Sunday, January 13, 2019

Receiving the Gift

Acts 8:14-17, Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Did you see a bird at your baptism? A heavenly dove, descending upon you?
I didn’t. (And, honestly, if I had seen a bird diving down toward the font, I’d have evaded.)

The descending dove is one of the things that makes the baptism of Jesus different from the baptism of you or me. The dove, the opening of the heavens, and the heavenly voice mark Jesus out especially as the Son of God, the one who is unlike all of us – the one whom we need to be different from us so he can save us from ourselves.
But we also tell the story of the baptism of Jesus today precisely because it tells us what is supposed to happen in our own baptism. Because the life of Jesus, flowing from this baptism, is a model for our own lives.

We too, are supposed to receive the Holy Spirit, descending into us and empowering us for ministry. Marking us out as different from who we used to be, ready and able to hear God’s voice, to act in the world as God’s beloved children.

That’s an issue that arises for the apostles in the early years after Jesus’ resurrection and their own empowerment by the Holy Spirit.
Philip has been off preaching to the people of Samaria, and he’s met with surprising success. People are eager for the word and power of God. Eager to hear the news about Jesus, commit to following in his footsteps, and to be baptized in his name. But when Peter and John come down from Jerusalem to celebrate all this, they discover that the new Samaritan Christians had not been descended upon by the Holy Spirit at baptism!

And because they knew the story of Jesus’ baptism as a model for our own; because they knew what it was to receive for themselves the gift of the Holy Spirit, knew how much we need to receive the Spirit, they went right to work. They prayed, laying their hands on the new believers in prayer for the reception of the Spirit.

We do this, by the way, at every baptism in the Episcopal Church now. You can look it up right at the top of page 308 in the Book of Common Prayer. “Sustain them, O Lord, in your Holy Spirit,” we pray. Give them spiritual gifts of discernment, courage, love of God, joy and wonder: the signs of the Spirit’s action in our lives.
“You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism,” we say, laying on hands and anointing the newly baptized. “You are marked as Christ’s own forever.”

We do this because we have known for nearly two thousand years – since before Peter and John went to pray with the new believers in Samaria – that baptism is about being empowered by the Spirit.

It’s not just for repentance and forgiveness. That’s essential; it’s not all.
It’s not actually about joining a church or a movement, either – though we use it that way, often.
It’s not just about what we believe or want to believe.
Baptism is the way we open ourselves to the gift of the Holy Spirit: to God’s initiative in coming into our lives – our bodies and souls – and filling us with divine power.

Now, it is possible that you didn’t feel a sudden rush of divine power at your own baptism. If you were baptized as an infant, I promise you, no one expected you to begin performing miracles right there and then.
And you may be pretty sure that you haven’t been possessed or infused by the Holy Spirit in the years (or months) since then, either.
But the truth is that God bestows the Holy Spirit on all of us. In some of us, it bears fruit immediately, as our lives change radically toward God. And in some – probably most of us – it’s a delayed action formula, like my 24-hour allergy medication.

The gift of the Holy Spirit is already in you, but it may take all of our lives to fully receive that gift already given, and be empowered as God’s own, God’s beloved, to participate in God’s work in the world, to draw closer and closer to God in heart and in action.

That’s why we renew our baptismal covenant today, repeating together the promises that are prayer, and the beliefs we need to give our hearts to. We remind ourselves of the ways the Spirit acts in us: enabling our faith, shaping the actions we take, and inspiring our desire to commit more and more of ourselves to God.

That’s why the church created the sacraments of baptismal renewal: of confirmation, reaffirmation and reception, also. Why we set aside times to repeat those words of faith and promise, as the church lays hands on us in prayer, just as Peter and John did so long ago for the believers in Samaria, to help them receive God’s gift of the Spirit.

All these rituals of baptism and renewal are ways to release the delayed action of our baptism, the gift of the Spirit waiting for us to grow into it, all the days of our lives, no matter what age or stage we are at baptism; no matter what age or stage we are right now.

There are other ways, too, to find and receive that gift of God’s Spirit within us. Immersion in scripture, the prayer of the community, are tools we often use to absorb this gift. In a few weeks, we are all going to be invited to take a spiritual inventory that will help us understand the gift of the Holy Spirit given to the whole congregation. You don’t have to think of yourself as very spiritual to take part. Just taking that inventory is a ritual, like confirmation, like our renewal of baptism today, that can help us receive the gifts God already gives.

We come to baptism the first time, we renew our baptism repeatedly, because it’s a matter of life and death to set free the gift of the Holy Spirit that God insists on giving us. Because we suffer when we don’t allow ourselves to receive that gift, when we don’t accept the empowerment of the Spirit to act as God’s children in the world, to be drawn closer to the heart of God in our own hearts. We are less than we could be, and deep inside, we know it. We can’t get free of the demands of the world that keep us small, or inactive, or too busy to hear God calling us beloved. We can’t get free of what’s killing us.

Receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit is life-changing; not something to take lightly. Because being baptized, receiving the Holy Spirit, means letting go of our own control of our lives, and letting God lead.

If that sounds either scary or attractive to you, you’re right. It’s a gift and a change exactly as big as you’re thinking – though for some of us, it happens a little at a time. A little change, and another, and another that add up to a whole new world God invites us to experience, and to share in building.  And for some of us – like Jesus, like the early apostles, caught up in a baptism of Spirit and fire – it does happen all at once, so that the transformation is visible to all, like a dove diving straight out of heaven.

The good news is, it doesn’t matter which way it happens to you. It doesn’t matter how much of the Holy Spirit has been released into your life so far. Even if you didn’t see a bird at your baptism, even if you ducked when the Holy Spirit dove in to you, God has given you that gift.
God gives the Holy Spirit anyway, and every single one of us has room to grow in our receiving of that gift.

Will you join me, then, in renewing the words and the rituals of our baptism that help us receive that life-giving gift, a little more each time, as we grow in the love and joy of God, beloved children, Spirit-filled, with whom God is well pleased?

Sunday, January 6, 2019

What We're Looking For

Matthew 2:1-12

What do you see when you look at the stars?

Maybe you see images: connect-the-dots drawings of people and creatures and symbols. Maybe you see history as astronomers do: the years, decades, or even centuries it takes for that light to travel from the star we see to our eyes on earth. Maybe you see a tool for navigation or a deep well of wonder and beauty.
Maybe you don’t see stars at all, because the local electric light gets in the way. Or because you forget to look up and out.

Thousands of years ago, it seems, a few committed star-gazers looked at the stars and saw a king. A king coming to rule a little one-horse territory in the vast Roman Empire, far from their own home and nation – a king they somehow find that they want to meet.
And they packed themselves up for a long, strange trip, headed for the capital of that little land in the middle of empire, only to discover that the king they were looking for wasn’t there. And that no one there was expecting a new king.

So after some hushed and hurried consultations, our star-gazers leave the capital city equipped with old prophecy and directions to Bethlehem. And when they get there, they see their star again. They see the star pointing them to one particular house and they are utterly overwhelmed by joy. They enter a perfectly ordinary house; with what probably appears to most to be a perfectly ordinary toddler – adorable when he’s asleep; dangerous the minute you take your eye off him – and they see, at last, The King.

They see – perhaps – the savior of the world. Or they see a kingship of real and lasting peace. Or glory and triumph. Or selflessness and sacrifice. All kingly qualities. The text doesn’t tell us just how they recognized this king, all the text says is that they took one look at this toddler and behaved as if he were a crowned and powerful king, kneeling down and offering royal gifts.

They looked at the stars and saw a king. They believed what they saw; they acted on it; and they found living, breathing, lively proof of God’s action and their own faith.
What we look for is often – so often – what we find.

I don’t know what Herod saw, in Jerusalem, when he looked at the stars. I don’t know if he looked at the stars at all, in fact. But Matthew makes it pretty clear that when the star-gazers asked Herod about finding a king, Herod saw a threat. He’s immediately frightened, and shares his terror with the whole capital city. Threat level red, Jerusalem. Be afraid!
Herod sees the threat to his own power, his own kingship, so clearly that he later sends out assassins to get rid of any child who might be this star-signaled king. Just in case.
Herod sees a threat, he acts on that belief, and he finds one - and eliminates it, he hopes.

What you find, so often, is exactly what you are looking for. What we see, mostly, is what we expect to see.

That’s a fact that’s on display on every cable news channel in our country. And it’s how we find – or create – the smart kid, and the sporty kid, in families, and across neighborhoods. This has a lot to do with whether we find strangers friendly or frightening.
We don’t always know what we’re expecting to see, and still we see what we expect.

Matthew tells this story of foreign star-gazers finding a king in the child Jesus to make a point about God’s action, and God’s revelation. He wants to teach us a new expectation – one that you and I have been taught for a long time, but is still not what we unconsciously expect.
He wants us to know and understand that in Christ, God is deliberately, generously, uninhibitedly pouring out God’s glory to outsiders and strangers. God is inviting the unfaithful to reveal the holy; inviting the stranger into the inner circle; revealing God’s very own self to the people least likely to understand.
And that it works.

This group of foreign star-gazers probably didn’t have any intention of looking for Israel’s promised Messiah. But they believed the night sky could tell them everything important that was happening in the world. So they saw a royal star appear. And they acted on it, and they saw God.

So often, we find what we are looking for, whether we know what we are looking for or not.

A few years ago, I was helping to run a Vacation Bible School, and we sent the kids home one day telling them to look for “God-sightings” wherever they went that day. The next day, we asked for reports.
One saw God in the loving way a friend put a band-aid on his boo-boo. Another marveled at the deep greenness of the leaves on a tree. A good third of the kids had seen God in a day at the swimming pool, one reporting after another. And at least one saw God in a grape popsicle.

I was skeptical about the popsicle, myself. And of some of those swimming pool reports. I saw – at first – a pile on of random kid-likes.
But why not a popsicle?
You’re not going to find God if you’re not looking, if you’re not open to God-sightings. But if you are looking for God, are open to God-sightings, why couldn’t the sticky refreshment of a grape popsicle be a revelation of God’s joy, or love?  Or God’s simple presence, incarnate with us in the world?

Some of us here see God at work in almost everything: the wonders and diversity of creation, the parking space that opens up at the front of a crowded lot, the blossoming of a friendship, the ending of a job, the death of a loved one, that particular song playing on the radio.
Some of us see random chance, hard work, loss and sorrow, or strong scientific fact in the same things.
None of us are wrong.
That’s all true.

But that star over Bethlehem, the star-gazers trekking west to find a king, and one small child in an ordinary house in one small town in the Roman Empire, all invite us to look for, and to see, the revelation of presence and glory, power and love, hope and grace that God is still pouring out on all the skeptical, unfaithful, inattentive world.

They invite us to look for and find the revelation of selfless love where we might be tempted to look for the dangers of change. To seek and see the majesty and miracles God displays where we’ve been taught to look for rational explanations. To choose to seek and see joy and wonder right along with common and everyday; to choose to look for love and hope even when we expect and find sorrow and pain.

God invites us all to be star gazers. To look for revelation, to act on what we see and what we seek, so that we, too, find the king born for us, the joy and hope and majesty God is pouring out for all the world to discover. Long ago and here and now.