“You may feel a slight pinch”

Sermon for June 22, 1014, Pentecost +2 A, on Genesis 21:8-21 and Matthew 10:24-39

Genesis 21:8-21

Matthew 10:24-39
[Jesus said:]Bible Old for web
“A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household!
“So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops. Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground unperceived by your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.

“Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.

“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.

“For I have come to set a man against his father,
and a daughter against her mother,
and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;
and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.
Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

“You may feel a slight pinch”

I’ve never preached from either of these two texts. I have felt about both of them the way Barbara Brown Taylor did who says (about the Matthew text) that this is:

one of those passages I wish he had never written down.”  – “Learning to Hate Your Family,” God in Pain: Teaching Sermons on Suffering.

Jesus seems to not be himself here. The “prince of peace” speaks of his purpose of bringing a sword of division – even splitting apart families. Why would he say such a thing?

And the same can be said of my discomfort with our lectionary text from Genesis. Sarah comes off looking almost evil, and Abraham is passive at best; but the woman hitch hiker Dead Sea webtruth is that he is actually complicit. But like them or not, these texts are here, and must be here for a reason. Maybe even an important one. So, let’s start with Genesis and then finish up with Matthew.

Let’s be clear: if you allow yourself to mentally inhabit the story world of Genesis 21, you will see that Abraham and Sarah send Hagar out, with little Ishmael, into certain death. Ethically, it would be the same as driving your car across the desert in Arizona with a mother and child in the back, stopping in the middle of nowhere and kicking them out. Everyone knows what would happen. You could probably be prosecuted for murder for that.

Worse, God himself tells Abraham to listen to Sarah and do as she wanted, which makes God complicit in the double-murder plot as well. Except that God has the power to intervene, which he does, just in time. Anyway, it’s very upsetting.

Upsetting on Purpose

What do we make of texts like this? My conclusion is that these texts are meant to upset us. They get our attention. In fact, they sting – just like the nurse’s needle does, in flat contradiction to what she always says before she pokes you with it: “You may feel a slight pinch.” – A pinch indeed! There is a reason she comes prepared with a bandaid: she knows that it will hurt, and that there will be blood. Can we let the bible be that needle-wielding nurse for us here?

Our Jewish ancestors had to wrestle with complex issues. Who are we, as “God’s chosen people,” people of the Abrahamic promise, living in the context of neighbors who are born of foreign mothers? The question this story wrestles with is: Do we have obligations as well as rights vis a vis our neighbors?Nassar Palestinian - web

Rights and Obligations Together: Deal with it

It is fascinating to notice in the story, that the God of the promise – a promise which is beginning to be kept when Sarah gives birth to Isaac – affirms both the rights and the obligations of that chosen family. The God who intervened in the lives of old Abraham and barren Sarah to bring new life and fruitfulness also intervenes on the side of of the foreigners with mercy. God will not let the murder-plot stand.

In this story, God hears the cry of the suffering – even the suffering foreigner, and her son, and saves them. He goes beyond saving them. He provides for their future as well. God’s purpose to bless the whole earth is, as it turns out, not exclusive to the “chosen.” Ishmaelites are included. Is there a lesson in this?

This story may be a painful pin-prick, like the nurse’s needle, if it is allowed to speak.  Perhaps it should inform Israel’s ethical thinking about their Palestinian neighbors today. Rights and obligations go together, this story says.  And, God is watching, and God hears the cries of the suffering foreigners. Right now, what Israel is doing to Palestinians, demolishing vineyards, orchards, and family homes (with bulldozers they buy from us) so that they can seize land that they have no justified claim to, is causing great suffering.

The Orthodox, in Israel, who have such a public commitment to the study of Torah, might well turn to this passage about God’s intervention on behalf of foreign Hagar and Ishmael, and be ready to feel the sting of the needle and have bandaids ready.unaccompanied hispanic girl - web

Our Neighbors’ Children

But perhaps we Americans should also be rolling up a sleeve and letting the nurse approach us with the same syringe. We have our own issues with foreign neighbors. Does it sting to believe that we have not only our rights to consider, as legal citizens, but also obligations to fellow humans as well? It might.
Right now, news reports tell us:

“more than 47,000 unaccompanied minors have been apprehended at the southernmost border of the U.S. this year, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. The agency estimates that number will grow to 90,000 by the end of September.”

(source – Hannah Fraser-Chanpong, 3 CBS NEWS, June 6, 2014 online)

As a parent, I cannot imagine living in conditions so horrible that I would have sent my young sons away to risk what these children risk to get here. But conditions really are that bad, that dangerous, that hopeless in places like El Salvador and Honduras. Horrific drug-gang violence, on top of the normal endlessly crushing poverty, push the parents to this kind of desperation.

What is our response?  It will not do, to simply to reply with conversations about constitutions and laws where human suffering is at stake.  Let’s let this sink in: so far, this year there are already over 47,000 little Ishmael’s at our doorstep, without so much as a Hagar to help them, and they are crying out to, and being heard by the God of Abraham.  Ouch.

For people of faith in the God of Abraham, immigration and border control issues are not simply issue of law and order. They involve real humans, and so include moral demands on us. I am fully aware that there are powerful people who want to turn this humanitarian crisis into a political football. Let’s be clear; we are talking about children.

Matthew’s “pinch”

So what about the other painful text we read, from Matthew? The one about Jesus breaking up families, bringing swords, and calling us to denial and crosses? Again, I think this upsetting text is meant as a wake-up call.

Of course there is exaggeration for effect here, but there is also a reason to use it. The issues are serious. I think that Richard Swanson got it right, saying:

“Just for the moment, imagine that the Bible is more substantial and interesting than a greeting card.”

He argues that this text is meant to provoke us.

Why would Jesus say such things? This text is set in the context of Jesus’ ministry of proclaiming the arrival of the kingdom, and sending out his disciples to conduct the mission of kingdom-announcement in his name. His entire mission has a motive: it is compassion-based. At the start of it, Jesus noticed that the people were suffering: like “sheep without a shepherd.” His mission and the mission he sends the disciples on is a response of compassion.

But Jesus is not embarrassed about the fact that the call of the kingdom will make trouble. It always has made trouble, where the kingdom has been taken seriously, and it always will – even in families.  It is simply what happens when the message of the kingdom bumps up against vested interests.

Yes, we know

It is still true.  We Americans have experienced this. In our country, families were split apart during the Civil War over the issue of the abolition of slavery. Families were split in the Civil Rights movement too. The kingdom of God does not come without costs. The costs are often far more painful than the slight pinch of the nurse’s needle; and the quantity of blood that gets spilled is beyond bandaid-level management.

Try to stand with minorities or oppressed communities, or oppressive policies today and watch what happens.  Jesus, in Matthew’s telling of it, makes the point that his followers who take the Kingdom seriously should not expect to fare any better than their master, Jesus himself did. There was a lot of blood on the floor before it was over. Standing with the little people against the powers of empire entails crucifixions.Amish shooting grief - web

Not Greeting Card Faith

So let us draw back from the immediate verses and put them in a broader context. A life of faith, the kind of faith that Jesus practiced, did not mean a life without enemies; it meant an alternative response to enemies, namely, forgiveness. The enemies of kingdom values are real and can do damage up to and including spilling blood. The idea that forgiveness can be announced in this context is astounding. There is nothing greeting-card-ish about it.

The cycle of victimization, scapegoating and retaliation only stops when kingdom people do what Jesus did: absorb the impact and choose not to respond in kind.

It is true that retaliation feels good – it feels powerful, it feels self-righteous. It almost feels necessary. But is it right?

I recently spoke with a person who was in a traffic accident, caused by another, who sped off afterwards. The man said that it was a good thing he was not in a position to go catch the person who caused it, or else he would have “done something for which he might be in jail for today.”

In other words, revenge. I think he expected me to agree with him.

Well, I agree that the harm he suffered was real, and that the one who caused it should be held accountable.  That would be justice. But his quest went way beyond justice. He wanted vengeance.

Of course he did. This is how our primitive brains are wired: to bite back, to have the last sharp word, to return blow for blow, pain for pain.

It may not fell instinctive for us to do anything besides striking back.  In fact, it can feel as painful as taking up a cross to deny ourselves the vengeance we feel so entitled to, but to such a mission of forgiveness of enemies we are called.

Forgiveness is at the heart of Jesus’ message. Take that away, and perhaps you have a Hallmark card faith, but it has no power to transform us or the world.

This can be personal. Consider how many families that have been split apart could be healed if we were the first to lay down the sword and absorb the pain, and offer forgiveness? Is not this what it means to lose your life in order to find it?

Complex Decisions

What have we learned?  These difficult and painful texts compel us to make complex decisions. On the one had, there are times which call for us to stand up for the Kingdom’s values even at the expense of divisions – even family divisions.

On the other hand, we do not relish conflict.  When our enemies come after us, we do not play their game; we do not fight evil with evil. We do not believe the self-serving lie that “two wrongs make a right.” We, followers of Jesus, forgive wrongs done to us, has he taught us, and we keep pressing the case for justice and mercy.reconciliation - web

A God-thing

We do this is because we have hope. We believe in the God of both Abraham and Sarah and the God of Hagar and Ishmael. We believe in the God who sees and the God who hears. We believe in the God Jesus believed in, and we trust him because we have been transformed by the message of the kingdom he proclaimed.

Ultimately having faith means understanding that it is not about me. It is about something much bigger. It is about living into God’s dream for the world. I can be a part of it if I am willing to answer the kingdom’s call.

And when I do, I will understand what is behind it, driving it, and motivating all of it: simply real love. The Love of a Father in Heaven who hears, and cares, and calls us to love with his kind of love – the love strong enough to deny oneself, to bleed, even on a cross.

The God who loved Abraham and Sarah and promised them a son, and who also loved the foreigner Hagar and her little son is the God who loves me and us also loves all the children of the world. How we work that out in practice is complex, but in the end, we understand that God is on the side of the suffering ones, and we accept the price it may require to stand with them.






The Icon and the Bubble that Matters

Sermon Trinity Sunday, June 15, 2014, Genesis 1:1–2:4a

Genesis 1 (excerpt)

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.

…Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

And God said, “Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” So God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome. And it was so. God called the dome Sky. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day.

…Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”Screen Shot 2014-06-13 at 5.39.13 PM

So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.

The Icon and the Bubble that Matters

This Trinity Sunday is also father’s day here in America.  I am blessed to be among those who was raised by a great father who loves and provided for his family.  One of my favorite memories I have of my father from childhood was of climbing Mt. Garfield with him in my mother’s home state of Colorado.

Mt. Garfield is in the Rocky Mountains.  It juts out of a long rock face wall they call the book cliffs.  There are still donkey trails leading to old abandoned coal mines that make the climb possible for inexperienced young climbers like me.

There were some scary parts, but with my father’s strong hand and relaxed confidence, we would get to the summit safely. From there, we could look out over the vast Colorado plane, all divided into square farm fields by little narrow roads.

Vastness, like the view from a mountain, or of the ocean from the shoreline, or of the night sky, makes us feel small.  Even more so now, for us, who, in this generation, having seen how the earth looks from space: like a little blue ball in an ocean of blackness.Screen Shot 2014-06-13 at 6.41.05 PM

Vastness and Presence

I used to listen to Joni Mitchell who captured this feeling in her song “Refuge of the Roads.”

In a highway service station,
Over the month of June
Was a photograph of the earth
Taken coming back from the moon
And you couldn’t see a city
On that marbled bowling ball
Or a forest or a highway
Or me here least of all.”

We feel something more profound than merely overwhelmed and small next to the vastness of nature; we also feel an odd and uncanny presence.

Another one of my old favorite singer songwriters, Joe Walsh said:

There’s a feeling I get when I look to the sky
As if someone is watching,
Someone hears every word.”  – “Song For Emma” by Joe Walsh

That is not far from the feeling of the Psalmist who, several thousand years before had felt both small and that there was a present “you” to address his creation psalm to; a “you” that even cared for him, in spite of his smallness:

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them?
”  (Psalm 8)

Terrible Nature

It is fine to think about how awesome the world looks, on a clear day from a mountain summit, or on a starry night, by the sea shore, but the natural world can  also be a frightening place.  Here on the Alabama Gulf Coast, we are not strangers to loud thunderstorms that send our pets cowering under the furniture – let alone tornadoes and hurricanes that leave massive destruction in their wakes.  Nature can be literally terrible and terrifying.

Perhaps experiencing nature as vastly beautiful, and terrifying, and somehow watching and present made ancient people wonder how it could be all of those things at once.  The important question was always: whatever is going on up there and down here, how does it affect me?  What is my place in this world?Screen Shot 2014-06-13 at 6.43.09 PM

Stories of Origins

There are many stories that explain it. One such story, that exists in many versions is this:

William James, father of American psychology, tells of meeting an old lady who told him the Earth rested on the back of a huge turtle. “But, my dear lady”, Professor James asked, as politely as possible, “what holds up the turtle?” “Ah”, she said, “that’s easy. He is standing on the back of another turtle.” “Oh, I see”, said Professor James, still being polite. “But would you be so good as to tell me what holds up the second turtle?” “It’s no use, Professor”, said the old lady, realizing he was trying to lead her into a logical trap. “It’s turtles-turtles-turtles, all the way down!”

— from Wilson, R.A. (1983, 1997) Prometheus Rising. Phoenix, AZ: New Falcon Publishers, 1983.

Humans have always told stories about how the world was made, where it came from, and how it all fits together.  They call these kinds of stories “cosmogonies.” We tell stories because that is how we come to understand our place in the world.

We just read our first creation story from Genesis.  It clearly describes the world as a bubble in between waters above and waters beneath.  Our biblical story shares many features in common with other iron-age cosmogonies, like sacred trees in special gardens, fruit with either dangerous or miraculous powers, and of course, devious talking snakes.  Our story also tells of the origins of the first humans, as others do as well.

Stories are the way ancient way people explained the world and our place in it, and for that reason are profound in their implications.Screen Shot 2014-06-13 at 5.33.56 PM

The Babylonian Story

The Babylonians told a story of how the gods who lived “on high” got into a huge conflict.  Marduk, the hero of the story, killed another god, Tiamat, by driving a huge wind into her, filling her belly, then piercing it with a spear, like popping a balloon with a pin.  Having nothing better to do with the fragments of her body, the gods decide to make humans.  Humans’ could then make life easier for the hungry gods by supplying them with their daily food through sacrificial offerings.

So, if this is your story, what do you understand?  That humans are after thoughts; the products of violence.  They are servants of the brutal gods, whom they must constantly supply.

The Israelite’s Alternative Story

In this ancient context, the biblical writers told another story – a radically alternative story.  It does not begin with violence nor even with competition, but with one God who has no rivals.  This single God forms a good physical world, methodically and artfully, creating spaces and populating them.

He makes the bubble from the chaotic primordial waters, and then separates the  sky from the water, and the water from the land inside it.  He fills the water with fish and the sky with birds.  Above them in the heavens he hangs lights to mark out days and nights, seasons and years.  It is all good, we keep hearing repeatedly, as if to reinforce the difference between the world of this Israelite story and the Babylonian’s bloody battlefield.

When the good world is made, the bible tells of God’s intentional decision to make his crowning achievement: human beings.  He makes them, we are told, in his own image or “icon.”  Just as an ancient king would set up statures of himself in his kingdom to proclaim his authority, so every human, male and female, are walking icons of this good God, celebrating his creative genius by our very existence.

It would be silly, if not tragic, (and wildly anachronistic) to read iron-age cosmogonies as scientific descriptions of origins.  They are not that.  But what they are, are deep theological reflections on the nature of the world and of our place in it.Screen Shot 2014-06-13 at 6.51.36 PM

Icons of God

Genesis tells us that every person on this planet is an icon of God.  There is no one who is not worthy of dignity and respect.  This is our essence.  It is not an achievement.  Icons of God are what we are in our beings.

It has nothing to do with how rich or poor we are, how clever or strong we are, how beautiful or skilled we are.  This essential sanctity of every breathing human does not have its origin in a constitution or a bill of rights, and cannot be negated for lack of either.  It is not the entitlement of one or two what we communally call “races” or “ethnicities” and not to others.  All of us are made in God’s image: icons of our Creator.

Responsible Stewards

As icons of God, we share with God the capacity to be responsible stewards.  The ancients looked around and saw that humans, unlike other animals, could domesticate wild beasts.  We had learned plant farming and fishing.  We had enormous abilities for exerting our will over plants and animals.

Therefore, understanding that God created this world and blessed it with fruitfulness, and that God put us in charge, we are responsible for its care.  Our job is to be managers that have the same goal and perspective as the owner – the flourishing of the good earth God made.

The First Words: Blessing

And we are supposed to hear the first words spoken by God, in our story, and take them to heart.  “Be fruitful” God said.  This is a blessing.  The first words God says to the humans he made in his image is a word of blessing, full of hope and promise.

So our story is about as opposite the Babylonian story as it could be in every meaningful way.  Our story tells us that we humans are part of a good world, made by a single, free and unchallenged God.  The good physical world is a blessed world, and we humans are blessed by its fruitfulness.

The vastness of it all may make us feel small and insignificant, but each one of us has incredible value: we bear the image of our Creator in our DNA.  We are here for a purpose.

The thunder and wind may make us feel threatened, but we need not fear.  God is good, not evil.  God is for us, not against us.  God has supplied our needs and is now at rest, not hungrily waiting for us to supply his needs.  We have the responsibility of stewardship, not the burden of slavery.

There is a reason we feel awe and wonder; a reason we feel a personal presence when we look up.  This is God’s world; we are God’s people.  We are not alone.

Our Story, and What to Do About It Screen Shot 2014-06-13 at 6.55.25 PM

Personally, this makes us want to worship; to say “thank you.”  To feel loved and protected.  This life, here and now, is an amazing precious gift that we are alive to experience!

And the implications are huge.  They are both personal and public.  Every relationship with another human is a relationship with a person of worth and dignity.  There is no excuse for attempts at domination or abuse, whether physically nor even verbally or psychologically, whether in our personal relationships, nor publicly in our economic or political relationships.

Creation theology such as our story teaches makes it absurd to countenance the thought of starving cats, or making dogs fight, let alone subjecting fellow icons of God to torture.  Every human life is to be respected and protected from harm.

Creation theology makes human suffering of all kinds all of our urgent concern.  Hunger of any of us is unacceptable.  Refugees everywhere are our problem.  Victims of any kind of violence or abuse are our responsibility.  Homelessness, especially in our abundant nation, is our shame.

And this planet is not ours to spoil, but to protect.  Pollution is a theological problem.  God did not put us here in this fruitful garden in order to turn it into a toxic wast dump.  So therefore, wasting resources, endangering life forms, and even wildly risky activities are unacceptable.  There is one planet that sustains us: there is no second chance.

Live as Intended

But what a planet it is!  We are given one span of years to live this life.  Let us live them as intended.  Let us wake up to awe and wonder – this is an amazing world to live in.

Let us cultivate our own unique and complex capacities for appreciating beauty in all of its forms – music, the arts, dance and drama.  Let us stay in touch with each moment, taking time to breathe deeply and stay present to the present.

And then let us renew our zeal to fulfill our roles as wise stewards, protectors of human life and dignity, and protectors of the eco-systems we and our grandchildren depend on for life and health.

Let our words echo the Psalmist who was overwhelmed by the goodness of creation, saying,

“O Lord, our Sovereign,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!”




Keeping In Step With the Spirit

Sermon for Pentecost Sunday, June 8, 2014, on Acts 2:1-21; Galatians 5:13-25 and John 29:19-23Screen Shot 2014-06-07 at 10.00.24 AM

To read the texts, click these links: Acts 2:1-21    Galatians 5:13-25

John 29:19-23

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”


Keeping In Step With the Spirit

 When I was in the third grade I would come home from school everyday and watch my favorite program on our old black Screen Shot 2014-06-07 at 9.54.09 AMand white TV, “Wagon Train.”  I still remember the character I most wanted to be: the scout, Flint McCullough.

The white people in the wagon train often had contact with indigenous peoples of the American Western plains.  I don’t remember many specifics now – probably what they called them and how they thought of them would horrify me, but that’s another subject.

Anyway, what I do remember about the native Americans was something that gave me my first experience of religion-envy.  There was this scene in which an old Navajo man, wearing, of course long hair with a single feather in it, stood alone beside a river, looked up at an eagle circling high overhead, and, raising his arms, prayed to the great Spirit.  It was pure Hollywood, but nevertheless managed to display a kernel of truth about their religious perspective.

Now to me, as a third grade boy, this looked like a super-cool way to be religious.  It certainly was vastly superior to our way: putting on uncomfortable clothing that you were not allowed to get dirty in (which they were still making us kids do in those days), staying inside on a beautiful Sunday morning, and sitting in a chair listening to adults talk for long periods of time.   “Give me the prayer to the spirit of the eagle by the river any day,” I thought.  Religion envy.

Everything Unsettled Since

There are so many things that have changed since those days of the mid 1960’s that it is almost like remembering another world.  None of us would imagine making a third grader put on a little suit and tie to go to Sunday School in anymore.  The world of the 1960’s is gone.

The ’60’s and ’70’s were an unsettling time.  We went through massive changes in this country.  The world looks different to us all now, after Viet Nam, after Screen Shot 2014-06-07 at 9.58.29 AMWoodstock, after Watergate, after the changes brought about by the civil rights movement, the women’s movement.

We continue to live in unsettling times.  The digital revolution has left anyone over 30 years old feeling like an immigrant to a new country needing to learn a new language and adapt to a whole new lifestyle.  We are all caught up in it.  By the way, did you make sure your phone would not ring in church?  See?

The Unsettling Spirit

But perhaps making us unsettled is precisely what the Spirit does.  Think of the Pentecost story we read from Acts today.  Peter starts preaching and suddenly the  settled categories of language and ethnicity fall away.  Everyone hears with understanding.  It is as if the story of the separation of languages at the tower of Babel has just been reversed.  Can humanity function as a unity now?  How unsettling is that?!

Screen Shot 2014-06-07 at 11.13.43 AM

Numerous people have been writing about these unsettling days of change that we are watching unfold from our front row seats.  Some of them are calling this a new “Age of the Spirit” (e.g. Phyllis Tickle and Jon Sweeney).  Clearly something is happening in Christianity.  One Thousand years after the schism that divided Eastern Orthodox and Western Catholic Christianity, and five hundred years after the Protestant Reformation, and it appears the Spirit is doing something new, and we are here to witness it.  Could this be a new “Age of the Spirit?”

Living in the Age of the Spirit

I love the way the NIV translates Galatians 5:16.   “Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.”   There are two short phrases here and both are powerful.  The first is simply this: “Since we live by the Spirit” – what could this possibly mean?  Nearly everything that has to do with our faith, according to Paul is Spirit-involved.  Our whole lives are lived “by the Spirit.

The Spirit of God, the Spirit of the risen Christ (both mean the same) is powerfully present, always, like the oxygen in our bloodstreams.  Like breath, the Spirit is both inside us and external to us.  Every aspect of the Christian life involves the Spirit at work invisibly but powerfully, every moment.

And the second phrase, “let us keep in step with the Spirit” is a compelling call.  It demands that we ask ourselves: where is the Spirit going?  How can we “keep in step” unless we discern the movement of the Spirit; unless we sense the Spirit’s direction?  Perhaps this call to “keep in step with the Spirit” requires attending more intentionally to what the Spirit is doing these days.

Up to the Same ThingScreen Shot 2014-06-07 at 10.01.54 AM

So what is the Spirit up to?  There is no question that the main event, on the first Pentecost, is being repeated.  Again, in these days, just as then, categories of division are falling left and right.  Just as the language and ethnicity categories were transcended by the Spirit at Pentecost, so now other categories are coming down that used to divide  people.

The Spirit has unsettled us, for the good.  When I was in third grade I would never have dreamed of stepping inside the church of one of my Roman Catholic friends.  But now, look at how those old denominational walls have crumbled.  Pope Francis just met in Jerusalem with Bartholomew, the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople.  They would like to convene a meeting of their two branches of Christianity in Nicaea in 2025.  Could the healing of that old schism initiated seventeen hundred years ago at Nicaea in the year 325 be possible?

Clearly, the direction of the Spirit we are trying to keep in step with is discernible.  Just as at Pentecost, so today: the movement of the Spirit is always toward the elimination of barriers.  Whether they are barriers of language, ethnicity, race, tradition or gender, the Spirit-direction is always towards greater unity.

This too is what Peter preached as fulfillment of Joel’s ancient prophecy.  The Spirit would come upon “all flesh” breaking gender barriers as both “sons and daughters prophesy” and “men and women” would equally experience the outpouring. Age barriers fall, as both old and young men “dream dreams” of a better future.  Even the iron-clad categories of slave and free would be transcended by the Spirit.  The direction is consistently toward greater unity; the transcending of categories and overcoming division.Screen Shot 2014-06-07 at 10.03.13 AM

On a Personal Level Too

This is why, on a personal level, as we read in Galatians, the life lived “in the Spirit,” according to Paul, is such a self-de-centered life.  It is an other-oriented life that the Spirit makes possible.  Instead of self-seeking and a sense of personal entitlement, the Sprit-led person uses her freedom, not for self-indulgence, but to serve.

The Spirit-led person, Paul says, is the one who personally embraces Jesus’ summary of the whole Old Testament Torah, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

The person led by the Spirit, in contrast to the hedonist who lives for personal pleasure and self-fulfillment, rather lives a life of other-directed fruitfulness:  “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness,  gentleness, and self-control.

This is the person who has received Jesus’ Spirit-breath, as John’s gospel shows, and is therefore able to “forgive the sins of others” instead of needing to “retain” them out of bitterness or vengeance.

This is the opposite of the “us” vs. “them” life. This life in the Spirit is the life of openness to other-ness.  A life not put-off or disgusted by differences.  The Spirit-led life is a life willing to be led into the unsettled conditions of radical hospitality.

The Spirit in the WorldScreen Shot 2014-06-07 at 10.04.53 AM

It was, once, unsettling to be open to the idea that the Spirit is working in a larger world than merely my Christian denomination. But we have moved past that, thankfully. The more deeply unsettling question is, can we see the work of the Spirit in other faiths as well?

Did that Navajo man at the river with the feather really sense the Spirit of the living God in the flight of that eagle?   Can it be said by that man as well, what Paul said in Athens, “in him [God]  we live and move and have our being.”  If so, it is because God’s Spirit is at work.

[Theologically minded people  may wish to ask Calvin: is it really possible to categorize God’s grace into “common” and “special” as if it came in two flavors?]

So the question for each of us, on this Pentecost Sunday is, if we live by the Spirit and want to keep in step with the Spirit, is how is the Spirit at work?  How is the Spirit working in my life?

What is the Spirit leading me to be and to become in the days I am given to live?

What part of the self needs de-centering so that I can more fully “live by the Spirit” today?

Where is the spiritual work of forgiving the sins of others being blocked by my desire to retain them?

Where is my sense of entitlement keeping me from loving my neighbor as myself?

What are the spiritual gifts God has given me that should be put to work in serving the church, the community, and the world?

God is doing something new and different, and we are here to witness it, in our generation.  I believe this is indeed a new “Age of the Spirit.”

It is unsettling and strange in many ways, but as a God-thing, let us trust, and not fear it.

Let us believe that the promise is coming true, even in our own short lives, and that the Spirit is guiding us, and will guide us into God’s future.