By Joanna Lawrence Shenk
Today I want to pick up where we left off last week with these words at the end of Sheri’s sermon: “In our present time, when paranoid kings rule, and when the life of the planet is literally at stake, I think it is more important than ever that we come together to listen for the Spirit and to seek the Spirit’s guidance.”
She continued, “I think we need more than our conscious intellect, our rational mind, to get ourselves out of this mess we are in. I think we need to hear the Spirit’s voice in many ways, new ways, perhaps ways we haven’t been as attentive to before, as we observe the glimmers of light that have appeared in the dark and move toward them, together.”
What does it mean to listen for the Spirit and seek the Spirit’s guidance? How do we do this with more than our rational mind? What might the Spirit illuminate and how will we respond in this season of Epiphany?
The word epiphany means the appearance of a divine being or an illuminating realization. In the Christian tradition the festival of Epiphany celebrates the illumination that Christ’s presence brings into the world.
And in knowing how Christ came into the world, we also know that his presence was a radical reversal of power and kingship. He was Divine but born as a helpless human baby. He was a baby and also a king. He was born in a barn, not a wealthy home. And, in the text we have for today, he was baptized for ministry in the middle of nowhere, on the edges of the empire. This poor man from Galilee is heralded as the Messiah and named God’s beloved child.
This embodiment of radical reversal is also a big part of Carnival season, which coincides with the season of Epiphany. It is a time when the masses celebrate abundance and decadence, no matter their circumstances. Poor people dress as royalty. Amazing, enormous puppets are created to poke fun at the powerful. Elegantly and sensually costumed revelers dance in the streets and brass bands play all night long.
Within the roots of our Anabaptist history, we are also connected to Carnival. The celebration of this festival was also a way to share stories with large groups of people and communicate between towns and cities. It was a time when those who would become Anabaptists were strategizing with other peasant groups to overthrow unjust hierarchies. The most well known effort was the German Peasant’s War of 1524-1525.
In Anabaptist history we also know that it was access to the Bible for the first time and discernment in community that gave these peasants the vision to imagine a different world and become a threat the established power structures of their day. They were reading scripture and they were discerning how the Living Word, the Holy Spirit, was calling them to act in the world. These actions had dire consequences in many cases, but they were undeterred.
A couple weeks ago I was talking with a friend of mine, Mark Van Steenwyk, about Christian community and the Holy Spirit. Nearly 10 years ago Mark and I started the podcast that I still produce, the Iconocast. Now Mark is the executive director of the Center for Prophetic Imagination in Minneapolis.
The conversation we had will be released as an Iconocast episode. In it we discussed the ways we’ve changed and the ways the religious and political landscape has changed in the last decade. Originally we had started the podcast as a resource to Christian communities on how to sustain a commitment to the radical way of Jesus for the long-haul.
During the discussion I reflected that a significant learning for me in those early years of the Iconocast was on the point of Christian community and being Christian. Why be a part of church when so many people I knew were leaving the church or not interested? I generally thought about Christian community as a way to become a better person and “do my own work” while working with others for liberation. It was also about confessing the ways that the church had gone wrong.
Those are all good and important things, yes. But then I encountered a teaching by Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest, who articulated the point of Christian community as bringing us into the presence of Divine Mystery. Bringing us into the presence of the Holy Spirit in other words.
So what does this actually look like? Mark pointed out that every time the Holy Spirit is mentioned in scripture, something subversive is happening. It was subversive for Jesus to be a follower of John the Baptist and get baptized in the wilderness.
Then we talked about how in some contexts, seeking the Spirit is often equated with taking space away from “real life.” We seek the Spirit on retreat or in a place of quiet prayer. We seek encounter with the Spirit in order to go back into the world, perhaps.
In our conversation we weren’t saying those times and spaces aren’t of value, but limiting contemplative practice to offering inner-centeredness and awareness, keeps contemplative practice from being radically actualized. Because when the Spirit shows up, you will be compelled to act and speak in ways you otherwise would not have thought or chosen. When the Spirit shows up it almost always spills out into some kind of political subversive act, Mark observed.
He then went on to share that this kind of contemplative practice is how Latin American Liberation Theology was birthed. One of the founders went on a 30 day Ignatian retreat and came to the understanding during that time that Christ is uniquely present among the oppressed and the poor. And that Christians can’t find salvation without real solidarity with the poor. This inspiration of the Spirit birthed a revolutionary reversal in Christian theology and practice that continues today.
So the contemplative stuff, the encounters with Divine Mystery, can’t be distanced from the experience of oppression. It has to be anchored in solidarity with the oppressed and communities experiencing oppression.
The Spirit showing up is a catalyst for action or radical reorientation. So we get it the wrong way around if we make the assumption that we need to leave the world to encounter the Spirit. What we actually need is an active life upon which we’re constantly reflecting. And I see our congregational embodying this in many ways already.
The part that really got me in the conversation with Mark was when we said, “Okay, where have we had this kind of encounter with Spirit in our own lives?” I actually had to think about it for awhile and that was disconcerting, and even then not a lot of stories came to mind. Why it is that as a Christian and a person in spiritual leadership I can’t easily think of stories in my own life where the Spirit shook things up?
While working on this sermon, I did remember a story that happened within the last year that was significant for me along these lines. It was March of 2018. I was working from home and got a message from Faith in Action requesting that clergy call two ICE officials who were not releasing a person who had been granted release by an immigration judge. This person was cleared to go but they weren’t letting her. Since I had a few minutes I decided to make the call, figuring I would get a secretary and relay to them my concern.
What happened instead was that on the other line I was talking directly with the ICE official. And he was not happy. He said, “How did you get this number?” I told him I got it from Faith in Action and that I was a pastor at First Mennonite Church in San Francisco. I said I was concerned and asking for the immediate release of this specific person. He said, “Well do Mennonite believe it’s okay to break the law?” I said something like, “No, but as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, not all laws are just and we can’t respect unjust laws.”
“So then you think we should have open borders?” he retorted. He was quite angry. I responded that I wasn’t necessarily saying that, but rather our country needs to take responsibility for the ways we have devastated the economies of the countries from which refugees and immigrants are fleeing. If their lives are threatened and unlivable and they are only able to survive by coming here, how can we turn them away? With that he said goodbye and hung up.
I was shaken up after talking with him and knew that I wouldn’t have made that call if I had known I would be facing that type of hostility. But I had the words I needed and experienced it as the Spirit empowering me in that moment. Within minutes I got another message from the Faith in Action organizers saying that the person had just been released. Myself and one other clergy-person had called and that changed the situation.
That experience makes me think of words that Jesus said, “When you are brought before the rulers, and authorities, do not worry about how to defend yourselves or what to say. For at that time the Holy Spirit will teach you what you should say.” (Luke 12:11-12)
And it also wasn’t that my mind was a blank slate and God filled it necessarily. Responding to the ICE officer in that way was possible in part because I had been doing immigration solidarity work and learning about the reasons why people were migrating and how economic policies were the backdrop. Then there was this holy moment when I could speak truth in a way that helped a captive get free.
Like I said, had I known what I was getting into, I might not have made the call, but the Spirit was with me and I had the words to say. What are your testimonies to how the Spirit has shown up in your life? How at First Mennonite are we allowing our connection to Spirit to be radically actualized?
Now I want to circle back to our text for today, when the Spirit shows up for another subversive action. John the Baptist is in the wilderness and raising quite a stir. People are leaving the cities and towns and coming to him for baptism. They are coming to him to repent and this is not something sanctioned by the religious leaders. The people wonder if John is the Messiah, but he is clear with them. No, someone of greater power is coming. Whereas John is only baptizing with water, this person will baptize with the Holy Spirit.
John goes on further to say that Jesus’ message is not for everyone. “His winnowing-fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’” This is a verse about judgement. Not everyone will be able to follow in the way of Jesus because of their attachment to things as they are. They will not be able to understand his vision.
In our Lent series last year we heard the story of the rich man who needed to be radically reoriented if he was to join Jesus’ movement. He wasn’t able to respond to Jesus’ call, but Zaccheaus, on the other hand, was able. He took action immediately and his life was changed.
Then the next two verses describe how John the Baptist is thrown in prison. He is incarcerated because he’s speaking truth to power and rebuking the evil ways of the king. This was specifically related to the king’s exploitation of the poor and brutal repression of any serious dissent.
When Jesus shows up to be baptized, in this version of the story, John is already in prison. So the stakes are clearly high for anyone following in John’s footsteps. This doesn’t deter Jesus though, and he is baptized and then the Holy Spirit descends and God speaks. “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
One biblical scholar [Roy Harrisville] notes, “Jesus’ identity is confirmed by this event when the voice from heaven marks him out as not only a person of great worth and note, but as the very offspring of God. Such titles belonged only to men of great renown such as the emperor Tiberius who had the title “Son of the divine Augustus” placed on his coins. For a commoner from Galilee to receive such a title from such a source is beyond credulity”
Another Holy Spirit subversion, a radical reversal. In this season of Epiphany let us remember that the Holy Spirit is here among. Let us also remember that we are God’s beloved children. These were the ordaining words to Jesus—You are beloved. It is deeply significant when God’s voice spoke directly from heaven, not mediated through an angel or dream, that God’s words were “you are beloved.” This is the starting point as we discern the Spirit and act in the world. Our belovedness makes us bold, not the other way around.
As God’s beloveds when has the Holy Spirit, Divine Mystery, shown up in our meetings and relationships and actions in the world? When have you been given the words you didn’t otherwise have? When did you act with a courage you didn’t know was within you? When has your contemplative practice spurred you to deeper solidarity?
I want us to tell these stories, because I know they are there. Sharing stories such as these reminds us that the Spirit is active and that transformation is possible. Sharing these stories illuminates the radical reversals that are still happening today. Sharing these stories reminds us that we have a powerful testimony. As Anabaptists this kind of subversive, Spirit-led action is in our spiritual DNA.
You are God’s beloved. As the poet Rilke says, “We are cradled close in God’s hands and lavishly flung forth.” In this season of Epiphany and Carnival, may the Spirit illuminate our path. And may we allow ourselves to be lavishly flung forth like glitter released from the hand of God. Amen.