Last Sunday Jesus fed 5,000 people with five small loaves of bread and two fish. The people were so impressed and so pleased they tried to take Jesus by force and make him their king. But Jesus wasn’t interested in being king. So, he ran off. Now, he’s on the other side of the Sea of Galilee. But the crowd hasn’t given up. And they find him on the other side of the lake. Hey, man, we’ve been looking for you everywhere! What’d you run off like that for?
And there was a woman in that crowd. And she stepped forward. If you had seen her, you would have seen a woman dressed plainly, with patches where her bony elbows had worn the through the fabric of her shirt. She held her head up high, and she had a spark in her eye that warned of an intelligence far beyond what the world expected of her. So, she lifted up her voice for everyone to hear and spoke to Jesus. She said, “Yesterday, we ate our fill of miraculous bread! We were stuffed and happy! For a while we forgot our cares. (And you know what heavy burdens so many of us carry.) We laughed, and we played with our children on the grass. And when the sun set, we rolled ourselves up in our picnic blankets, and we slept under the stars to the sound of a distant storm passing us by. But when we woke up, our stomachs were empty again. You were nowhere to be found. And we were all saying to one another, ‘Why? Why am I still hungry?’”
Jesus is ready for the crowd. He expects them and this question. And this is Jesus’ way: Yesterday he had compassion for the crowd. He fed us, he comforted us. Today his compassion will challenge us. Yesterday there was overflowing, miraculous grace! Today Jesus will challenge us to respond to that grace.
We’re all very aware of this dynamic in our tradition. It’s often put into words something like this, “As we have been fed, let us go out now and feed others.” The proper response to grace received is action that reflects and furthers that grace. This goes all the way back to the beginning of our Bibles. After delivering them from slavery in Egypt, God gives this command to the Children of Israel at Mount Sinai: “You shall not wrong or oppress the stranger. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the stranger as yourself, because you were once strangers in the land of Egypt.” They are delivered from bondage by God’s grace, and now they carry the burden of honoring that grace in action, in law, and in responsibility.
We know this already: The first step is grace, the final response is action, productivity, justice, etc., etc. But did you know that there’s another step between the initial grace and the final response? It sometimes gets forgotten. What is it?
The crowd makes this mistake—they leave this step out. They are so eager to be full again. They want to be in control. They tried to make Jesus king—that didn’t work. Now they ask him, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” In the Greek they literally say, “What must we do to work the works of God?” These people want to get to work! But there’s a mistake here. They want to work God’s works in order to get more of God’s grace, more bread. They’re not responding to grace; they’re attempting to manipulate grace. But that’s not how grace works, and it’s not how the response to grace works. There’s a missing step. What is it?
And, we should say, work is not what Jesus is looking for here. Jesus doesn’t ask the crowd to do anything, right? In fact, he tells them: Do not work! Do not work for food that perishes. Instead of asking them to work, he makes them yet another offer—an offer of food that endures for eternal life. This is the work God requires of you now, Jesus tells them, to believe in the one whom God has sent. The step between the receipt of grace and the works of grace is to believe.
The crowd runs into a problem here. There’s a man who pushes his way up to the front. If you had seen him, you wouldn’t have noticed anything much about him. He could have been any person walking past you on the street or sitting next to you in these pews. But the way he crosses his arms over his chest before he speaks—you would have noticed that. There’s strength there, but also pain, like someone who has faced hurt, who is on his guard. He crosses his arms over his chest, and he says to Jesus, “Believe in you, you mean? We might. We might do that. But, of course, we’d need a sign from you. After all, when our ancestors were led out of Egypt into the wilderness by Moses, wasn’t there bread from heaven on the ground every morning for forty years so that they wouldn’t starve? Every morning! Now, that’s a dependable schedule! If you could give us a little more of that miraculous bread of yours (on a reliable schedule), I think that’s the sort of thing that would put us on the path to becoming true believers!”
We make our belief contingent on the circumstances of our lives. We all want a sign that we’re on the right path. And we can’t think of a better sign than being perfectly cared for, cocooned from all the hardships of this world. No matter how much grace we receive today, there’s always tomorrow to worry about. Today we feel like believers. But tomorrow—well, we’ll see. Even more than the crowd, we modern people don’t know anymore what it means to be a true believer. We don’t even really understand what Jesus is asking of us.
I’ve got a friend whose little daughter called her into her bedroom. “Mommy, mommy, come quick!” When she rushed into the room there were a pair of scissors lying on the floor, and there was a great, big, giant bald spot on the front of her daughter’s head, and there was a great big clump of her daughter’s curly blond hair in the wastebasket, and (as will become relevant in a moment) all the windows were closed. And her daughter said, “Mommy, a bird flew in through the window, landed in this wastebasket, and all its feathers fell out. Then it flew back outside!” “Oh,” my friend said, “I see. And who opened the window?” Her daughter thought for just a second, and then she said, “Oh, it must have been God.”
Our world mistakes believing in God or in Jesus with assenting to (“believing in”) a difficult and complicated story that doesn’t always make sense. That’s what my friend’s daughter was asking her to do. But that is not what Jesus is asking of us. The postmodern world hears that we believe in God, and it reduces that belief down to a caricature: We think there’s a man with a beard in the sky who can open and close windows from heaven. But that is not what Jesus is asking of us.
True belief in Jesus is a commitment to a way of being throughout our lives, a total fidelity to the good news that Jesus carries within himself. It’s not about did Jesus exist or not. Did Jesus say this or that or not? Did Jesus do this or that or not? What do you think about it? Do you believe that? No. The real question is: Am I permanently attuned to God through Jesus Christ? Am I aligned to the Gospel Jesus brought? Am I committed to the values Jesus taught?
As I said last Sunday, Jesus feeding the 5,000 was the miraculous demonstration of an almost incomprehensible truth: that God aligns the abundance of heaven with the scarcity of earth. What grace! What incredible grace! And now a response is required. Since God has aligned heaven’s abundance to our needs, Jesus is asking us to acknowledge this grace by aligning our innermost core (our belief) with the Gospel. Belief in Jesus means becoming a devotee of the religion of Jesus, turning ourselves over entirely to God and to God’s purposes.
We sometimes think that all belief requires is an expression of our assent. You could turn off your brain, and it might be easier. But what is really being asked of us is to offer God the beating heart of our consent. And that is a commitment wrought hard out of every moment. God doesn’t want words or thoughts or even deeds. God wants me—all of me and all of you, right down to our motivations, our purposes, the meaning of our lives.
We confuse physical and spiritual needs. “Why am I still hungry?” I must need more bread. But that's not the way spirituality works. A lifetime of bread from heaven won’t satisfy our deepest hunger. The opposite doesn't work either. We can't be saved by our own hands. We can't earn our way to salvation. No amount of good living will open the gates to God’s Realm. So, then what are we supposed to do? We do not consume God, we let ourselves be consumed by God. We do not do the works of God, we become the works of God. That is what is meant by belief.
And that is the missing step between receiving grace and changing the world. Until we believe, we will always be saying to ourselves, saying to one another, “Why? Why am I still hungry?” God’s grace will not quiet that hunger. It merely whets the appetite. Through our good works we may attend to the physical needs of others, but we cannot quiet our own deepest hunger even in the performance of righteousness and the pursuit of justice. We will always be hungry until we hold in the center of our hearts the bread of life that Jesus is offering.
Beloved, are you still hungry? Poet Thomas McGrath wrote, “We know it is hunger—our own and other’s—that gives all salt and savor to bread. But that is a workday story and this is the end of the week.” Beloved, my prayer for you is salty, savory, end-of-the week faithfulness, where God can hold you tenderly, like bread in the palm, in the sweet spot of belief, floating steadfast in the tension between grace and responsibilities. Amen.
“Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.” Jesus says that in Luke’s version of the Sermon on the Mount. It’s one of the most profound and confounding statements made in religious history. Think about it, “Blessed are you who are hungry, for you will be filled.” Does this come naturally to us? To bless—actually bless—our hunger? Certainly, it undermines every message we’re sent in our culture about pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps and the definition of success being a life lived in comfort without the shadow of need ever darkening the door.
Jesus (as usual) has another perspective. Satisfaction or ease, according to Jesus, is not an enviable position. Jesus turns the world on its head—puts the first last and the last first. Jesus, with Godly eyes, looks into the face of need not with pity or with fear or with despair. Jesus is so unintimidated by need, so confident that need shall be met, that he is able to bless hunger as the prerequisite condition of true fulfillment.
It's easy to come across this line in the Sermon on the Mount and sort of just dismiss it. We want to roll our eyes a little bit at the naivete of hippie Jesus. This isn’t the way the world works. Let’s just hope it’s bit of harmless poetry. A one off. He’s not gonna bring that up again. To those of us who are full already, Jesus’ perspective can make us a little uncomfortable. Because Jesus confronts us with the knowledge that what we are full of does not satisfy us, and that we might need to divest ourselves of our comforts, in order to find the path to true fulfilment. And that is unwelcome news.
But it’s much harder to dismiss the story of the Feeding of the Multitude, the loaves and the fishes, which essentially takes that one wild line from Jesus’ sermon (“Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled,”) and breathes it into a full-blown, not-to-be-ignored miracle. It takes that impossible line and turns it into an impossible-possible reality.
Other than the resurrection, this is the most central miracle to our understanding of our faith. As you all know, it’s the only miracle that’s recorded in all four gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. And in both Matthew and Mark the miracle is recorded twice. So, six times we return to this miraculous feeding. Six times. Let’s put that into a little more perspective. The story of Jesus feeding the disciples, sharing bread and wine with them at the last supper, a story we retell every time we perform the sacrament of communion, is recorded only three times. John’s gospel leaves it out entirely.
But listen again to the language John uses to describe the feeding of the 5,000: “Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted.” Does that sound familiar? It’s very close to the words of institution we speak over the bread and the wine during communion. So, many scholars believe that when John’s Christian community sat down to the sacrament of communion, instead of recreating the last supper they were recreating the miracle of the loaves and the fishes. Archaeologists have uncovered an ancient church used by the earliest Christians near Bethsaida on the Sea of Galilee, which many believe to be the likely location of the feeding of the 5,000. And they uncovered an altar in this church—the altar that would have held the sacrament of communion. And on the altar is a mosaic depicting fives loaves of bread and two fish.
You cannot get away from this miracle, from its centrality to our faith, from its beautiful symbols, or from the simple presentation of its almost incomprehensible message: God aligns the abundance of heaven with the scarcity of earth. That’s an inescapable gospel fact demonstrated over and over again. It is good news for the poor, the hungry, the powerless, the mourners, and a caution for the rest of us. As Mary sang when Jesus was still in her womb: “God has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich God has sent empty away.”
God aligns the abundance of heaven with human need. As I mentioned in the children’s sermon, the disciples do not yet recognize this reality. We don’t have enough money to feed them! Well, we got some bread and fish, but what good is so little in the face of such need? Jesus demonstrates this great mystery to them. Do you feel how mysterious this miracle is? That’s a key to understanding it. Jesus doesn’t turn the rocks on the ground into bread for everyone. Jesus doesn’t magically multiply the fish in front of the crowd as they ooooh and aaaah. He just sends the food out. And somehow, by some miracle invisible to us, there is more than enough. Do you see the key there? The miracle is not that God will turn your one loaf into ten loaves. The miracle is that when we allow God to touch the little that we have, God is able to make it sufficient. But if we hold back what we have, what we do, who we are from God, then no amount of anything that we ever get will ever satisfy us.
Perhaps the spiritual key to this mystery is to accept that rich or poor, hungry or satisfied, lowly or mighty, all of us are in a state of ultimate need if we don’t have that which is of ultimate importance—God. In one story, Jesus meets a devout and rich young man. This young man has lived a blameless religious life, but longs for more. Jesus tells him there is one last thing he must do: Go, give away everything you have to the poor, and then come and follow me. And the rich young man goes away very sad because he has so much. And Jesus laments how hard it is for the rich, for the full, to enter the Realm of God. It’s not class warfare. The gospel writers are very careful to tell us that Jesus loved the rich young man. It’s just a psychological reality of human nature. We are easily distracted by bright and shiny things. We fundamentally believe that power and privilege are necessary for human flourishing. And we horde resources we don’t actually even need.
We saw what happened with toilet paper at the beginning of the pandemic, right? There was no scarcity. There was no lack of TP. There was no slowdown in production or distribution. We had the same amount we had always had. But just the thought of scarcity, just the idea that our toilet paper supply might be…wiped out, left many of us heading into the bathroom with Kleenex and the napkins left over from last night’s takeout. There was no scarcity though. It was the idea of scarcity that led to us being a world of toilet-paper haves and toilet-paper have-nots.
Jesus is telling us that the opposite is also true. If we believe that what we have been given, when it intersects with God’s perspective and power, is not only enough, but more than enough, that attitude gets around. Everybody breathes a little deeper. Suddenly, there are leftovers everywhere. And that’s an important part of the message of this miracle to us today. As we try to figure out how to reboot in-person community, in-person church, in-person ministry, it is so critically important for us to come together and just get out there, and we don’t need to oversell it. We don’t need to overthink it. We don’t need to have or do or be enough. Right? “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there.” All we need is a little abundance. A little abundance is 10% substance, 90% attitude. And that is how Jesus fed 5,000 people with five loaves and two fish.
This is why this story is so important. It’s the whole story of the good news in one event. It’s the whole story of how Jesus provides for us and then pushes us to provide for others from the place of abundance that he has welcomed us home to. It only takes a little abundance to get a miracle going. Don’t you have just a little? Don’t we at least have that? What if we trusted that it was enough to make miracles?
I’ve been listening to a song all week—one of my favorite songs, the Beatles Come Together. You know it! “Come Together, right now, over me!” It’s part of the soundtrack of the 60s! Quintessential. People—coming together—right now. It’s positive, it’s urgent, it’s fun. Great song!
Have you ever listened closely to the other lyrics of Come Together? Right after the chorus, they go like this: “He bag production / He got walrus gumboot / He got Ono sideboard / He one spinal cracker / He got feet down below his knee / Hold you in his armchair you can feel his disease.” John Lennon once referred to these lyrics as quote “gobbledygook.” But then there’s that chorus—bright, bold, and inviting “Come Together, right now, over me!”
The 60s were a watershed decade in American history. And it’s easy to romanticize the past as a simpler, more innocent time. But just scratch the surface and you see what an oversimplification that is. There was Camelot, sure, and there was a presidential assassination. There was the Civil Rights Movement and civil rights legislation, but there was also Jim Crow, segregation, lynching, the assassinations of Black leaders, and church bombings. There was the summer of love, and there was the war in Vietnam. There was the moon landing, and there was the Cold War and bomb shelters. Even the song Come Together itself was originally written by John Lennon to be the campaign song for Timothy Leary (the guy who popularized LSD) as he was running for governor of California against the famous actor turned politician, Ronald Regan. Only in America, people! Some things in American politics have been with us for a long time. And just like today, in the 60s there was culture and counterculture. It was a time of polarization and division in American life.
And then at the tail end of 1969 here comes this song and this incredible chorus, so necessary and transformative: “Come Together, right now, over me!” But then if you leaned a little closer to your AM radio or if you turned up the volume on your record player a little hoping for some insight, all you heard in the rest of the song was just a jumble of nonsense: “He roller coaster / He got early warning / He got muddy water / He one mojo filter.” Huh? Say what?
It’s almost like the song is saying, “We know the medicine we need to heal what ails us as a people. We need to come together. But we don’t know how to write the prescription for that medicine. We don’t know what to say that will actually bridge the divides, overcome the fear, and get us working together again. So, we’re just gonna fill in that bit with a little bit of playful babble and hopefully you all don’t notice before the chorus arrives again…” Come Together, right now… but we don’t know how.
Obviously, there’s a reason why I’m listening to this song now. It’s our second Sunday back in person together in the sanctuary. After more than 16 months apart, we need to come together again. After 16 months of being dragged behind the wagon of life together and of community, we need to get back on that wagon and take the wheel. What I believe is that we don’t want a tepid return to community. After the drought of this pandemic, we need to jump back into the deep end and commit ourselves (maybe even more than before) to figuring out how to swim together again.
As 21st century Westerners we generally have a problem of thinking of everything in terms of being consumers. Marketing experts say we’re exposed to 4,000 to 10,000 ads per day, all reinforcing the idea that we are, first and foremost, the consumer. Many of us work 40+ hours a week trying to make consumers happy (it’s called a job), reinforcing the mantra in our minds that the consumer is king. People used to have personality. Today we all have “brands.” We used to share photos of our vacations and our kids. Today we market ourselves on social media.
We think of everything in terms of being a consumer. Do I like this product or not? Am I happy with the service I’m receiving or not? But the problem is, of course, that community is not something that can be consumed. It cannot be consumed, it can only be participated in. And that participation is a give and a take, not a take and a take and a take and if I’m happy with the product or the service, I’ll think about getting involved. It’s oxymoronic. It can’t possibly work, right?
So, it’s important that we jump back into neighborliness and back into the work of church, which is offering the Good News of Jesus Christ to the world, because if we all hang back at the edges to see if the community spontaneously produces a product or a service that we like, and want to invest in, and associate with our brand, we’re all going to be disappointed. We cannot consume community, we can only make community, and we can only do that if we come together. We cannot consume church, we can only be and do and offer the gospel of Jesus Christ, and we can only be and do and give if we come together. But that’s not always easy for us. It’s getting harder and harder. Because we’re mad, we’re scared, we work too much, and there’s too many good shows on TV.
The other reason I’m thinking about this song right now goes way beyond church reopening. There is so much at work to divide us in our larger culture right now: COVID has kept us apart—literally, physically apart—and it’s divided us politically. Racial inequities and ideological disagreements about how to even talk about hose inequities continue to plague us, keeping us apart from one another. Our national conversation is devolving. We’re more interested (or at least more successful) at hurting the other side than we are at doing the most good for the most people. We’d rather fight over political sideshows than cooperate on the pressing matters that affect all of our shared interests.
In the past it was credibly said, “Let’s make the world a better place. Let’s leave it better than we found it.” And now many of us feel that we don’t even have that option anymore. The pending environmental catastrophe due to climate change, just beginning, will require our unprecedented best efforts just to leave the world less worse off than it might be rather than better than it was. The only way for us to begin to tackle global catastrophes is with global solutions which can only happen if we come together. The only hope for our polarized infighting is to turn outward with a shared goal and vision, which can only happen if we come together. But that’s not easy. It’s getting harder and harder. Because this hard work is essentially spiritual work. It will require repentance, compassion, sacrifice, difficult conversations, commitment and courage. And we’ve pulled up our own roots out of that spiritual soil. We’re on another journey now. The religion of Jesus is not the religion of victory over enemies, it’s the religion of turning yourself entirely over to God’s purposes and to the great benefit of all people. Isn’t that what coming together is? And it isn’t easy.
Well, it wasn’t easy for the churches that Paul founded to come together either. And we see that in our scripture reading this morning the letter’s author believed that the churches needed a little reminder. The reminder was not to come together, the reminder was that God has already brought you all together. God, as usual, has a different perspective. As the Bible tells us on more than one occasion, “With God, all things are possible.”
It is possible for us to come together because God, through Christ, has already broken down the boundaries that separate people. “You’re a Jew, I’m a Gentile. It won’t work.” “Yes, it will,” says God. “But I’m a man, you’re a woman, I’m a slave and you’re free, we’re not the same, we’re different you and me. We can’t come together. I listened to that John Lennon singing that song, and you know it was just a bunch a baloney other than that chorus!” “But you’re already together,” says God. “You just don’t know it yet. You just keep on forgetting my ways, how I work, what I do.
“First, I broke down the boundary between myself and you. I sent Jesus Christ into the world. I emptied myself into the limits of flesh to be as close to you as skin-on-skin. I lived with you, taught you, died for you. Whatever boundary was there, I wiped it away.
“And when I did that, I broke down the boundaries between people. I taught you to love your neighbors. I commanded you to love your enemies. I said yes to the Samaritan, yes to the Syrophoenician, yes to the Ethiopian eunuch, yes to the lame and the blind, yes to the tax collectors, yes to the Roman centurion, yes to the Gentiles, to the ends of the earth I said YES. I brought you all together in me. You’ve already come together. You just keep forgetting who I am, what I do, what I ask.”
“So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.”
Beloved, faith in Christ means that we believe and live as though the boundaries that once separated us from others no longer exist. Through Jesus Christ reconciliation and community is always a possibility. The only thing that can separate us from one another is putting our faith in divisions and hatred, rather than in the unbounded ocean of love that is God all around us.
We can’t ultimately control what other people think and do and say. But we are responsible for our ourselves, for our response to God’s grace. It’s up to us to live out our lives as an offering to community, rather than seeing community as a product to be consumed or a service to be rated with one-star reviews. And if we can live our lives as if this truth of the Gospel is true and alive and liberating, if we can live out the truth that God has drawn near to us, so close now that God dwells within us, and if we believe that one person alone cannot stand as a temple to God, but that all of us together in love and justice, without division or exclusion, can become God’s dwelling place on Earth, then I believe we can all come together.
When the Lord brought back those who returned to Zion,
we were like those who dream.
Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
and our tongue with shouts of joy;
then it was said among the nations,
“The Lord has done great things for them.”
The Lord has done great things for us,
and we rejoiced.
Sometimes, if something feels too good to be true, we might just pinch ourselves a little, just to make sure that we’re not actually dreaming. So, give me just a second here…Tom, could you give me a pinch... Okay, you’re all still here, yes? What a relief! I wanted to make sure because sometimes a dream, pleasant though it may be, is nothing more than a figment of the imagination.
But, remember, that’s not how God thinks about dreams or about the dreamers. The Bible tells us that angels show up in our dreams to bring us good news. And in dreams, prophecies can be revealed to us. And even God can show up in your dreams. When God made a covenant with Abraham in Genesis, even though God knew how to talk to Abraham when he was awake and had done so before, and even though God knew how to show up in person on the earth and would do so with Abraham later, when God first makes the covenant with Abraham, God waits until Abraham falls into a deep sleep and then comes to him in his dream to make that covenant, that promise, that new beginning that changed everything.
Why? Why a dream? Why does God trust the space of our dreams for the most important business of our lives? After 16 months away from this sanctuary and away from each other, maybe we feel “like those who dream” just because it feels too good to be true to be back together again. But there’s another way to be like those who dream—to be like the Judean people returning to Zion, singing psalms and rejoicing, after generations in exile, to be like Abraham getting the news that even though he is old and has no children, God is making a covenant with him to become the father of a great nation.
We’re not like dreamers just when it’s too good to be true, but also when it’s so good that we get a glimpse of God’s vision for our future possibilities. Seeing such a vision, not a figment of the imagination, but God’s dream of the possible—it’s like a dry riverbed in the wilderness of Negeb after the rains finally fall, and overnight there’s an explosion of life and flowers and colors in the desert. Dreams—full of joy and possibility—are a sacred space where revival can be planned.
We are like those who dream when the thing we thought was impossible becomes our possibility again—to be a father, to be a nation, to be an in-person church. The arrival of possibility is not the end of the dream—it’s the beginning of the dream. Don’t wake yourselves up yet! Parenthood, nationhood, churchhood—they’re visions of possibility that we dreamers must hold in our sacred imaginations long after we’ve woken back up to the hard work of reality. That’s why the poet William Butler Yeats wrote, “In dreams begin responsibilities.” Because this Sunday, with all its joy and freshness, is not only this Sunday. This Sunday is just the beginning.
So, beloved, you dreamers you, welcome back to the joy, to the community, to the revival, to the possibility, to the church that is both our pleasant dream and our joyful responsibility. Hallelujah! The choice is yours: You could pinch yourselves and simply allow being here this Sunday to be the fulfillment of the dream, or you could let this Sunday become the foundation of a revival.
And let’s be honest: After 16 months out of the habit of in-person worship, in-person meeting, and in-person community, we need a revival.
Restore our fortunes, O Lord,
like the watercourses in the Negeb.
May those who sow in tears
reap with shouts of joy.
Those who go out weeping,
bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy,
carrying their sheaves.
Who among us hasn’t suffered over the last 16 months? Some of us have been luckier than others, but all of us have suffered. For 16 months we have sown in tears. God’s promise is that our tears are never wasted, and our suffering is never meaningless. Locked arm-in-arm with our troubles and our trials is our liberation and our revival.
Not every saint makes it to the Promised Land, of course. But Moses, who led the people through the wilderness for 40 years, and who died before reaching that Promised Land, still goes to the mountaintop and is allowed to see the Promised Land before he dies. Not all our saints make it to the Promised Land, but that makes it all that much more important that we fulfil the possibility of the dream, of the vision they shared with us.
Our time apart may have been the most productive time we have ever spent learning about the ministry of Jesus Christ and what it means to be the church of Jesus Christ. The lives we have lost, the loneliness we have suffered, the depression that has laid beside us in bed at night, the tears of mourning and loss we have wept in rooms by ourselves with no one to offer us a hug—here are the very seeds of the harvest we shall gather! Here are the goads that are driving us deeper into the arms of our joyful and crucial mission—bringing good news to the world. We need one another!
Marie Kondo, the world-famous organizer, author, and host of “Tidying Up with Marie Kondo,” has a fascinating ritual when she starts with a new client—and her clients are people who are struggling with various levels of hoarding, clutter, and disorganization. She takes all of their clothes and puts them in a giant pile. Then she tells her client to pick up each piece of clothing and see if it still “sparks joy” for them. If the piece of clothing brings them joy, they put it in the keep pile. If not, they thank it for all it’s done for them, and they put it in the give-away pile.
This is another part of revival: To plant new seeds, we need to make room for the new garden beds. After 16 months of tears, we need to make a lot of room for the dreams and the possibilities. And we know this for sure: the God we worship and serve is a God who sparks joy in us always. And if something is getting in the way of the joy we feel and the joy we show to others, it’s high time to thank it, whatever it is, and dismiss it. After 16 months of tears, we’re ready to say goodbye to the things that don’t bring joy to us or to the community we serve.
Revival doesn’t necessarily mean going from nothing to a whole lot of something. Sometimes it means simplification—getting back to basics, cleaning out the cupboards, opening up the windows and letting a fresh breeze into the house. When we get rid of the things that don’t spark joy for us, we open up the space to establish healthy habits in our lives. In our gospel reading this morning, Jesus is at the very beginning of his ministry. And he decides that it’s time to commit himself to the dream. The time has come for him to announce himself and his ministry to the world. How does he do it? Did he try to gain an audience with the high and the mighty to announce himself to the powers of the world? No. Did he pull together a crowd of thousands of the common people to announce himself to the masses? No. Did he climb to the top of a mountain to announce himself to the heavens? No. When Jesus went to declare the extraordinary news of who he was to the world, he didn’t do an extraordinary thing. He did a simple thing—he went to his hometown synagogue. He went to church—and this wonderful little line--as was his custom.
Jesus is the Messiah who always manages to do a lot with a little. And, in fact, one of his biggest recommendations to those of us who have a lot is to give it away until we have just a little, so that we don’t get distracted from what matters most by the many, many, many luxuries, entertainments, comforts, and privileges that ultimately do not matter at all.
And this is how many of us live our lives. The most important things—our health, our joy, our relationships, the meaning and purpose of our lives—are crowded out by the less important concerns and pursuits—status, power, pleasure, money, clutter. And these less important pursuits often leave us feeling empty and miserable and despairing that there’s nothing more to life than a hamster wheel of work and consumption. And there is nothing “more!” But there is something “less!” Simplify! Give it away! Let it go, if it doesn’t spark joy! Come back into the customs of your heart!
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “The Sabbath is the day on which we learn the art of surpassing civilization.” In other words, your Sunday, your day of holy rest, is not there to give you a chance to recover just enough to go running back to the rat race on Monday morning. You’re not a beast of burden, are you? Your Sabbath day is about transcending civilization—beating it at its own game—reclaiming your sacred center from the world and returning it to the One it came from and whose claim upon it can never be successfully dissolved or disregarded. Coming to church should not be one more thing in the competition of priorities and events and schedules in your life. Church is the Sabbath habit that simplifies your life, returns you to yourself, and highlights the true joy that so many of us have been missing.
And so Jesus reads the scroll:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
It is the distillation of Jesus’ mission in the world. A mission that he passed on to the Church—to all of us. After reading it he rolled up the scroll and sat down and said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” The scripture is fulfilled. But the ministry is just starting. The dream is just about to begin.
Beloved, may this Sunday not just be the end of 16 months of tears. May it be the beginning of a revival of your Sabbath, a revival of your soul, the revival a vital, life-saving, joy-giving mission.
2 Corinthians 12:2–10
Happy Fourth of July everybody. Please, drive safe and sober this holiday. Don’t blow any of your fingers off, please. If you’re at the beach, wear plenty of sunscreen. Watch out for sharks. Don’t forget to put your thunder shirt on your dog tonight. This is a tough weekend for a lot of dogs. And if you manage to do all that, and you’re having a pretty good fourth of July, maybe say a prayer for the good ol’ US of A on her 245th birthday.
We’re not feeling quite as spry as we were some years back, but you never know. I’m nowhere near ready to count the old girl out. Things are tough right now. These are some hard years. And difficult times lead some people to look for any excuse to behave badly. BUT there are also deep wells in this country of pragmatic sense, hard work, creative ingenuity, and selfless sacrifice. This morning I’d like to talk to you about maybe getting the bucket to go down a little further in those wells. We might need a longer rope—the wells are deep, and they’re nowhere near dry—no way.
Funny thing I’ve realized about democracy: If you live in a country where everybody seems to agree all the time, you probably don’t live in a democracy. Democracy is designed to bring the will of the people to the government, of course, but it’s also designed to hold the people together as a nation even as we disagree. When most everybody has a right to speak, and most everybody gets a vote, the world gets loud with opinions. There’s a competition of ideas and interests. There are appeals to our ideals and to justice and fairness. AND there’s mudslinging and name calling and baloney, and plenty of frustration to go around.
You know, it wasn’t God’s idea to put a king over all of Israel. But the people came to Samuel and his sons who were acting as judges over the individual tribes, and they said, “We want a king! Things will be easier with a king! One guy to ride out in front of us and tell us all what to do!” So, Samuel prays to God, “Hey, what I do with these people?” And God says to Samuel, “Listen, tell them how lousy kings are. Tell them he’s gonna send your sons off to fight his wars, and he’ll take your daughters for his servants, and he’ll set you to plowing his fields, and he’ll take the best of your wine, and your oil, and your livestock and give it to his favorites, and you’ll all basically become his slaves and won’t be able to say a word against him. And if after telling them all that they still want a king, well, we’ll give ‘em a king.” So Samuel tells the people how lousy the king’s gonna be. And the people still want a king! “Everything will be easier with a king! One guy to ride out in front us and lead us! It’ll all be worth it for that.”
It’s an understandable mistake. It’s tempting to want to quiet the voices of dissent and disagreement, voices of conspiracy, rage, and sometimes hate by shutting the whole project down. Just shut it down. Give us a king. One guy, one opinion. Everybody else, shut up!
In a country as large and diverse as the United States, with such a complicated history of ideals and failures, it’s not surprising that there are such big differences of opinion about the state of the nation. It’s unfortunate to me that the loudest voices seem to be at the extremes, and they seem to be saying (even more loudly recently) that you have to choose a team: You can either love your nation uncritically or you can criticize it lovelessly. Those in the middle who choose to love their nation while acknowledging its flaws or who choose to quarrel with their nation—like a lover working for a better shared future—are made out by both extremes to be suckers, simpletons, and traitors.
As Christians we see how God works to redeem the whole world—by loving us unceasingly and by offering us sharp warnings when we stray from the narrow path. That may be all well and good for God, but apparently in the United States today, you can’t love America and criticize her, you can’t criticize America and support her. So, patriotism has become artificially bifurcated into pro and con, when God has given us hearts that are big enough to contain both deep love and passionate critique.
I love in our scripture reading this morning that in Paul’s refusal to boast, he manages to boast quite a bit, doesn’t he? That’s the wonderful way that Paul has with words. Paul was writing this as a letter to the church he founded in Corinth. He’s replying to a letter they sent to him. We don’t know exactly what that letter said, but it seems like there were possibly some other preachers moving in on Paul’s turf, and they were maybe badmouthing him. “Oh, Paul?” they might have been saying, “Yes, he’s a nice guy, but a little boring, don’t you think? Take a look at me, I’m the newest, fanciest, holiest thing in Corinth.”
So, Paul feels like he has to respond. He doesn’t want to play the bragging game. At the same time, he wants everybody to know that if he were to stoop to their level and play the bragging game, he’d definitely win. But even as he relates being taken up to the third heaven (in the third person, of course, to be humble about it), he still manages to keep his feet on the ground. Sure, Paul could boast all day about his spiritual bona fides, but he knows ultimately that won’t serve him, serve the Church in Corinth, or serve God. So, very quickly he transitions to bragging not about his strengths, but about his weakness—the thorn in his flesh.
We’re not exactly sure what this was. Chronic pain? An old injury? A disease? We don’t know. But since he doesn’t name it or describe it, the folks in Corinth must have all known what he meant. Maybe even the new preachers were putting Paul down for it, “Oh Paul?” they might have said, “He’s a fine enough fellow, I suppose, but I do wonder why God hasn’t cured that old limp of his. Did I ever tell you about the time God cured my lumbago?” But (in one of the most extraordinary lines in all of scripture) Paul reminds the church in Corinth that his ailment is a sign of God’s grace and favor because “power is made perfect in weakness.”
In 1887 Lord Acton famously wrote, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.” More than 1800 years earlier, Paul understood the temptation to power and invincibility, and chooses instead to brag about his weakness as the piece of his humanity that keeps him human and brings him closer to God.
Paul’s words are shocking to us because he’s saying something most of us are too afraid to say—that there’s nothing wrong with being weak. But there is something terribly wrong with trying to pretend that we’re not. Every boast of perfection, Paul says, should be a boast that acknowledges our vulnerabilities. Because boasting that doesn’t is a denial of God’s grace. Paul prays three times to be healed. And God answers, “My grace is sufficient for you.” Perfect people (and flawless nations) don’t need God to shed his grace on them. I need God’s grace shed on me because I am not perfect. I am flawed and working to improve. America needs God’s grace because we are not perfect. We are flawed and if we’re going to improve, we’re going to have to work together.
Improvement and working together require two key, related ingredients: Grace and Love. It would be a terrible mistake to limit our patriotism to the idolization of a whitewashed history, just as it’s a mistake to drain our struggle for a better nation of the lifeblood of our most profound and positive connection to that nation—our love. Loving the nation doesn’t mean you have to love everything America has done or is doing. I don’t. Loving America doesn’t mean you have to like everybody living in America. I don’t. But in a country this big, this diverse, this beautiful, you can find something to hold onto and call your own, some community to cling to, some kid whose future you care about. Disenchantment and outrage are not sufficient to write a new chapter in American history. The brighter future of our more just nation will be written down by the hand of grace in the ink of eyes-wide-open love, or it won’t ever be written at all. Don’t put your fingers in your ears when someone tells you the story of a piece of the American landscape that needs to be changed. And as you tell those painful and difficult stories, don’t forget that you have every bit as much right to love your home as anyone else.
So, beloved, let’s say a prayer for the good ol’ US of A. But let’s also commit ourselves to working together as an American people for the American people. In the words of Tacitus, let’s set ourselves in loving competition with our forebears, and let’s build a better future for all from the uneven grounds of our triumphs and failures, relying on the grace of God to make our flaws more perfect and our love more known.
In the early 70s two psychologists at Princeton University did a fascinating experiment. They called all the students at Princeton Seminary and scheduled them to come into their office. When they came in, the seminarians were given some tests, and they were asked to prepare a little talk. Half of them were asked to prepare a talk on the rather bland topic of employment at the seminary. The other half were asked to prepare a mini-sermon on the parable of the Good Samaritan. You’ll recall that the story of the Good Samaritan is about helping strangers in need. This will become very relevant in a moment.
When their preparation time was up, each seminarian was asked to walk to a separate building. They were told that when they arrived at the other building, they’d give their talk and be evaluated on it. This is where things get really fun. These are the kinds of experiments you could get away with 50 years ago, but they’re not allowed anymore.
Because to get to the other building the seminarian had to walk through an alleyway, and lying in the alleyway was a person (played by an actor) who was coughing and moaning and clearly distressed and in need of some kind of care. And just to ratchet up the stakes a little bit more, the alley was only four-feet wide, so the seminarian would literally have to step over this person in order pass by to get to the other building. It’s almost a little sadistic, right? What are they going to do?!
Well, I’m sorry to report to you that only 40% of the seminarians (training to be ministers) stopped to help the person lying in the alley. The other 60% literally stepped right over them. And get this, there was no significant difference between those giving a talk about jobs in the seminary and those preaching on the Good Samaritan. 60% of those preaching on the Good Samaritan (a story about not abandoning an injured stranger) stepped right over the injured stranger without offering any help. The content of the preparation they did made no difference.
So, what did make a difference? What’s the difference between those who stopped and those who didn’t? Well, the psychologists had given them all kinds of spiritual personality tests as a part of the experiment. And they couldn’t find any correlation between how the seminarians believed or what they believed in and whether they stopped to help or not. So, beliefs and personality traits made no difference. What else could it be?
Well, there was one other diabolical little wrinkle in the experiment. Before the psychologists set the seminarians off down the narrow alleyway, they told them one of three things. Some of the seminarians were told, “It’s time for you to walk over to the other building now, you should have plenty of time to get there.” This was called the “low-hurry” condition. Some were told, “They’re ready for you now, please go right over.” This was called the “intermediate-hurry” condition. And some were told, “Oh, you’re late. They were expecting you a few minutes ago. You better get over there!” This was called the “high-hurry” condition.
And don’t you already know where this is going to end up? You know, right? It wasn’t what they believed in. It wasn’t how they believed. It wasn’t even the content of the values that they espoused and that they were actively thinking about that made the difference. It all came down to that ubiquitous and tedious ticking of the clock—how much of a hurry they thought they were in. 63% of those who had plenty of time stopped to help. But that dropped down to only 45% of those who were expected right now. And for those who believed they were late and in a rush, only one in ten stopped to help.
Jesus, in our scripture reading this morning, has been going back and forth across the Sea of Galilee and he’s had all sorts of trouble. He’s gotten into arguments with the religious authorities and even his own family thinks he’s lost it. He’s had particular trouble in the synagogues where he’s aroused a lot of anger from some of his detractors by healing on the Sabbath day. But now Jesus seems to have caught a bit of a break. A man, a leader of the synagogue, a man of such unusual significance that his name is actually recorded in the text—Jairus—has fallen down at Jesus’ feet and is begging him urgently to heal his dying daughter. What a change in fortune. What an opportunity for the mission!
As they make their way to Jairus’ house, a woman, a woman with a gynecological condition which was considered to be ritually unclean, which would have excluded her from the synagogue and from the life of her community, a woman who had been socially and spiritually marginalized and who had suffered physically without relief for 12 long years, a woman who had been bankrupted by her medical bills, a woman of such little importance and consequence that her name is not remembered at all touches Jesus’ robe as he passes by her in the crowd, and she is immediately healed. Jesus’ power has flowed into her, the healing she hoped for has miraculously occurred, it’s the happiest ending imaginable, and there is no reason for Jesus to interrupt his urgent trip to save the beloved little daughter of Jairus, the local dignitary, whose name has been remembered for thousands of years.
And yet even though Jairus must have been desperately anxious and rushing Jesus along as fast as he could, and even though there was no physical need that required Jesus to delay, and even though she was just an unclean nobody, Jesus performed the miracle of making time for her.
“Who touched my clothes? Who was it?” The disciples think he’s nuts. “What do you mean who touched you? It’s a crowd! Literally everybody is touching you! Let’s keep going.” Can you imagine the state that Jairus (understandably—his daughter is on the verge of death) the state that Jairus must have been in as Jesus stopped and started talking about his clothes? Can you imagine the pressure just to step over her and keep going?
The text doesn’t remember her name, which is all the more unfortunate because Jesus stops the crowd, in part, just to know her, to learn her name. Jesus could have let her sneak off unnamed and once again unnoticed. He had every reason just to let her fade into the background and to rush past her. He even could have made himself feel good about it—about being able to help her without needing to slow down. Isn’t that the modern ideal? But Jesus makes the time to know who she is, to look her in the eyes, to speak with her, and to remind this outcast woman that she was a human being, a child of God, and that she mattered to him.
Speaking of reminding people who have been thrown out that they are indeed God’s beloved children, we should all note that today the 51st annual Pride Parade is being held in NYC, and today is our denomination’s, the United Church of Christ’s, National Open & Affirming Sunday, which celebrates the incredible ministry of the more than 1,500 churches within the UCC who have passed an Open & Affirming resolution upholding the full humanity and the full inclusion of LGBTQ persons in the life and leadership of the church. Glen Ridge Congregational Church has not passed an Open & Affirming resolution, but to those of you who are a part of our church and who are LGBTQ, allow me to remind you that God loves you just as you are and that you are an important and valued part of this community, not despite your sexual orientation, not despite your gender identity—you are valued and loved because of who you are.
Author Steven Pressfield’s Principle of Priority simply states: “(a) you must know the difference between what is urgent and what is important, and (b) you must do what’s important first.” Jesus makes a decision about importance and urgency on his way to Jairus’ daughter. Jesus shows us that nothing is more important than intimate human connection—nothing. Nothing is more important than making time for someone, for taking the time to let someone who has been pushed aside take the center of your attention and concern. Nothing is more important than addressing the specific needs of someone who has been told that they do not belong. Jesus shows us that a kind word, a human connection, and a welcome into community are more important to him than just rushing by. Jesus makes time. And where he makes time, he makes relationships.
On Wednesday we held a powerful community gathering here in our sanctuary—Jeb Burke’s Celebration of Life. There were hundreds of people here in person in the church and hundreds more watching online. This was in part because Jeb was taken away from us too soon—he was only 61-years old. But it was also more than that. I heard story after story after story about Jeb from some of you, and from his family, and from many of the hundreds of people gathered in this sanctuary on Wednesday, and they said that Jeb Burke was so special to them because he was a person who knew how to make time for others. He had hundreds of friends and he made time for all of them. I heard from a man who said that even though he wasn’t Jeb’s oldest friend, or the friend who lived closest by, or the one who got to see him most often, Jeb would still send him text messages just to say good morning and to brighten his day. He told me this with tears in his eyes. It meant so much to him that he had a friend who was made the time for him. Jeb, I learned, lived with a philosophy of owning each day as a new opportunity to live the best day of your life. And he filled his days as much as he could with being there for other people, brightening their lives, and making time for anyone who needed it. And so Jeb Burke leaves behind him a beautiful legacy—we remember a man who was never in too much of a rush to offer his love.
More than half of the seminarians in the low-hurry group, who were told that they had plenty of time, stopped to help. But in the intermediate-hurry group, who were told they were expected right now, less than half stopped to help. And only 10% of those in the high-hurry group, who believed they were late and in a rush, stopped to help.
Beloved, in the 50 years since these seminarians were experimented on, our world has only gotten itself busier and in a bigger rush. Many of us have plenty of everything we need, except for one thing: We live in a time famine. We’re over scheduled, over worked, over committed. Our day-to-day lives are drifting deeper and deeper into the chaos of the high-hurry existence all the time. Rushing is a constant state. And it is cutting us off from what should be our biggest priority—one another.
When we live overwhelmed lives, in which we don’t feel like we are in control of our time, Jesus and the psychologists tell us, it is difficult for us to find the time for human compassion and connection. If only being a Christian were all about avoiding sin! Wouldn’t that be easy? Who has time for any funny business nowadays anyway? But instead, being a Christian is actually about making time for what is most important and actually doing it. And how often do we really make the time?
As we rush from urgency to urgency, let’s keep in mind that there is something that is always more important—a core human value of connection to God and to neighbor, and through them to our true selves—to the lives we want to actually live, to the legacy we want to actually leave behind. Jesus was getting at this when he said to Satan in the desert, “One cannot live by bread alone.” We must make the time for that which is most important even it if takes some urgent “bread off the table.” You have God’s permission to be less good at just about anything in your life if it gives you the time and the energy to be a better friend.
Beloved, let’s remember that our allegiance is not to the clock or to the to-do list or to any other worldly thing. Our allegiance is to God. And our calling is to one another. It’s not a calling to go whooshing past one another, maybe making things better, but never making a connection. We are called not just to cure, but to heal, to pay attention, to smile, to touch, to connect, to learn a new name, to slow down, to claw back from our taskmaster world the minutes, the hours, and the days for the most important endeavor we will ever undertake—our love for one another.
Rainer Maria Rilke had this to say about fathers:
Sometimes a man stands up during supper
and walks outdoors, and keeps on walking,
because of a church that stands somewhere in the East.
And his children say blessings on him as if he were dead.
And another man, who remains inside his own house,
dies there, inside the dishes and in the glasses,
so that his children have to go far out into the world
toward that same church, which he forgot.
Rilke’s poem comforts the father in me, the parent in me really, because it reassures me that there’s nothing wrong with being an exhausted father. Fatherhood should be exhausting at times because raising a child is a pilgrimage of our own self-discovery in order for us to model to our children a life that knows how to journey from the ordinary world of mundane comforts to the sacred center of life that God is calling us to. So, happy Father’s Day to all of the dads who strike the right balance between the dinner table and that far-off church in the East. It's not easy. It’s hard work. And you deserve a day to sleep in maybe and be appreciated certainly.
And there’s a truth here that goes beyond fathers and goes beyond children. Pilgrimage—a spiritual and physical journey from one place to another—reminds us that clinging to the places where we feel most safe is not always what’s best for us, or for our children, or for a world that needs the energy and, frankly, the risk of our movement—our pilgrimage, our perilous passage across the sea.
Ms. Opal Lee is known as the grandmother of Juneteenth. She is 94-years old. At 89 she undertook a 1,400-mile walk from Forth Worth, Texas to Washington D.C. to raise awareness and to gather signatures for a petition to make Juneteenth a national holiday. This was not some corporate–sponsored, cushy, comfortable trip. For much of the journey she slept at night on a mattress in the back of a Ford Explorer on the side of the road. But now, thanks in no small part to her work, Congress and the president have enacted a bill which recognizes June 19th, long celebrated in many Black communities as a day marking the end of slavery, as a public holiday.
So, I imagine that yesterday Ms. Opal Lee celebrated Juneteenth as never before, with her whole country behind her. And I pray today, after all her walking, her advocacy, and her organizing, that she has her feet up in some comfortable place where she can rest from the demands of her work. I imagine there is no better tired than the tired Ms. Opal Lee is feeling this morning.
And, so, we come to our scripture reading and Jesus asleep in the boat. We feel a little offended that Jesus might go to sleep on us, don’t we? Especially when we need him most. The disciples are certainly put out by it. They don’t just wake him up with a good shake or a friendly kick. Instead, they say, “Don’t you even care what’s happening to us? Don’t you even care we’re perishing here?” Which hardly seems fair. Doesn’t Jesus deserve his rest too?
Up to this point in Mark’s gospel Jesus has had a busy schedule—lots of travel, lots of people and crowds, lots of needs, and healings, and exorcisms, lots of disagreements with local authorities and even with his own family. It all leads to this striking line, “And leaving the crowd behind, they took Jesus with them in the boat, just as he was.” Just as he was.
And how was he? He was exhausted. And (much like Ms. Opal Lee’s mattress in the back of the Explorer) all he had for comfort was a cushion in the back of a friend’s boat. Jesus was, after all, at the end of a long day, a human being like any of us. So, why should we resent his much needed and well deserved sleep?
And yet, while this sleep seems to be ordinary and expected, there is also something very not-human about this particular little snooze, isn’t there? I mean, can you imagine? The wind is gusting! Lightning is flashing and thunder crashing! The boat is being tossed on the storm! The rain is pelting his face and the waves are swamping the boat! The disciples are howling in terror! How can someone, anyone sleep through something like that?
There is something a little troubling about it, isn’t there? Exhaustion accounts for why Jesus falls asleep, but it can’t account for how he stayed asleep. How can you stay asleep at a time like this? Don’t you realize the danger we’re in? Don’t you see the danger you’ve put us in by commanding us to sail across the water in the dark of night when even the best of fisherman can’t watch out for a change in the weather let alone navigate around a squall. The risk you’ve asked us all to take, and you’re sleeping through it?
Antonio Machado remarked:
Humankind owns four things
that are no good at sea:
rudder, anchor, oars,
and the fear of going down.
When the disciples wake Jesus up, he rebukes the storm! And then Jesus turns to the disciples and rebukes them. But he doesn’t say, “Hey, what’d you wake me up for anyway?” He simply asks, “Why are you afraid?” Don’t you know that fear is no good at sea? Why are you afraid?
Why are you afraid? Well, how much time do you have? Political unrest, nuclear proliferation, international warfare, gun ownership at record highs, gun violence exploding, culture wars, the rise of white nationalism, global climate change, mass extinctions, and a global pandemic that may very well have started in a lab just to name a few of the headlines I was scrolling through in my mind when I couldn’t get to sleep last night.
We think that the miracle is that Jesus woke up, rebuked the wind, and said, “Peace,” to the sea, and the storm was over. “And they feared great fear and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’” But maybe there’s another miracle that we miss—that Jesus was able to sleep through that storm. What is it like inside of Jesus’ mind that he was able to do that? The text says that Jesus brings a “great calm” to the sea. But before Jesus externalized that great calm onto the wind and onto the water, he first contained that great calm within himself—lying in a bath of cold water tossed around on a cushion in the back of a sinking boat, and sleeping like a baby.
Why are you afraid? I’m afraid because my boat is so small, the sea is so big, and the storm is so fierce, that’s why I’m afraid! I’m afraid because I’m a father, and I have a little boy to protect—it’s like my heart is running around on the outside of my body. And how will I keep my heart safe from forces and powers far beyond the ability of any one person to anticipate or control?
And so I’m afraid! Because I’ve got big responsibilities. And so I’ve got to play it safe. I’m a father. It’s only reasonable I play it safe. I’m not going to cross the sea at night. Are you kidding me? I’m not going to go looking for that church in the East. No way! I’m not going to walk from Texas to D.C. Forget it! I’m going to stay right here where I feel safest.
We think that the antithesis of faith is doubt. But I think the antitheses of faith are things like despair, pessimism, selfishness, and fear—the emotions and tendencies that we use (or perhaps that use us) to close the doors of our house and make small the circle of our connection to world. Listen again to what Jesus asks, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”
Jesus brings a heaving sea to a standstill with one word: Peace. “Blessed are the peacemakers,” he says in the sermon on the mount. At the last supper he says, “Peace I leave with you. My peace I give to you.” When he returns to the disciples in the upper room after his resurrection, his first words are, “Peace be with you.” But how many of us have claimed our fair share of Christ’s peace? And how many of us have lived up to its implications?
How could Jesus have slept through that storm? I think the answer is that there was no distance—none whatsoever—between Jesus’ supper table and Jesus’ “church in the East.” Jesus had aligned the sacred center of his life with God. Jesus knew he was on the path that God had created for him and was calling him to. He knew that there would be storms all along the way, but he didn’t need to fear them—not because his boat would never sink, but because, when Jesus slept on that cushion, he did it as a human being exhausted by his calling on a pilgrimage to his destiny. If we want inner peace, we must also (as Howard Thurman often put it) turn the nerve centers of our consent over to God. It won’t make us invincible. It won’t even make us entirely fearless. But here is Christ’s peace—the deep peace of recognizing that your safest space and God’s biggest risk are one in the same!
Beloved, imagine an ending with me. Close your eyes and imagine a journey by boat from your safest place to that place which God has been or may be calling you to—to the church in the East, or to Washington, D.C., or to whatever “other side” it might be. You’re sailing through the dark of night, with just enough light that when you check back over your shoulder you see that Jesus is in the stern of your boat sleeping peacefully on a cushion.
A storm begins to brew. The waters get choppy and the wind blows. Then rain begins to come down in great, big sheets. Soon, the cold waves break over the rail. Of course, you’re afraid.
Now, imagine yourself crawling into the back of the churning boat and curling up on the cushion with Jesus. Imagine spooning Jesus for a little extra warmth, being careful not to wake him up—he’s sleeping so peacefully. Imagine taking his hand and holding it tight. Up in the sky, the lightning illuminates great towers of dark cloud, and thunder shatters the air all around you. You squeeze Jesus’ hand in yours and whisper up to the sky, “Peace. Peace. Peace.”
I love the month of June—the gateway to summer. And on June 1st, if it’s not up already, I put up my rainbow pride flag to celebrate Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Plus Pride Month. So, I was putting out my pride flag on Tuesday and a guy was walking down the street and he said, “I like your flag!” And I said, “Thanks!” He said, “I grew up on this street, and the guy who used to live in your house was a minister, so I don’t think he ever would’ve flown a flag like that!” And I said, “Oh really? Well, I’m a minister.”
And he looked at me with a little bit of shock, and then he laughed, and then he looked at me again, and then he just kept on walking, and I could tell he couldn’t quite decide if I was joking or not. Now, I have no idea if our rainbow flag is the first to ever grace the front of the parsonage or not, but this fella just couldn’t wrap his head around the idea of a minister (or probably any Christian for that matter) in outspoken support of the rights of the LGBTQ+ community.
That happens sometimes. We think we know how the world works, we think we’ve got people pegged, we think we’ve got everything figured out and ordered, and then God sends along a little spiritual wind and blows our assumptions all over the place. Sometimes when that happens, we go find the biggest paperweight we can and we drop it right down in the middle of our assumptions so that no wind, holy or otherwise, will be able to budge them and make a swirling mess of our ordered world.
You will remember that two weeks ago on Pentecost Sunday, when the wind came and the disciples were filled with the Holy Spirit many in the crowd shouted, “Oh, they’re just drunk.” And this morning we see that the Holy Spirit is at work again. This time the accusation is not drunkenness, but some are saying that Jesus has lost his mind. He’s crazy! Others say he must be possessed. But as we said two weeks ago, the intelligence of the Spirit doesn’t see any essential animosity between wildness and wisdom, between “craziness” and virtue.
All of us have felt dismissed and maligned at some point in our lives. At some point, there was some gift, some joy, some calling, some essential, important, beautiful part of you that you were given that somebody else either by cruelty or by ignorance stepped all over. Maybe they even shattered a few of your dreams—it does happen:
You showed the picture you drew to your teacher, and she told you that the sun is supposed to be yellow not green, and a little bit of your artistic voice got quiet. You tried out for the baseball team and the other kids laughed at you because you were too small to swing the bat, and you never went back out on the field. You got straight A’s in the sciences in high school, and you graduated valedictorian of your class, but no one would send you on to a university because you were just a girl, and some of the joy of your intellectual life turned to dust. You loved God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and came to feel a calling in your life to be a minister, but then somebody told you that because you’re gay, you’re not fit for ordination, and it felt like your spiritual home was pulled out from underneath your feet.
She’s just drunk! He’s just crazy! You’re just a woman! It’s just a phase! Whatever it may be, we all know to a lesser or greater extent how it feels to have this kind of pejorative thinking aimed at us. And we know that when it happens, we are in the best of holy company because Jesus faced the same kind of slander from people who saw the good he was doing and who just couldn’t accept that it was really good. They saw beauty and couldn’t accept it as beautiful. They saw faith and couldn’t accept it as faithful. They saw healing miracles and exorcisms and said, “It’s just by the power of Beelzebul, the ruler of demons, that he commands them.”
Maybe this is what blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is. Part of the reason that people have worried so much about this particular sin—blasphemy against the Holy Spirit—is that Jesus says it’s unforgiveable—which is troubling. The other part of the reason we worry about it so much is because no one can figure out if they’ve done it or not. It’s a little ambiguous. And to be clear, no one really knows what the sin against the Holy Spirit is. It’s all interpretation. Even the Gospel writers can’t agree on exactly when Jesus said this, how he worded it, or what he intended to mean by it.
But maybe it’s just this—dismissing the dreams, the calling, the movement of the Holy Spirit within someone else or maybe even within yourself. Last spring, we planted some seeds at the edge of the yard and the neighbor’s landscaper got confused about where the property line was and just came and weedwhacked their little heads off just as they were lifting their faces to the sun for the first time. Because anything that tries to stick its nose up above the grass, must be “just a weed.” To try to kill God’s new thing, to look at a good thing and to assign it the worst motivations, to become a fundamentalist about the height of the lawn and to mow down anything the Spirit might be raising up—maybe that’s the sin against the Holy Spirit.
This brings me back again to that Rainbow Pride Flag I put up at the beginning of Pride month. It’s seems to me that human sexuality, in all its beauty and diversity, is a good gift of the Spirit. We’re often taught that sexuality dwells at the other end of the moral order of things—that’s it’s low, base, dirty, bestial, shameful, the very opposite of holiness. But this is so deeply pessimistic and dualistic and ultimately spiritually harmful to us. The intelligence of the Spirit sees no necessary animosity between human sexuality and human spirituality, between incarnation and sacredness. In fact, there is between them an intimate connection.
Human sexuality is not just an ailment to be corrected, an urge to be denied, or a distraction to be overcome. Our sexuality is a part of our very soul, a part of the good way God created us, a gift (in part) for reproduction but also for art, for culture, for dance, for pleasure, for beauty, for family, and, obviously, for love. When I say that I am a child of God, and I believe I am, that identity doesn’t erase the gifts that God has given me in my creation, I believe it highlights them. I am child of God! And I am fearfully and wonderfully made—gay, straight, male, female, cisgender, transgender, black, white—these are the marks of the children of God, these too are gifts of the Spirit!
When we pathologize human sexuality in general or when we pick on the consensual, mutual, loving sexuality of some individual person or group of people, we do great harm—a harm that is born out in depressing statistics: a survey by the Trevor project recently reported that 40% of LGBTQ youth seriously contemplated suicide in 2020, as just one example of the pain of being rejected at the soul level.
If blaspheming the Holy Spirit and her gifts and works is an “unforgiveable” sin (and just to be clear, I think Jesus is being hyperbolic when he says “unforgiveable”), but if it is an “unforgiveable” sin, then what is it when we’re silent in face of bigotries and oppressions like homophobia that mow down the precious and developing gifts of God within a human soul?
It’s not enough, in my opinion, for me or for any Christian simply not to participate in the social denigration and spiritual abuse of LGBTQ+ people. We cannot appear neutral. We must raise our voices and raise our flags and raise our children in ways that assures the LGBTQ+ community inside and outside our walls that they too, just as they were created, are the beloved children of God. Silence on this topic is a sort of quiet blasphemy.
There are some individuals and some churches who fear that being outspoken on this point will earn them the scorn of their neighbors. Or they’re afraid if the rainbow flag goes up, what kind of people might show up at the door looking to join the family? What if queer people and queer families really show up and everyone says, “Oh, that church? They’re just the gay church.” How could we live with ourselves if some of our neighbors thought we were all a little queer? At times like this, I think it’s important to remember how queer and strange and crazy people thought Jesus was. He earned himself those badges of honor, in part, by hanging out with those who were considered outcasts and by welcoming them into the family with open arms.
Some people describe Jesus as the defender of conservative Christian family values. Other people say that Jesus fully rejected the tradition of the family. I don’t think either of those positions is quite right. Jesus certainly had family values, but they were odd family values. He appears to have been unmarried and unencumbered by a family—same for his disciples. Jesus encourages the disciples to leave their families behind. James and John abandon their father in the fishing boat to follow Jesus’ call. When another follower’s father dies, Jesus advises him not to go home to attend to the burial—follow me and let the dead bury their own dead, he says. Jesus says that he has come to set family member against family member and to make families into foes. And he says you cannot be a disciple if you do not hate your parents, your siblings, your spouse, and your children.
Certainly, Jesus is challenging allegiance to the family as most of us know and define it. But Jesus isn’t rejecting family. He’s upending it and expanding its boundaries. Who are my mother and brothers and sisters, he asks? You are. We are. Jesus offers us a new definition of family not limited by blood or tradition that offers a home to those who like him, have been misunderstood and rejected by their families of origin. This to me is the ultimate of Jesus’ family values—not the white picket fence, not heteronormative marriage, not the 2.1 children or whatever—but the idea that we as Jesus’ followers are a family by choice, open to all. That’s a wonderful thing! But it comes with a caution as well: Woe to us, if as representatives of Jesus’ chosen family, we try to dismiss, to restrain, to suppress, or to dodge what the Holy Spirit is doing in our community and who she brings to our doors.
As the Sledge Sisters recorded it in lyrics that have inspired chosen families of all kinds for the last 40 years:
We are family!
I got all my sisters with me!
We are family!
Get up everybody and sing!
All of the people around us, they say,
“Can they be that close?”
Just let me state for the record,
We're giving love in a family dose!
We are family (hey, y'all)
I got all my sisters with me!
We are family!
It’s Trinity Sunday, which is the one Sunday in the church year that the calendar instructs us to focus on a doctrine of the Church—The Trinity, God in Three Persons (Father, Son, Holy Spirit; Creator, Christ, Holy Ghost), each “person” distinct but also all coequal, coeternal, and consubstantial. It is a distinctive Christian doctrine (no other religion has anything quite like it). For that reason, perhaps, it is also sometimes confusing to people—it has certainly been fought over! And it is also beautiful, if you just let yourself take in the view that the Trinity presents to us. It’s a beautiful thing. And I think it reflects to us something true and beautiful about who we are as people created in the image and likeness of God.
We have at home a very active 20-month-old little boy, Romey, and we don’t let him watch a lot of TV, but when we do it’s often dance videos on YouTube. I’m not much of a dancer, myself, but Romey loves to dance, and we’ve got to keep him moving to burn calories and get some sleep. I don’t have to be too self-conscious about my dancing in front of a toddler, and he’s actually taught me one thing that the dance videos couldn’t teach me and that’s the key is really to just keep moving. We’ve got to keep moving.
And we see this in children: We were made to keep moving, to keep learning, to keep drawing the world into ourselves so that we can become a meaningful part of the world. Sometimes we rush through life, we overschedule ourselves, we never stop to smell the roses, and we burn ourselves out. That’s not what we’re talking about here, we’re talking about dancing—about moving toward the heart of the party, jumping in with both feet, a sort of celebratory commitment. Dancing is not about living frantically; it’s about living joyfully. We’ve got to keep moving with joy. We don’t want to get stuck without it.
There’s an old Greek word for this, perichoresis, which literally means “to dance around.” And the word was used in the early Church to describe the Trinity. You can see this picture in your head, if you try, right? God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit in twirling, dancing relationship to one another. In the dance, each “person” of the Trinity is fully related to and in no way separated from the other two. It’s one dance they’re dancing. But it’s not a melting pot. It doesn’t eat up the individuality of the dance partners. Instead, the perichoresis is a living relationship between the Parent, the Christ, and the Spirit forever moving and dancing with one another, fully interconnected, yet individually intact. When take in this beautiful view of the Trinity, we see that in the very nature of God, stuckness is nowhere to be found. Joylessness is an impossibility. Dancing and jubilation and activity are at the very heart of God’s existence.
Let’s keep this view in mind as we turn to Isaiah and Nicodemus this morning. Both Isaiah and Nicodemus are at the beginning of something. And I’m interested in this because, I think, so are we. Again, right? Here we are—again—confronting a new reality—we’re now reopening our sanctuary to the public for worship on July 11 and we’re contemplating the best ways for us to do ministry in this new moment we’re now in. The question I have for us is “Where might we be stuck? And what is moving us forward with joy?” And with both Nicodemus and Isaiah we see this in their beginnings—a mixture of hesitation and recommitment.
When we begin something new, we begin from what 20th Century comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell calls “The Ordinary World.” We know what that is. It’s the world we live in when we’re not on an adventure doing something new. Isaiah was living in the ordinary world of Judah during the reign of King Uzziah. Times were difficult, and he saw no path to becoming a person who could make a difference. He was stuck. Nicodemus was a respected pharisee, teacher, and member of the Sanhedrin council who dedicated himself to a particular way of life and to keeping a particular order to the world. He was not a man of doubts. He was comfortable, assured set in his ways. Young or old, privileged or oppressed, paradise or dystopia, we all know what it feels like to start somewhere—the place we are before God speaks or before God strikes, as the case may be.
Into the everyday life of the ordinary world comes the Call. Isaiah is suddenly caught up in a vision of God almighty upon a throne. God’s voice calls out, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Nicodemus for the first time in years finds himself unable to sleep, restless, bothered—bothered by that wild rabbi, Jesus, and his teachings. He goes to see Jesus at night. He wants, I think, to settle himself down, to stop the questions and the turmoil in his heart. He wants to go back to sleep! But that’s not what Jesus offers him, instead Jesus invites him, an old man, to be born anew.
The call wasn’t easy for either Isaiah or Nicodemus. That’s because God doesn’t have to call us to do easy things or to commit ourselves to no brainers. Every call is a call to adventure and a call to loss. So much so that even tragic news can turn out to be a call. My mom’s cancer diagnosis in 2019 turned out to be the call to complete her life. And it was hard, and there was meaning and purpose in. The call is always a call into a spiritually bigger kind of life, a life in which we push at the boundaries of the Ordinary World, push our vocations, push our families, push our comfort, push our diagnoses, in which we scramble up the DNA of the Ordinary World to try to make a new world, a better world for ourselves and for others.
And that is always hard. And so before we can accept the Call, here comes what I think is the most important part of a new adventure. It’s the place where we get stuck. After the magic or excitement or horror of that initial call has worn off, we can get stuck in between the ordinary world and the world of new possibilities. Joseph Campbell calls that stuckness “The Refusal of the Call.” Refusal. Well, that sounds a little judgey, doesn’t it? Because, I mean, aren’t there sometimes outside forces—forces that we have no control over—that hold us back?
What Campbell understands is that a necessary component of answering a call is a time of doubt where, perhaps overcome by obstacles, we say NO. In other words, doubt and the acceptance of doubt are built into the very beginning of every spiritual journey.
Why do we refuse the call? Well, we start out with practical excuses. We can’t leave the farm before the harvest. We have fields and commitments, family, responsibility. The journey is too long, too difficult, too expensive, too dangerous. And when we’ve finally burned through every external excuse for not moving forward, we come down eventually to the real, fundamental, core issue: “I’m just not good enough.” Our initial doubts may be external, but our final doubts—the doubts that really must be contended with—are internal.
In a wonderful line that’s always stuck with me, Harry Potter says, “I can’t be a wizard; I’m just Harry.” Isaiah says, “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” Nicodemus says, “How can anyone be born again after having grown old?” I don’t have what it takes to start God’s adventure again. I’m just not good enough.
In Joseph Campbell’s writings he talks about how in the myths of the Hero’s Journey the hero is judged based upon their heroic return to the ordinary world to give back to the people what they have stolen from the gods or whatever. You’re not a hero because you receive the call. You receive the call precisely because something is lacking. God calls those who are missing something to be the ones who find what is missing.
So, the Refusal of the Call is a necessary part of the journey because after all the other excuses are cleared away, we are left standing in the presence of God, looking into the mirror and realizing, “There’s something missing!” The person who doesn’t have that experience, might think that they were chosen because they’re perfect and that they’re expected to be perfect in everything they do. The person who doesn’t have that experience might go out into the world thinking that are being called to win, when actually God is calling us to grow.
That’s how God works. She gives important work to imperfect people. Sometimes certain people realize that if they just keep messing things up, eventually people will stop asking them to do things. We’ve all known somebody like this. But our Triune God never gets stuck, she just keeps on moving. Even when we want nothing more than to be left alone, God doesn’t ever give up on us.
You are not perfect. I am not perfect. Neither is our church. No matter. A change is coming, a call to a new adventure, to the world’s next great need, and God is wondering who to send. Beloved, if there was ever a time to do things differently, if there was ever a time to let go of the things that may have been slipping away already, if there was ever a time to lean into new opportunities, events, and ministries, now is the time. The world is wounded, our neighbors are seeking, we are called, and God is dancing, dancing all around—dancing, dancing, dancing.
In the late 90s I worked at a summer camp way out in the woods in North Carolina. One night after a closing Bible study in an old army tent with my campers we switched off our flashlights and fell asleep in the quiet dark. Around midnight I was awoken by a sound like I had never heard before—a wild yipping, yapping, growling chorus echoing through the woods and getting louder and louder, louder and louder until this pack of coyotes was rushing like a tornado right through our campsite. I’ll never forget sitting there on my cot, my heart pounding, adrenaline coursing through me, my imagination running wild as I listened to them scampering, sniffing, howling, and tearing at one another just on the other side of the tent wall—feet away from me.
I wasn’t afraid of them—I knew we were safe in the tent, but they awakened some slumbering part of me. I wanted to step out of the safety of the tent, I wanted to howl back at them, I wanted to run with them through the woods. I realized that while I had many things that coyotes do not have, those coyotes still had something themselves that I was wanting. Maybe something I was not even able to comprehend. What was it?
The great French philosopher and mystic Simone Weil once wrote, “We know by means of our intelligence that what the intelligence does not comprehend is more real than what it does comprehend.” That’s a Pentecost statement, I think, because Pentecost is about broadening the idea of what intelligent comprehension is. Intelligent comprehension is not just spread sheets and flow charts and facts and rational answers. There is another form of communication, one which we’re all capable of speaking in, and it’s not a barbaric language, not just the howlings of a drunken mob, not the “tale told by an idiot” that faith is often made out to be.
The Spirit has its own intelligence that even we Christians are sometimes regrettably alienated from. Now, why is that? Are we afraid that if we go out to “run with the wolves” we have more to lose than to gain? Are we afraid that we’ll look drunk or foolish or that we’ll be scorned? We’re suspicious of the intelligence of the Spirit and the language she speaks, I think. The intelligence of the Spirit is hot, hopeful, loose, faithful, wild, and wise. Can you even imagine such words being listed together as if they belonged to one another? Hot and hopeful? Loose and faithful? Wild and wise? The intelligence of Pentecost says YES to such unlikely pairings because Pentecost does not see any animosity between that which is virtuous and that which is exciting, between that which is rational and that which overflows the dams of rationality.
Within us, within all of us and within each of us, and within the universe itself there is a deep reservoir of spiritual intelligence that doesn’t do arithmetic, doesn’t exist to fill in the circles on a multiple-choice test, is not held back by what it has been told is known and what it has been told is possible. It does not hold to the rules and restrictions of the grammar of rationality—and yet it is intelligent and intelligible.
It is an intelligence that is drawn to the Mysteries that cannot be proved, but which are useful and powerful precisely because they cannot be proved. You cannot prove that life is worthwhile. It is an untestable theory. And if you are a person who cannot decipher the natural intelligence of the Spirit, if you are someone who cannot be inspired to hope in times of despair, to faith in the age of reason, and to love in a culture of contempt—then no matter how great your achievements may be they will feel empty because no one will be able to prove that they are meaningful, no one will be able to prove that they are anything more than the predetermined accidents of an empty existence in a meaningless universe. And so through the intelligence of the Spirit we are inspired to become a people not of certainty, but of conviction.
The intelligence of the Spirit longs to look out on the vistas of the great questions in life and never wants the view to the far horizon to be blocked off by an answer, by a dogma, or even by a reasonable interpretation offered too early or too eagerly. God goes all the way to the horizon! And how often we try to hem God in and make God logical and dry and conventional. But by the intelligence of the Spirit we learn how to step out of the way, how to inspire, and how to be inspired by the view that is beyond us.
I mean, My God! Look at what happened on Pentecost! There was fire in the air! Everybody thought they were drunk! They were speaking languages they shouldn’t have known! And a bit after where our reading ended this morning, we are told that after witnessing the events of Pentecost morning more than 3,000 people were baptized! What was it that moved them to give themselves over to God’s Spirit so completely? Was it decorum? Was it tradition? Was it some creed? Was it an answer at the back of the coursebook? No, no, no, no. It was the intelligent, palpable, wild heat of that morning. It was the men, the women, the people who let themselves be moved by it, who let the speech of their tongues, the hearing of their ears, and the intelligences of their hearts be transformed by it. The outpouring of the Holy Spirit in our lives, in our church, must be experienced at levels deeper than what the rational mind can comprehend.
Max Weber, one of the founders of modern sociology, defined three kinds of legitimate authority: traditional, rational, and charismatic. Traditional authority is upheld by doing things the way they have always been done according to custom. Rational authority is upheld by doing things according to the rules, following the proper procedures. Charismatic authority is based upon the power of personality—connecting deeply to the emotions, the desires, and the soul of the people. Weber said that the most unstable form of authority was charismatic authority because charismatic authority dies when the source of the charisma (the charismatic leader) dies, or the power is maintained but only by transforming charismatic authority into something else—into tradition or rationality.
And this, I think, is what has largely happened to the churches and to Pentecost. The birth of the Church was a charismatic miracle of the Holy Spirit. Many of the earliest Christians were drawn into the church because of the way that the Holy Spirit was allowed the freedom to connect them spiritually and viscerally to God and to their neighbors. But slowly that miracle was transformed from an ecstatic, heart-pounding, communal encounter with God’s Spirit into something much tamer, something much more staid, something much more reasonable. We’ve turned it into a story about church history, rather than living it out as the example of who we are and what we do in church today. We have forgotten that our charismatic leader is not dead, is not gone. The Holy Spirit is still here, still working among us. WE are the charismatic leaders of the church of today and tomorrow—that’s the invitation of Pentecost to the Church in all ages.
Of course, churches have traditions, and they should. Of course, churches have bylaws and politics and theologies and interpretations and explanations, as they must. But our traditions and our rules and our expectations have always been meant to recreate the opportunity for the world to have a charismatic, Holy Spirit encounter with the power of the resurrected Christ and the living God. Beloved, in church it’s not supposed to be Christmas all the time, it’s not supposed to be Easter every Sunday, but every day ought to be a little like Pentecost.
Instead, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit has been domesticated by the churches, and it is up to us to reintroduce ourselves to the wild. Pentecost is the birth of the Church and the model for what the churches ought to be—and the story of Pentecost makes clear we’re meant to be more Dionysian than Apollonian, more tent revival than chapel, more Burning Man than country club. The Holy Spirit is a special kind of chemistry between people, between God and us, between the Church and the world, and heat is the key ingredient to the chemical reaction we are hoping to incite.
We need fire. And how many of us can say that we have been set ablaze by the Holy Spirit and that the flames are spreading to the four corners of the globe? The poet Rumi advises us on this point, “Do not feel lonely, the entire universe is inside you. Stop acting so small. You are the universe in ecstatic motion. Set your life on fire. Seek those who fan your flames.”
So, this Sunday, Pentecost Sunday is not a Sunday to be rational, circumspect, or decorous. It is not a Sunday for easy answers or for seeking salvation solely in the experiences of our spiritual forebears. Of this I am sure: meaning cannot be found in answers given to us or in experiences unlived by us. Meaning can only be found in wrestling with convictions, with community, with suffering, and with love. When it comes to meaning, answers are just placeholders—the finger pointing to the moon.
This is the other virtue of Weil’s words, “We know by means of our intelligence that what the intelligence does not comprehend is more real than what it does comprehend.” Not only do her words encourage us to broaden our intelligence, they also decenter us and remind us that that which is most real, most important is beyond us—and if we’re smart and if we’re humble, we’ll pay attention to what is most real—that intelligence which leads us first to grace and then to fire.
Jesus the Imagination
Thoughts and dreams, musings and meditations