Sunday, January 13, 2013

Waiting for the Spirit

Texts: Act 8 5-25 (receiving the Spirit); Luke 3 15-22 (Jesus is baptized)

How would you describe our spirits as a congregation this new year? Are they high or low? Healthy or ailing? In or out of line with God's Holy Spirit? These are some questions that come to my mind in relationship to our Scripture readings today.

In today's Gospel reading, Jesus is baptized in the Jordan River by his cousin John. But unlike the other Gospel accounts of his baptism, Luke's version does not show Jesus receiving the blessing of the Holy Spirit at the time of his baptism. That comes later, after all the people have been baptized and after John has been arrested by Herod. Luke says it is only then, at a moment when Jesus is praying, that "the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon [Jesus] in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, 'You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.'"

Something similar happens in  today's reading from Acts. We hear of a group of Samaritans who are converted and baptized by Philip in the months immediately after Jesus' death and resurrection. But they too do not receive the Holy Spirit at the moment of their baptism. This comes later when Peter and John visit the region, pray, and lay their hands on the new converts.

The text does not show us what receiving the Holy Spirit means for these new Christians. But it does say that the action of Peter and John so impress a local magician, Simon, that he offers them money to show him how to do this trick. Other parts of the book of Acts show us why Simon might be impressed by the ability to bestow the Spirit.

At the Festival of the Pentecost, 50 days after the first Easter, the Holy Spirit comes to Jesus' disciples in Jerusalem as wind and tongues of fire. It enables them to speak to all the Jews assembled in the city for the Festival in their own native languages and to convert them to faith in Jesus as the Christ.

The Spirit-filled disciples also heal sick people, cast out demons, and even raise a few dead people to renewed life. Clearly, the Holy Spirit has enormous power, even if we don't know exactly how and when it gets bestowed.

Christian denominations like the Pentecostals take the Holy Spirit more seriously than do most United Churches. Does this mean that we are a dispirited church? Should we perhaps try to follow the Pentecostals down the strange roads opened up by the Spirit as portrayed by Luke in the Book of Acts?

I was impressed by a Spirit-filled church three years ago in San Francisco. This was  the year when I was a student supply minister in Didsbury Alberta. I took a week's vacation after Easter 2010, and since I had never been to California before, I used that opportunity to spend a week in San Francisco.

A tourist guide book spoke highly of a church near where I was staying in the downtown core -- Glide Memorial United Methodist Church. So on the Sunday of that week, I worshipped at that church, and I was amazed by what I experienced.

Despite pouring rain, despite the fact that it was the second of two morning services, despite the fact that it was the "low Sunday" after Easter, and despite the fact that the church's famous Black pastor was away and the preacher that day was a newly ordained White lesbian woman who had come from that church but who was now a minister in a rural part of Arizona, the sanctuary was packed. And the service felt as much like a rock concert to me as it did a worship service.

We were led by a 100-voice Gospel choir. Its members were equal parts men and women; people of European, African, Latin American and Asian descent; and queer and straight people. When they sang, we all got up and swayed and danced along.

The congregation seemed just as diverse as the choir. Two Black women, who seemed to be impoverished, sat on one side of me; on my other side was a prosperous White couple from the suburbs. All of us sang and danced as one.

Although the service included moments familiar to me -- times of confession and lament as well as of praise and joy -- it seemed mostly upbeat to me. I am not sure that I would like this style of worship each week. But one thing evident in the service was Spirit -- lots and lots of Spirit.

The Holy Spirit denotes some of the more mysterious and powerful aspects of God. God the Father is often seen as  remote: the source of all life and judge of the universe. God the Son becomes dear to us in the stories of Jesus of Nazareth. At baptism, we receive Jesus as the Christ into our hearts.

The Holy Spirit was promised to us by Jesus. The book of Acts details the power of the Spirit. I believe that the miracles portrayed there don't need to be understood as literal facts. Instead, I see them as ways to describe the power and joy that can be part of a community that is filled with God's Spirit.

The tough news is that living a life in the Spirit can be difficult to sustain over time -- whether in our worship and mission work, in a marriage, in a job or career, or in the struggle for justice.

Our Scripture readings give us some clues as to what we can do when we suffer from the absence of God's Spirit. We can wait. We can pray. And we can trust. Then when God's Spirit does come again into our hearts or fills our worship or mission, we can give thanks and praise the Spirit's awesome power.

At Glide Memorial church in San Francisco, I got a sense of how the Holy Spirit informed their life. Their Spirit-filled worship fed into the huge amount of outreach they did to the homeless, addicted, and desperate people who live in the neighbourhood around the church. In turn, their outreach to the poor and their focus on justice fed into their worship life. It seemed to be a relationship that blessed both the poor people who came to their soup kitchens and health clinics and all the people -- rich and poor, gay and straight, white people and people of colour -- who came to their packed Sunday worship services.

I don't find it easy to create this kind of powerful relationship between outreach, justice and worship. I raise the example of Glide Memorial here today simply as a reminder to myself and a pointer to us all of how life in the Body of Christ can be a life filled to overflowing with the power of God's Spirit.

In today's Idle No More movement among First Nations youth across Canada, we see the Spirit lifting people out of despair towards hope and out of apathy towards activism. It is a movement that challenges the very basis of Canada as a state founded on war, conquest and colonialism. I am glad that this movement has developed and that it includes the wisdom of elders, the rhythm of ceremonial drums, and the joy of round dancing.

Who knows why such a movement suddenly erupts and catches fire? Four women in Saskatchewan were angry that an omnibus Budget Bill of the federal government had changed environmental protections guaranteed by treaties without any consultation with First Nations. They spread word about protest actions using a Twitter hashtag #idlenomore. Since then, innumerable young natives have put themselves under their banner. But no matter why this movement has taken off unlike others, I pray that it will maintain and develop its spirited momentum.

The Spirit is said to be like breath, wind and flame. Sometimes it can feel as powerful as a blizzard or grass fire that races across a vast prairie. At other times, it can feel like the small still whisper of God's voice on a spring morning or like a little candle burning at a Christmas Eve service.

In worship, I usually prefer the gentle promptings of the Spirit over its awesome and fiery manifestations, which is why I chose they hymn "Spirit of Life" as our hymn of response. But no matter what form it takes, today as we wait for God's Spirit, pray for it, and trust that it will burst into our lives and communities at unexpected moments, we can raise our eyes to God in heaven and to the Risen Christ within our beating hearts and say again . . .

Thanks be to God.


Sunday, January 6, 2013

"Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord"

Text: Luke 2 21-40 (Jesus presented at the Temple) -- why not Matthew?

"Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord."

This line, taken from the anti-slavery anthem "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," was the last sentence of the last speech given by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 45 years ago in 1968. As I thought about today's Gospel passage from Luke, I also thought of King's famous speech from April 1968.

Both Simeon in our reading and Martin Luther King Jr. had a vision of salvation; and this vision in and of itself seemed to heal them. Today, I put their visions side by side.

In our reading from Luke, an old man named Simeon is prompted by the Spirit to go to the Temple in Jerusalem right after the first Christmas. When he gets there, he meets the infant Jesus. Simeon picks Jesus up, cradles him in his arms, and claims that in this baby he has seen Israel's Messiah and the world's salvation. Having finally met the Messiah, Simeon says that he can now die in peace. This is a remarkable thing to say after seeing a baby, wouldn't you agree?

The Messiah (which is a Hebrew word), or Christ (which is its Greek translation), or Anointed One (which is its English translation) was to be the long-awaited King of Israel. The Messiah would bring Israel back to the glory of its days under God's Anointed, King David. And yet Simeon somehow is able to say that in the baby Jesus he has seen this Messiah. And further, this Messiah is not just to be the ruler of Israel, but will also be a light of revelation to the rest of the world.

While Simeon's vision is healing, it also contains the shadow of the cross. Simeon blesses Mary and Joseph and then says to Mary, "This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed -- and a sword will pierce your own soul too." Simeon's blessing is one that comes with a cost!

In a nutshell, Simeon has laid out the entire Gospel. The good news says that all of us are blessed by the coming of the Christ, but that a sword will pierce our souls and that his coming will lead to the falling and rising of many. The falling is the cross and the rising is new life in Christ.

Somehow, in holding this newborn baby in his arms, Simeon experiences salvation in an instant. This salvation involves dying to an old way of life, which can feel like a piercing sword. The good news is that after dying to our old way of life, we are free to rise to a new one, which is a life in which we are healed.

Imagine cradling a newborn baby in your arms, looking down at it, and seeing the Christ there. In really looking at a newborn baby, we sometimes forget about our worries and cares. We stop centring our attention on our small selves, and instead see life as it should be: whole and divine. The baby lacks power, but it contains infinite potential. The baby bears the image of God and will grow within a family, neighbourhood, and global culture. In seeing the divine in a baby, we might also be reminded of our own fragile but divine status as well. When we receive the grace to see like this, we touch salvation.

There is a Celtic Blessing that captures the message. It goes like this: "May the Christ who walks on wounded feet, walk with you on the road, May the Christ who serves with wounded hands, stretch out your hands to serve. May the Christ who loves with a wounded heart open your hearts to love. And may you see the face of Christ in everyone you meet, and may everyone you meet see the face of Christ in you."

Simeon looks at the newborn Jesus and has the grace to see there the face of Christ. And I believe that when Simeon looks up at Mary and Joseph, they also see the face of Christ in Simeon. Because in this moment, Simeon's old life has fallen away. He is living in the new life of Christ, which is a life freed from fear. Feeling blessed in that moment, and no longer afraid, Simeon says that he can now die. It is not that he needs to die, even though he is an old man; just that he no longer fears death. He is "in the moment;" he is following the prompting of the Spirit; he is free.

Simeon does not need to live another 30 years to see what the adult Jesus will do, to puzzle at his parables, or to experience Jesus' death and resurrection. For Simeon, it has all happened in an instant when he sees salvation in the face of a baby.

Simeon's epiphany is also ours, that in the face of Jesus we see God and meet our own salvation. This is an epiphany that we can experience each time we look at one another with love.

But the salvation found in the face of Jesus might also disappoint. God has come in Jesus, but as a helpless baby. Even thirty years later, when Jesus has grown to be a charismatic teacher and healer with a large following, he is powerless in the face of the might of the Roman Empire. He is killed.

Nevertheless, the dream of a new king David refuses to die. Jesus promises to come a second time. The next time, he says he will come "in clouds and with great power and glory." This is also the vision captured in the "Battle Hymn of the Republic," which looks at the Civil War in the United States of 150 years ago through the lens of the Day of Judgement. At the Second Coming, Jesus will be carrying what the Hymn calls "a terrible swift sword." However, almost 2000 years after Jesus' death and resurrection, we are still waiting for this terrible and glorious event.

I prefer the epiphany of Simeon and Martin Luther King Jr., that salvation can happen long before Jesus' terrible swift sword brings justice to the earth. It is not that I am opposed to justice, especially if God magically makes it happen. Rather, the brief moments of healing we sometimes experience tell us that we do not have to wait for the final vindication of God's power. Healing is always here for us, graciously offered by God in everyone we meet and love.

It might be easiest to see divinity in a baby. But we also see the face of Christ in seniors, in mid-lifers, in youth, and in children. Simeon saw it, I see it, and you see it. At worship each week, we remind ourselves of this reality and we celebrate the divine Love that flames inside each and every one of us.

And so we read again the story of Simeon and Jesus in the Temple. It is about babies and salvation; piercing swords and crosses; a fearful old way of life and a trusting new way. All this might seem like a lot to find in a short Scripture reading. But I think that the truths packed into that story from Luke can also be seen in our modern-day Simeon -- the African-American civil rights activist, Baptist minister, and cultural hero, Martin Luther King Jr.

Closing with a story about King and his struggle for civil rights for black Americans might also make us mindful of some current struggles for justice: for the rights of girls in Pakistan to attend school, led by 15-year-old Malala Yousafzai, who continues to recover from an assassination attempt; for an end to violence against women in India; and the Idle No More movement among First Nations people here in Canada. May the participants in all these struggles feel the same inspiration that Dr. King felt 50 years ago and have his same insight that healing is found in the struggle as well as in any of the successes of the movement.

In the spring of 1968, King was in Memphis Tennessee supporting a group of public works employees who were on strike. On the day before his murder, King delivered what became his final speech in the Mason Temple of the Church of God in Christ.

It is called the "Mountaintop Speech" because King says that he has been the top of the mountain and has seen the Promised Land. His vision is of a world without racism and a world of peace and justice. King realizes that he may not get to the Promised Land. But just as it was with Simeon -- for whom it was sufficient to see the promise of the Messiah -- for Martin Luther King, the vision is enough. In fighting for this vision and believing in it, he has been healed and freed.

So I close this sermon with the end of King's speech from that night 45 years ago:

"I got to Memphis. And some talk about the threats that are out there. Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. So I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord."


Why not Matthew? For this Epiphany, I avoided the assigned reading from Matthew 2 (the Star, the Magi from the East, Jerusalem, and King Herod) because this is Year C in the Lectionary, the Year of Luke. Next year, when we are in Year A, the Year of Matthew, I will probably tackle the Magi and the Star.