The wind blows where it chooses…

The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes (John 3:8).

And you know this to be true. The wind does not listen to you; it does not consent to be controlled. It comes when it comes, and you feel it when it arrives.

The wind is capricious and challenging to predict, hard to anticipate, difficult to grasp. Even with the newest math and the best instruments, the smartest and most trained experts cannot say where the wind is going. It’s too much to know. “Such knowledge is too wonderful,” so high it cannot be attained (Ps. 139:6).

Knowledge of the wind, like knowledge of the Spirit, like knowledge of God, like knowledge of the Trinity, is knowledge we cannot contain, or bear, Christ teaches. Knowledge of that kind breaks down into mystery, something hidden from us, something that is beyond us.

It is beyond our understanding, beyond our expectations, beyond our experience. The Spirit is more than what we construe it to be.

And this is good news! Because God is more than our dilemmas and disappointments. God is more than our trauma and terror. God is more than our deepest grief or our most persistent longing. God is more than our depression and our cynicism. God is more than our exhaustion and our exasperation.

God breaks into the world’s inertia like a storm breaking through a summer’s doldrums. God’s light breaks into the depths of our world’s most well-worn patterns and habits, the things we are most certain of, the things we think know best – like how to suspect the stranger, hate the competition, hold a grudge against the transgressor, dehumanize the enemy, plot evil under the cover of night, and murder the threat before we are threatened.

The Spirit breaks into the depths of our world’s most well-worn patterns and habits, the things we are most certain of, the things we think we know best, and we are shown a different way. The wind blows where it chooses, and this time, it’s to somewhere new, and we are surprised, because we did not predict, did not anticipate, could not grasp what the Spirit does, what God does, what the mystery of the Divine does, and will always do, from one day to the next, and on and on, for all time and all eternity, in every corner of the world, even here, even now. Thanks be to God. Amen.

The Holy Spirit Comes Out

Today is Pentecost, the moment in the life of the Church when we remember the gift of the Holy Spirit to the first Apostles, who suddenly (and without the preparation they thought they needed) were able to speak the truth of God in ways both unexpected and unimagined. They were given the gift to tell those who needed to hear God’s Word whatever it was they needed to hear and in exactly the way they needed to hear it. The Apostles were gifted with the capacity to reach out, not only to fellow God-fearing Jews, but also to travelers from far-off lands, and to Gentiles, and to strangers, and even to Roman soldiers – to the powerful who occupied Jerusalem – and to the disenfranchised, huddled masses who were brought to toil there as slaves. The Holy Spirit freed the Apostles to say what needed to be said, to whoever needed to hear it, in whatever way they needed the message to be proclaimed.

The Holy Spirit frees you and me for the same.

And the Holy Spirit comes out in unexpected ways.

Today is Pentecost. Yesterday was the date of the Royal Wedding of Prince Harry to Meghan Markle. I don’t know if you saw it, but as a naturalized, first-generation immigrant from the United Kingdom, I was very interested to see the “pomp and extravagance”[1] of the wedding, to note the celebrities in attendance, and to take in the dignity and tradition of the Royal Family, as they welcomed someone new into the fold.

And in typical English fashion, everything was planned and executed according to a vision established well in advance. The words were spoken calmly, slowly, and eloquently by experienced and thoughtful clergy. The pageantry hinted at traditions observed for centuries, and the hymns quietly welcomed new currents and cultures which are already flowing freely in modern society. Everything was planned to balance the tension between how things were and how things may be, how things are and how things should be.

Everything was planned, including the sermon by the Most Rev. Michael Curry, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church. When you agree to preach for a congregation, it’s good practice to plan what you will say in advance. When you expect a large crowd to listen, it’s ideal to prepare, edit, solicit feedback, and edit again what you will say, well ahead of the occasion. When you know that almost 2 billion people[2] will listen to what you have to say, you make sure that every reference you make is an intentional selection; every word you repeat for emphasis is a word that is meaningful for you and your institution; every intonation and cadence you rest in is for the service of the Word of Truth you are about to speak.

And you have a team to help repeat and proclaim the message when it comes out. For instance, a manuscript of the homily was provided to news outlets, ready for publication only moments after the delivery of the address. And for the most part, it does. But there’s a section where the preacher veers from the written and previewed manuscript, a passage where he seems led, by who-knows-what, to say something else, something additional, something new, and I can’t get it out of my head. He said, to the powerful people in front of him:[3]

There’s power in love. Don’t underestimate it. Don’t even over-sentimentalize it. There’s power, power in love. If you don’t believe me, think about a time when you first fell in love. The whole world seemed to center around you and your beloved. There’s power, power in love. Not just in its romantic forms, but any form, any shape of love. There’s a certain sense, in which when you are loved and you know it, when someone cares for you and you know it, when you love and you show it, it actually feels right. There’s something right about it. And there’s a reason for it. The reason has to do with the source. We were made by a power of love. Our lives are meant to be lived in that love—that’s why we are here. Ultimately, the source of love is God himself—the source of all of our lives…

I am talking about some power. Real power. Power to change the world. If you don’t believe me, well, there were some old slaves in America’s Antebellum South who explained the dynamic power of love, and why it has the power to transform. They explained it this way. They sang a spiritual, even in the midst of their captivity. It’s the one that says there is a balm in Gilead—a healing balm.

‘There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole. There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul.’ One of the stanzas actually explains why: ‘if you cannot preach like Peter, and you cannot pray like Paul, you just tell the love of Jesus, how he died to save us all.’ That’s the balm of Gilead.

This way of love, it is the way of life. They got it; he died to save us all. He didn’t die for anything he could get out of it…

Love is not selfish and self-centered. Love can be sacrificial and, in so doing, become redemptive. And that way of unselfish, sacrificial, redemptive love changes lives. And it can change this world. If you don’t believe me, just stop, think, and imagine.

That’s an awful lot of unscripted preaching. He even, as if to apologize to the happy couple, reassured them in the middle of his sermon that he would end soon, saying: “We gotta get ya’ll married.” This wise and experienced man, this leader of a national institution, this participant in national planning committees and vision-setting meetings, this responsible and thoughtful Bishop of the Church, found himself suddenly caught up in the Holy Spirit. The Word of God came out of him.

And it spoke of a love from God that we do not expect in the world but should. May we all find time just to stop, think, and imagine, what things would look like if we did.

Amen.

[1] Ruth Graham, “Bishop Michael Curry’s Sermon at the Royal Wedding Was a Subtly Radical Piece of Theology,” in Slate, May 19, 2018, https://slate.com/human-interest/2018/05/royal-wedding-sermon-bishop-michael-currys-radical-theology.html.

[2] Danny Boyle and Gareth Davies, “Royal wedding live: Prince Harry and Meghan Markle marry and delight huge Windsor crowds,” in The Telegraph, May 19, 2018, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2018/05/19/royal-wedding-2018-live-meghan-markle-prince-harry-marry-windsor/.

[3] Katey Rich, “Royal Wedding: Read the Stirring Sermon by Most Rev. Michael Curry,” in Vanity Fair, May 19, 2018, https://www.vanityfair.com/style/2018/05/royal-wedding-sermon-text.

He was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.

Happy Mother’s Day. Today happens to be the Sunday that we mark Jesus’ ascension into heaven, where he sits enthroned in power and honor at the right hand of God. Christ is exalted, vindicated, confirmed, and accepted beyond all doubt. That’s what the scriptures tell us.

Jesus’ ascension is a transitional event in the early life of the church, as indicated by Luke’s decision to end his Gospel with a telling of the story. Then, in his next book, the Acts of the Apostles, he begins the account of the early church with a retelling of the ascension of Christ. In Acts, the disciples from the Gospel of Luke are no longer followers of an itinerant rabbi: They are now witnesses to the world of God’s unyielding love and grace, and they have been given a Spirit to proclaim truth to power, reconciliation to those in conflict, and hospitality to those wary of newcomers. They preach the good news that Jesus taught, and it spreads beyond Galilee and Jerusalem, even to the very corners of the known world.

The Apostles preach a new name for God, Jesus Christ, the deliverer of salvation to the world. Our names for God often reflect who we believe God is leading us to become. To some, God calls them to be holy, to be a shining example to the world, that all might forsake evil and turn to righteousness. To others, God calls them to welcome everyone into the church, so that we would be authentically hospitable and reconciling. Some are drawn to study the teachings of the early apostles, in order to have the same deep faith they had.

All three of these tendencies are good; they’re marks and signs of the Church. The Church is holy, catholic, and apostolic. But the fourth mark, that the Church is one, is something that no individual can accomplish by him- or herself. It’s something that requires all of us to make an effort to preserve.

Before his ascension, before his resurrection, before his crucifixion, Jesus prays in the Gospel of John that we all may be one. As if in anticipation of our question, “What does that look like?” Jesus clarifies that we should be able to reflect each other in our own actions, just as Jesus reflected the very quality and nature of God to the early church.

Would that we all could reflect that very Spirit of God, that life force, that freedom and light, in our everyday lives. Would your days look any different from how they appear now? What outlook or attitude might you be able to change in order to live that kind of life?

The hard part about staying together as one Church is that we disagree on a lot of things. Within the United Methodist Church, our Annual Conferences, the meetings of clergy and laity which take place all over the world, voted in the past year to ratify certain amendments to the Church’s governing document, the Discipline. And three out of the five were easily passed. But two failed, and it was a shock to a lot of us who were following along.

“Fear about the gender of God — and what ‘gender’ means for humans — caused two constitutional amendments to fail to be ratified.”[1]

The amendments provided support for United Methodists to “confront and seek to eliminate discrimination against women and girls” within the Church, of which there is much, at home and abroad. The amendments were proposed to protect the God-given desire of each one of us to participate in the life, worship, and governance of the Church, regardless of one’s marital status, gender, ability or disability, and age (along with race, color, national origin, and economic condition). One amendment, in particular, failed by only 100 votes out of 50,000.

Imagine being told you shouldn’t consider serving as a pastor because you have poor eyesight, or you shouldn’t waste your time in seminary because you’re too old to have a long and fruitful ministry, or you shouldn’t be allowed to take up a leadership role at the church because you have trouble paying the rent, or you shouldn’t be allowed to walk through the door to worship on Sunday morning because you slept on the parsonage porch the night before.

We can find ways to marginalize and sideline each other based on any category we can imagine. But this Mother’s Day, I am particularly offended that the leaders of the Church – the clergy and lay members to our Annual Conferences around the world – failed to affirm the value of women in the Body of Christ. Think about the women in your life who have faced hardship for no good reason; think about the stories you’ve heard told about the challenges they’ve endured. I can think of plenty.

One reason the amendment failed was because Christians around the world were offended by the notion that God is neither male nor female, that God is beyond gender, beyond description, beyond categories, beyond allegiances, beyond everything that God made by God’s own Word.

Those who object offer that we pray to Jesus Christ, who became incarnate, unmistakably, as a man. But they don’t remember that he was born as a brown-skinned, brown-eyed, dark-haired Jewish Palistinian. We don’t remember that when we commission stained glass windows, or proudly hang devotional oil paintings, or envision in our minds the One to whom we are praying.

And that takes us back to the ascension of Christ, the end of Jesus’ time on earth.

When God became incarnate in a baby, God took on flesh and tabernacled among us, dwelt among us, encamped in our midst. In an uncertain and inhospitable world, God’s love and grace took the form of a tiny baby, who taught us to focus on the gift that today brings and the potential that tomorrow holds. God came into the world, unexpected and inconvenient.

At the birth of Christ, God’s only means to affect creation was to cry for help, and God’s only defense was to disarm those nearby with a gaze or a giggle. The very Son of God came into the world, truly meek and mild. Whatever you want to say about God, remember that God does not come demanding us to live in a certain way or forcing us to give up a certain thing. God comes into our lives to be loved, without coercion or manipulation. And God accepts us so much that God becomes like us. God affirms our humanity in the incarnation.

Thirty-something years later, when Christ ascended into heaven, God accepted Christ, brown-skinned, brown-eyed, dark-haired, and covered in dirt, with scars unhealed from wounds inflicted out of hatred and oppression. God affirmed our humanity and embraced the stuff we are made of, the clay, the earth, and the world, in all our imperfection, all our particularity – that whether we be male or female, young or old, brown-eyed or blue-eyed, able in one way or another – we are accepted by the One who was rejected by the world, and we are embraced with a love that will overcome every difference, reconcile every hostility, and welcome every single redeemed child of God, no matter what.

That’s what the ascension means. And no amount of church politics will limit God’s love for you. No amount of discrimination and strife in this world will stop God from welcoming you to join with Christ in anticipating and witnessing the salvation of the world. No amount of trouble will get in the way of God making something new in your life, something to amaze you, something to give you hope, something to fill your heart with joy and love all over again. Because God’s promise will never be broken, and it’s a promise of inclusion, acceptance, guidance, and empowerment toward a church that welcomes all, heals and perfects all, and nurtures faith in all – until at last with Christ we all get to heaven. And what a day of rejoicing that will be.

Amen.

[1][1] Rev. Diane Kenaston, “Nevertheless, She…” in And Are We Yet Alive? The Kenaston Family Blog, May 12, 2018, https://umcfamily.wordpress.com/2018/05/12/nevertheless-she/

You did not choose me but I chose you.

I want to tell you a story about a college student attending one of the most prestigious institutions in the country, where I first studied biblical interpretation and church history in my journey toward serving as a pastor in the United Methodist Church. The student’s name is Sam Gardner, and he writes about just how privileged he is, walking along “elegant brick pathway[s],” entering through “grand glass doors, framed in a dark walnut,” and being served “organic acorn squash, kale, and heirloom tomatoes from the local farm.”[1]

He recently reflected on a morning when he had to rush his customarily exquisite breakfast in order to arrive at a cemetery in time for a funeral, a funeral for someone he did not know.

In fact nobody knew the deceased.

The drive to the cemetery was 56 miles away. His commitment to the practice was derived, in his words, from a sense of duty to honor human dignity, both for the most marginalized in our world and for ourselves. He believes that no one should leave this place unacknowledged and unmourned.

We all have a duty to honor the sacred worth in everyone we encounter. We have a duty to see in them the image of their Creator, our common Creator, who made each one of us out of love and an abundance of hope and grace – believing the best of each of us, looking forward to seeing what good we will do in the world we have been given.

To see in each other the very face of God is not just to see that other people are worthy of love and care, compassion and respect. It is also to realize that – if we are to live full and complete lives – we have to care about our neighbors, no matter who they are, in order to be what God created us to be, in order to be healthy, in order to be more truly ourselves, in order to act as if we have a soul.

We need to feel the effects of loss and grief; we need to be overcome with pity at those who struggle and fail to get clean; we need to be affected by the death of a stranger on the sidewalk; we need to be outraged when our taxes are funneled away from teaching our children (and all children) how to succeed in tomorrow’s markets; we need to be the opposite of complacent.

The story from the reading in the Book of Acts (10:44-48) is one of disbelief by the first followers of Jesus. They could not comprehend how God would impart the gift of the Holy Spirit on Gentiles, on the unclean, the unwashed, the uncircumcised, the religiously unobservant, the untrained and unschooled, the hoards of hopeless cases. The first followers of Jesus could not understand how God would pour out God’s spirit of new life and new possibility on people who had never known God before, never worshiped the Lord, never entered the Temple, never learned a prayer.

And Peter has to order the followers to bring water. He has to order the Early Church to embrace newcomers and strangers. He has to order the people of God to welcome into their fold the children of God who have by all accounts received the Spirit of God. He has to order them, because none of them were compelled by the Spirit to bring water to baptize the Gentiles. None of them could hear the Spirit driving them to welcome newcomers into the fold.

None of them could hear what was plainly heard by Peter, that these people – these people – these people living in their unclean and unholy ways, these people spending all their time and money everywhere else but near the Temple, these people who had shown little interest in participating in the Church community before, these people were beloved children of God, each born with sacred worth, each ready to be transformed even more into who they were becoming by God’s grace. God chose them, just as God chose each of us (John 15:16).

None of us chose God. God’s grace shaped us from the very beginning and brought us to a point where we might accept God’s love and redemption for ourselves. But it was not our goodness and inherent righteousness that made us choose to follow Christ. Have you not heard the expression: ‘there, but for the grace of God, go I?’ We are no better than anyone; we can look down on no one; not one of us can guarantee our fate will be unlike that of another, not even the homeless dead who are buried in potter’s fields with no one to mark their passing.

We owe to everyone dignity. We owe to everyone kindness and mercy. We owe to everyone hospitality and welcome. We owe to everyone the warmth of a heart that knows it has been chosen by God, by God’s grace, and has found the kind of peace we all long for and deserve. We owe love to one another, just as Christ loved us and loves us still. Following the example of Christ, may we so order our lives.

Amen.

[1] Maureen Downey, “Emory student helps bury the dead no one else mourns,” in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, May 2, 2018: https://www.myajc.com/blog/get-schooled/emory-student-helps-bury-the-dead-for-whom-else-mourns/14GLdTtvTUpkqn8UcxEvpL/

This is a wilderness road.

Today is a beautiful day, with the sunlight lifting our spirits and inviting us out of our dimly lit homes, into our back gardens, walking down tree lined streets, greeting neighbors, and smiling as we see other families and individuals welcoming the sun on their faces, too.

The vines grow faster than we can manage to hold them back. Their branches sprout in each direction and capture the light, bathing in it, and growing deep green in the warmth of these new, young days of spring and summer. The branches of the vine spread leaves everywhere, and they add beauty to our back gardens, wrapped around gates and fences, covering over the dead, brittle twigs that no longer seek the sun.

You and I can tarry in the light of this new day. We can waste away an hour, or an afternoon, or a lifetime, basking in the light of God. But branches that hold too close to the vine, branches that do not spread out into the dangerous places far away, branches that do not grow their own leaves and bring beauty and new life into the garden – these branches – are not long for this world.

We are sent, like St. Philip, to walk along a wilderness road, a road of which to be wary, a road on which to be cautious, a road to a destination that is different from that of our peers, a road which God calls us to walk, to get up from our mats, to leave our darkened rooms, and to find our fate before us. Will our fate be like Philip’s?

Philip finds a chariot on the road, and he hears the reader inside the carriage reading aloud the words of Isaiah, about a Suffering Servant: “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth” (Acts 8:32-33).

Philip ventures to speak to the man, a eunuch, a person who would never be welcome in the Temple because his body was not whole, someone who longed for understanding of God, whose people rejected him – a child in faith who had traveled to the place where God dwells, only to be turned away because of a condition which he had no say over, made a eunuch as a child. In no way was it his choice. Through no fault of his own, he was kept at a distance by the people of God, because he was not what they thought a man should be.

But that is exactly how the people of God felt about Jesus of Nazareth, a wandering, itinerant rabbi with no place to lay his head, no wife to call his own, no great family name to pass on to any children, no weapon in his hand, no army to command, no alliances to protect him, and no words against the accusations hurled at him by the people of God. He was not what they thought a messiah should be.

They killed him at the time they killed the sheep for Passover, and he did not speak out in his own defense, his mouth unopened. The crowd chose a bandit over Jesus to be released back to them, and the soldiers stripped him of his clothes and hung him for all to see. Justice was denied him, and he was humiliated and killed. The people of God killed the Son of God.

But God will not permit the world to shut out the light, and God glorified Jesus of Nazareth, and God would surely accept any who sought God with open faith – without denying them entry to a Temple, without accusing them of wickedness because of their difference, without rejecting them – because Christ himself was rejected, and he accepts all the world, even the people of God, even you and me, no matter what we have done or failed to do, no matter who we have loved or failed to love, no matter what we have said or failed to say, no matter what we have thought and felt or failed so to do.

Hear this good news today. And get up from this place to walk your own road in the wilderness. And tell the good news to all who are longing to hear it for themselves. May the whole world rejoice in the light and love of God.

Amen.