Look At Us: a short sermon on Acts 3:1-11

Thankful for another opportunity to join an awesome team of preachers at Lake B and give a mini-sermon on Acts 3:1-11. Here’s the passage, and then the sermon text is below!

(Or if you prefer to listen/watch, the worship service is on YouTube here, and my part starts around 34:00. Stick around for David Meade and Michael Won’s sermons too if you have time!)

Acts 3:1-11 (NRSV):

One day Peter and John were going up to the temple at the hour of prayer, at three o’clock in the afternoon. 2 And a man lame from birth was being carried in. People would lay him daily at the gate of the temple called the Beautiful Gate so that he could ask for alms from those entering the temple. 3 When he saw Peter and John about to go into the temple, he asked them for alms. 4 Peter looked intently at him, as did John, and said, “Look at us.” 5 And he fixed his attention on them, expecting to receive something from them. 6 But Peter said, “I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk.” 7 And he took him by the right hand and raised him up; and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong. 8 Jumping up, he stood and began to walk, and he entered the temple with them, walking and leaping and praising God. 9 All the people saw him walking and praising God, 10 and they recognized him as the one who used to sit and ask for alms at the Beautiful Gate of the temple; and they were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him. 11 While he clung to Peter and John, all the people ran together to them in the portico called Solomon’s Portico, utterly astonished.

The book of Acts is kind of a wild book. We’re only at the start of chapter 3, and already Jesus has been taken up to heaven, after telling his followers to wait for God’s promise. Then Pentecost came, tongues of fire and all, and Peter gave a sermon about how all of this was fulfilling what the prophet Joel said, a really long time ago, about God’s Spirit being poured out on all flesh. The people who heard were cut to the heart, and three thousand of them were baptized that day. 

Then they all got to the messy and interesting work of figuring out what all this means in daily life, figuring out what difference it makes that the Holy Spirit dwells among us. This new way of life involved sharing fellowship, eating together, praying together, worshipping together, sharing material stuff, making sure everyone’s needs are met, and generally living simply and gratefully and generously and joyfully. In our competitive, greedy, often violent world, this is radical stuff.

In the middle of this description of the new community that is being formed, we read that “awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles.” (That’s Acts 2:43.) Our passage today gives us a glimpse of one of these wonders. In the name of Jesus, Peter and John heal a man who has been lame from birth – or, literally translated, lame from his mother’s womb.

When Peter and John heal the lame man, they’re doing the same kind of work Jesus was doing throughout his life. Jesus was always healing people of all sorts of ailments, and casting out demons, and doing all sorts of wildly miraculous stuff that left the crowds astonished and amazed, and that often left the people who experienced these miracles praising God. 

This is one of the things that characterized Jesus’ life on earth. As Jesus puts it when some of John the Baptist’s disciples come to him to say, “soo…are you the one we’ve been waiting for, or is another coming?”, Jesus says, “go tell John what you’ve seen and heard: the blind receive sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them.” (That’s in Luke 7:22). Jesus is like, this is what’s going on. You can see it for yourselves. Nuff said. You tell me if I’m the one you’ve all been waiting for, or not.

Jesus’ work involved curing people of their ailments. But it wasn’t just that. It was also, at least as importantly, the work of justice. Jesus’ work involved teaching people to live really different kinds of lives, together, in a world that’s often harsh and brutal, where people are often cruel, caught up forcefully and sometimes unquestioningly in systems that deal death rather than giving life. Jesus came to bring a fuller kind of life, marked by love and community, and by the kind of equity and justice that has to happen if real love and community is ever going to come into being.

And so, when Peter and John interact with the lame man outside the temple, they aren’t just there to instigate the kind of miracle where this man’s feet and ankles are strengthened. They’re also there to instigate the kind of miracle where a new kind of community is being formed – one that couldn’t have existed while the lame man was still outside, excluded from worship, relating to others solely as one who needs something, rather than as one with something to offer.

Peter and John are there to look this man in the eye, while others rush by him, in their very busy and important lives, on their way to do very busy and important things, like go to worship. There’s a lot wrapped up in eye contact, or lack thereof, sometimes. When someone makes eye contact with us, it can help us feel included in a group. It can help us feel like people like us and care about us and value our presence there. And when someone withholds eye contact from us, it can make us feel excluded, rejected, or invisible. When this happens repeatedly over time, it can make us feel less than others, or even sub-human.

Peter looks intently at this man, and when the man doesn’t return eye contact – whether that’s because he feels ashamed of his position, or if he just isn’t used to people paying attention to him, or for whatever reason – Peter says to him, “look at us.” He says, in effect, John and I see you. And we want you to see us.

This is part of how real community forms: we see others, and we are seen. We want to know others, and we want others to know us – beyond the basic visible facts, like what we look like, or where we’re located, or what we’re doing for work. Peter can see all these things about the lame man. But he wants to know who he is on a deeper level. He’s saying, in a sense, the things I can see right now – the fact that you’re not able to walk, that you’re located outside the temple, that you’re dressed a certain way, that you’re begging – these things don’t tell me everything I want to know about you. Peter looks intently at him, beyond the things that would normally keep people who are entering the temple from being friends with someone who is begging outside the gate. 

Peter and John are there to invite the man into a new kind of relationship, of knowing and being known – the kind of relationship where we see one another eye to eye, as equals.

They’re also there to say, I know what you’re expecting to receive from us, but that isn’t what we have to give. When Peter says “I have no silver or gold,” more literally, from the Greek, he’s saying something like “silver and gold do not exist for me.” I kind of picture him saying, what even is silver? What even is gold? What are these things supposed to mean? What even is this system, where some people get to go worship in the temple while others are left outside? Where some people have gold and silver and can give alms as they wish, while also keeping all the power for themselves and not really changing anything?

Peter says, there’s something better. There’s something that can go beyond just helping you get through the next day, although that’s important too. There’s something that can actually bring into being a new and flourishing kind of life, for all of us, together. There’s something that can shift the power dynamic here, so you don’t have to keep on being the needy one, but instead you can enter the temple, we can all enter the temple together, and we can worship God together as equals. There’s transformation. For all of us. And we all need it. 

This is all a continuation of the work of Jesus, right? Really seeing people, and not being afraid to see people’s pain and vulnerability. Being brave enough to let other people see us, to be humble and vulnerable and needy. Making eye contact with people whom others exclude and dehumanize. Looking beyond the surface level, to know people and let people know us. Working relentlessly and radically toward building a community of people who operate as equals, across all sorts of human-made walls, like race, or class, or social standing, or ability or disability, or gender, or sexuality.

Peter and John continue the work of Jesus in this story. It’s like Jesus died, but in so doing, his spirit multiplied like the bread and loaves he broke open to feed the five thousand, and this spirit fills Peter, and John, and now the lame man, along with so many others we read about as we go on in the book of Acts. The now formerly lame man, filled with this spirit, “jumps up,” “walking and leaping and praising God.” His “leaping” here is a word that can also mean to “spring up,” like a spring of water that bubbles up. It’s the word Jesus uses when he talks with the Samaritan woman at the well, when he says, “those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” (That’s in John 4:14.) The formerly lame man springs up, gushes up, bubbles over with praise, as Jesus’ spirit disperses and spreads and multiplies, and Jesus’ work of love and justice and mercy continues.

This same spirit invites us today to continue Jesus’ work in our lives and communities, together. To learn to trust and rely on one another. To give generously of whatever we might have to offer, and to know that we all have something to offer. To learn to be in unity. To worship together. 

May we, together, as a community, be filled with this Holy Spirit and continue the work of Jesus in our world.

Marginalized Women, Bold Prophetic Speech: an Advent sermon on Elizabeth & Mary

I guess I’ve thought for a little while now that Luke 1:39-45 is a pretty awesome Bible passage. I wrote about it a little bit last December, in this post, toward the end of “25 Days of John the Baptist.”

This is the text (in the NRSV):

39 In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40 where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42 and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43 And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44 For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. 45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

Last Sunday I had the opportunity to preach on this passage at Inglewood Presbyterian Church in Kirkland, WA, as part of a series called “Christmas from the Margins.” It was great to have an excuse to dig into the text a lot more. I feel like good things came out of it for me, and I share the sermon here in case good things come out of it for you too! I’d love to hear your thoughts or reactions in the Comments section.

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I understand that this Advent season you all are exploring the idea of “Christmas from the Margins.” I love that―both in general, and because I think all of the challenges of 2020 have impacted and maybe changed how a lot of us think about marginalization. 

Some of us may have experienced being on the margins ourselves in new ways―a sense of being pushed to the edge of a kind of stable center we used to have―whether that’s through disrupted plans, or isolation, or fear and anxiety, or sickness, or the sickness of loved ones, or the loss of loved ones, or through job loss and unemployment. 

The last few months have also brought movements toward racial justice and against white supremacy to the forefront of national attention. We’ve seen―highlighted, and made more visible for more people―some of what it’s like to be racially marginalized as a person of color in the US.

This is 2020. This is where we’re at. And these are the kinds of things I hope we can keep in mind as we think about our story this morning, and as we begin this Advent season.

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By the time we get to our passage this morning, a lot has happened already. 

An angel appears to Elizabeth’s husband Zechariah, while he’s serving as a priest in the temple. The angel says, you and Elizabeth are going to have a son, and you should name him John. Zechariah says, wha? No way, man, we’re both way too old! (Which, to be fair, is totally true. Some scholars think they must have been in their sixties.) But the angel says, this is going to happen, and, because you didn’t believe it, you won’t get to speak again until the baby is born. And Zechariah says…well, nothing. Because he can’t.

Then, about six months later, the same angel appears to Mary―not to Mary’s fiancé, or father, or any other male authority figure in her world, but to Mary―and says, you are going to have a son, and you should name him Jesus. Mary says, how, since I am a virgin? The angel says, that’s the power of the Holy Spirit! And Mary says, okay. Let it be as you say

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Can you imagine being Mary, here? An angel just appears to you, out of nowhere, just about gives you a heart attack…and then tells you, don’t be afraid. The angel says that you―you, in your small town in the middle of nowhere; in your youth, as a teenager; in your vulnerability and insignificance as a young woman who is not yet married or a mother, which would have given you a little more status in your world―you are going to miraculously give birth to a king, to the holy one who will be called the Son of God.

Talk about a disruption of the normal, humble life you planned on living―making life work, alongside your husband-to-be, in the midst of poverty; surviving together under the thumb of the Roman Empire; living faithfully to God, as well as you can, in your own quiet way. 

What do you do with this kind of life-disrupting news? Who do you talk to, about the angel and the miraculous pregnancy, and everything? Who do you go to, there in your small hometown, full of people who tend to expect things like pregnancy to work in the usual way?

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Mary remembers that the angel told her that her older relative Elizabeth is also pregnant. So, Mary sets off to visit Elizabeth. This is where we find ourselves in the story this morning. 

Mary grabs a water bottle and a granola bar, types in “Judean hill country” in Google Maps on her iPhone, hops in her parents’ trusty old Subaru, and heads off toward Elizabeth’s place. 

Just kidding. In reality her journey to the hill country of Judea was a slow one. It likely lasted around three to five days, depending on where exactly Elizabeth lived. The roads were known to be dangerous, full of robbers. My hope is that she found a caravan she could travel with that would help keep her safe. Regardless, it took courage to go off on her own like that, apart from her family and fiancé and hometown community. 

She must have felt it was necessary. I imagine her thinking, this is all so wild, and unexpected, and incredible, and awesome, and terrifying, and good, and very complicated. I don’t know if anyone will understand. But if anyone could, maybe it’s Elizabeth, in the midst of her own miraculous pregnancy. 

It was the only thing to do.

People on the margins are often people on the move. Taking risks, seeking safe places to stay, seeking compassionate communities who will welcome them. And God is with them as they do so. God is with those who, like Mary, find themselves desperate enough to make dangerous journeys― not quite sure what they will find on the other side, but knowing that they have to go.

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So Mary arrives, enters the house, and greets Elizabeth with the usual type of greeting. 

Elizabeth does not give a usual greeting back. There’s no what’s up?? So good to see you! Long time no see! Or whatever they said in those days.

Instead, Elizabeth cries out loudly: you are blessed among women! And the fruit of your womb is blessed too! And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the child in my womb leaped for joy. You are blessed because you believed that what the Lord said would happen.

Immediately after Elizabeth says all this, Mary launches into a beautiful, prophetic poem that we might know as the Magnificat. It’s all about God lifting up the humble―those on the margins―and bringing down powerful people who are proud. It’s about God being full of mercy, from generation to generation, doing mighty things, filling up the hungry, being faithful, keeping promises.

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When I read this story, and I think about the idea of Christmas from the margins, I think about the very patriarchal, very male-dominated world that Mary and Elizabeth lived in. 

Because she is a woman, Elizabeth is not a priest like her husband Zechariah―even though she is the daughter of a priest. She’s descended from the line of Aaron (Luke tells us this, earlier in the story, in v. 5). If Elizabeth had been around the temple area when Zechariah was chosen by lot among the priests to be the one to go inside, she would have had to stay outside, in a court called the Court of Women, which was where women could go to pray. It was outside the Court of Israel, where the men could go to pray. The worshipping women were physically distanced from the temple because of their gender―very literally pushed to the margins of the place that was considered holy.

We also see, earlier in the story, that Elizabeth was the one who was blamed for her and Zechariah’s childlessness. When Elizabeth becomes pregnant, she says, The Lord has shown his favor and taken away my disgrace among the people (that’s in v. 25). For her, infertility was not only a source of sadness, and disappointment, and vulnerability in old age, but also a social disgrace. It was a source of unending shame that followed her around throughout her adult life, even into her sixties. 

Many people likely assumed that her infertility was caused by some sort of sin in her life. What was wrong with her, that she had never been able to have a baby? What awful thing had she done? People must have given her the side-eye and whispered behind her back. Maybe in her darker moments Elizabeth whispered these things to herself, too. What is wrong with me? Maybe she internalized the blame and shame that others kept placing on her.

We also see evidence of women being pushed to the margins in their world within this passage itself. Verse 40 tells us that Mary entered the house of Zechariah. The house was considered Zechariah’s property only, even though both he and Elizabeth lived there. 

Lest we think this world is so far removed from our own, remember that it wasn’t until the mid 1970s in the US that women were allowed to have our own credit cards, and to buy our own houses without facing blatant and totally legal discrimination because of our gender.

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In the midst of this male-dominated world, this scene, where Mary and Elizabeth greet one another, is incredible. It’s a man’s world, but there are no men to be found here. Zechariah is who knows where. The baby boys John and Jesus have not been born yet. It’s just a raw, unfiltered, real, beautiful, human interaction between two female relatives, one older, one younger.

In a world where women are supposed to disappear into the background, Mary and Elizabeth take up space. They take up space in Luke’s narrative. They take up space in the story of Jesus, in the story of God’s love and redemption in the world. 

They are an important part of the story―not just because of the sons they will give birth to, but in their own right too. They are examples of faithfulness, of believing God, of working with God, of participating in the joy of what God is doing. 

And they must have found so much comfort in their time together. Mary ended up staying for three months, until Elizabeth’s son John was born. 

When we talk about Christmas, we often talk about Jesus as “Immanuel,” as God with us. Sometimes “God with us” can look like another person coming into our life and being a source of comfort and encouragement. Someone who has walked or is walking some of the same roads that we are. Someone who understands. Someone who can, just by being there, remind us of God’s presence with us.

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When the sound of Mary’s greeting reaches Elizabeth’s ears, little John the Baptist does a little jump inside Elizabeth’s tummy. Elizabeth interprets this as a jump for joy, or in exultation.

Elizabeth, then, is filled with the Holy Spirit. This exact language―being “filled with the Holy Spirit”―is only used a few other times in the New Testament. It’s used when the angel tells Zechariah that John the Baptist will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother’s womb. Zechariah is then filled with the Holy Spirit himself, later on in this chapter, and he speaks his own prophetic poem, a few verses after Mary’s. Later on, the group of believers at Pentecost in the book of Acts are filled with the Holy Spirit, and they speak in other languages as the Spirit enables them. Peter and Paul are each described as being filled with the Holy Spirit in some parts of Acts, particularly when they have something especially bold and risky to say.

Elizabeth, here, joins the ranks of people―of men―like John the Baptist, and Zechariah, and Peter, and Paul. She is filled with the same Spirit. And she, too, speaks boldly. She speaks in a loud and confident voice. 

The Greek actually uses three different words here to express how intense her voice is as she speaks: she “exclaims”―meaning that she spoke out, or cried aloud. Her voice is “loud”―or, literally, “great.” 

And it sounds like a “cry.” This is a word that can also be translated as outcry, or clamor. This word is actually used by Paul when he writes to the Ephesian Christians that they should try to stay away from anger, and malice, and brawling, and clamor, and that sort of thing (that’s in Ephesians 4:31). 

It’s a fighting kind of cry―a loud, great, clamour. And, in Elizabeth’s case, it’s holy. It’s full of the Holy Spirit. It’s bold and prophetic and true and important…and very, very unladylike. 

While Zechariah, the priest, is at this point still unable to speak, Elizabeth, not allowed to be priest because of her gender, speaks loudly.

Women, as well as others on the margins, are often socialized to just get along. We’re told, in a million different ways, don’t make waves, don’t be too loud, don’t draw attention to yourself, don’t stir up trouble, don’t make anyone upset. Hold your tongue, speak gently and quietly, defer to others, defer to men.

Add to all this the shame Elizabeth’s community has burdened her with. People use shame to push people to the margins, and to keep them there. To make them feel like their marginalization is somehow their fault. To keep them from speaking up. 

When the Holy Spirit fills Elizabeth, Elizabeth breaks out of all of these confines of what is considered respectable behavior. She has something important to say. She has prophecy to speak. She has inexpressible joy to try to express. And she doesn’t have time to take a step back and make sure her voice is gentle enough and her words are inoffensive enough and nothing she says is threatening to anyone.

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Maybe it’s jarring to think about Elizabeth in this way. Or, maybe, if you’re someone who feels marginalized in some of the same ways she was, maybe it’s freeing and healing. Maybe it’s a bit of both. 

Maybe for some of us, we’re thinking, yes! Speak up! Speak your truth! Embrace your empowerment by the Holy Spirit! You’re awesome! 

And yet, is that how we see voices from the margins today, who speak boldly as Elizabeth did, full of truth and fire and a longing for justice? How open are we to hearing from the marginalized prophets and prophetesses of our time? 

Do we expect them to conform to some sort of respectable standard before we’re willing to listen? Do we bristle and get defensive because some of them are too loud, or too angry, for our taste?

Elizabeth’s bold speech invites us to pay attention to who might be filled with the Holy Spirit, to who might be speaking prophetic words, around us in our world today. 

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And, the words that Elizabeth speaks, so loudly, after being filled by the Holy Spirit―these words are a series of blessings. You have been blessed, Mary, among women. The fruit of your womb has been blessed. Blessed is the one who believed.

Elizabeth, who wasn’t allowed to be a priest, embodies the priestly role of pronouncing blessing, of calling Mary blessed. She recognizes God’s incredible work in Mary’s life and names it as such.

Who do we tend to imagine, or assume, are the people who get to proclaim blessings? Who gets to be in that powerful and joyful position of saying with confidence: God is with you, God blesses you? 

Pastors? Powerful people? Influential people? Respectable people? 

Do we hope and expect to hear blessings from the mouths of people on the margins? Can we receive those blessings? 

Do we expect that people on the margins have something to offer us―that there are ways we can learn from them, even as we might also see their needs and try to serve them? Are we open to the wisdom they have, the things they can teach us? 

And, in the ways in which we might experience marginalization―whether from gender, or race, or ethnicity, or unemployment, or disability, or sexual orientation, or anything else―do we see ourselves as empowered to be a blessing, to bless others? Do we see ourselves as people who can speak boldly and call forth the best in others? 

As Kathy Khang writes in her book Raise Your Voice, “Elizabeth is unafraid and generous in her word of blessing and exhortation. I imagine that’s because she knows what I often have to remind myself: finding and using our voice isn’t a zero-sum game where we compete with others. Elizabeth isn’t competing. She knows this is a journey for both of them, and she sets the stage for Mary to speak out words we now call the Magnificat. Elizabeth isn’t there just to provide an audience or to be a foil or competitor. She’s the one whose presence and words remind Mary who she is and what is to come.”

Isn’t it beautiful, when we can do this for one another? 

Blessing people isn’t just for some subset of extra holy or powerful people. It’s something all of us can do.

And, blessing one another isn’t just for the times when everything is easy, and things are going well. It’s for the difficult times too. 

Elizabeth and Mary did not live easy, comfortable, happy ever after kinds of lives. Living in poverty as a religious minority in the Roman empire was no easy thing. Add to that the task of raising children who will both end up being killed as revolutionaries. Elizabeth and Mary lived difficult lives in difficult times.

Many of us in 2020 have not had a particularly easy, comfortable, happy ever after kind of year either. And yet, even in these times―maybe especially in these times―we can bless one another. We can call forth the best in one another. We can be present with and be a comfort to one another, as Mary and Elizabeth were. We can remind each other, this Advent season, of God’s presence with us.

And, we can seek out and listen to the prophetic voices from the margins. God is still speaking through them. We can hear their challenging, blessing, life-giving, world-altering, disruptive, uncomfortable words. We can receive and respond to the ways they are inviting us toward justice and goodness and wholeness, as people, as the church, and as a society. We can echo and amplify their voices to people we know who might not listen to them, but might listen to us.

May we receive the gifts and the challenges of Christmas from the margins this Advent season.

God is Calling Her Children

God is Calling Her Children

God is calling 
her children to the garden,

to walk through wildflowers
in the place where life 
grows slowly and unveils itself 
in its own time,

to let soil slip through fingers
in the place where we 
do not need to be 

trailblazers,
conquerors and colonizers,
chairpeople and board members,

but, rather, midwives:

those who care and watch
and move to catch

the world that is to come.

So God is calling,
listen as she calls forth

feminine ambition: 

the kind that runs with Spirit wind behind
and does not lose its breath

until its tiny corner of the world
bursts with divine love,

until our eyes see God in every person
and our hands have done the good 
that they could do

and let that be 
enough.

Poker, Prodder

Keeping with the theme of the recent Christian celebration of Pentecost and the Holy Spirit, juxtaposed with this reality we find ourselves in:

Poker, Prodder

Holy Spirit,
poker, prodder, 
discomforter of unjust 
horror-filled structures and
disquieter of all who profit from them,
table-turner of the wrongly weighted scales that
weigh color and find darkness wanting,

Holy Spirit,
hover in our chaos,
bring state-sanctioned 
violence done in darkness 
into holy light, reveal realities 
our social training tries to obfuscate and 
does not give up easily,

Holy Spirit,
help us not to settle 
for cheap frauds that wear 
peace as a front and pull us back 
into old orders, twisted, sunken orders, 
schemes of whiteness dealing death and tears 
under the name of unity,

Holy Spirit,
come and move, 
not just our chaos into 
order but our death to life, 
the way you do, and if we cannot see 
that this is what we need, please come and help us 
look more closely.

Kitchen in the Clouds

This past Sunday Christians around the world celebrated Pentecost – the coming of the Holy Spirit to dwell with and in human beings, as recounted in Acts 2.

In the context of all of the recent and ongoing uprisings across the US – and with thanks to my pastor Lina Thompson for teaching that the Holy Spirit is the spirit who moves toward justice – this is how I’m imagining the Holy Spirit these days:

Kitchen in the Clouds

In her kitchen in the clouds
she cooks a feast, 
mise en place,
she takes cutting boards 

and places on them 
every form of dominance, 
chops heaping bowls of
white supremacy, of

patriarchy, homophobia,
chef’s knife in hand, 
decisive, she chops 
loudly and does not hold back.

With expert touch she cuts 
police brutality, slices 
corrupt healthcare systems,
then takes racist rhetoric

and throws it on the fire
where it will burn and burn
and burn. She takes it all 
and fries it up, destroyed, 

burned up, turned into
something new,
unrecognizable:
she serves justice on a platter.

Her touch is power, 
all the power to all the people, 
her stove’s sparks illumine truth
and invite all to draw near:

she takes and throws 
upon the open flame 
indifference to black life,
callousness toward immigrants,

sticks skewers through misogyny
and grills it up.
She soaks love for hours 
like beans until it swells 

and softens and is ripe to eat.
Then she sets the table 
for her feast, no seats 
of honor, all are equals, 

so much room for all
who hunger for a place
of many mountains fallen down.

In her kitchen in the clouds
she stops and hovers, 
waiting, unsure who will come
to share in what she cooks,

the table set, 
the feast all served.
The guests begin
to straggle in:

the weary, haggard, 
lonely, scarred,
the prophets and the protesters,
the ones contending 

for a better world
and not content,
the desperate ones,
the angry ones,

the migrants and the refugees,
the lovers and the fighters,
the ones imprisoned and detained,
the ones cut down before their time.

For all who stomach what she cooks
this meal is peace at long,
long last.

Fire Baptism

I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.  -John the Baptist (Matthew 3:11-12)

I still remember the baptism song we would sing at the church I grew up in, even though it has been thirteen years or so since I have attended there regularly.

Baptized in water, sealed by the Spirit, marked with the sign of Christ our king. Born of the Spirit, we are God’s children, joyfully now God’s praises we sing.

It’s a lovely song. I like it.

I also think it’s interesting that in this song, and just in general, we like to think of baptism as baptism with water, but we’re not as comfortable with the image of baptism with fire. But baptism with Holy Spirit and with fire is what John the Baptist says that Jesus will do.

Literally speaking, baptism with fire seems a bit dicey. I’m picturing, I don’t know, singeing a couple of a baby’s hairs with a candle instead of sprinkling water on her head, or having an adult run across hot coals instead of dunking him in a baptismal tub.

I’m not saying we should do these things in church…although it could make for an interesting service. But I do think it’s important to ask some questions. Questions like, why is John talking about baptism in fire? What does baptism with fire even mean?

Of course, I don’t have all the answers…or much at all in the way of answers…but I do suspect that it has something to do with what John says next: Jesus’ winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.

The image is one of separating good from evil, healthful from poisonous, useful from useless.

In our world as we experience it, wheat and chaff are all jumbled up in one big pile, and it’s often hard to tell what’s what. Weeds and wheat grow side by side, and you can’t really root up one without destroying the other as well (Matthew 13:24-29). Evil things are hidden in darkness and smoothed over with nice-sounding language, and people love that darkness, not wanting who they really are and what they’ve really done to be exposed (John 3:19-21).

Yes, Jesus came to offer forgiveness. But that image―the image of forgiveness of debts, like having someone pay off your student loans for you―is only one image the New Testament offers us as we try to wrap our minds around who Jesus is and what Jesus does. As we see in this passage, Jesus came not just to forgive debts, but also to winnow. To clear. To gather. And to burn.

Jesus came to sort out and clarify what’s good and what’s evil. To name these things as such, in a way that’s completely right and accurate―which proves elusive for even the most discerning of humans. Jesus came to bring light that exposes the things done in darkness, so that justice is no longer obstructed, and people no longer suffer under oppressive systems and leaders.

We like to think that no one is above the law; unfortunately, and often tragically, again and again, that proves not quite true. But no one―really, no one―is able to avoid Jesus’ cleansing fire, no matter what kind of political office or other sources of earthly authority they might hold.

In Greek, the words used in this passage for “clear” and for “burn” are very strong. We might say that Jesus will “thoroughly cleanse” the threshing floor, and that the chaff will be “burned up completely,” or “utterly consumed.” Powerful people get away with doing evil things for now, but, in time, Jesus will bring judgment, with clarity and thoroughness―a judgment that is, finally, fully complete, and entirely good.

Of course, in our more honest moments, most of us can easily see that the line between good and evil does not run between Judean peasant and Pharisee, or between regular citizen and corrupt dictator or president, in any kind of straightforward way. We know, as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn famously wrote, that the line between good and evil runs through every human heart.

And so, John’s statements about Jesus―that Jesus baptizes by fire, that Jesus comes to cleanse the threshing floor thoroughly and burn up evil completely―offer both a hope that Jesus will judge people with power who do not do right by others and a hope that Jesus will cleanse each of us from the evil within us. The suffering we bring to ourselves and to other humans through our own selfishness will not last forever. Jesus is making us new and will make us new, burning up completely all of the chaff within us.

May we, like John the Baptist, see and welcome Jesus’ chaff-burning, baptizing-with-fire work, both in and around us.