Jesus is Calling; The Spirit Answers

Roman 8:15-17

For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship.

And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.

Now if we are children, then we are heirs–heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory. 

There’s a scene in the hit series on Netflix called Beef, where the main character, Danny Cho, played by Steven Yeun (that one Asian guy on Walking Dead – another great show) finds himself at a church. Now it’s the 3rd episode, after (I don’t think I’m spoiling it if you haven’t seen it) the 1st episode where we see him buying these hibachi grills at a hardware store to attempt suicide. 

Danny walks in the lobby as the worship leader is saying,

“God, we thank you for this Sunday. We thank you for inviting us here today to gather in your presence. We thank you for who you are and what you’ve done.”

As he clicks open the door into the chapel as the voice gets louder,

“Thank you for the cross. We thank you for Jesus.”

He walks in as he continues,

“Lord Father God we come to you.”

A pastor welcomes him, ushers him to a seat and he takes a seat as he notices others standing, some raising their hands, he decides to stand too. They begin singing softly,

“Are you hurting and broken within? Overwhelmed by the weight of your sin? Jesus is calling.”

And then the drums kick in

“Have you come to the end of yourself. Do you thirst for a drink from the well? Jesus is calling.”

And you can see Danny starting to feel stuff, his eyes watering. And it pours out, all that Danny has been holding, all that he’s struggling through, he lets it go as he stands there at a church during a praise song in a worship service. 

Has that ever happened to you? All that you’re holding in, released in the presence of others who are also there to feel God? When the lyrics of a praise song seem to hit you when you weren’t expecting at all. 

Praise songs are a weird powerful experience. They are prayers, often intimate, vulnerable. Mix that in with some beautiful vocals and drums man. That beat drops and I’m like oh crap, it’s about to get real. Jesus is knocking. And I’m not gonna be able to hold it together looking all cool at church. At some point last week, I was watching Bel play the drums. She was hovered over, hitting the beat with her whole body, consistent, dedicated, almost invitational. Like a friend who comes up to you at the dance floor with, “bring it in bring it in” energy and you have to step in. 

I love that about praise music and worship. What audacity it has to all of sudden ask me in a melodic trance,

“Are you hurting and broke within?”

“Have you come to the end of yourself?”

Who wrote this song and have you been following me around this week? How you gonna ask me that right here right now, in front of all these people? And just like Danny, you look around, we’re all standing there asking ourselves, asking God, asking together, asking one another, our hurts, our needs, our longing, our hearts for healing, love, and acceptance. And the song is telling you, Jesus is calling you into that. And you’re just like, “really? Jesus, are you for real?” What a sweet invitation, through music, to know that someone, Jesus is there calling you with father’s arms wide open, with forgiveness. 

This scene stood out to me because it was a familiar one. I had been there. After college, I was in San Francisco, working 80-90 hours a week, feeling burnt out and a bit lost too. Wondering what am I doing, who am I, and (after not having gone to church for a few years) I took myself to church one day. I can’t remember the songs from the day, it was actually the sermon that shifted me back to Jesus. So much so that I ended up here becoming a pastor, preaching to folks – but like the song in Beef, and like a song we sang last week or few weeks ago, words spoken at church seem to pierce me to the core of questions I had for myself. 

Like the song we sometimes sing here, it says

When I’m feeling low, and my heart is weak, I know you have the strength to carry me. When I’m broken down and I’m filled with grief. I know you’re far beyond what my mind conceives.”

And I remember when I would sing these songs, sometimes one line would so clearly speak to what I’m going through,

“feeling low and weak, broken down.”

but then sometimes I wasn’t sure,

“if you have the strength to carry me, and who is you, and are you even carrying me at all because I don’t feel carried at all to be honest.”

I remember I’d sing some lines and then have to pray during other lines of the song when they are all confident in their faith, assurance of God’s promises, I’d be muttering under my breath, prayers of questions,

“really Jesus? Are you there? Show yourself?”

I don’t know why we don’t have more praise songs like that. Questions rather than basking in the assurance like, “isn’t He wonderful?” And I’m standing there like “is He though?” But I guess that’s sometimes been the invitation for me. Someone else’s faith of assurance. Their confidence. Their witness and confession of what God has done for them and I wonder, could that be for me? 

Danny’s song would’ve done it for me too. Cause I was looking. I was looking for somebody to call me. 

There was a time when I really struggled with my identity. It was a combination of, not having the right job, so vocationally I felt lost, I had left church communities so I didn’t really have a “people.” I was in a new city with no family around, so lonely.

And as an Asian American immigrant, you kind of feel like, well you’re not Korean anymore, but also you’re not really accepted as an American. This feeling of estrangement and lack of belonging no matter where you go will mess with your head. I remember learning the word ladle in my 20s. My mom never called it that, obviously, growing up, she called it joo-guk. A simple small word that has such connection to a sense of home and comfort. But I didn’t really have any Korean friends, so I’d never say the word joo-guk. I learned it when I threw a MySpace Karaoke party for my birthday at the seminary and we were using upside down ladles as mics.  

As an immigrant, sometimes you really do feel like a motherless child. A stranger here. A stranger there. Never feeling like you’re home. 

Our scripture text today says that we are God’s children. That we have received the Spirit of sonship. Another manuscript says, the Spirit of adoption. Adoption. 

And if we have received the spirit of adoption, then, that means we are heirs. 

You see this is the crux of the gospel, the good news. That you are claimed as God’s own children. That you are loved and you belong. The gospel of adoption. No matter where you come from, what you’ve done, what you’ve left undone, what you’ve accomplished or haven’t accomplished. No matter where you were born, your nationality, your citizenship, or your race, you have been adopted into this family and you are God’s own beloved child. 

For me when I couldn’t figure out my job, when I was single feeling sorry for myself cause I didn’t have a boyfriend, when I didn’t feel Korean enough or American enough, it gave me ground to fall on to to know that God was my Abba Father. When I felt like I was flailing and I wasn’t sure of myself, I heard the gospel, the good news of Jesus saying to me, you’re mine. That’s what grounded me from falling away further into my own depth of despair and cynicism. And to hear this gospel, that when no one’s calling, Jesus is calling, I ate it up. I was falling and I needed it, so I fell into the hands of God. 

Here’s how Barbara Brown Taylor put it in her book, Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith (p.218)

 “If I had to name my disability, I would call it an unwillingness to fall. On the one hand, this is perfectly normal. I do not know anyone who likes to fall. But, on the other hand, this reluctance signals mistrust of the central truth of the Christian gospel: life springs from death, not only at the last but also in the many little deaths along the way. When everything you count on for protection has failed, the Divine Presence does not fail. The hands are still there–not promising to rescue, not promising to intervene–promising only to hold you no matter how far you fall. Ironically, those who try hardest not to fall learn this later than those who topple more easily. The ones who find their lives are the losers, while the winners come in last.”  

Maybe your disability is like hers, “an unwillingness to fall.” Maybe you have already figured out all the ways you will never fall and you’re so busy doing it that it’s keeping you utterly tired at the balance work of handling it all. Like Luisa from Encanto. Everyone depends on her. She’s the strong one in the family who has to carry the weight of it all. But she says,

Under the surface

I feel berserk as a tightrope walker in a three-ring circus

Under the surface

Was Hercules ever like, “Yo, I don’t wanna fight Cerberus?”

Under the surface

I’m pretty sure I’m worthless if I can’t be of service

I wonder for some of you, if under the surface, you feel like a tightrope walker in a stressful working environment. Under the surface, if you’re ever like,

Yo I don’t wanna go to work today.”

Under the surface, you wonder if you’re worthless if you don’t make this big sale or promotion or can’t save the entire school system. 

Jesus is calling. The miracle is you, not what gift you have, what you can achieve. Not how hard you work to provide for your family. You’re not just a useful mule. You are God’s child. Christ’s co-heir. 

Or maybe you have no problem falling, like me. Finding yourself falling, tripping over things, dropping things, forgetting things, burning things all the time. No, just me? Well, if that’s you, Jesus is calling. As you cry out, “Abba, Father,” remember so did Jesus on the cross in his suffering. 

Whether you are falling or climbing like your life depended on it, the crux of the problem is that we forget who we are. Who we truly are. 

I saw someone’s email signature that said, One who does not look back where they are from, will not arrive at their destination.” 

  • Who  are you?
  • Where are you from?
  • But even further, who created you and sustains you?

Don’t just look forward to what you need to do, want to do, but look back to what has already been done for you before you even knew anything at all. Which are the words to infant baptism liturgy,

“All this Jesus did for you, though you do not know it yet.”

As 1 John 4:19 says,

“We love because God first loved us.”

Do you know who you are? When Moana didn’t know who she was, you can see what pop culture I’m taking in these days with my four year old, yes it’s Moana and Encanto.

When she was hearing this inner calling from the sea, and with the encouragement from her crazy grandma, while her father was being protective and responsible even to not venture out, to do her duty to stay. She sought out for something deeper, something beyond.

She found a cave filled with old boats and sails and realized that her people were actually “voyagers!” And that sparked her and set her on a course to, I believe, to have faith in something beyond what she saw on her own island, and there she finds herself and sings, “I am Moana!”

People often try to find themselves in many things like, taking a pilgrimage to their homeland, or talking through their family systems and history in therapy, or taking a 23andMe DNA test. All of which I approve, maybe even recommend and probably will help a lot. It’ll give you extra pieces in putting yourself together. I’m not discounting those. I think history, science, and psychology are extremely important and helpful. 

But we are more than humans on this earth. We are spirits. We are souls. We are bodies on this earth and we are a spark of life in this universe.

  • What is that?
  • Who is that spark?
  • Who are you? 

In my own journey, one of my sparks in my own identity journey was, while I was in seminary, as I was looking back to through my own family through therapy, and through the societal landscape that I grew up in, and through Christian history that shaped my faith, I found something that deeply shifted the way that I saw myself in relation to God and Godself.

You see in my old testament class, as we were learning Hebrew, we excavated the roots of the Spirit through the scriptures. One of the gems, my Moana finding the boats in the cave moment, were learning about the Divine Wisdom in Proverbs and the word in Greek is Hagia Sophia and it was often referred to as “she”. As we looked deeper into this often personified Sophia, it was described as a “female expression of God.”

A female expression of God! Amidst all that I was unpacking about the world I lived in as a woman, how the society has treated me based on how I look or my sexuality rather than my thoughts or my words, as I was trying to reckon what it meant for me to be a daughter of God when everything I read only talked about sons, I went out of the doors of the seminary and yelled on top of that one balcony with the labyrinth

“There were feminine expressions of God! I am Lydia!” 

It felt like an answer to the calling. A calling from Jesus that sometimes I didn’t know how to relate to or answer based on all the readings, the theologies, the complicated church history. I mean the Nazi’s thought they were being Christian? Just to name one of tainted church histories. How do you reckon with that? The engagement with the Divine Wisdom, Sophia, a more personified feminine expression of God that felt at home. It resonated with me. It just hit different that’s all.  

For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption. And by her we cry, “Mama, Mother.” The Spirit herself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs–heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory. 

Okay these days, my kids are seriously so stuck on me, Umma! Umma! Umma! Constantly! I’m sorry I’m not discounting dads, but come on, the babies literally lived in my belly for nine months, inside me and I nursed them and fed them with my body. That’s some serious connection and bonding. 

That kind of bonding with God? Again, Abba Father is cool, I love my Dad. Jesus, super cool, a personified visible revelation of God in real life history that walked this earth. Jesus absolutely had an impact on me, as I heard the Bible story of Jesus calling the woman with the alabaster jar, defending her before Pharisees, saying,

“Don’t you see how much she loves me!”

Jesus claimed me as his own through that story. That’s a fact. And the presence of the Holy Spirit, that the Bible describes this Sophia as a shelter, a healer, a comforter, like the comfort of my umma, who rocked me when I cried, who fed me seaweed wrapped rice from hand into my mouth when I was hungry, A God who feeds me.

I felt held, known. Yes, I am her child, I could say, I know her embrace, I know her. And surely she knows me in all my femininity, girliness, and womanhood that had come to dictate my identity. And all that estrangement of myself, finding myself as the Other in this world, I found myself at the presence of God calling, God, Umma! Umma! Umma! 

Finding yourself. Finding God. And then finding yourself in God, in relation to God, finding yourself in the beholding of the greatest all encompassing unconditional love of God, is like the most precious and beautiful and most worthwhile thing ever. Once you do that, you can do anything. 

Richard Rohr in his book Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer says this:

“Our first job is to see correctly who we are, and then to do it. That will probably take more courage than to be Mother Teresa. To be really faithful to that truth is utterly difficult and takes immense courage and humility. We have neglected the more basic and universal biblical theme of “personal calling” in favor of priestly and religious vocations. The most courageous thing we will ever do is to bear humbly the mystery of our own reality. That is everybody’s greatest cross.” 

(p.84)

God’s calling is not just a calling to priestly and religious vocation as Rohr says. And it’s not even a vocation. It’s a calling to love. It’s not come here and be this or do that. It’s come here, let me hold you, I love you. Friends, May you experience and know that kind of love from Creator Father Mother God, Savior and Friend, Brother/Co-heir Jesus, and Comforter Healer Holy Spirit Sophia. 

Holy Spirit as Chi: Understanding The Holy Spirit in a Global Context

Acts 1:1-21

Pentecost

2 When Pentecost Day arrived, they were all together in one place. 

Suddenly a sound from heaven like the howling of a fierce wind filled the entire house where they were sitting.

3 They saw what seemed to be individual flames of fire alighting on each one of them.

4 They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them to speak.

5 There were pious Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem.

6 When they heard this sound, a crowd gathered. They were mystified because everyone heard them speaking in their native languages.

7 They were surprised and amazed, saying, “Look, aren’t all the people who are speaking Galileans, every one of them?

8 How then can each of us hear them speaking in our native language?

9 Parthians, Medes, and Elamites; as well as residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia,

10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the regions of Libya bordering Cyrene; and visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism),

11 Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the mighty works of God in our own languages!”

12 They were all surprised and bewildered. Some asked each other, “What does this mean?”

13 Others jeered at them, saying, “They’re full of new wine!”

14 Peter stood with the other eleven apostles. He raised his voice and declared, “Judeans and everyone living in Jerusalem! Know this! Listen carefully to my words!

15 These people aren’t drunk, as you suspect; after all, it’s only nine o’clock in the morning!

16 Rather, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:

17 In the last days, God says,

I will pour out my Spirit on all people.

    Your sons and daughters will prophesy.

    Your young will see visions.

    Your elders will dream dreams.

18     Even upon my servants, men and women,

        I will pour out my Spirit in those days,

        and they will prophesy.

19 I will cause wonders to occur in the heavens above

    and signs on the earth below,

        blood and fire and a cloud of smoke.

20 The sun will be changed into darkness,

    and the moon will be changed into blood,

        before the great and spectacular day of the Lord comes.

21 And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.[a]

Let me pray for us. 

Holy and Loving God, we give you thanks for bringing us here today. However we find ourselves this morning, whether we’re worried about something, anxious, excited, or sad or apathetic, we believe that you meet us here, right exactly where we are. And that you meet us with the exact measure of grace and mercy as we need it. So would you help us to know that, to feel that, that you move toward us and surround us with your presence and love right now, as we listen and speak into the word. Reveal to us, through your Holy Spirit. Amen. 

My talk today has a really long title. It’s called, “Holy Spirit as Chi: Understanding the Holy Spirit in a global context” It’s inspired by a book by a Korean-American theologian named Grace Ji-Sun Kim, titled Reimagining Spirit: Wind, Breath, and Vibration. 

The Holy Spirit has always been a little left out of the Trinity throughout history. Christians believe in a Triune God, God the Creator, Jesus the Redeemer, and the Holy Spirit, three in one. It’s really hard to explain. It’s a mystery. Christians are monotheiest, meaning they believe in one God, but this one God has three “persons” that are interdependent and in interplay with one another. Some say the creation came to be out of the overflow of love out of trinity. Some try to describe it by saying it’s like three different forms of water, like God is ice, Jesus is water, and Holy Spirit is vapor. But even when it’s always been kind of tricky to explain this Holy Trinity, Christians time and time again have come back to this language to describe God because it is central to everything we believe. But like I said, Holy Spirit always kind of gets the backseat. It’s easier to explain God and Jesus and Holy Spirit is, it’s like this thing. It doesn’t even get as much airtime in all of Christian podcasts combined I bet. 

They actually struggled with this in the 3rd century. There were heresies like that the trinity was hierarchical, God was here, Jesus middle, and Holy Spirit at the bottom, called the heresy of Subordination. And actually a whole slew of heresies surrounding the trinity came up again and again. And every time they settled, “hey Holy Spirit is a person too!” Why? Why did the early church, in light of God and Jesus always keep the Holy Spirit in the mix, even when it was confusing and even cause for muddling of their beliefs? 

Well, so let’s talk about the Holy Spirit today. What is it? How can we understand it better? How can it help us understand God and how God works in our lives? And you know what’s a good way to talk about the Holy Spirit? Metaphor! Sorry that was a little inside joke for the weekly attenders because last week I mentioned how every time I preach, I’m just like, “hey it’s a metaphor.” But hey, that’s what we’ve got with God-talk things. And Jesus always spoke in parables. Which parables and metaphors are not JUST a symbol of the real thing, but a thing that reveals the “real thing” sometimes in a more accurate manner than simply defining it. 

Jesus spoke in parables because it was truth set in context. Truth about God told in their own languages, about farming, oil candles, and brides. God-talk, religion, is always like this. It’s always set in context. Out of context, nothing makes sense. We understand one another more often than not because of some kind of shared context. Let me give you an example. 

When I first started learning English, learning idioms was the most difficult thing. That and culture. It made no sense to me to hear that, “it’s raining cats and dogs.” There wasn’t a good explanation for that idiom. I just had to keep living and speak English to understand it. And culture. I didn’t understand, growing up, why The Simpsons was such a funny or great show because even though I knew English, I generally didn’t understand the show. Jeopardy intimidated me, not because I wasn’t smart, because I knew I was smart, but I was just simply left out of the inside joke, or inside knowledge.

I didn’t get the references. After learning English at my grade level proficiency, you know what I did to become “more American?” I read and memorized the Trivia Pursuit that we picked up from a garage sale. Q: What painter is most famous for his series of water lilies? Q: Who played Sally Rogers in the Dick Van Dyke Show? Every card I flipped made me feel more American. 

Okay, why am I going on about this? I have a point I swear. I’ll get to what Holy Spirit is soon. 

Here’s why I’m giving you all this context to talk about the Holy Spirit. Dr. Kim in the book I mentioned says this:

“These debates (about trinity and the Holy Spirit) were largely grounded on Greek philosophy, and they relied on these categories to debate, discuss, and learn about God. This continued into the Medieval period and through the Reformation. European influence has dominated all Western discourse about the nature of God and theTrinity for two millennia. Take the phrase, the “absolute dependence on God,” coined by Friedrick Schleiermacher (1768-1834). It makes sense in a Eurocentric theology, but less so for African or Asian theologies. For example, in Asia, where there is heavy influence and practice of Buddhism, one practices ‘emptying’ rather than ‘dependence’. Schleiermacher’s way of thinking does not resonate or appeal to this Asian ideology as effectively as it may for the European mind. Euro-theology has shaped and molded Christian thinking for the past two thousand years. It’s difficult to shake off this kind of thinking or to allow different types of thinking to have any kind of prominence. Christian theology has too often been an  exclusive club for white, male, European theologians, without the necessary inclusion of minority voices and representation.”

When a person of color says things like this I think, it’s not anything against Europeans. I think Euro-centric thinking has contributed so much to christian theology. It’s “yes, and.” Yes, and. 

Conversations like this also unveil the fact that the American Christianity that many if not most of you have heard about or been in and around, is set in a particular context. One of the first things I learned in seminary that really blew my mind is postmodernism. A fancy way of saying bluntly a really harsh truth that: “there is no objective reality.” And not even in christianity.

There is no objective way to say something. Everything we say about God is set in context. There’s another fancy word that’s used in theology, sitz im leben, which is German for “setting in life.” This phrase was so central, I swear, everytime I had a test question that I wasn’t sure about in seminary, when in doubt, I mentioned this phrase and I probably got the test question right. 

It means that we need to distill everything we hear and learn through their sitz im leben, and then contextualize it to our own setting in life. How do we do that? Well, it’s hard. But there is so much that’s revealed in cross-cultural endeavors that many mono-cultured folks can’t help but have a need for backpacking trips through southeast Asia. It means that when you talk to someone from another country, the conversation slows down, not because they are slow, but because you’re in two different contexts.

You have to listen to things being explained like,

“In my country people….”

For me, being bi-cultural, American and Korean, has helped me so much in understanding Christianity and faith, something about the crossing of worlds between the ancient near east world of Jesus’ time and today’s world. That’s why there’s so many different translations of the Bible. And it can be said, they are all right.

So let me get to my translation of the Holy Spirit in my setting in life that has made a difference in my life. And for me to share it, is not a departure from scripture or “traditional” theology of the spirit because it is the spirit who lives and breathes through me that has given me this thinking. To see the Holy Spirit as Chi, which is the Chinese word for a kind of energy that flows through all of life, may feel like a jump to some but it feels like home for me.

I’m not Chinese but Chinese and Korean share a lot of history, they’re right next to each other. The Korean word would be Gi, but I just used Chi because more Americans are more familiar with Chi than Gi. See, I have to over explain. Asian American theologian Dr. Grace Ji-Sun Kim has helped me widen my theology. She talked about learning about the Holy Spirit through indiginous shamanism and through the understanding of vibration in science. She gave me permission to widen the box that God was in, that seemed to be bulging out at weird places and not working out for me. 

And actually many people of color, and also many white people these days are decolonizing faith. That just means that they are unpacking faith, translating it for themselves, making it their own. Even European missionaries have come to realize this, that when the local indigenous people embrace Christianity with and through their already existing ideologies and cultures, rather than a complete do-over, it tends to “stick” more. I do believe that this is what happened in the Bible text that I read today about Pentecost. That’s what the power of the Holy Spirit does. It speaks to each of us in our own language. 

The Spirit knows no bounds, no language, no culture. It moves in and through it all. And I’d like to point out that it makes it look like you’re doing something crazy. 

Have you felt this way, for some of us who have been beginning to decolonize your faith? Others think you’re crazy. Concerned that you’re moving away from the faith. That you’re drunk on wine at 9am in the morning. What, women can be pastors? Gay people can be pastors? What!? 

Christianity, I have something to say to you. This is how you survive the pluralistic postmodern world. We have to understand God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit in the global context. Let the Spirit speak through all different languages just as it did on that FIRST day after Jesus ascended into heaven, Chapter 2 of Acts, the book that accounts the early history of the church. It’s not as much,

“get with the program”

as much as

“Let’s start at the beginning. A very good place to start.”

when the Spirit of God first blew through that room. 

Do you know how good it feels to get the reference? Something that is familiar. That you resonate with. They did this in classical music, which is euro-centric but really a brilliant time period and place of a music genre. Composers will use a formula that worked so well. At the beginning of a song they will introduce a very simple melody line. And then throughout the course of the song Mozart would play variations of that line, faster, slower, in a different key, but the best part is when that melody line comes back in the pure form, and you recognize it, that’s when the audience ears perk up, and they smile, and relax, and enjoy and feel a kind of resolution, and it stays with them, that original line. 

Seeing the Holy Spirit as Chi felt like that for me. The metaphors that worked at one time but failed to hold up at times – Greek philosophy, legal terms (think Calvin/reformation), and so on suddenly settled into my heart, mind, body, and soul like never before.

The Old Testament referred to the Spirit as Ruach, breath of God, and in the New Testament as pneuma, great metaphors of the life force in nature. Yes, And. Here’s what Dr. Kim said,

“An understanding of the association of chi with the Holy Spirit or identification of chi as the Holy Spirit enables us to learn that chi is divine and is the true healer of bodies. Chi has been and is continually being used in healing. Chinese emperors, philosophers, and physicians have understood healing with the movement of chi in the body. Most believed that illnesses occurred when one’s chi is blocked and therefore it was important to redirect the chi to flow within the body. In traditional Korean practice, these beliefs are still held. Hence the understanding of chi is fundamental to healing oneself.”

And what I needed wasn’t understanding but healing.

When I read Afrian-American Theologians like James Cone, in his beautiful beautiful book “The Cross and the Lynching Tree,” it would speak to me that what I needed wasn’t a savior but a liberator. 

Maybe the Holy Spirit as Chi speaks to some of you in your own language. Or maybe some of you are like, Lydia’s drunk on wine and it’s only 10 am in the morning. But that’s why I speak up, as jumbled as my words get sometimes. As illogical, incomprehensible, and nonsensical I feel sometimes. I hope it’s recognizable to at least a few of you. Because I also know how it feels to be the person who never got the reference. 

Whenever someone says anything in our church at Reservoir I hope, we say to ourselves.

“How then can each of us hear them speaking in our native language? American, Chinese, and Korean; as well as residents of South America, Chile, Argentina, and Brazil, Africa, Mali, Liberia, and Ghana, Haiti and Caribbean Islands, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the regions of Mexico bordering Texas; and visitors from India, and indigenous people, and Millenials, Gen Z, those who are on the autism spectrum, who struggle with anxiety and depression, who are differently abled, rich, poor, barely middle class, different gender identities—we hear them declaring the mighty works of God in our own languages!”

They were all surprised and bewildered. Some asked each other,

“What does this mean?” 

I pray that we continue to get surprised and bewildered, asking again and again,

“What does this mean?”

together. Let me pray for us. 

Healing Spirit, that is always continually moving in and through us, reveal to us the power of your love and peace that surpasses all understanding, one that speaks specifically and uniquely to each of our understanding and being. Thank you for ever present power of the Holy Spirit, that greets us and meets us wherever we are, wherever we’re from, wherever we’re going. You are faithful. You are love. Help us know receive you we pray. Amen. 

 

 

Where is God When We Suffer? And Where Does that Leave Us?

For this week’s Events and Happenings, click “Download PDF” to view.

For this week’s Spiritual Practice on grief through Lamentations, click HERE.

To watch our worship service and hear this sermon, click the YOUTUBE link above.

 

Hi, Friends, let me start with two short readings from the Bible’s little letter called Philippians.

Philippians 2:5-11 (NRSV)

5 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

6 who, though he was in the form of God,

    did not regard equality with God

    as something to be exploited,

7 but emptied himself,

    taking the form of a slave,

    being born in human likeness.

And being found in human form,

8     he humbled himself

    and became obedient to the point of death—

    even death on a cross.

9 Therefore God also highly exalted him

    and gave him the name

    that is above every name,

10 so that at the name of Jesus

    every knee should bend,

    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

11 and every tongue should confess

    that Jesus Christ is Lord,

    to the glory of God the Father.

 

Philippians 4:11b-13 (NRSV)

I have learned to be content with whatever I have. 12 I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. 13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me.

One night last month, I stood outside the state house as one of the marshalls for an encampment for immigrant rights. There were maybe 30, 40 people living round the clock in tents on the steps of the state house, seeking access to drivers licenses for all Mass immigrants, documented or not. I didn’t fit in very well. The folks at the encampment were pretty much all either radical young white leftists from Western Mass. Or Brazilian members of an immigrant rights collective. And they didn’t really need me at all. There were several marshalls signed up to keep an eye on passersby and safety. I didn’t have much of anything to do, so I stood there, or sometimes sat by myself thinking, praying, spacing out as I stared at the moon rising over the Boston Common.

 

But for a while, an 8-year old kid pulled up a chair next to me and started talking. He said he’d been living at the encampment for a few days with his sister and his mom, who was watching us. I couldn’t understand everything he said because we were sitting a few feet apart and we were both wearing masks – well, he was mainly wearing a mask. But we talked about his 

favorite video games: Mario Cart, which I play sometimes, and Fortnight, which I’ve never played. He had a lot to say about Chuck-E-Cheese, which seemed normal for an 8-year old but then he kept telling some kind of a story about someone that got killed there at night but if you had a rifle or a pistol, you’re OK. And I didn’t know if he was talking about Chuck-E-Cheese or video games anymore, which was weird. He had a lot to say about his favorite subject, which was math, and I told him a couple tricks about times tables, which he said he was going to learn next year. He also told me about his little sister too, who I saw, and the baby brother he was going to have but who died right after he was born. And then his Mom came up to take him to bed, and between us, there was a language barrier, but I thought: what happens if we don’t get this drivers’ license bill passed? Is his mom here advocating for others, or is she undocumented herself? And what if his mom at some point ends up in detention for failing to use her signal at a traffic light or getting rear-ended by another car – stuff that pretty much every Boston driver knows well. And if not her, it’ll be another family somewhere else, with another weird and sweet and amazing 8-year old kid. And after me and the 8-year old and his family parted ways, I thought, My God, where are you?

 

Grace and I ask that question now and then this year. Actually, to be totally honest, it’s not just this year, but a lot of years. If you have kids or love anyone’s kids, you know that they stir love and pride and joy in you like little else can. But you also know that when you love kids, part of your heart is ripped out of your body and lives inside someone else. So that when they suffer or lose or have heartbreak, you have it too. This has been a year of loss and heartbreak all around, but certainly for kids, and whatever you think about all the debates and decisions around school/not school this year, there looks like there’s plenty more loss and heartbreak ahead, and sometimes Grace and I as parents find ourselves wondering, God, where are you? What are you doing, God? 

 

It gets murky to us sometimes, but the New Testament is actually super-clear on where God is and what God is doing. God is with us. God is especially with those of us who are most diminished and degraded. And God is suffering, just as God is coming alongside those who suffer. 

 

Jesus was not raised among the urban elite, but in a nothing of backwater small town. Jesus was born not as a self-sufficient independent grownup, but as a vulnerable infant. Jesus didn’t have access to means and privilege and networks; he was a peasant commoner. One of Jesus’ nicknames was “Man of Sorrows.” What a title to have, right? When they’re not calling me “friend of sinners,” they call me the “man of sorrows.” What kind of person would have those nicknames?

 

And here we read that Jesus was empty, humble, dying, not just a human, but a slave human. For a country that’s still only just coming to grips with a 250-year history of brutal, violent, racist enslaving of human beings, this is a hard, bracing word – to read that Jesus the Son of God was also a slave.

 

This was also not just a metaphor or turn of phrase for the first readers of this letter. Every Roman city, and every early Roman house church had actual slaves in it. And so for slaves and slave owners and all the other bystanders, to be told by Paul – this faith leader – that Jesus was a slave, and that he also was Lord, Master, this title given to the Roman emperor, well that would have busted open all of what they thought they knew about how the world worked. Jesus, the God and human, the slave and master, the nothing, the degraded one, and the everything, the exalted one. 

 

What did this tell them about themselves and about God? What does it tell us about ourselves and about God?

 

Much more than I yet understand, but three things I know.

 

This tells us what God is, it tells us where God is, and it tells how God is.

 

WHAT

For millennia, in the ancient world and in more recent times, thinking and writing about God, and organizing and talking about religion, was in the hands of the global elite. The literate, the powerful, the winners whole write history. God has been used to justify the status quo. The maker made things as they are, so accept them. And God has been assumed to be all-powerful, in the ways that people understand and practice power. God can and does do everything God wants, so if someone is suffering, likely it is God’s will. If God hasn’t fixed a problem, then the people involved don’t have enough faith, or it’s a problem God doesn’t want to fix. 

 

But with Jesus’ followers, it was different. First, ordinary people wrestled with who Jesus was. They decided their experience of Jesus only made sense if he was both the ideal human and God in the flesh, full God, full human. And then they started wondering what this showed them about God, if Jesus was the most perfect picture of God the world has ever seen. 

 

And they realized God’s power is not what we thought it was. God is not just a bigger, stronger, more controlling version of the powers of this world. God’s power is fully consistent with God’s nature as love, which means God doesn’t manipulate and control. And God’s power is fully consistent with A God who could divest rights and control, a God who could empty oneself in love towards others, a God who could be a baby, a God who could be a slave.

 

This means God doesn’t control or choose all things. There are other forces in the universe – like you and me, and gravity, and the Jet stream, and accusing, bullying people and systems and voices, and the mysterious workings of quantum mechanics. Lots of stuff happens in the world, for lots of reasons, and it is not all God’s will. 

 

But God is also never absent. God is always present as a powerful person and force of healing love. Even if God doesn’t always immediately get God’s way, God is always there. And God is always there as a healing, loving, liberating, strengthening presence. As a God who has died and has risen.

 

That is what God is. 

 

WHERE

That’s what, now the where. 

 

The simple answer is that God is where people suffer most. Now, I think God is with all of us, and we’ll end today’s time with that. But I’d be unfaithful to the Bible and the best insights of modern theology if I didn’t say that God’s especially with people on the bottom of the human pyramid of privilege. God who became slave, God who was born vulnerable and poor, God who only knew life in the flesh as a brown-skinned, Middle Eastern, colonized working class Jew, rejected by the elites of his people, and killed by the state. That God is especially in solidarity with people more like that. 

 

This is why I try to do justice work by the way. I’ve been trying as an adult to learn something about solidarity, trying to learn to be where I can most find God. So hanging out with the 8-year old kid at the encampment, as he told me about his video games and his school, and his living and dead siblings and affection for Chuck E Cheese, well, I’m not there to do anything special for him. I’m out of my league there. If we get safety and justice and security for the Massachusetts families who watch our kids and clean our buildings and pick our crops and drive our ubers, it’s poor, but passionate and well-organized immigrants like that kid’s mom who’re doing the most of the work to get it done. And there are advocates and organizers in solidarity with them who know much more than I do about making change happen.

 

For me, though, to feel the tiniest bit of what this kid feels, seeing the tiniest bit of what he sees, I get to reorient my life and my heart a little bit to the vulnerable, but fierce love of God who is with him and his cause. 

 

Solidarity with God is kind of simple – if you want to find God, go to the unjust spaces. Go to the hurting spaces. When you have opportunity to be in relationship with injustice and suffering in others, don’t try to be an expert if you’re not. Certainly don’t try to be a savior. Be present. Be a friend. See what happens in you, see what you discover of God there. 

 

This by the way is a call for all of us, not just for those of us who are most wealthy, or most secure, or most privileged. I’ve learned from friends and from privilege and oppression, not-suffering and suffering are all intersectional. So just as there’s no way to wall ourselves off from suffering, no matter how rich or powerful we are, there’s also no place where we can be in life where we will encounter people and situations where the hurt and disempowerment in someone else is more vulnerable than ours – and we can move away or move in. But when we move in, when we’re present with empathy, we do what God does, and we go where God goes. 

 

Now of course, for those of us with some privilege, this is the exact opposite of what we learned to do as kids, what we’ve been told to do our whole lives! The American way the past few generations has been to buy our way out of lack, to move ourselves away from poverty, to associate with people as secure and privileged as ourselves.

 

But our attempts to avoid suffering and vulnerability haven’t set us up real well for this year, have they? Life will remind us again and again that we are vulnerable, and we’ll only be resilient, we’ll only have faith and capacity for joy and hope and love if we believe God can be with us in every vulnerability, so that we don’t have to avoid hard places. 

 

HOW

 

Which is HOW God is. God is with us. God is with us as the God who knows humiliation and suffering and vulnerability. And God is with us as the God who knows resurrection power from those places as well. God who sees us, who hears us, who loves to be with us, and is strong enough to help, to liberate. 

 

I was talking with one of you recently about your struggle to experience God with you in your work, and I realized I was being like a spiritual doctor. I gave a prescription to pray the old prayer of Saint Patrick for 21 days in a row. And I think I was prescribing this prayer, because it was a back door into Spirit of God prescribing it for me as well. 

 

Pastoring is like that sometimes to be honest. We find God’s word for ourselves as we’re listening for God’s word for others. It’s true. 

 

This prayer is a mystical, poetic stab at the radical heart of our faith. 

 

I arise today, through a mighty strength, remembering the Trinity, trusting the threeness, naming the oneness of the Creator. I arise today through the strength of every part of Christ’s life, which is both for me and is the pattern of my life as well. I arise today in the strength of everything God has done in our collective past, and everything God is upholding on this beautiful earth. Because I am one with Jesus, and Jesus and one with God, we are all connected. Everything that God is and has is connected to every part of me. This is the unity with God that baptism pictures. This is the unity with God that Jesus prays for us, that all of us will be connected to all of God. That all of God will be accessible to all of us. 

 

And so the prayer climaxes saying Christ is everywhere. Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ beside me, Christ within me… Christ in everyone…

 

I was drawn to Philippians this year at first, I think, because it’s so darn happy. Philippians is known as the letter of joy. It’s the most upbeat spot in the Bible, perhaps. 

 

But as I read Philippians again and again during the early days of a pandemic, I remembered that Paul wrote Philippians from prison. Prison is not a free and happy place. It’s the one place no one wants to go. And Paul knew that some of his first readers were slaves. Which arguably is one of only things that can happen to you in life that’s worse than prison. 

 

The peace and joy and freedom and strength of Philippians does not come from happy, easy, wealthy, feel-good times. It is pandemic reading. 

And yet, Paul insists that it is possible for the liberating, joyful, resurrection peace of Christ to replace anxiety at the center of our lives. And, as we read today, that we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. This is decidedly not about weight-lifting or getting a promotion. It’s about contentment It’s about joy while you’re in prison. It’s about the power of inner freedom, maybe the strength to find outer freedom, when you’re enslaved. It’s about joy and contentment even when you can’t leave your house, and people are getting sick. It’s about the possibility of the good life during a pandemic. 

 

Not because this isn’t hard. Not because we’d ever wish these conditions upon anyone, ourselves included. But because God is here. Christ is behind me, Christ is before me, Christ where we are hurting, Christ where we are dying, Christ where we are living. … not just me, but the whole human family, the whole earth. 

 

May it be. Amen.