The Scandal of Particularity

       I graduated from seminary fifteen years ago last month, which is really hard to believe.  Some days, it feels like a month ago; others, it feels like fifty years.  The hard truth of being fifteen years out of seminary is that I don’t really remember much of what I learned.  Between two kids, two jobs, the BP oil spill, a two-year pandemic, and the December 11th tornadoes, I’m lucky to know my name most days.  Still, there are a few things that have remained stuck in the cobwebs of my mind.  One of them came floating back to the forefront of my thoughts this week as I prayed through the Acts lesson preparing to preach.  It is called the Scandal of Particularity.  This is the notion of the absurdity that God would choose to enter humanity as a particular person, in a particular place, at a particular time, among a particular culture.  That the Second Person of the Trinity came to earth as a Jewish male, in first century Palestine, born to working class parents from a backwater town is, in many ways, a scandalous idea as it puts so many limitations on the God of the universe that it is nearly impossible to believe.

       Yet, we do believe it.  We believe it because Jesus claimed it.  Even when pressed by Philip to just show us the Father, Jesus says, with all the confidence of God in flesh, that if you have seen him, this shaggy bearded, rough handed, occasionally grumpy, wandering rabbi, you have seen the Father.  That’s all well and good, but the further you get, in both space and time, from Jesus and his disciples, the harder it is to wrap your head around this very particular person actually being God incarnate.  That’s why, forty days after Jesus was resurrected from the dead, his disciples pressed him even further.  “Lord, now that you have been raised from the dead, now that you’ve made your resurrected body known to many who already believed in you, now that you’ve escaped time and space only to return to it again, is now the time when you will finally restore the kingdom to Israel and set everything right?”  The disciples want to know, definitively, when all this particularity is going to go universal.  When will the heavens open and God’s reign finally be known upon the whole earth?

       What happens next, however, is more of the same.  The heavens are opened, but instead of God coming down to earth to fix everything humanity had messed up, Jesus is lifted up and seated at God’s right hand.  Like it was on Good Friday, the disciples are once again left alone to figure out how what they learned from Jesus is going to change the world.  Jesus had told them to wait, that someone else was coming who would empower them to take the Good News and share it beyond the particularity of Jerusalem to Judea, Samaria, and, ultimately, the ends of the earth.  For ten days they waited, they gathered in prayer, and they wondered, “what next?”  In the meantime, the city of Jerusalem began to swell with tourists.  Tens, if not hundreds of thousands, of the Jewish faithful came to celebrate the Pentecost Festival, an annual remembrance of the giving of the Law to Moses by the offering of the first fruits of the harvest to God at the Temple.

       The very ethnically Jewish city teemed with people from all kinds of different cultures.  Since the exile by the Assyrians in 733 BCE and exacerbated by the Babylonian exile in 597 and Roman occupation in 63 BCE, the Jewish diaspora had led to Hebrews living all over the known world.  They had intermarried, learned different languages, and settled into new cultures, even as they remained faithful to the Jewish traditions and festivals.  So it was that on the Pentecost, the fiftieth day after the Passover, faithful Jewish Parthians, Medes, Elamites, Mesopotamians, Judeans, Cappadocians, Pontins, Asians, Phrygians, Pamphylians, Egyptians, Libyans, Romans, Cretans, and Arabs were all in the holy city of Jerusalem when the Holy Spirit descended upon the Apostles and caused the Good News of God in Christ to move beyond its original, particular audience, to be heard by the whole world.

       The Spirit arrived with wind and flame, filling the house in which the disciples were holed up, and alighting on each of them, filling them to overflowing with the Holy Spirit: Advocate and Guide.   They began to speak, each in a language foreign to them, and tell the Good News.  What’s so awesome about this story is that even as the Church grew from 120 to thousands in a few hours, God’s affinity for the particularity of humanity never went away.  God didn’t make it such that everyone miraculously learned to understand Hebrew in order to join the Way of Jesus, but rather, God made the disciples each to speak the particular language of those gathered in the city to offer sacrifices.  With the help of the Holy Spirit, the Apostles spoke across lines that have divided humanity forever: language, culture, ethnicity, race, gender, and politics, while never asking anyone to give up who they were as human beings to follow Jesus.

       That’s not to say that following Jesus won’t change us.  God loves us just the way we are, but God loves us too much to leave us that way.  Following Jesus will require sacrifices as we listen for the Spirit’s guiding, seek to love our neighbors, and grow in compassion.  Following Jesus will not cause us to give up who we are as human beings, however.  Straight or gay.  Trans or cis gender.  Black, white, Hispanic, Arab, or Asian.  UK, UofL, or meet and right Bama fan.  The particularities of who you are in the fullness of being made in the image of God is welcome into the Body of Christ on Pentecost Day.  What’s more, God doesn’t just welcome each of us into the fold but goes so far as to invite us in the particular language and idioms with which we are most comfortable.  The Body of Christ truly is open to all flesh.

       As we celebrate the Day of Pentecost and enter the long season to follow, I invite you to listen to what the Spirit is saying to you?  Amidst the particularities of your own life, where is the Spirit inviting you to change and grow?  Whom is the Spirit asking you to know and to love?  What is the new thing that God is up to in your life and in the life of this particular community of faith called Christ Episcopal Church?  Listen carefully and hear what the Spirit is saying to God’s people.  Amen.

Our Common Humanity

As the news about the mass shooting at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando came upon me yesterday, I found myself caught short.  In a nation where these things seem to happen with great regularity, it is easy, eventually, to fail to see the death of 5 or 10 or even 50 people as anything other than “everyday life.”  For this sin of complacency, I continually ask God for forgiveness.  Still, there was something about the events in Pulse that made this one feel different.  My response wasn’t quite as visceral as the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, and yet there were some stark similarities for me.

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I came to understand this feeling deep within me with the help of a post my mother would later write on her Facebook feed.  My mother’s brother was a gay man who contract HIV in the early days of the AIDS epidemic.  He lived for probably twenty years with the disease when most others died within months.  As a result, my childhood is in many ways defined by the ongoing struggle in the gay community to find voice as well as safety.   I grew up on the periphery of the gay culture of the 80s and 90s, and I can still vividly recall overhearing stories that the grownups would tell of harassment, hatred, and even violence.  I remember how taken aback we all were when my uncle, who was fairly apolitical when it came to gay rights, focusing his attention instead on those marginalized because of HIV/AIDS, showed up a family holiday wearing a shirt like this one.

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I may not have understood it at the time, but these stories have framed the way in which I have experienced the ongoing struggle for equal rights in the LGBT community.  With those sorts of memories in the foundation of my life experience, perhaps it is no wonder that I can see the tie between the innocent slaughter of children at elementary school and the intentional killing of such a vulnerable group of people, targeted in a soft location, with few exits, by a man who was radicalized by Islam in much the way many have been radicalized against the LGBT community by Christianity.  Like those children in Sandy Hook, these beloved children of God at Pulse were sitting ducks.  In the midst of my reeling over the appalling details, I posted a short prayer.  It was all that I could muster:

That we might someday figure out how to respect the dignity of every human being; we pray to the Lord.

Many preachers came to the news of Pulse too late for it to inform their sermons yesterday.  I do not begrudge them not dealing with it in the homiletical exercise on short notice: the implications are too dicey to be handled with haste.  This Sunday, however, after a week of reflection, with the 24 hour news cycles repeating the story again and again and again, it would seem wise, perhaps, to engage with the portion of Paul’s letter to the Galatians appointed for Proper 7C.  In it, we read Paul’s famous words about our common humanity.

“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

As followers of Jesus, our task is to make these words of Paul a reality by living in such a way that declares that in Christ, there is no gay or straight, no black or white, no HIV+ or HIV-, but rather a common humanity, made holy and indivisible through the saving power of the incarnation.  In light of our common humanity, we show respect for the dignity of every human being: gay, straight, Muslim, Christian, male, female, black, white, ignorant, and learned. Or, more simply, as Jesus put it, quoting Leviticus 19, as Christians, we are called, above all to “love your neighbor as yourself.”

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