Baptism: Lifeline for a Lifetime

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Today, this commemoration of the baptism of Jesus is a leap forward in time. It seems like we just celebrated his birth, and now here’s the adult Jesus down at the Jordan River getting baptized. They grow up so fast, don’t they?!

What is it about this event that the Church calendar creators, in their wisdom, have put it right after Christmas and right at the beginning of the Epiphany season? Evidently, they thought that baptism was an important topic for us to think about, especially since a version of the story of the baptism of Jesus is told in three of the four gospels.

Baptism is one of the two sacraments of the Lutheran Church, and Martin Luther famously repeated often the admonition to “Remember your baptism!” But what did he mean by that? What do we mean by it? Baptism is one of the two sacraments of the Lutheran Church, and Martin Luther famously repeated often the admonition to “Remember your baptism!” But what did he mean by that? What do we mean by it? 

Sometimes stories are the best way to get at meaning, so I’m going to tell two. The first comes from Pastor Janet Wolf of Hobson United Methodist church in Nashville, TN. She describes her congregation as wildly diverse, including “…people with PhDs and folks who have never gone past the third grade; folks with two houses and folks living on the streets; and, as one person who struggles with mental health declared, ‘those of us who are crazy and those who think they’re not.’” 

As Pastor Janet tells it, some years ago, a woman named Fayette found her way to the church. Fayette was homeless and was living with lupus and mental illness. She joined the new member class and was particularly taken with a description of baptism as “this holy moment when we are named by God’s grace with such power it won’t come undone.” In the class, Fayette would interrupt to ask again and again, “And when I’m baptized, I am…?” And the class would respond, “Beloved, precious child of God, and beautiful to behold.” “Oh, yes!” she’d say, and they’d go back to their discussion. The day of Fayette’s baptism came. This is how Pr. Janet describes it: “Fayette went under, came up sputtering, and cried out, ‘And now I am…?’ And we all sang, ‘Beloved, precious child of God, and beautiful to behold.’ ‘Oh, yes!’ she shouted as she danced around the fellowship hall. 

Two months later, Pr. Janet got a phone call. Fayette had been beaten and raped and was at the county hospital. When she arrived at the hospital, she says: “I could see her from a distance, pacing back and forth. When I got to the door, I heard, ‘I am beloved.’ She turned, saw me, and said, ‘I am beloved, precious child of God, and….’ 

Catching sight of herself in the mirror  – hair sticking up, blood and tears streaking her face, dress torn, dirty, and rebuttoned askew, she started again, ‘I am beloved, precious child of God, and…’ She looked in the mirror again and declared, ‘…and God is still working on me. If you come back tomorrow, I’ll be so beautiful I’ll take your breath away!’”

That is what baptism is.

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The second story comes from Dr. Heather Murray Elkins, Professor of Worship, Preaching, and the Arts at Drew University. This is how she tells it:

It was the last day of a pastor’s retreat. I had given them an assignment. They were to look through scripture over the three days and find the name that belonged to them. Or the story they couldn’t live without. I explained that Abraham Heschel talks about scripture: We do not say the Word, the Word utters us. There are pieces of scripture we belong to. 

To prepare for closing day, we made a circle of chairs, with one chair in middle. And we’d hear each other pronounce our names to all there, to identify the way the word had uttered them. It was going very well, with really powerful testimonies coming right out of scripture. Then a young man, young to ministry anyway, sat in the chair and didn’t say anything. We waited and waited. It got really uncomfortable. Finally I said to him,” Is there something you’d like to share with us, some name or some story?” He didn’t look at me or the group, just at his hands.

He said, “I looked for three days, and there were names I wanted. But none were strong enough to replace the name I have, that I’d been given. I was given this name when I was very young, and it was repeated to me as I grew.  My father gave me this name.” Then he fell silent again. 

After a moment I said, “Would you be willing to share, what is that name, what is your name? 

And he said, he said, “My name is ‘not good enough’. That’s my name; my father gave me that name. ” Then he began to cry.

We were in that room, we were watching him, and he was crying and it was like he was drowning right in front of us. We’re a bunch of lifeguards, and we didn’t know what to do. How can he not have a name or how to break the power of that name?

And then it was I think the Spirit did its work, because it was like a wind or maybe just an impulse. A group of us got up, without a word, without making eye contact and went to where he was on the chair, sitting weeping. And we laid hands on him. And then it wasn’t just one voice, it was several voices, like one voice coming up all together, like one flow, one stream. And what we said, to him, sitting weeping in our midst, with our hands on him was this: “You are my beloved child. In you I am well pleased. “

And then we just paused.  We just let the blessing rest. And then we all sat down. 

When we packed up and finished our business and got ready to go home, I saw him in the parking lot. I went over and said, “I need to know, I really need to know: will that make a difference to you, will what happened make any difference?”

And he said, “You know, I don’t know.  But I feel as if something in here was broken. And it isn’t now. But I promise you, every time I put my hand in the water to help name another human being in front of God, I’ll remember who I am.“

She ends her story by saying, “See, I think that’s the secret of our baptism.”

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Martin Luther is said to have often exclaimed, “I am baptized” when he felt his energy flagging, his doubt growing, or his fear strengthening. The story is told that when he was hidden away for safekeeping in the Wartburg Castle, he struggled with loneliness and anxiety. It’s said that he would scribble on his desktop ‘I am baptized’ in order to battle back his despair. His story reminds us that baptism is not an empty ritual or a one-time welcoming party. Nor is it a requirement for salvation, a way to determine who’s in and who’s out, who’s saved and who’s not. It is a way of life, a way of being in the world that’s informed by a moment in time when we were sealed with the same Holy Spirit that came to Jesus in his moment in time. To scribble or say “I am baptized,” especially in times of loneliness, anxiety, despair, weariness, fear, illness or fatigue, is our greatest resource when our light is faltering or the fire of our passion for life is in need of rekindling.

OK, you say. But how does that work? You mean if I just scribble “I am baptized” on my desk, all my troubles will go away? No, it’s not a magic potion. The Holy Spirit’s not a genie in a bottle to grant your every wish. Baptism is a lifeline – for a lifetime. Martin Luther said baptism is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that takes our entire lives to fulfill.

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The most important thing to remember about baptism is that it’s about identity. That’s what this day is about. Epiphany is the season of revelation. Who was this Jesus who was drawn down to the river for John’s baptism? We get so caught up with the dilemma of why Jesus had to be baptized if he never sinned. We could argue about the validity of that assumption another time. Suffice to say for now, for Jesus, there was more to it than having his sins washed away. 

In all three gospel accounts, the voice of God speaks: “You are my beloved.” No mention of forgiveness of sins, just “You are my beloved.” That’s the revelation. That’s the gift Jesus took away from his baptism: his identity. Imagine what an epiphany that was for him – to be so known, so affirmed, so loved. Well, actually it’s the same thing that you were called in your baptism, so imagine that, savor that for a moment. You, yes you, are God’s beloved. 

For Jesus, secure in his identity, could then go into the wilderness to discern what his ministry would be and then follow through with it no matter where it took him or how difficult it would become. And it’s the same for us. The revelation is that we are beloved and the way forward is how we live out that identity. 

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In the wilderness, as he was spiritually tempted and toughened up for the ministry he was about to undertake, Jesus knew his ministry would be all about preaching and teaching what he called the Kingdom of God. Martin Luther King would come to call it “the Beloved Community,” which according to the King Center “is a global vision, in which all people can share in the wealth of the earth. In the Beloved Community, poverty, hunger and homelessness will not be tolerated because international standards of human decency will not allow it. 

“Racism and all forms of discrimination, bigotry and prejudice will be replaced by an all-inclusive spirit of sisterhood and brotherhood. International disputes will be resolved by peaceful conflict-resolution and reconciliation of adversaries, instead of military power. Love and trust will triumph over fear and hatred. Peace with justice will prevail over war and military conflict.”

Pie-in-the-sky fantasy? Dr. King didn’t think so. He believed the Beloved Community is “a realistic, achievable goal that can be attained by a critical mass of people committed to and trained in the philosophy and methods of nonviolence.” Jesus didn’t think so either. When he read from the prophet Isaiah in the synagogue, he debuted his mission: “to bring good news to those who are poor, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim release to those held captive, and liberation to those in prison.” Obviously, there is still a lot of work to be done in service to the Beloved Community. If the events of recent weeks have told us anything it’s sin and brokenness are alive and well in the world.

But just as Jesus knew himself as Beloved of God and was able to face the hatred and violence he later encountered, and as Martin Luther King, as a follower of Jesus, also knew himself deeply as Beloved of God and was able to carry on the work of non-violent resistance in the name of the Beloved Community, it is our foundational identities as Beloved people of God that, as the old Powdermilk Biscuits jingle from “Prairie Home Companion” used to say, “gives you the strength to get up and do what needs to be done.”

To remember that you are baptized is to know – even if you don’t remember it or didn’t hear the voice of God say it – it is to deeply know that you are beloved. Can we even begin to appreciate the wonder of that? To be beloved – all the time, not just when you’re being loveable, but in your very worst moments. To be beloved – when you’re all alone with your thoughts and feelings, some of which you can barely admit to yourself, let alone to anyone else. To be beloved – when you can’t forgive or love yourself. To be beloved – when you’re tired, when you’re afraid, when you’re lonely.

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Remembering your baptism is allowing yourself to hear the words “I love you” and to allow them to sink down deep into your souls and permeate your every cell. But I suspect, most of us don’t take the time –at least not very often – to do that. Even as I was writing these words, I stopped and realized that it’s too easy to say this and know it on a rational level. But that’s not enough. It’s got to get down into the heart and soul if we are to be true followers of Jesus. So I stopped writing and I took a few minutes to meditate on those words. I already had my Epiphany candles lit, so the mood lighting was just right. The best way to describe those minutes is that it was like being in a Divine embrace. Yes, thoughts intruded. But coming back to the words, “I love you” or “You are beloved” was easy enough, especially concentrating on the light from the candles. The words that came to me were “Sleep in heavenly peace.” Or as St. Paul called it, “the peace that passes all understanding.”

This is baptism, our lifeline. And yes, we will get called back into the world of personal problems, national dysfunction and international violence. In Mark’s gospel, Jesus immediately goes into the wilderness to be tempted, in other words to face the realities of the world. And so do we. But we go as precious children of God. No more special or precious than anyone else. Baptism doesn’t make us some kind of elite God squad. But remembering our baptism is our way of holding onto the lifeline, intentionally allowing the Spirit of Divine creativity and possibility to work in and through us – even when we’re weary, discouraged or afraid.

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Affirming our baptism together solidifies our citizenship in the Beloved Community – along with Martin (both of them), Fayette, the young pastor at the retreat, and all the beloved children of God, born of water and kissed by the Spirit of God. May we remember that we have been named by God’s grace with such power that it won’t come undone. May we live in such a way that others will know themselves as beloved of God – especially those who have been given cause to think they are less than loved, less than children of the One who created them. 

May the revelation of Jesus as Beloved light our way through this Epiphany season, so that we can clearly see who we are, and reflect to others their true identity: beloved, precious child of God, and beautiful to behold. Amen

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Mark 1:4-11

John the Baptizer appeared in the desert, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to John and were baptized by him in the Jordan River as they confessed their sins. John was clothed in camel’s hair and wore a leather belt around his waist; he ate nothing but grasshoppers and wild honey. He proclaimed, “One more powerful than I will come after me. I am not fit to stoop down and untie his sandal straps. I have baptized you in water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

It was then that Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized in the Jordan River by John. And immediately upon coming out of the water, Jesus saw heaven opening and the Spirit descending upon him like a dove. And a voice came from the heavens: “You are my beloved, my Own. On you my favor rests.”

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Reformation Sunday: Don’t Let Truth Piss You Off

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The truth will set you free, but first it will make you miserable
is a quote attributed to, among others, President James Garfield, who seems to be following up on the words of Jesus in John’s gospel: “If you live according to my teaching, you’ll know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

I’m sure many of us have found Garfield’s additional commentary to be true. Sometimes the truth hurts or is a huge challenge to our usual way of being. Gloria Steinem’s version, “The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off” is another common response to being confronted with a different reality than the one we thought was true. Why else do we sometimes wonder whether it’s best to tell a friend or loved one the truth about something we know will be very hard to hear? Or will make them angry – maybe with us?

But this wasn’t the case with Martin Luther. He wouldn’t have agreed with either Steinem or Garfield – at least not when he had his so-called “Tower Experience.” The story in a nutshell is that while studying Romans 1:17 (our second reading) in his study in the tower of the monastery in Wittenberg where he lived as an Augustinian monk, Luther had one of those light bulb moments. You know how that goes; a light goes on in your head and you suddenly see something in a way that you never had before and you suddenly get it, whatever “it” is. A revelation. An epiphany! An “ah hah!” moment. A blinding flash of insight that reveals – the truth. 

For Luther, that truth did set him free and it did not tick him off or make him miserable. In fact, he’d been angry and miserable before this revelation: 

I, blameless monk that I was, felt that before God I was a sinner with an extremely troubled conscience. I couldn’t be sure that God was appeased by my satisfaction. I did not love, no, rather I hated the just God who punishes sinners. In silence, if I did not blaspheme, then certainly I grumbled vehemently and got angry at God.

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His big “ah! hah!” moment was when he was set free from a way of thinking about God that was unhealthy, destructive, and wrong. Now, he could have done what many people do and stop there. Many who abandon the idea of a wrathful, vengeful, punishing deity who needs to be appeased abandon any idea of God at all. To be fair, who can blame them? A lot of terrible things have been done in the name of this idea of God. 

But Luther didn’t go there. What he discovered in Romans1:17 was freedom. 

All at once I felt that I had been born again and entered into paradise itself through open gates. Immediately I saw the whole of Scripture in a different light. I ran through the Scriptures from memory and found that other terms had analogous meanings, e.g., the work of God, that is, what God works in us; the power of God, by which God makes us powerful; the wisdom of God, by which God makes us wise; the strength of God, the salvation of God, the glory of God. I exalted this sweetest word of mine, “the justice of God,” with as much love as before I had hated it with hate. This phrase of Paul was for me the very gate of paradise.

Reformation: a spiritual awakening
On Reformation Sunday we don’t usually think about Luther having a spiritual awakening. We tend to focus on the shift from a belief that one’s good deeds could get you into heaven to a doctrine of justification by faith through grace. In the 16th century that was a big deal; the Church was selling indulgences so people could help loved ones get out of Purgatory more quickly. The title of Luther’s 95 Theses was actually “A Disputation on the Power of Indulgences.”  

But things are different today. In 1999, The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification was signed by the Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church‘s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, which essentially ended the 500-year-old conflict at the root of the Reformation. And in 2016, in anticipation of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, the Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church held an historic joint commemoration of the Reformation in Lund, Sweden.

So – times have changed. And reconciliation between Lutherans and Catholics and agreement on a doctrine is something to be celebrated. But our commemoration of the Reformation shouldn’t stop there. We should savor that moment of spiritual awakening that caused Martin Luther to discover that his idea of who and what God was no longer made sense. And we should celebrate his magnificent and joyful new awareness of the true nature of the Divine. 

It’s a moment and an awareness that many of us have experienced and that, by the grace of God and our efforts, many more will experience. I often quote the late Marcus Borg, who liked to say in response to someone who said they didn’t believe in God, “Tell me about the God you don’t believe in.” When the person would describe a version of Luther’s wrathful, vengeful, punishing deity who needs to be appeased, he would say, “I don’t believe in that God either.” And then would begin a conversation on the true nature of God – loving, compassionate, luring us into wholeness, calling us into works of peace and justice – the God that had Luther joyfully running through the Scriptures and finding more proof of what he’d discovered:

the work of God, that is, what God works in us; the power of God, by which God makes us powerful; the wisdom of God, by which God makes us wise; the strength of God, the salvation of God, the glory of God.

This was no mere intellectual exercise. Why else would he write:

I exalted this sweetest word of mine, ‘the justice of God,’ with as much love as before I had hated it with hate. This phrase was for me the very gate of paradise.

A liberating spiritual awakening indeed. A re-formation of a man’s relationship with the holy truth of Divine Love.

A New Re-formation
Today, many thinkers, writers, theologians are claiming that we are in the midst of a new reformation. There are several new lists of theses (items for discussion), including John Shelby Spong’s The Twelve Theses. A Call to a New Reformation and Matthew Fox’s 95 Theses or Articles of Faith for a Christianity for the Third Millennium.

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In The Great Emergence: How Christianity Is Changing and Why, the late Phyllis Tickle talked about the fact that about every 500 years the Church feels compelled to hold a giant rummage sale. And I believe she’s right. We’re going through our religious “stuff” – doctrines, language, practices, etc. – and making decisions about what should stay, what should go, and what might still be a treasure if we just cleaned it up a little bit. The process is messy; discussions about what stays, what goes, what gets transformed are chaotic, unsettling. 

Even our image or concept of who or what God is up for discussion. Not that this is something new. It wasn’t even new to Luther. In ancient times, the idea of God being more than a tribal deity, one among many other tribal deities, was re-formed to a belief in one God. The idea that God is comprised of persons, including Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, was a re-formation brought about by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. In recent times, we’ve had to re-examine what we think we know about God in light of what people of other religions think they know about God. Those who have declared themselves to be atheists present us with the challenge of defining what we mean when we claim to believe in a deity. Science does this also. And this is all good. We are free to wonder and question and explore.  

“Ecclesia semper reformanda est” is not simply a call for change for change’s sake. It is a call to look around at our own cultural context

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Before World War II, Barth was a strong critic of the rise of the Nazi party in Germany. He also criticized the many churches that went along with the Nazis, for not fulfilling their  prophetic role in society. In 1917, a group of these Nazi Protestants coopted the 400th anniversary of the Reformation, in an event that endorsed German nationalism, emphasizing that Germany had a preferred place in the Protestant tradition, and legitimizing anti-Semitism. They used Luther’s admonishment to respect secular authority to justify their positions. When Hitler was named Chancellor of Germany, Barth was involved in the drafting of the Barmen Declaration opposing these churches. So “Ecclesia semper reformanda est” is not simply a call for change for change’s sake. It is a call to look around at our own cultural context (Barth is often quoted as saying that one should preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other) and to be the church with integrity. This is the tradition in which we stand. As Luther famously said, “Here I stand; I can do no other.”

In today’s cultural context, we find ourselves taking our stand in the midst of a great number of people disaffected with the church, with clergy, and with God (or at least God as God has been defined in the past). We also find ourselves among a great number of people who imagine the Divine differently from the way we do. 

We can respond to this in one of two ways. We can wring our hands and lament the good old days when churches were full and we could hold a real old-time Reformation service where we bashed Catholics and sang “A Mighty Fortress” like it was our national anthem. 

Or we can enter into the spirit of “semper reformanda” with the freedom granted by the gospel. And with joyful hearts, knowing as Luther discovered in that transformational tower experience, that God is gracious and good, compassionate and healing, freeing – and challenging us to bring peace and justice and healing to the world 

So let’s not talk about the God we don’t believe in. Let us share the good news of the Divine Presence in which we do live and move and have our being. There’s a Reformation going on. Here we stand.

Amen 

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An excerpt from Martin Luther’s “Tower Experience”
. . . in that same year, 1519, I had conceived a burning desire to understand what Paul meant in his Letter to the Romans, but thus far there had stood in my way, not the cold blood around my heart, but that one word which is in chapter one: “The justice of God is revealed in it.” I hated that word, “justice of God” . .  .  I, blameless monk that I was, felt that before God I was a sinner with an extremely troubled conscience. I couldn’t be sure that God was appeased by my satisfaction. I did not love, no, rather I hated the just God who punishes sinners. In silence, if I did not blaspheme, then certainly I grumbled vehemently and got angry at God . . . . I constantly badgered St. Paul about that spot in Romans 1 and anxiously wanted to know what he meant . . . I meditated night and day on those words until at last, by the mercy of God, I paid attention to their context: “The justice of God is revealed in it, as it is written: ‘The just person lives by faith.'” I began to understand that in this verse the justice of God is that by which the just person lives by a gift of God, that is by faith. I exalted this sweetest word of mine, “the justice of God,” with as much love as before I had hated it with hate. This phrase of Paul was for me the very gate of paradise. 

Romans 1:16-17
For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is itself the very power of God, effecting the deliverance of everyone who has faith – to the Jew first, but also to the Greek. For in that gospel, God’s justice is revealed – a justice which arises from faith and has faith as its result. As it is written, “The one who is righteous will live by faith.”

John 8:31-36
In “The Freedom of a Christian,” Martin Luther developed the concept that as fully forgiven children of God, Christians are no longer compelled to keep God’s law to obtain salvation; however, they freely and willingly serve God and their neighbors. Luther also further develops the concept of justification by faith. As Luther stated, “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.”  

Jesus said to those who believed in him, “If you live according to my teaching, you are really my disciples; then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
They answered, “We are descendants of Sarah and Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be set free’?”
Jesus answered them, “The truth of the matter is, everyone who commits sin is the slave of sin. The slave does not always remain part of a household; an heir, however, is a member of that house forever. So if the Heir – the Only Begotten – makes you free, you will be free indeed.”

The Building Is Closed. The Church Is Not.

images-1Sermon for the Seventh Sunday of Easter

I bet you never imagined that going to church would be one of the biggest controversies in today’s news. Protesters and some government leaders, insisting that churches reopen, have claimed the headlines, along with a smattering of responses by others insisting  that we remain closed. Many congregations have members on both sides of the issue, which is causing quite a dilemma for their pastors and lay leaders. I’m grateful the ELCA has taken a firm stand on it. Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton has been unequivocal in her position that we do not open until it’s safe for all our members. On Friday, the bishops of the three synods in California also issued a “Joint Letter Against Re-opening for Public Worship.”

Even Martin Luther is being quoted from his response to the bubonic plague in his time: I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance inflict and pollute others.

Of course, those in favor of opening would claim that today the presence of Luther’s contemporaries is needed, that the church is an essential service that should not be denied. And as much as I don’t agree with their decision, I certainly get the longing for in-person church gatherings. As much as we rightly claim that the church isn’t a building, we miss being together. As much as I’m grateful we have the technology to be together virtually, it’s not the same as sharing the peace with a handshake or hug or placing the body of Christ into your hand. Although, current information is telling us that these actions, among others like singing, may have to be abandoned, at least for a while. It’s all rather complex. When the time’s right, reopening will take a lot of prayerful, thoughtful deliberation about how to do it responsibly. But in the meantime, we wait.

depositphotos_90132822-stock-photo-airport-waiting-roomThe Waiting’s the Hardest Part
I don’t know about you, but I don’t like waiting. Waiting for something to happen is like being at the airport. You’re not at home anymore, but you’re not where you’re going either. You’re in a middle space between here and there. Even when you’re not looking forward to something, the waiting is still hard. For example, you need surgery. Who wants to go through that? But you can’t go back to not knowing there’s a problem that needs correcting but it’s still two weeks before you go into the hospital. You’re in a middle space and time. Or you might remember from a couple of weeks ago, I talked about a book I’m reading called How to Lead When You Don’t Know Where You’re GoingLeading in a Liminal Season. Liminal is that middle space, the waiting area between one point in time and space and the next.

Like today. This is the seventh and last Sunday of Easter. Next Sunday is Pentecost, one of the Big Three days on the Christian calendar, along with Christmas and Easter, although we don’t hear much about it outside of the church (that’s not true in Germany, where the Monday after Pentecost Sunday is a national holiday).

shutterstock_1190629858Wear Something Red!
I happen to love Pentecost, maybe because it doesn’t have any of the cultural trappings around it. Maybe also because it’s not something you can easily wrap your mind around. It’s a matter of wonder that we can get at only with symbols like fire, wind, descending doves, red balloons, everyone wearing something red to church to imagine the coming of the promised Holy Spirit, which became the birthday of the Church.

But it’s not Pentecost yet. We have to wait one more week for the fifty days of Easter to be complete. Although our tradition does say that something happened on the fortieth day, that after appearing alive over the course of the forty days after the resurrection, Jesus ascended into heaven. The number forty should ring bells with us. It’s one of those biblical numbers that signifies something really important. In this case, forty days represents completeness; Jesus’ work on earth was finished. People back then would have gotten right away that the story of Jesus’ ascension was like the prophet Elijah being taken up into heaven by a whirlwind in a chariot of fire. And as Elijah passed on his mantle to a successor, his protege, Elisha, so does Jesus; he passes his mission on to the disciples – and then through them and the Holy Spirit to the Church.

But before Jesus left, he instructed his followers what to do until the arrival of the Holy Spirit: that dreaded word – wait. By leaving them again, Jesus threw them right back into that middle space again, neither here nor there, waiting for the fulfillment of a promise they didn’t really understand. And here we are, too. Ascension Day was Thursday and we’re now in the midst of the ten-day middle space until Pentecost – waiting.

Not in an upper room, but sheltering in place. For some, stopping work or school; waiting for a vaccine, waiting for an all-clear from medical professionals to go back to work, school, church, etc. Again, I don’t know about you, but I’m getting tired of the social distancing and voluntary quarantine. By the way, did you know that ‘quarantine’ literally means forty days? It’s the waiting time that ships in 14th/15th century Italy had to stay in isolation before passengers could go ashore during the bubonic plague.

There’s a lot of commonality in the isolation, uncertainty, and enforced waiting of the disciples after the ascension, the passengers on 15th and 21st century ships, and us – longing to get back into our daily routines of work, school, family, church, and life. As Tom Petty sang, “The waiting is the hardest part.”

You Take It on Faith, You Take It to the Heartheart_faith
But the line right before that is, “You take it on faith, you take it to the heart.” And faith is where we’ve got to take it. And this passage from Acts just might point us to what might get us through our quarantine.

Jesus told the disciples, “You’re going to have to wait a while longer. Go back to Jerusalem and wait.” So they went back to the room where they were staying.  And here, the details of all these people isolated together in an upstairs room, is kind of humorous. There was Peter, and John, James and Andrew; Philip, Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew; James son of Alphaeus; Simon the Zealot; and Judas son of James. Also some of the women who followed Jesus, his mother Mary, and some of Jesus’ sisters and brothers. That’s a lot of people in one room! But it also conveys the seriousness of this liminal time. And while we’re waiting with them in our own context – we can take a lesson from them: “they devoted themselves to constant prayer.”

No binge-watching for them. Constant prayer. At first that might seem like a no-brainer, especially for those early followers. But when it comes to ourselves, sometimes we might find it difficult to pray or even to know how to pray. Then I suspect that many people feel guilty for not praying enough.

A Quarantine for the Soul
But you know what: sometimes we make things way too complicated. I like what the late Jewish theologian Abraham Heschel had to say about it. He said that to pray is to open a window of the soul to God. Just meditating on that phrase for a while, imagining what that would be like – is a fine prayer in itself.

Heschel is also the one who said,
Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement. . . to get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.

He also said,
It is gratefulness that makes the great.

Which reminded me of the mystic Meister Eckhart, who said,
If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.

And when I read this from Heschel, I think I experienced radical amazement because he wrote this in 1945:
Prayer clarifies our hopes and intentions. It helps us discover our true aspirations, the pangs we ignore, the longings we forget. It is an act of self-purification, a quarantine for the soul.

A quarantine for the soul.  In the midst of a quarantine that can sometimes feel soul-draining, the antidote is to quarantine ourselves in prayer. According to the crowd in the upstairs room, the best thing we can do as we wait for the end of this pandemic and for the spiritual renewal of Pentecost is open up our souls and pour out our hearts to God.

What Does It Mean to Be Church?
Now, make no mistake: as much as isolation takes us out of the world, it does not mean that we neglect our responsibilities to our world. What’s the old saying: you can’t be so heavenly minded that you’re no earthly good? Or as the two messengers in white said to the astonished disciples, “Why are you standing around looking up at the sky?”

Improv on “We are the Church” | Gifts in Open HandsEven in this liminal time, the coming of Pentecost is the perfect time to think about what it means to be church. For some, it obviously means getting back to business as usual with no concern for the risks. For some, it means a way to make a political statement. Church can and often has been co-opted for less than Christ-like reasons.

All the more reason to spend time about it in prayer. I’m imagining when we do get to go back to meeting in person that we will do a lot of praying and reflecting about what it means to be church post-pandemic. All the more reason to anticipate the arrival of the Holy Spirit into the realities we face today. In what ways, both old and new, will we pick up the mantle that Jesus has passed on to us?

I sure would love to be working on these questions now. I sure would love to be at 301 Burlingame Avenue this morning instead of on Zoom. I sure would love to be scheduling visits with all of you. And I am sure that you have your “I sure would love to . . .” list, too.

But Jesus says, “Wait.” And so we will. Dedicating ourselves to care for one another and to constant prayer as the day of Pentecost approaches. Not that I’m expecting the corona-virus to adhere to the church calendar and disappear amid wind and fire. But I am expecting that we will be renewed by the reminder of what has always fueled our lives as followers of Jesus – power from on high, the Holy Spirit of God. Just knowing makes the waiting a little easier.

We take it on faith, we take it to the heart, even when the waiting is the hardest part.

Amen

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ACTS 3:1-14

After the Passion, Jesus appeared alive to the apostles – confirmed through many convincing proofs – over the course of forty days, and spoke to them about the reign of God. On one occasion, Jesus told them not to leave Jerusalem: ”Wait, rather, for what God has promised, of which you have heard me speak. John baptized with water, but within a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”

While meeting together the disciples asked, “Has the time come, Rabbi? Are you going to restore sovereignty to Israel?”
Jesus replied, “It’s not for you to know times or dates that God has decided. You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you; then you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and even to the ends of the earth.”

Having said this, Jesus was lifted up in a cloud before their eyes and taken from their sight.  They were still gazing up into the heavens when two messengers dressed in white stood beside them. They said, “You Galileans, why are you standing here looking up at the sky? Jesus, who has been taken from you – this same Jesus will return, in the same way you watched him go into heaven.”

The apostles returned to Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives, a mere Sabbath’s walk away. Entering the city, they went to the upstairs room where they were staying—Peter, John, James and Andrew; Philip, Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew; James son of Alphaeus; Simon the Zealot; and Judas son of James. Also in their company were some of the women who followed Jesus, his mother Mary, and some of Jesus’ sisters and brothers. With one mind, they devoted themselves to constant prayer.

 

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