Sunday, July 7, 2024

7 Pentecost, 2024-B: Ready, receptive, transformable

Note: You can watch this being delivered live at Emmanuel Episcopal Church during our Sunday, 10 am service of Holy Eucharist, live-streamed on our YouTube channel. The sermon begins at 27' 25"

Lectionary, Track 2: Ezekiel 2:1-5; Psalm 123; 2 Corinthians 12:2-10; Mark 6:1-13 

En el nombre de Dios, creador, redentor, y santificador. Amen.

I want to begin today with a discussion of one of my favorite saints: Hildegard of Bingen, who lived in the 12th century (1098-1179), so, the medieval era.

Hildegard was sickly from birth and throughout her life. If anyone knew weakness, it was Hildegard. Beginning from about the age of three, Hildegard began having visions. Though she was hesitant to share her visions, she eventually trusted someone enough and told them. This prompted the formation of a committee of theologians to authenticate her visions – which they did.

One of the things I love about Hildegard was how grounded she was in her faith. I can only imagine that this woman’s visions, and interpretations of those visions, were so quickly authenticated because her articulation of them was congruent with her Christian faith. This can be witnessed in her many writings.

Hildegard was a mystic. Her writings were prophetic, apocalyptic, theological, botanical, and medical. She was also a poet and composed music for her poetry. She was, in other words, a polymath, a female one no less, ahead of the Renaissance.

Hildegard described her visions as reflections/voice of the living light. The visions came as images which she then interpreted in words. She heard the voice of God not with her ears but in her spirit. Hildegard “saw” that within all creation is a Divine life force, the breath of God, ruach, as it is called in Genesis. This, she says, is why everything in creation reflects and glorifies God.

That same life force is in us like sap is in a tree. Without it we would die. By it, we have within us the ruach of the Divine who fills and transforms our bodies and spirits, connecting us to all creation and motivating us to nurture and care for ourselves, one another, and all of creation. As Hildegard said in her prayer: “O Holy Spirit, … you are the mighty way in which every thing that is in the heavens, on the earth, and under the earth, is penetrated with connectedness, is penetrated with relatedness.”

By observing nature around her, Hildegard “saw that there was a readiness in plants to receive the sun and to transform its light and warmth into energy and life.” Source. She called this process: viriditas (greening).

I would suggest that this is our faithful posture during this long, green season after Pentecost: to be ready, receptive, and transformable. It is also the theme of our Scripture readings today.

Let’s start with Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. This is Paul speaking about himself in the 3rd person. Was it false humility? It often is with Paul, but this time, I don’t think it was because this portion of his letter is so authentically mystical.

Paul talks about being caught up to the third heaven, a realm beyond human comprehension where God is fully present. What Paul is describing here is a unitive experience: complete connectedness, oneness with the Divine and all that is, where somehow the truth of all things is known.

When the experience ends and our mortal nature returns, we have no words to describe it. Paul said, he “heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat.” We couldn’t if we tried, but Paul, being Paul, is a Pharisee and so the words he can find to use are very rules-based.

Still, he manages to communicate a very, very important message from his experience. God said to Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”

Paul was not accustomed to being weak. He was an elite, wealthy, educated, religious authority with the power to hunt down and kill those he deemed to be heretics. But in this letter, we see that Paul was ready, receptive, and transformable. His acquiescence culminates in his effusive statement: “So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.”

How profound that is! We need to make room in ourselves for the power of Christ to dwell in us. Our hubris, our sense of self-sufficiency, our willingness to divide heaven and earth and relegate God’s power to the heavenly realm while we maintain power over the earthly realm - has to go!

Like Paul, we too, as a people, are unaccustomed to being weak. Our culture worships strength, even brutality, in sports, politics, and, sadly, religion.

Look around in the world as we have it today. Who is crying out “Have mercy upon us, O Lord, have mercy, for we have had more than enough of contempt, too much of the scorn of the indolent rich, and of the derision of the proud” as our psalmist says. Who are those voices among us now?

It is us. We are not disconnected from the families in Ukraine or the Middle East enduring war or from the families in our own city besieged by gun violence. We are connected to the descendants of slaves who continue to battle discrimination and enslavement through economic and political structures that exclude them and privatized prisons that profit from exiling them. We share a life force with the indigenous people who continue to live in imposed poverty and exile from their homelands. We are also one with those whose pride forbids acquiescence to true weakness, who squeeze God out because they don’t trust in the mercy, love, and power of God to transform.

In Ezekiel, we see how God responds when our hubris squeezes God out of our collective hearts. Ezekiel speaks of a God who cares so much about the people who, in return, care so little for God, themselves, or others. The people have become impudent, stubborn, and rebellious. In response, God reaches out to them through a person, Ezekiel, with a message. Hildegard might describe this as the life force of God reaching out through the prophet to renew the dying world. But be advised, God said, they are a rebellious people who may refuse to hear you.

This is similar to what Jesus tells the disciples when he sends them out. There may be some who won’t welcome you or your message. If that happens, Jesus says, don’t try to fix it or force it. Just leave and, as Taylor Swift would say, shake it off.

At our Bible study this week, one of our studiers suggested that Jesus took his disciples to his hometown on purpose, to show them, before he sent them, that even he wouldn’t always be welcomed, despite the many healings he’d already done. When our Scripture tells us that Jesus could do no deeds of power there, it wasn’t because his power was diminished but because the people were unwilling to receive from him. They were not ready, receptive, or transformable.

Jesus sends us now, with the same authority he gave the disciples, to heal the brokenness in our world. We, too, won’t always be welcomed and sometimes, we have to just shake it off. We aren’t sent with a scorecard to record our successes. We’re sent to bring the viriditas within us, the life force of God within us, to heal the world around us.

We often read these healing stories the way we watch movies like Harry Potter - like it’s a fantasy. Healing is magical and we don’t have magic.

Well, I’m here to tell you, yes we do! We have the power of God’s healing life force, viriditas, within us, and we’re already using it! 

When someone comes to us broken by grief, or insecurity, or fear and we comfort them or remind them of their worth, God has extended viriditas through us to them. When someone is wounded by racism, sexism, or homophobia and we work to transform the systems that oppress them, God has healed the world through us. When we sit with someone who just needs us to be present, without solving anything, God has extended the viriditas that is in us to them.

Some healing is physical, but it is also spiritual, emotional, and personal – and we know how to do it. We just have to wake up to the power of God’s viriditas in us and commit to go wherever and how-ever God sends us to heal the world, remembering what Julian of Norwich said, that “We are not just made by God. We are made of God.”.

I close with a prayer from Hildegard’s feast day, which is September 17. Let us pray. O God, by whose grace your servant Hildegard, kindled with the fire of your love, became a burning and shining light in your Church: Grant that we also may be aflame with the spirit of love and discipline, and walk before you as children of light; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

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