Sermon: Like a Dove

'Apapane in flight

January 13, 2019
First Sunday after the Epiphany

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

You know that I like birds. I should tell you, however, that I’m fairly realistic about birds, or at least I try to be. I don’t expect them to cooperate with me when I’m trying to take their pictures, and I don’t expect them to be happy when I come blundering along while they’re eating or bathing.

I got this exasperated look from a kolea the other day as I pulled into the lower parking lot. I was clearly interrupting his meal.

Some of that is the benefit of wisdom and learning, and some of it comes from an experience I had as a child. My family liked to visit Cape Cod, the long hook-shaped peninsula that wraps around Massachusetts Bay. It’s mostly sand, with dunes that pile up behind the beaches wearing their lei po’o of beach grass.

There are plenty of birds there, including thousands and thousands of seagulls.

On one trip, I found a nice dune to climb. Its sandy sides made a nice challenge for an eight-year-old. The way it slips, you get one step up for every three steps you make, so it was good fun. But at the top, there was a seagull rookery – lots of gulls, lots of nests, and apparently a good number of eggs to be protected.

When I raised my head over the lip of the dune, what I saw was the world’s biggest seagull flying straight for me, with a beak at least three feet long that would go right through my forehead.

I tumbled back down off that dune so fast and ran back to my parents. I don’t think I’ve climbed a dune without knowing what was at the top of it since.

So when I read the accounts of Jesus’ baptism, with the Holy Spirit descending on Jesus in the form of a dove, it’s not necessarily a peaceful picture. A dove is a lovely bird, but in the right circumstances, a dove can be mean.

So could Jesus. “Gentle Jesus, meek and mild,” said some harsh things to people. He flipped over tables in the Temple. He demanded a lot of his followers.

And so can the Holy Spirit.

Luke, curiously, actually didn’t describe Jesus’ baptism in his gospel. It’s easy to miss. Instead, he wrote, “Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying…” After the baptism: that’s when Luke took up the story. Why? Because that’s when the Holy Spirit descended, and for Luke the Holy Spirit gives the Church its character, its power, and its purpose. We are not merely a worshiping people, we are an in-Spirited people. We are inspired. We are impelled. We are empowered.

For Luke, it was significant that Jesus accepted baptism, that he participated in this humanity of ours that needs washing, that experiences all the dust and dirt of the world, that lives in uncertainty and confusion and needs refreshment and renewal. Jesus was baptized next to the people that we heard about a few weeks ago when we heard the sharp tongue of John the Baptist. He was baptized next to the people who could share with others and didn’t. He was baptized next to the tax collectors who grew rich by over-taxing their neighbors. He was baptized next to the soldiers who extorted money from those they were supposed to protect.

As Karoline Lewis writes, “For Luke, the ‘you’ to Jesus heralds the ‘you’ that God, in Jesus, says to all persons. Those persons we don’t see, easily pass by, and overlook. Those persons we don’t want to see.”

But for Luke, it was more significant that we Christians receive the Holy Spirit as Jesus did. We, like him, hear our summons by name. We, like him, hear the affirmation that we are beloved children of God. We, like him, feel the new energy and power. Then we, like him, go out and do the work.

Is that the dove that flutters down, and lands lightly on the shoulder? Or is that the dove whose feet scratch our skin and whose beak pecks at the ear? Is that the dove who beats at our head with its wings?

Or is that the dove flying straight at the bridge of our nose with the clear message to get down off the sand dune and go be somewhere else?

As C. S. Lewis wrote in God in the Dock, “Which of the religions of the world gives to its followers the greatest happiness? While it lasts, the religion of worshipping oneself is the best. I have an elderly acquaintance of about eighty, who has lived a life of unbroken selfishness and self-admiration from the earliest years, and is, more or less, I regret to say, one of the happiest men I know. From the moral point of view it is very difficult! I am not approaching the question from that angle. As you perhaps know, I haven’t always been a Christian. I didn’t go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.”

Lewis was right. Christianity looks a lot more like the beating of dove’s wings, like the sharp point of an oncoming dove’s beak.

It moves us. It drives us. It gets us tumbling back to where we belong. It gives us direction. It gives us inspiration. It even gives us, sometimes, ability which wasn’t there before.

I’ll put it right out there: when we were challenged to bring those meals to the shelters in HPP and Pahoa, did we think we could do it? Some of us, I know, thought we could have done it – if Margaret Torigoe had been healthy enough to do the organizing, or if Lily Inouye had been leading, and if Betty Pacheco had been cooking. We could have done it if Rev. Yamane had been there to inspire.

We wouldn’t have dared disappoint them.

We didn’t. We didn’t disappoint them.

The same Holy Spirit that guided and empowered them guided and empowered us. It didn’t make the work any easier. It’s still work. I still wonder if Millie Uchima or Ichiko Hisanaga had been with us, would a little ensemble have joined me when we brought some music with the meals?

But we didn’t disappoint them, either.

Nor will we.

Our next challenges, for us as a church and for us as individual Christians, lie ahead. Some are likely: we still have work to do on this island to assist those who lost homes and livelihoods to lava last summer. We still face finding places for those who are chronically homeless, and particularly those struggling with addiction and mental health crises. There are forces at work attempting to move homeless people away from the bayfront and downtown – but those forces aren’t offering places for them to go, long-term shelter where they can find help for recovery. We’ll probably be called to help.

There will be other things, too, and we don’t yet know what they are. As Melissa Bane Sevier writes, “…we have forgotten that purpose, or call, or vocation, is not a once-in-a-lifetime decision that determines everything you will do from now on. Purpose is something we strive for daily. What is God’s pull on me today? What will I do today to make a difference?

“Purpose is, in its simplest sense, is being in tune with both the world around you and God’s voice in it.”

If we’re fortunate and attentive, purpose will come with the whisper of a dove’s wings.

If we’re not so fortunate, or not paying attention, well, it might be a dove’s beak.

And there is a compensation. Remember the words of the Spirit that Jesus heard. “You are my Son, the Beloved; in you I am well pleased.” He heard them before he ever began his work.

Kathryn Matthews writes, “In his catechism, Luther wrote, ‘A truly Christian life is nothing else than a daily baptism once begun and ever to be continued.’ I think Martin Luther wanted us to remember each day who we are, and whose we are, and how beloved we are. Even in an age when we spend so much time talking about ‘self-esteem,’ don’t we still long to hear that we are beloved?”

And we do. Christians are not uniquely loved by God. God loves all Creation, all people, all creatures, all living things, all planets, all stars.

Christians, in receiving the Holy Spirit, know that they are loved. We hear the voice. We feel the embrace.

Even amidst the pecking of that persistent dove’s beak, we feel the feathers’ caress, and we know we are loved.

Descend, Holy Spirit. Move us from where we are to where we need to be. Descend, Holy Spirit. Let us know we are loved.


Listen to the Recorded Sermon

Like a Dove

Once again, we must admit that the recorded sermon does not match this prepared text. These things happen. Often.

Hearts, Hands, and Voices

Pastor Eric Anderson and his daughter Rebekah Anderson sang this song during worship this morning. “Hearts, Hands, and Voices” is copyright 1999 by Eric Anderson.

The picture of an oncoming ‘apapane (not a seagull) is by Eric Anderson.

Categories Sermons | Tags: , | Posted on January 13, 2019

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