Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Put a Holy Spirit on it!

Sermon for the Baptism of Jesus: January 13, 2012

Lectionary Readings

Jesus is baptized.
Jesus is baptized, and while we might wonder how or why or, in the Gospel of Luke, even, by whom—Jesus goes for baptism, and his ministry begins. Here, he begins with the Holy Spirit, marking him God’s own beloved child and sending him into the world.  In that moment of prayer, everything changes.

When Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."

This week  I saw a short clip from the show “Portlandia.” It’s a sketch comedy about Portland, Oregon—it takes the earnest cool and political correctness of Cambridge and turns it up by 100.  “Lisa” and “Bryce” go to a fancy but ho-hum boutique full of cute things. But it’s not cute enough. They bring all their crafting gear to cover everything with birds…cute birds. Tote bags and greeting cards and pillows and candles, everything in the store gets slapped with a bird to bring it to the next level of “cute.” They craft and craft and craft, until the store owner proudly opens the door to let everyone in and  an actual bird comes in.  Everyone ducks and tries to swat it away. Bryce screams, I’M ALLERGIC! Lisa and the shop owner fight over a lamp—presumably the better to whack the bird with. 

A lot is lost in my translation, but the point is that “Lisa and Bryce” have no interest in actual birds; it’s an image they’ve created in their minds of saccharine domesticity, a little like the blue eyed Jesus holding lambs and children all at the same time.  It’s compelling, but it’s not real.

But the Spirit alights on a Messiah who will be a very real savior, one who hangs out with prostitutes and scheming tax collectors.  Jesus shows us the Spirit—holiness, awe, and wonder, and justice and truth.  And again and again we try to swat him away and wish it were less embarrassing.  We tend to want something a bit more domestic, not an actual living and breathing savior who comes to sweep away all of our preconceptions and limitations. Scripture is full of these stories. 

Herod, sending John to prison, wanted something more domestic. All that truth and integrity he thought he wanted went too far. This is not what he expected. This is a different kind of savior.   

The women who go to tell the other disciples that Jesus has been raised don’t want to hear it, consumed with their own sorrow. This is not what they expected. This is a different kind of savior.

Hearing Jesus preach for the first time, his community is first fascinated, and then horrified and then literally runs him out of town. This was not what they expected. This is a different kind of savior.

My Son, my beloved.
This is a different bird—this is a different way of being with God, altogether.  This starts with how much God loves us; not who your father was, or how much you can afford to give or whom you are superior to. Then, as now, we need to be reminded that this is a God who blows through all our preconceived notions. Things get complicated. It’s not as tidy as we thought.  We get allergic, too.

Like the crafters in Portlandia encountering a real bird, like the people of Nazareth wanting nothing to do with their hometown prophet, we also have certain expectations. But the Spirit goes where she will and inspires those she will inspire. Even in our allergic anxiety, the Spirit gets through.

In seminary, I had friends who became priests later in life, giving up successful and constructive careers. Yes, God said to them, you make a great teacher, but now I need you to teach in a different way. Yes, you’re a terrific lawyer, but I want you to convince people of something new. Yes, you are a great accountant, but now I need you to stop counting.

I’ve heard your stories about stewardship, about how you felt called into giving new gifts, how you rearranged your commitments to offer absolutely everything you can to the church, first, rather than whatever is left over.  

Jeanne Manford with her son at NYC Pride 1972
This week, I heard the moving story of Jeanne Manford, who died this week at the age of 92.  An ordinary Queens elementary school teacher, she sprung to action in 1972 when her gay son was beaten and the police stood by and watched.  Her whole life was rearranged at age 50, when she couldn’t be silent anymore. “I have a gay son and I love him,” she wrote to the New York Post. A few months later she marched in a Pride parade carrying a sign that said, “Parents unite in support of our gay children” and a worldwide movement was born. No one had spoken out like that. Out of the Spirit empowering her to speak the truth, family after family would no longer be divided by hatred.  In her life, the Holy Spirit came to her as a call to action. In the life of the world, the Spirit came as a mother’s love.   

The Spirit is not the domesticated parakeet who politely comes to sit on our fingers. She may be a dove, but I also imagine her as a heron, swooping in over enormous wings and enfolding us in love, then pushing us out to do share that love in the streets. Giving us voices to speak.  She knocks things over and delights in watching us put the pieces back together, reveling in our ingenuity and creativity and weeping with us at our frustration.

The people were “questioning in their hearts,” whether John was the Messiah. This moment may have settled for them that it was Jesus, not John, but the questions about what this really meant for them wouldn’t have stopped. What Jesus wanted for them to do in their lives, where that Spirit would bring them into the world, filled with that same love.  We may take our whole lives to figure out what it means. We may take our whole lives to allow our hardened outer shells to be softened by that love.  But it starts here, with baptism.  For Jesus as well as for us.  I want to share the prayer we offer for the newly baptized, but I share it now for all of us.

 Let us pray.
Heavenly Father, we thank you that by water and the Holy Spirit you have bestowed upon us your servants the forgiveness of sin, and have raised us to the new life of grace. Sustain us, O Lord, in your Holy Spirit. Give us an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love you, and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works. Amen.

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