Aloha – A Good ‘good-bye’

This post is from a sermon by the Rev. Sabeth Fitzgibbons on Pentecost Sunday, May 15, 2016.  The readings were John 14: 8-17, 25-27, Acts 2:1-21, Psalm 104: 25-35, 37 and Romans 8: 14-17.

mosaic-409427_1920Jesus knows his disciples are upset by the idea of him leaving. We can almost hear the anxiety and fear in Philip’s voice when he asks Jesus, again, about seeing the Father.

We know that kind of anxiety and fear – in our every day personal lives, in our uncertain and chaotic world, and in our life as a community of faith. There are so many things we cannot control. Like Philip, we might like to pin Jesus down and say, “Show us that God is REAL, and we will be satisfied.” Then we will know everything will be okay.

Jesus answers us, in the same way he answered his disciples 2000 years ago: The Father will send the Holy Spirit in my name, to teach you everything and remind you of all that I have said. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. And it is not any peace like the world can give you. Finally, do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. That’s the heart of Jesus’ farewell discourse.

Jesus’ final farewell covers three significant points: he expresses gratitude, forgiveness, and encouragement.  Gratitude for their life together. Gratitude for the ministry they have shared, the meals they have shared, for the friendships that have developed walking along the road from one place to the next. He expresses forgiveness. Forgiveness for all the hurts left unacknowledged, the ones inflicted and the ones received. And encouragement for the next movement of life. All three of these things happen in John’s telling of the Last Supper and the teaching that accompany it. Today we celebrate, in the feast of Pentecost, the ultimate symbol of gratitude, forgiveness and encouragement – the Holy Spirit.

Sent by Jesus from the Father, the Spirit is to teach us and remind us, to comfort and encourage us, to be a companion and an advocate. In John, Jesus breathes this Spirit of God, this spirit of peace and courage on his disciples when he appears in the upper room the day of his resurrection. He appears there and he breathes the Spirit of God on them, and he says, “Peace be with you.” In Acts today, we read about the Spirit dramatically descending, giving the disciples power to speak the gospel in all the languages of the earth. So that everyone on earth can know the saving love of God through Jesus Christ.

Pentecost has a rich history. It is one of three major feast mentioned in the Old Testament that were feast days significant enough to require pilgrimage to Jerusalem. The other two are Passover and Sukkoth. Pentecost, meaning 50th day, and it is the 50th day after Passover. It is a festival to celebrate the first fruits of the harvest. Those first fruits, berries, those first grains are ready to harvest. This is the festival when we bring those before God and offer them to God in thanksgiving for the fullness of harvest that has already begun and the fullness of the harvest that is to come. This is a feast day for celebrating all that we have received and all that is to come.

In Acts, the disciples and many people of the known world are gathered in Jerusalem for just this feast day. The Spirit of God arrives with a great noise, and the world is never the same again. God’s people are changed. They are empowered and marked by God for something new. We can never be the same after we have encountered the Holy Spirit.

What that new thing will be, only God really knows – but the Spirit teaches, reminds and encourages us to continue to preach the gospel to the ends of the earth. The presence of the Spirit of God becomes a defining characteristic of God’s people, one that we celebrate in every baptism as we mark the newly baptized with oil, and we say, “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit, and marked as Christ’s own forever.” Every single one of us, in our baptism, received the mark of the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit ties our relationship to God, to all people, and to one another, forever. It makes us inseparable. It is a bond that cannot be broken. It is also a bond that demands that we respect and honor one another, and God, and ourselves – and that we do so with courage and integrity. Not as a matter of duty, but as a matter of living fully and deeply into ourselves and into the love of God.

And that’s where we come to what makes a good-bye good. As with many moments in life, we can choose how deeply to engage in a good-bye. A ‘good’ good-bye takes courage and integrity, because it requires a celebration of the breadth of a relationship – both the celebrations and the disappointments. And our hopes for a future that is not together. As Christians, we believe that we will see one another again, someday, in this life or in the next. And, yet, that doesn’t release us from the responsibility to say good-bye well.

In thinking about ‘good’ good-byes this week, I had some conversations with the Brewing Faith group, with my family and friends and colleagues. I even paid attention to the radio and tv, to see how we do good-byes in our culture. You might know that I am an English major originally, and I love the origins of words. Good-bye is a contraction of the phrase “God be with ye.” The original phrase “God be with ye” was a response to someone saying, “Fare well” when parting ways. Literally, take care of yourself, with the response God be with you.

Since this is a day of many languages, we can look at adios in Spanish and adieu in French. Both have similar meanings to good-bye. Adios comes from “a Dios vias,” meaning ‘you are going to God’ or you are going to the Kingdom of Heaven. Adieu, literally ‘to God,’ comes from “I commend you to God.”

aloha-305853_1920The word of parting I like best is the native Hawaiian aloha, which is used when arriving and when departing. Aloha means love. Love when I first see you, whether it has been minutes or years, and love when we leave, to carry with you until we meet again. Isn’t that the essence of gratitude, forgiveness, and encouragement? That 3-part movement of saying, God be with you?

We start with gratitude, a deep love and appreciation for one another and for all that we have done, shared, celebrated, and lost, together. We need to share our gratitude, our love, for one another. To say it and to hear it. A shorthand to remember to say those things in gratitude: “I love you. Do you love me?” “I love you, too.” And there’s so much more to it.

The next part is forgiveness. Because in every relationship we experience disappointment. We have expectations that go unmet, and we fail to meet other people’s expectations. We hurt one another, intentionally or not. It’s part of human life. In love for one another, to part ways well, we need to acknowledge those disappointments, to mutually ask for and to give forgiveness. The shorthand for this step: “I forgive you. Do you forgive me?”

Phew. Love and forgive. If we can say those things before we part ways, we have loved with courage and integrity. If those two steps are the “fare well,” there is still the “God be with you.”

In sharing our hopes and encouragement for one another before we part, we share our faith and our desire that God go with the other person until we meet again. “God be with you” is a hopeful and forward-looking statement.

Which brings us back to Pentecost, a feast day that celebrates all that we have received, and all that is to come. As Jesus prepares to leave his disciples, he celebrates who they are, he recalls their time together, he forgives their betrayals and disbelief, and he leaves them an eternal encouragement in the gift of the Holy Spirit. In Pentecost, we celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit all those many years ago, we celebrate the gifts we have been given here and now to continue Jesus’ ministry of sharing God’s radically inclusive love with the world, and we celebrate with hope the unknowns of the future because we know that the Spirit of God will be with us.

And so,

Fare well.

God be with you.

Aloha.

The Rev. Sabeth Fitzgibbons

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Imitation Is The Sincerest Form of Flattery

Sermon by The Rev. Sabeth Fitzgibbons from October 18, 2015 reprinted from the blog Pulpit Ponderings

408475371f2248ee_castIt has been said that “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.”  We can all probably think of examples in our own lives and culture where this is true.  When we see a fashionable outfit or a hairstyle we think is particularly attractive or that communicates a message we want, we work to re-create it for ourselves.  Thinking back a decade or two, remember the ‘power tie’ for men or the ‘red power suit’ for women?  We saw those fashions on people we perceived as having power and influence, and we thought to ourselves, ‘If I just wear that, I can garner that kind of respect and power, too.”

We see this dynamic happening in the gospel today with James and John as they ask Jesus for coveted seats of power in glory, the seats at his immediate right and left hands.  If we can’t sit in the seat of power, we should sit right next to it.  Those sons of Zebedee know there is something special about Jesus, and they want to get some of it for themselves.  Even though they’ve been following Jesus around – they have been listening to his teaching, watching him heal people and cast out demons – and they do believe that he is the promised Messiah, they still think he’s going to be a military ruler. The kind of king who wields armies and fear.  And that power looks mighty appealing to these humble men, who have been fishermen and disciples of an itinerant teacher.  ‘Come on, Jesus, you’re going to kick this dusty road and sit in glory.  Just let us sit right next to you and share that glory.’

Jesus on the other hand, has no illusion about what the road to his ‘glory’ will be.  And he asks them, quite pointedly, if they really understand what they are asking for, “Do you really think you can drink from my cup, that you can be baptized with my baptism?” In their ignorance and arrogance, they say, “We are able.”  ‘I’ll take a sip of that cup of power.’

And their friends find out!  And those other ten guys, they are mad.  Mark doesn’t say why the other disciples are angry.  I wonder if it’s because they didn’t think to make this overt move to imitate Jesus’ perceived power themselves.  Nonetheless, Jesus calms the angry disciples.  The explanation Jesus gives completely debunks James’ and John’s assumptions about what his power really is.  Instead he talks about what power in the kingdom of God really looks like.

James and John, they think greatness comes from status, the kind of power over wielded by tyrants and oppressors.  In response, Jesus does what Jesus does all the time.  He turns power completely on its head and he says that power comes from serving other people.  Not from oppressing them with fear, but from serving them.  We will either willingly and joyfully serve others, or we will become enslaved to our illusions that we can be free and secure through status and power. In our culture, we might say through having a respectable job and the right friends.

Jesus asks, who will we serve?  Will we serve the voices of the culture that say that we can (and must) be free on our own and at any cost?  Or will we hear and heed the voice of Jesus?  Will we find our freedom and our true selves through serving our neighbor?

Why do we have a God who is always asking us to serve our neighbor?  Always pushing us to consider the needs of someone else before ourselves?  It goes very much against our culture, and even went against the culture of Jesus’ time, to put the needs of someone else before our own.

God delights in our relationships.  God delights in God’s relationship with us, and God delights in our relationships with other people.  Whether they are at home, at school or work, or with people, strangers in our community.  It is through our relationships with other people that we discover ourselves inextricably linked – “bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh” – linked with those around us.  We cannot deny that when we open ourselves to know someone else, we are they and they are we.  There is some bit of us, some bit of God, reflected back in the face of the other.

Jesus’ description of his life as giving himself “as a ransom for many” reflects that same priority on loving the other before self.  Jesus does not buy us back from God or the devil, but instead pays himself out in order to rescue us from ourselves.  To rescue us from our delusion that we are somehow self-sufficient and independent, self-made men and women.  Perhaps in this world we can make that claim, but not in God’s.  From this point in Jesus’ story to the end, his whole life and death challenge our assumptions about power.  As we watch the story unfold, we learn that even as we give ourselves in service to others we find ourselves living more fully than ever before.

Our power derives from our imitation of Jesus’ service to us.  That power which is rooted in our status as beloved children of a merciful and gracious God. Being loved unconditionally by God, regardless of our power or position in this world, helps us all to realize that we are blessed.  We know that blessing first in our baptism, when we emerge from the water as Jesus did and we hear God say, This is my child, my beloved. We return that blessing to God, by returning our lives to God.  Our stewardship flows from this same font of blessing, blessing all others through serving them in God’s love.

Is imitation the sincerest form of flattery?  Maybe in this world.  When it comes to God, I don’t think so.  God doesn’t ask for or need our flattery or kind intentions.  God asks for even more: God asks for our whole selves.  Our whole selves, given to God in imitation of what God gives to us:  his whole self.  God gives to us generously, completely, with no strings, no time limits, no expectations.  Whether we realize or reciprocate God’s love or not, God’s love is still there, as big and bold and available as ever. God gives to us with love, so that we can grow in that love.

In our imitation of our great God, we are asked to give of ourselves, of our time and our passions and our money, with love and generosity, without condition, without expectation of return, so that God’s love can continue to grow in us and in the world around us.  So that the kingdom of God can come near – to us and to everyone else who needs to hear that word of hope.  Thanks be to God.

The Rev. Sabeth Fitzgibbons, St. Stephan’s, Fairview

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