Baptism of the Lord, January 13, 2019

Music: Jesus is Calling My Name, arr. Jeff Wood, Chancel Choir

May all that is unforgiven in you
Be released.

May your fears yield
Their deepest tranquilities.

May all that is unlived in you
Blossom into a future
Graced with love.
–John O’Donohue

With You Here Between Rumi
Lovers work, so that when body and soul
are no longer together,
their loving will be free.

Wash in wisdom-water, so you will have no regrets
about the time here.

Love is the vital core of the soul,
and of all you see, only love is infinite.

Your non-existence before you were born
is the sky in the east.

Your death is the western horizon,
with you here between.

The way leads neither east nor west,
but in.

Test your love-wings and make them strong.
Forget the idea of religious ladders.
Love is the roof. Your senses are waterspouts.

Drink rain directly off the roof.
Waterspouts are easily damaged
and often must be replaced.

Say this poem in your chest.
Don’t worry how it sounds
going through your mouth.

A human body is a bow.
Breathing and speech are arrows.

When the quiver and arrows are used up or lost,
There is nothing more for the bow to do.

Genesis 8:6-12
At the end of forty days Noah opened the window of the ark that he had made and sent out the raven; and it went to and fro until the waters were dried up from the earth. Then he sent out the dove from him, to see if the waters had subsided from the face of the ground; but the dove found no place to set its foot, and it returned to him to the ark, for the waters were still on the face of the whole earth. So he put out his hand and took it and brought it into the ark with him. He waited another seven days, and again he sent out the dove from the ark; and the dove came back to him in the evening, and there in its beak was a freshly plucked olive leaf; so Noah knew that the waters had subsided from the earth. Then he waited another seven days, and sent out the dove; and it did not return to him any more.

Dove that Ventured Outside Rainer Maria Rilke
Dove that ventured outside, flying far from the dovecote:
housed and protected again, one with the day, the night,
knows what serenity is, for she has felt her wings
pass through all distance and fear in the course of her wanderings.

The doves that remained at home, never exposed to loss,
innocent and secure, cannot know tenderness;
only the won-back heart can ever be satisfied: free,
through all it has given up, to rejoice in its mastery.

Being arches itself over the vast abyss.
Ah the ball that we dared, that we hurled into infinite space,
doesn’t it fill our hands differently with its return:
heavier by the weight of where it has been.

Luke 3:21-22
And it came to pass when all the people were baptized, and after Jesus had been baptized and while he was praying, that the sky opened up, and the holy spirit came down on him in bodily form like a dove, and a voice came from the sky, “You are my son; today I have fathered you.”

Acts 8:14-17
When the apostles at Jerusalem learned that Samaria had accepted God’s message, they sent Peter and John to visit them. After the two had arrived, they prayed that the converts might receive the holy spirit, for the spirit had not yet fallen upon any of them. They had merely been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. After praying, the apostles laid their hands upon them, and the converts started receiving the holy spirit.

The Dove Leonard Cohen
I saw the dove come down, the dove with the green twig, the childish dove out of the storm and flood. It came towards me in the style of the Holy Spirit descending. I had been sitting in a cafe for twenty-five years waiting for this vision. It hovered over the great quarrel. I surrendered to the iron laws of the moral universe which make a boredom out of everything desired. Do not surrender, said the dove. I have come to make a nest in your shoe.
I want your step to be light.

[Sermon edited from transcription]

A thing I like to say to couples who are planning to get married is.

“It’s okay if you change just make sure you tell your partner.”

That’s good advice and it’s probably something the preacher should take as well. It is OK to change. It’s OK to grow. It’s OK to start on a different direction, to take a new path, to explore a path, to whatever it is you have to do. Just let folks know.

So that’s what I thought I would do as part of a fresh start is to talk about where I’ve come from as well as hear you. The phrase that I’m going to take for the sermon is “love wings” from Rumi.

“Test your love wings; make them strong.”

Figure out what it is that helps you to fly.

I think that faith is something that is dynamic. I’m not the same person I was 50 years ago when I was seven or 20 years ago or even last year. We change and we grow. New experiences enable us to see things differently, to live life differently. We grow and I think that is the beauty about faith. It’s interesting how religion tries to manage that in different ways. On one level it always wants to be able to have you know the core of the faith, but it also has to have room for movement.

One of the former moderators of the Presbyterian Church General Assembly said that we can think of faith in two ways. We can think of it as a bird cage or we can think of it as a bird bath. In a bird cage you have the rules down.  You can’t do a lot of love-wing flapping very far in there. But there’s another way of understanding faith in our tradition and that is a bird bath. You swim into it and you are inspired and then you go off again. I like to think of my own journey of life as splashing into that bird bath and then going out again.

But there is a guiding question for all of this for me as to what it means to be a person of faith or in my case a spiritual leader or a minister.  That guiding question is very important. It comes to us from a Native American point of view. The decisions that we make today we need to be conscious of how they will affect seven generations in the future. So all the decisions that we are to make today, we think about how will they affect seven generations ahead of us. Now I don’t think that far ahead. I do think two generations. What’s the world going to be like when my granddaughter, Pippa, is my age? That’s what I can handle concretely.

When my two-year-old granddaughter is my age, probably around the year 2075, what will Earth be like? I don’t care about anything else. At the end of the day that’s the question that has to guide what I do as an individual as well as a minister. What is God calling me to do now that I might be an honorable ancestor? Or what can I do now, to put it in Pippa’s terms, to be a good “Pop Pop.”

I went into the ministry because I felt the church was one of the best places to ask that question. I could have probably done a variety of things but I chose (or it has been chosen for me) the ministry, because I feel that it is in the context of the church that we are able to have the permission and the obligation to speak about ultimate questions. Paul Tillich talked about faith as the ultimate concern. What are the questions that are most important to us as a people, as a gathering, as a church, as community, as human beings?

So I still feel in my 26 years of ministry that the church is the best place to ask that question.  Not the church over against another religion, I don’t mean it that way, but a community of faith, and community of faith wrestling with a tradition and wrestling with the issues that confront us, is the best place to ask these questions– to participate in these questions, to work them through in our own lives.

So let me get to this question right up front. Have I become a Muslim? And the answer is I am a C-minus Christian at best. If I switch schools I would only get worse grades. It’s hard to be a Muslim and it’s pointless to switch in my view. Why switch hats by bouncing around the top of religious traditions? The point of spirituality is to go into the depth, and I have to say that I am involved in interfaith activity not to become a different person of a different religion. It is to be able to find the depth of a neighbor’s faith so that I can find my own depth.

Interfaith work is authentic, in my opinion, only to the degree that we can be changed by the encounter. Otherwise it’s just talking heads. To enter into interfaith activity or any kind of faith activity we must be vulnerable enough to know that that activity may change us in significant and important ways. And only then is it an interfaith activity. And so, yes, I have been changed this past year in my engagement with Islam and the trip to Arbaeen and the work about that.

But that shouldn’t be unusual. We should all be engaged in that in some form or another wherever we are on our path. I find that a fruitful thing to make me, I would hope, a better Christian. In fact, I think there are very exciting things between Christianity and Islam that is worth all of us to explore.

Today is one of my favorite Sundays on the church calendar. Baptism of the Lord Sunday. I like to think of it as “moral compass” Sunday. This is where we find out what it means to be a person of faith. We reflect on the baptism of Jesus with the spirit coming down like a dove. We have the text in which the spirit given to the disciples and then of course it goes back to the ancient tradition of the dove itself with Noah and the ark.

It’s an opportunity to ask ourselves, “What are we about as Christians? What is our life’s work? What is God calling us to do and be in this place and in this time?” So I wanted just to share with you my own calling.

It happened to me before I knew any better. My first memories are of my mother and I on a ranch in Winthrop, Washington. My dad’s in the back of the pickup truck throwing hay out to the cattle and my mother and I are in the front and we’re singing hymns.

That experience was profound for my whole life. My mother took me to church from the cradle. It’s the birdbath. With that I can go and fly all kinds of directions because I know I can come back. I can explore theological questions knowing that I can come back to the source.

When I decided to go into the ministry I met with the Committee on Ministry in Seattle and they said, “Well you know you can do all kinds of things with Christianity. Why do you want to go into the professional ministry?”

I said, “It is preaching.” Preaching the gospel is what was important to me. Preaching and the whole business of it–the whole worship service. Did you know that that’s the only thing I get to have any control over as a minister?  The rest of the stuff is not up to me.

Our Presbyterian polity has made it as such that it’s the session who runs the thing from color of carpet to use of the building, to doing the finances, to pastoral care.  It’s up to the session as it meets to guide all of those things and the one thing that they give the preacher to do, is they say, “You do the worship service. You do the hymns. You do the prayer. You do the sermon.”

And there’s a reason for that. There’s a reason that those powers are specifically distinguished and that’s to protect each one’s integrity. And I’ve heard stories about it, you know, of some lead elder in a church or whatever telling the minister to approve all of his sermons before he preaches them.  That has never happened to me. I don’t ask permission because I’ve just done what we’re supposed to do.

Preaching is a challenge because sometimes my sermons aren’t always that entertaining.

Sometimes they are. Sometimes they’re not just happy sermons. Sometimes they touch on serious topics. They are just what they are because we are not called to be entertained. We are called to be transformed by the Gospel and so that’s why the idea of freedom of the pulpit is so critical for any congregation. And that’s why we have it written into the rulebook.

Now that said, I also need and want to hear from you. I need to be able to hear from the congregation so we know what life is like, and what the struggles are like, and whether there are things that are important to talk about. And that’s kind of my own spirit here of this fresh start because I think I could do more on that area of being able to reach out and to get to know each of you more, and be able to hear your concerns and your joys and your struggles. I want to hear from you.

And in order to be authentic, in my view, it needs to be open, public conversation with you. We did the survey thing and while it was a little bit uncomfortable, I’ve read it. I’ve taken from it, and I’m glad that it was done because I think what it told me is. “OK back up and get back to the basics.”

And so that’s the spirit in which I’m going to go ahead with this. And so I’m hoping that we can have a lot of public conversations whether they’re in small groups or big groups. I hope we can talk about what Holy Spirit calling us to do in this place and this time.  I would love to work with the session to determine how we can engage in some public conversations about who we are as a church–what is our mission, and what are we going to do. And then individual conversations. And that’s what I want to have with you. No agenda conversations.

And so that’s the spirit in which I am trying to make myself available through morning coffee or lunch or dinner in the afternoons or whatever it might be to get to know you, to have you be able to talk with me to build those relationships.  I’m going to have you call me, but if not, I’ll get after you eventually, and I’ll start with people who are here in worship. I like it here and I want to work with you and I want to be able to say some things and preach the gospel, but I also want you be able to give me that pushback.

There’s no need to rush. There’s no need to think, “I disagree with him on that so I have to be over here.” No need to decide.  We can just hang out, be ourselves, seek guidance, know that we are beloved.

It’s a beautiful passage I believe in the Bible where Jesus was baptized and it isn’t just him. It’s him in the story but it’s all of us when the voice comes from heaven.

“You are my beloved. You are my child, my son, my daughter, with you I am well pleased.”

Taking that to heart can help us through so many different trials and tribulations and help us to work together, knowing that we all are beloved and we all are important and we all belong here.

In the words of Rumi:

“Let’s test our love wings and make them strong.”