Pentecost dreaming

What happens  [asks the poet] to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore –
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over –
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

Those are, of course, the words of Langston Hughes, and we know the dream to which he refers, the dream he fears has been deferred.

Peter, too, speaks of dreams, when he addresses the crowd which has just witnessed the explosion of the Spirit – the rushing of wind, the fire blowing the people out of the house and into the streets, babbling and dazed.

“But this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel:
And it shall come to pass in the last days, says God,
That I will pour out of My Spirit on all flesh;
Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
Your young men shall see visions,
Your old men shall dream dreams.” (Acts 2:16-18)

I remember as a child reading a biography of Charles Dickens, and he described the universal recurring dream of walls closing in. It blew my mind. It was the first time that I realized that dreams are not just individual, idiosyncratic events, but that they are a shared phenomenon, a common and even communal experience. Some dreams resolve in the morning; some recur night after night, defying resolution; some may divide us, but others bind us together in our common hopes and fears, our shared humanity.

The dry bones of Ezekiel’s valley had died for their dream. And you don’t get much more deferred than dead. And yet all was not lost. “Prophesy!” God told the prophet, because prophesy is a prophet’s stock in trade. Prophesy loudly enough, and even the dead will hear the word of the Lord.

Pentecost was, as we heard last week, an annual festival for the Jews, as it is for us today. Happened every year. And the falling of the Spirit upon all flesh is a theme repeated throughout the book of Acts; wherever the gospel goes, the Spirit falls, confirming the dreams of the apostles and verifying their visions, anointing with fire the new converts, setting fire to their souls so that their own dreams burn with the passion of Christ.

We see the cycle of dreaming and the deference of death; we see the cycle of prophesy and pain; we see the cycle of vision and the violence done unto it; we see it on the cross.

But we see, too, the resurrection. We see the awakening. We see the Spirit falling upon all flesh, and we do not know how many times it will take, how many Pentecosts, how many dry bones before we awaken to the kingdom of God. But we know that God is faithful, and so we dare to keep dreaming.

Another poet, a newly planted local, wrote this yesterday, after the verdict was read in the case of the officer who has been acquitted of criminal action in the deaths of Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams. Rachel G. Hackenburg wrote “Awaiting the Return of Pentecost”:

At long last,
O Mighty God,
will you mercifully set on fire
all that is yours,
reducing to ash & coals
the injustices, the impurities,
while emboldening to brilliance
truth-telling tongues & fiercely-loving lives?

At long last,
O Raging God,
will you set ablaze
complacent hearts & dry bones
until there is an wholly unprecedented
conversion of stubborn perspective,
a confession of false gods,
a radicalization of love?

At long last,
O Most Wild God,
will you break mountains and send whirlwinds,
will you send us into the streets with shouts;
will you toss & turn us with nightmares,
make us blush & burn with daydreams,
make us alive in defiance of death
even now while we groan in despair?

The repetition of Pentecost, the reason it has to come back year after year after year, can be for us a sign of despair or one of hope. Either it drives a nail into the coffin of those dry, dry, tinderbox bones, or else it breathes into our dry dreams new, wet, living breath, sets fire to our souls, lifts us once more to keep living forward, looking for the kingdom of God.

It is not my place to ask anyone for patience when their dream is deferred, their vision clouded by tears, their prophecy unheard.

It is not my place to ask anyone for patience, but it is my place to preach hope, holding on to the promises of God: “O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live,” not once, but every time that it is needed to resurrect those defeated dry bones, bring colour to washed-out, worn-out visions, bring sweetness back to our children’s dreams.

Even as we remember this Memorial Day weekend those who lost their lives to their dreams of how the world should look and live, too many times over, in too many wars, still we who dream of peace hear God’s promise: “O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live.”

As we remember those charged with keeping the peace, and pray for peace in their own hearts, for the safety of their souls, we hear God’s promise: “O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live.”

As we remember the mothers who have lost children, their dreams of a future for their daughters and sons denied by the violence of systemic sin, do we dare to proclaim God’s promise: “O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live”? Do we dare not to?

As we celebrate with those in Ireland realizing the dream of marriage, lifting up love [Ireland of all places! What’s next – the Vatican?!], we hear God’s promise: “O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live.”

As we pray for the peace of our city – the peace that passes all understanding, not the paper-thin rustling of people looking the other way when injustice walks by – as we pray for the peace of our city, we hear God’s promise: “O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live.”

And so it is with hope that we remember on this Memorial Day weekend and this Pentecost Sunday our own death and burial with Christ, our own resurrection into new life, our own anointing with the Spirit of God, our baptism, which is not in the past but a present and daily call to the life of the kingdom of God; a present and daily reminder of the faithfulness of God, who puts God’s spirit within us, a recurring dream of the dignity of all people, the justice of God, that peace of Christ which passes all understanding, and the explosive tendencies of God’s holy Spirit.

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What if the sound of a rushing wind blows you out of the water,
running back to that place you last called home,
fallen now, weeping again by the roadside?

What if the very thought of tongues of flame raises
blisters on the back of your neck, 
raising Cain among your shattered nerves?

What if the advocate is a thin man in a shiny, nylon suit,
with bad breath and bad sucking teeth,
patting you nervously on the knee?

What if you are drunk on new wine
at nine in the morning,
or on old wine from the night before?

Then, she whispers, I will wait just beyond 
the fall of the horizon, until, spent,
you find yourself in the cold, hard light of dawn,
brooding over the empty water.

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Year B Easter 7: outside agitators and inside voices

The leaders in Jerusalem, religious and secular, were anticipating with no small degree of anxiety next weekend’s Festival of Weeks, or Pentecost, so called because it fell fifty (pente) days after Passover; a full week of weeks since death was cheated and life stolen out of captivity.

William Barclay explains,

“At least as many came to the Feast of Pentecost as came to the Passover. … never was there a more international crowd in Jerusalem than at the time of Pentecost. The Feast itself had two main significances. (i) It had a historical significance. It commemorated the giving of the Law to Moses on Mount Sinai. (ii) It had an agricultural significance. … It had one other unique characteristic. The law laid it down that on that day no servile work should be done (Leviticus 23:21; Numbers 28:26). So it was a holiday for all and the crowds on the streets would be greater than ever.”

So the leaders in Jerusalem were nervous, because only seven times seven days earlier, at the last large Festival, a scandal had broken loose. Outside agitators had come down from Galilee (the law only commanded the presence of those living within twenty miles of Jerusalem at these Temple festivals; the Galileans could have stayed out of it, but no); they came down from Galilee and provoked the crowds into parodies of Pilate’s parades. They turned tables in the Temple courts. They raised loud protests against the complacent, perhaps even corrupt high priests, and demanded repentance, for the reign of God, they said, had drawn near.

The authorities did what they could. They arrested the ringleader, executed him publicly on the eve of the Festival, pour encourager les autres, hoped for the best. But rumours continued of a restless body, a risen leader, an immortal Messiah. The Galileans still haunted the marketplace, gathering in groups to murmur together. Outside agitators ready to wreak havoc on the Festival of Pentecost.

From the days of the Psalmists, the message has been broadcast near and far: Pray for the peace of Jerusalem. I remember seeing the signs around the city, in a dozen languages. Pray for the peace of Jerusalem.

When it comes to outside agitators, Jesus has to be the prime example, doesn’t he? I mean, yes, the truth of the Incarnation means that he was truly, fully human, created and born of a woman. And yet he was also God. He was in the world, and the world was created through him. He was buried beneath the earth, and he laid its foundations. He rose again, because he bore within him the eternity of life, the life that will not remain where death tries to restrain it. He ascended into heaven, because his place is within God. Talk about your outside agitator!

When he came, preaching repentance because the kingdom of God was at hand; when he travelled the countryside, far and near to his hometown; when he disrupted the dealings in the Temple, borrowed donkeys, took over upper rooms, even people’s family tombs – he was an outside agitator.

Of course, he was also the ultimate insider, the Word by whose authority all things were made; the divine image shared between each of his disciples, each of us.

You might think, with all this talk of outside agitation, that my own anxiety is somewhat elevated as we wait for the verdict in the Brelo case, and the eventual end to the Sheriff’s investigation into the death of Tamir Rice. You would be right. I am concerned. I am praying for the peace of the city of Cleveland.

And like many others, I am still trying to work out what it means to pray for the peace of the city in the wake of a Department of Justice report which shreds its record for peaceful and impartial administration of justice on the streets. Outside agitators, those DoJ investigators, every last one of them.

Let me be clear: I do not know what the verdict over Officer Brelo’s actions in the deaths of Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams will be or even should be; there are some legal niceties at play which I have not fully unraveled or understood. I do have a few opinions.

Of course, whatever happens, the history and the future of the relationships that rustle through the undercurrents of our city, our county, and our country will not be fundamentally altered by one or two tragedies, by one or two indictments, by one or two reports. Tensions that run back decades, centuries, across oceans, that found their way into the prayers of the Psalmist will not be resolved in a week, or a week of weeks.

Whatever happens, we will pray for peace in the city. And whether I do so at the police memorial or whether I do so at a #BlackLivesMatter rally, I realize that I will always be in some way an outside agitator. But maybe, sometimes, that is just another word for a Christian.

Jesus prayed for his disciples, in that last night before his arrest, and he said,

I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.

Christians do not belong to the world as much as they do to Christ, and as such we will always be outside agitators. We have been given the Word of God, we have seen what the kingdom of God is supposed to look like: Christ eating with the tax collectors and the tax evaders, lepers embraced, life released. And there is no going back to the old ways of oppression, violence, the many ways in which the evil one sets snares for the unwary.

“Sanctify them in the truth,” says Jesus. “Your word is truth.” And the truth of God’s love for the world, let loose in the person of Jesus, is the ultimate agitator.

Like Jesus, becoming by his Incarnation the ultimate insider, we do not remain on the outside. Love does not stand outside of the city walls and serenade the sentries. Like Jesus, we are called, too, into the lives of those whom we serve. We are called to sit with those seeking hope, to stand with those who need raising up, to turn the tables on oppression and dereliction.

When I became a citizen of this country, a friend asked me why, and I asked her in return, “How can I claim to serve a community in which I have no voice, nor even a vote? ‘Seek the good of the city,’ says the prophet in Exile. I have to throw in my lot with the people of the city in order to love them with integrity.”

I am not going looking for trouble. God knows, trouble finds us easily enough. But I do ask that when we pray for the peace of the city, looking toward the Festival of Weeks, the Pentecost, the coming of the Spirit with great power, that we do so in the spirit of uncompromising truth, fearless compassion, merciful justice and love. That we do not become the people of whom the prophets warned, who speak peace where there is no peace. Jeremiah said,

They have treated the wound of my people carelessly,
saying, ‘Peace, peace’,
when there is no peace. (Jeremiah 6:14; 8:11)

and Ezekiel,

Because, in truth, because they have misled my people, saying, ‘Peace’, when there is no peace; and because, when the people build a wall, these prophets smear whitewash on it. (Ezekiel 13:10)

Because we are called to seek a deeper peace, one that resonates with the peace of God that passes all understanding, that keeps hearts and minds restless until they are reconciled one to another, and all to Christ.

“Protect them from the evil one,” said Jesus. “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.”

Let us go into our world armed to the back teeth only with peace of Christ. Amen.

William Barclay, The Daily Study Bible: The Acts of the Apostles, revd edn (St Andrew’s Press, 1976), 21

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because the grip of

gravity cannot hold life

down when heaven waits

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Is it?

it is not as though

love can outrun the shadows 

thrown by the long stones

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Year B Easter 6: water and blood, a Mothers Day proclamation

“This is the one who came by water and blood, Jesus Christ, not with the water only but with the water and the blood. And the Spirit is the one that testifies, for the Spirit is the truth.”

I don’t know how many of you were following the news out of Central Florida’s Episcopal Diocese this past week. The story broke pretty much while we were in church last Sunday. On Saturday, a new father had posted on facebook the sad story of how his son’s baptism had been called off at the eleventh hour because some in their adopted congregation did not want to adopt them back. By Sunday, the story was being shared all over the internet, the Dean of the cathedral – which was the parish church involved – and the bishop were issuing holding statements, and a petition was being organized. A lot of words were exchanged, not all of them offered in the spirit of Christian kindness. On Thursday, the bishop met with the family, and by Friday, separate statements had been issued affirming that baby Jack will be baptized at a date to be announced, at the cathedral church, where a lot of healing has still to be done.

Last week, we read the story of the Ethiopian bigwig on the road back to the royal palace, who on hearing the good news of Jesus Christ stopped his chariots and ran to the river saying, “Here is water! What is to prevent me being baptized?” And Philip offered no argument, but baptized him, and he went on his way rejoicing. In this week’s lesson from the Acts of the Apostles, Peter is having a small argument with those who consider that Gentiles are not sufficiently clean to be baptized. The Spirit of truth has her way, astonishing the crowd by blessing even these, and they, too, are washed in the water.

And why does this matter to us? I have a comforting level of confidence that if Jack and his two fathers had arrived at this church looking for a spiritual home and a font to mark the foundation of their son’s Christian life, they would have been welcomed with open arms. I know that if they’d gone to our cathedral church, they’d have found the same welcome. But I’m not comfortable with sitting back and patting ourselves on the back. As long as Jack is being turned away, for however long or short a time, anywhere, our joy is not complete, and our work is not done.

God help us, so far, Cleveland has avoided the fires and frenzy of Ferguson and Baltimore, in the face of some fierce provocation. But even if we are able to receive the verdicts in the Brelo case with grace and calm, and however far into the future the Tamir Rice investigation, too; even so, we know full well that our joy is not complete here, either.

And when our dreaming sports teams still treat domestic violence as a joke suitable for showing on the big screen to gin up energy between plays, our work is so not done.

While death stalks every disagreement, our joy cannot be complete.

The idea that anyone need be clean to be baptized is a bit of a reversal, I think. The conservative blogger who suggested that Jack’s parents should separate themselves from their sin and from one another, breaking up the family to bring the baby to baptism, forgot that (a) no one separates themselves from their sin, but it is through the water and the blood of Christ and the anointing of the Holy Spirit that any of us is able to stand before God with integrity; and that (b) the only sin baby Jack carries so far is the sin he has inherited from the sinful systems around him, the ones that exclude instead of embracing, belittle instead of loving. The kind of systems that cause unrest in hearts, souls, and cities. Only by the grace of God and the water and blood of Christ and the anointing of the Holy Spirit can Jack hope to live out of these systems into something better, and to deny him the sacramental means to do so is, to my mind, straight up sin itself.

It is the besetting sin, that we set ourselves up as gateways to God’s grace. But, says 1 John, it is not the water only that we need, nor even the water and oil, but the water and the blood of Christ and the anointing of the Holy Spirit. And the Holy Spirit is indiscriminate in where she falls, including Gentiles with observant Jews, outcasts and outlaws with the inner circle, people of all kinds of nations and backgrounds and families.

It is the besetting sin, that we deny the means of grace to baby Jack and his fathers. It is the besetting sin, that we deny the means of grace to the young black men of this country, incarcerating instead of embracing them, in numbers that are hard to believe: almost one in every ten young black men between the ages of 25 and 34 is in prison, according to Bureau of Justice statistics. In Ferguson, a Forbes report found that there were two African American women in that age range for every one African American man. “Half of Ferguson’s Young African-American Men are Missing,” ran the headline.

And it matters to us because whenever we hear these stories of exclusion, we have a responsibility to wonder where our blind spots are, to wonder whom we are excluding, to examine our own besetting sin, and to repent of it.

I know this is uncomfortable. But we have a responsibility to face the discomfort and embrace the call to love through it.

Because it is the besetting sin that we deny the means of grace to those we do not like, those of whom we do not approve, those whom we fear, those who are different to those among whom we grew up and feel comfortable. It is the besetting sin that even when we might invite them to baptism, we draw the line at sharing the sacrament of coffee with them after the service.

Jesus, at table with his disciples, men and probably women too, on the last day of his freedom, before his arrest, trial, and execution, told them that they had not chosen him; he had chosen them. He had called them out of their lives of safety and comfort to follow him to Jerusalem, to dangerous confrontation with the authorities. He had called them to witness his death and his resurrection, to spread the gospel to all who would listen, to watch for where the Spirit might fall, indiscriminately, and regardless of background, family or status, bring that one to baptism, into the fold of the church, where all was shared and all equally embraced.

You didn’t choose me, but I chose you, says Jesus, to love one another, so that your joy may be complete.

Jesus chose us for joy. And Jesus chose not us only, but all whom God loves. Jesus is not our choice; we are his. And it is not our choice to turn away anyone whom Jesus has chosen for himself. We are called only to love.

Julia Ward Howe, who wrote the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”, a crusader for the abolition of slavery and for peace, offered this call to love on the occasion of the first Mothers Day in 1870:

Arise, all women who have hearts, whether your baptism be that of water or of tears! Say firmly: “We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies, our husbands shall not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause.

“Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience. We women of one country will be too tender of those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.”

From the bosom of the devastated earth a voice goes up with our own. It says, “Disarm, disarm! The sword is not the balance of justice.” Blood does not wipe out dishonor nor violence indicate possession.

As men have often forsaken the plow and the anvil at the summons of war, let women now leave all that may be left of home for a great and earnest day of counsel. Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead. Let them then solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means whereby the great human family can live in peace, each learning after his own time, the sacred impress, not of Caesar, but of God.

In the name of womanhood and of humanity, I earnestly ask that a general congress of women without limit of nationality may be appointed and held at some place deemed most convenient and at the earliest period consistent with its objects, to promote the alliance of the different nationalities, the amicable settlement of international questions, the great and general interests of peace.

Let them solemnly take counsel as to the means whereby the great human family can live in peace, each learning after her own time, the sacred impress, not of Caesar, but of God, the mark of the cross indelibly inked by oil and the Holy Spirit at baptism, offered to all, indiscriminately, and with as much love as we can muster.


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I am from…

have you ever done one of these? I was introduced to the “I am from” form at a conference this week.

Honestly, as an adoptee, an immigrant, an exile from my own history I don’t do well with the perennial “where are you from?” questions that go with the accent. Talk to me of roots and I see an uprooted tree, waving helplessly to the gardener, pleading for replanting.

Not that I am unhappy with the soil that sustains me. I am in a good place. No regrets (as someone important once told me).

I am from nobody and nowhere.
I am from a city never seen,
a father never met,
born in regret.

I am from a fairy tale,
a babe in the woods plucked up
with wild mushrooms
in a basket, carried home.

I am from the church porch,
darkening trees dripping rain;
cries rise like prayers,
fall back with the solid air.

I am from the solid air where
the Spirit crowd-surfs all the saints,
lifted by the ancient chants
that makes the high candles dance.

I am from the father invisible,
born of a knitted womb.
I am from the dust to which I will return,
or else I am from nowhere, and from no one.

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