The Wildness of God


Sermon for January 10 and 11, 2014, 1B Epiphany, by the Rev. Martha Kirkpatrick, Rector, St. Barnabas’ Episcopal Church. 

The Wildness of God

Do you get the picture here? “The earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” “A formless void.” Tohu va vohu” is the Hebrew. Tohu, translated “chaos” is an attested word, appearing many times. “va vohu” is not. It appears no where else. A made-up phrase, a Hebrew wordplay, alliterative. “And the earth was “chaos schmaos”! Do you get the picture? The psalmist cries “The God of glory thunders … the voice of The Lord breaks the cedar trees,” 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.” Jesus’ baptism takes place outside the temple, in the wilderness: “And just as he was coming out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending…” Do you get the picture?

This season of Epiphany we look for how God is made manifest, how God reveals Godself. Today’s picture is of the Holy Spirit wild and untamed, blowing where it will. We see this from the beginning of God’s creating. We see it in the psalmist awestruck in the presence of God sweeping through the natural world. And we see John baptizing not in the temple but in the wilderness. Jesus is baptized and the heavens don’t just open, they are “torn apart.” God rips open the heavens to get to God’s son, to get the people God loves, because God cannot stand the separation any longer.

Crash helmets and life preservers

The writer Annie Dillard has famously said: “On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.”

This wild God. This wild God that we would tame. With our rules and our procedures and our nice correct postures. Babies be quiet please. We, the church, would take a ritual executed in the wilderness, outside the temple and its constraints, “with God’s ripping apart the heavens to get to God’s son, to get to God’s people God loves, and create restrictions.” Tame it down, domesticate this encounter.

All movements toward baptism are inspired by the Holy Spirit. “Inspired” meaning meaning divine live breathed into us. In the church order of things some few of us are given authority to do the actual baptizing, but it is not ours to control. It is a public rite, done in community, in which the whole community participates. All four gospels quote Isaiah and say “prepare a way for God in the wilderness.” What this might look like is open ourselves to the in-breaking of God. To trust that God appears in unexpected times and places. To know that our practices and rituals are not for practices’ sake but to bring ourselves into God’s presence, to express our intention to be in God’s presence, to live faithful lives, and receive the blessing, as Jesus did when he went to John to be baptized. And who knows what that’s going to look like, when the Holy Spirit blows through our lives.

But this wildness is scary, isn’t it? Who knows what can happen. Of course we would try to tame the chaos, avoid the wilderness. Wildness and chaos break into our carefully ordered lives, sometimes in devastating and horrible ways. Even while we attempt to develop and tame every square inch of the planet, the chaos breaks in. Maybe in the form of the perfect storm that flattens areas of the coast. Or maybe unspeakable violence, a world where the unfathomable happens, even in Paris. People who would “break in” and do such violence to others in the name of God.

Our response to chaos

What is our response to this kind of chaos? First, to know that this is claimed to be in the name of God is not God. Because God’s in-breaking is not necessarily the absence of conflict, but it is always about love. Our work is to be intentional about responding out of love rather than fear. When faced with a dilemma that may be a helpful question to ask: what is a response out of fear and what is a response out of love? It may be response of love is to say “Je Suis Charlie.” Said in love and solidarity and courage. A response of love knows the difference between Islam and the violent acts of a few radical extremists looking for a reason to hate.

What is our response? Today instead of the Nicene Creed we will renew our Baptismal vows.Look at those vows again and see how they guide us in our response to God’s in-breaking, and in the heartbreak and chaos of the world. First note that, as with the Nicene Creed, the Baptismal vow begins with “I believe.” But know that this is the Latin word “credo,” which is not so much a mental assent as it is a giving of the heart. A more accurate translation would be “we give our hearts to.” The life of faith is a movement of the heart. We give our hearts to God, to Jesus, to the Holy Spirit. We commit to living in love rather than in fear. We commit ourselves to the apostles teaching, fellowship, and prayer. Like those baptized in the reading from Acts, we realize we are always on a path to greater wisdom, that we never have all the answers, that the Holy Spirit is always inviting us into new and deeper ways of knowing. We commit to persevering in resisting evil, and to proclaim the love of God. To strive for justice and peace, to love our neighbor as ourselves, and to respect the dignity of every human being. it’s all there.

As a baptized community of faith, we respond in confidence that acts of terror are not from God, and also are not beyond the reach of God. The reading from Genesis reminds us that God is to be found in the darkness as well as the light. That God can bring — and is bringing — all things to God’s good purposes, even when we can’t see it. We express our desire that God put us to good use in bringing forth God’s kingdom of love on earth, and the courage to do so. God’s in-breaking can startle us, surprise us, discomfit us, even scare us. It can challenge what we think we know. Our response is not to cloak ourselves in comforts and safety but to open our hearts. The movement of the Holy Spirit, however it blows where it will, is always to welcome the outsider, to break down barriers that would separate people, it is always a movement of love, this is how we know it. It breaks open our hearts.

Please turn in your prayer books to page 304 and join with me in renewing our baptismal vows. And as we do this I invite you to say “I give my heart to.”

Please stand.

Do you give your heart to God the Father?
I give my heart to God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.

Do you give your heart to Jesus Christ, the Son of God?
I give my heart to Jesus Christ, his only son, our Lord. He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried. He descended to the dead. On the third day he rose again. He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again to judge the living and the dead.

Do you give your heart to the Holy Spirit?
I give my heart to the Holy Spirit, the holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.

Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?
I will, with God’s help.

Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to The Lord?
I will, with God’s help.

Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?
I will, with God’s help.

Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourelf?
I will, with God’s help.

Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?
I will, with God’s help.