One who challenges me. Jesus is the neighbor who tells me the story of their life of living on the economic edge, trying to move out from prison of addiction, but finding very few lifelines being thrown to them because we don’t understand why the first chance, the second rehab hospital, the losing their home and their job wasn’t enough to make them want to change. Because, of course, they want a different life, but addiction is a demon that is relentless and strong, and more than we’d like to admit: sometimes unbeatable. This neighbor, my friend, asks me to see outside the experience I have known---to listen to a reality that is foreign to me---and challenges me to that command: Whatever you do for the least valued of these…..love your neighbor…..feed my sheep.
Who do you say that I am? All those Sunday School classes, and Vacation Bible Schools, and seminary courses taught me many things. But none of those book answers are my personal answer to who Jesus is. Those teachings focused my sight and fine-tuned my hearing and sharpened my heart and mind so that I can know the living Christ---the God right in front of me---the God who dwells in humanity. Jesus died on the cross. But the Christ still lives. And the Christ isn’t a disembodied spirit floating around and descending from time to time. The Christ is the embodied presence of God here on earth in my neighbor, in my family and friends, in this church, in the one who stands before me and the one who sits next to me. Incarnation.
These are some of my stories. What are yours? Do you know them? Have you taken the time to look back and see where God has been present? Beloved, we are called to know our stories and then to live them out again in other people’s lives. Tell your story, tell the story, this great love story of us and God, this loving, life-giving, liberating God who refuses to let any of us go.
Who do YOU say that I am?
“Go….proclaim the good news: The Kingdom of heaven has come near.”
A done deal---the Kingdom is near, God’s Kingdom, right here and right now—not some far away place or time----not after we are dead and buried----but here, Beloved, now. This might be hard to believe during a pandemic, during this time when the ugly reality of the divisive and prejudiced nature of our nation is being revealed, but it is still true, still Gospel, still the Good News: The Kingdom of heaven has come near.”
What does that Kingdom look like? How will we know Kingdom Living when we see it? Friends, there’s no mystery here; the Christ tells us: “Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.”
Cure the sick: Wear masks, wash your hands regularly, maintain safe physical distance. We do these things to keep others healthy and safe, particularly the vulnerable. Such simple things to do, especially after 430,000 deaths in the world; over 117,000 dead in the United States and rising toward 1,000 in our state of Wisconsin. In a matter of months. Surely, these simple tasks: keeping a safe distance, washing hands, and wearing masks in public are things we can collectively do to slow the rise of these death rates. Right now, in this pandemic, this is how we can cure the sick.
Beloved, by eradicating poverty, demanding a living minimum wage for all, ensuring food security, ending homelessness, companioning those with addiction and mental health issues, protecting our immigrant and refugee siblings who live oppressed lives in the shadows---even while they are working to provide for our food and economic structure--- when we free our siblings from poverty, from hunger and homelessness, from fear and inadequate or non-existent healthcare---we raise the dead.
Cleanse the lepers, Jesus tells us. While we may no longer fear leprosy as we once did, we still treat too many people as the outcast and the marginalized. But, I don’t think those who are outcast and marginalized are the ones with the disease; I think those of us who have status and privilege and who don’t work toward justice for all are the ones who are sick, unhealthy, and diseased. Just this week our trans-siblings have had their healthcare protections in our nation eroded. When we use our voice and our political influence to pushback whenever those who have not been fully protected and welcomed in our society are threatened, we cleanse ourselves of our human tendency to marginalize and ostracize those with whom we are uncomfortable. And Beloved, there’s still a lot of cleansing to do.
We are feeling and seeing the need for cleansing with every protest, every cry from another black mother or father who has lost a child to racism. With every new lynching of a person of color, every blind eye turned to the poverty and lack of clean water for our indigenous and native siblings, every time we allow women to be subjugated and be stripped of her right to make decisions about her own body, every time we allow racism, prejudice, bigotry, hatred and fear to speak---we have demons among us. And these demons are given life by us: by our mindsets, our privilege, our indifference, our laws, our mores and customs, by our systems and our governing rules. And we, those of us with status and privilege, authority and power---we are the ones who must cast these demons out---once and for all.
Today God tells Moses to tell us---we who are bound and tied through the waters of baptism to those first Israelites wandering in the wildernss of Sinai---God tells us: “You shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.” And our ancestors said: Everything you tell us, God, we will do.”
Beloved, we know how that turned out. Now, they probably meant everything they said, just as we do when we say the Creed, or renew our baptismal vows, or pray the Lord’s Prayer. We know our ancestors got lost, just as we get lost, that they promised just what we also promise, but then go and do another thing. Why is it so hard, this Kingdom living? Sometimes it is just so very hard to do the right thing, the God thing.
So, right now, Beloved, I want you to close your eyes. Close your eyes and hear God’s Kingdom call to us again: Cure the sick…..raise the dead…..cleanse the lepers…..cast out the demons…..
Take a deep breath. Look within your own heart. What is keeping you from fully living out that Kingdom call? What keeps you from living and giving the love of God in these life-restoring ways, these means of salvation and redemption?
Is it busyness? Blindness? Discomfort? Do you doubt your ability? Have a lack of desire? Is there a misunderstanding? Apathy? Lack of resources? Are you self-centered and inwardly curved? Beloved, where does the sin of racism, the poison of seeing another as less valuable or less worthy live within you, within your heart?
(open your eyes now). Beloved, whatever it is---the obstacle, the barrier, the weed to be rooted out---I invite you to turn that over to God. Now, if you’re like me, there is more than one---so start with just one. One at a time---put that broken piece, that hindrance---right at the center of your prayer life. Ask God to remove it, to mend it. Maybe you need to start by asking for the desire for it to be removed, cleansed, transformed. But, Beloved, this is our work to do---and God is with us in this work, God is for us in this work. And as our hearts, minds, and beings are reformed, we can walk deeper into the Kingdom that has drawn near; we can see and hear and taste it more clearly. And then share it with others---widening the Beloved Community, relationship by relationship. Living together as the holy nation, a kingdom of priests. God’s Kingdom come near.
American Philosopher Dallas Willard puts it this way: “We don’t believe something by merely saying we believe it or even when we believe that we believe it. We believe something when we act as if it were true.”
Jane Johnson is the pastor and priest of the Beloved Community of Intercession Episcopal and Redeemer Lutheran.