Monday, January 12, 2015

Humbled and Empowered

Scripture for the First Sunday after the Epiphany includes Genesis 1:1-5; Psalm 29; Acts 19:1-7; Mark 1:4-11

The Arctic cold front that blew through midweek was a piece of work, wasn’t it? We’ve seen worse, and we’ve felt colder, and we yet may this winter—but it was humbling, sitting where I was right here, alone in this room, when the front edge of that air mass skimmed across this roof and shook the place.

It made me think of the Day of Pentecost, when the apostolic band, gathered in the loft where they’d kept the Passover meal with Jesus—this would be seven weeks after that wild night of intimacy, betrayal, arrest, terror—and on the fiftieth day post-Easter, felt the place rock when the Spirit, the Wind, in Hebrew the “ruach” of God, blew through.

The psalmist had experiences of God like that: “The voice of the LORD splits the flames of fire; the voice of the LORD shakes the wilderness… The voice of the LORD makes the oak trees writhe, and strips the forests bare.”

Back in the apostolic loft, those men and women were simultaneously humbled and empowered by their encounter with the Holy One of Israel whom they now clearly knew was also the Holy One of their futures.

Simultaneously humbled and empowered. If you would like to remember those words, feel free. I love it when people say to me thus-and-so, this-and-that, then add the tag “as you said in your sermon recently,” often proving my darkest suspicion that what people seem to recall from my sermons has perilously little to do with what I have tried to express. But that is okay—simultaneously humbling and empowering— okay to be reminded that what we try to name here in this room is elusive and in constant motion like the wind, and highly personal (therefore subject to subjective recall).

But if you were to remember the few words “simultaneously humbled and empowered”, and to quote them back to me in the next week or two, I will gladly recognize the subject I attempted to name today.

Thursday evening, when it was cold enough to make us think twice about going outside again, Diana and I went to see the film “Wild,” based on Cheryl Strayed’s memoir of consciously becoming the woman her mother raised her to be.

The film captures the 94 days and nights in which Strayed hiked the 1700-kilometer Pacific Crest Trail, walking into becoming the person she knew she could be. She chose a noble, harrowing, archetypal remedy to the awful state of being stuck in the aftermath of her own poor choices and the poor choices of many around her. She chose to hike the trail, to make a pilgrimage, though she wouldn’t have called it that at the outset, when she had no use for God who, she thought, had screwed things up badly in her wild life thusfar—her abusive father disappeared, her mother recently succumbed to cancer, Strayed’s addictions to heroin and to sex, an unwanted pregnancy, a failed marriage, no career path to speak of… A wild life in one sense of the word, to be tested now by wilderness, healed by the wild, her survival the result of her own wits, her encounters with people of good will and with people of bad will, and, ultimately, her encounters with the holy as her arduous trek lets her ultimately sing with the psalmist, “I was lifted out of the desolate pit, out of the mire and clay, my feet set upon a high cliff and my footing made sure.”

Those aren’t her words, to be sure; Strayed doesn’t emerge from this journey a believer in a traditional sense. But she does experience inner reconciliation in several senses. And she shows where she’s headed by using quotations from poets and authors who have spoken to her, leaving at each sign-in station on the trail a line or two from Emily Dickinson, James Michener, Robert Frost, Adrienne Rich. Rich’s poem “Power” is enough a compass to Strayed’s journey that I’ll read it in full:

Living in the earth-deposits of our history

Today a backhoe divulged out of a crumbling flank of earth
one bottle amber perfect a hundred-year-old
cure for fever or melancholy a tonic
for living on this earth in the winters of this climate

Today I was reading about Marie Curie:
she must have known she suffered from radiation sickness
her body bombarded for years by the element
she had purified
It seems she denied to the end
the source of the cataracts on her eyes
the cracked and suppurating skin of her finger-ends
till she could no longer hold a test-tube or a pencil

She died a famous woman denying
her wounds
her wounds came from the same source as her power

“Power”, by Adrienne Rich

“Denying her wounds came from the same source as her power.” Simultaneously humbled and empowered, you might say. In the film, before it’s known that her mother is terminally ill, Strayed faults the woman for not coming to terms with her own wounds (especially at the hands of that abusive husband, Strayed’s own father). The daughter finds her mother’s cheerfulness inconsistent with the reality the younger woman sees, and she accuses her of denial. In reply, the mother asks (approximately), “Would I re-write my story if I could? No. Because then I wouldn’t have you.”

The first Christian apostles discovered the intertwined nature of their woundedness and their readiness for being the people Jesus called them to be. Their terror on that wild night of intimate communion with him abruptly unwinding in betrayal and arrest, their losing him on that God-forsaken rubbish tip of Golgotha the next day—these wounds, his wounds, seemed to them the pathetic remains (and all that remained) of a promising movement. And so, for fifty days, they hung low, they pieced together the traumatic puzzle of what had befallen him and them, they grieved, they hiked the trail of their sorrows.

Until that fiftieth day, when their good sense in gathering, sabbath by sabbath, to continue searching his teaching and honoring their fellowship in the breaking of bread and prayer became the site of their empowerment. The shelf-life of this transforming dynamic reaches to our own day, as our own experience teaches us that to be the people Jesus raises us to be requires of us a humility born of our wounds and a power born of God. It is when we engage both that the Spirit engages us—or is it that the Spirit engages us first? We keep an open mind and heart. We just know that it takes this simultaneous humbling and empowering to live the life of repentance and pardon, bold witness, recognition of God present in all, justice-seeking, peace-making, dignity-respecting— the whole trek, the holy trail of the covenant love we and God have embarked on.

The apostles’ baptism in the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost appears to have shaped the early Church’s expectation of what it means to be initiated into the mysteries of Christ’s life and death and resurrection. So we get today a snapshot, a first-century selfie, of a dozen believers in the city of Ephesus, baptized with more than water for repentance: baptized also with Spirit for practicing and proclaiming covenant love. If we had to describe this baptism as being either for humbling or for empowering, we’d say empowering.

And if we had to choose between those two purposes in describing the baptism Jesus undergoes at the hand of John the Baptizer? That would be a tough call. The heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending on Jesus like a dove: that’s the wild stuff of power, and if we need words to accompany action, John proclaims, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me, right here before you today; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the laces of his hiking boots.”

The humbling of John, you could say; and that would be a noteworthy thing, for if there’s one trait John didn’t have, he was not shy or reserved. No introverted Episcopalian, he.
No stranger to the Spirit.

But because this means he’s not the center of this story, we see the humbling all circling around Jesus. He begins his public ministry at a revival meeting where the price of admission is repentance of sins. He stands waist deep in the river Jordan not with his twelve selected buddies (if they’re there, they don’t yet know what he has in mind for them); no, he rubs shoulders with a great crowd of people, all sorts and conditions, city dwellers and villagers, poor rustic farmers and people of means. And the water of the river Jordan, say the commentators, was no sparkling crystal stream. We are talking mud, serious mud.

The Son of God, the Son of Man, the King of kings and Lord of lords, is humbled not for a day but for the mission entrusted to him. What happens today in the Jordan River is of a piece with all that will unfold in Jerusalem in his final days, when he enters the city “humble, and mounted on a donkey,” drawing the attention and stirring the hope of all. And every step of those three years of his public ministry between his baptism and his passion brings him to fulfill his mission by approaching all sorts and conditions of people with, simultaneously, humility and power intertwined in their wounds, and his, and ours.

This past week, we have seen powerful evidence that we live in a deeply wounded, and wounding, world. Desperate power has lost its way without humility, bringing grim terror in France, in Nigeria, in Ukraine, in Gaza. Today, we have chosen to stand in the light of the Lord’s day. May the Spirit of God make us, and all who gather at tables of new life around the world, instruments of peace, compassion, and courage.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.