First Congregational United Church of Christ
Great Falls, MT
January 13, 2019
“What Happens in Opened Spaces”
The Rev. Lynne Spencer-Smith
But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. 2When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. 3For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you. 4Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you, I give people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life. 5Do not fear, for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you; 6I will say to the north, “Give them up,” and to the south, “Do not withhold; bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the end of the earth— 7everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.”
Luke 3:15-16, 21-22 (NRSV)
15As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.
21Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, 22and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
Jeff and Linda are not much different than any one of us. They grew up in the Midwest, went to church, met one another, fell in love, got married, started their careers (one a teacher, one a minister), and raised a family. They love the out of doors and good music. They live well but simply. They had their life pretty well planned out… career, children, empty nest, retirement, grandchildren. About the time they were preparing to launch their youngest child, that all changed. They did something totally unexpected. They opened their home and their hearts to someone else’s child – Helen. A young girl who had HIV.
Although Helen had been born the the United States, her parents’ still held their citizenship abroad. Because of the visa requirements, they had to return to their home country. Helen’s parents knew that she could not go with them for to do so would mean certain death. They knew that she would have a better chance of life in the US. And that’s where Jeff and Linda come in. They had not planned to welcome another child into their home. They had planned to send their youngest child off to college and begin life with the freedom of being empty-nesters and look forward to grandchildren and retirement. They had not planned to open their hearts to a darling 6 year old with a life-threatening disease. But they did. They did because the need and the opportunity presented itself. They did because they could. They did because they knew they would not be alone in loving and caring for this child.
So, they opened their home and their hearts for Helen to enter in. They knew there would be treatments and medications. They knew there would be lots of doctors and nurses and therapists. They knew there would be lots of hope and disappointment. They knew there would be curiosity and judgment. They knew Helen would need lots of care in many ways. They knew that they themselves would be vulnerable. They knew that there was a lot they didn’t know. They knew that Helen would most likely die before reaching adulthood or maybe even puberty. What they didn’t know and couldn’t expect or plan for was what was to happen to them on the inside during the two years that this child was to be in the space they had opened up to her.
The child was given a home. There were people to care for her and love her. They provided for her and nurtured her, not just physically but emotionally and spiritually as well. Others from the community cared for her, too. The nurses in the hospital had a special place in their hearts for her. Her pediatrician adored her. The other children befriended her and laughed and played with her. Everyone made space for her and she entered into that space, bringing with her unexpected joy. The disease she carried was not what defined her for there was so much more to her than HIV.
I often think about Jeff and Linda and Helen at times of baptism because their story is such a powerful image of what the implications of baptism are all about. I think of Linda and Jeff because they not only saw past the disease into the beautiful soul of this child, they saw deeply into the covenanted relationship with God and the promises affirmed at baptism. And they carried that commitment into their care for this child, this blessed, dear child.
Baptism…. On the surface, it looks all sweet and planned and hope-filled. In the case of an infant, a new life, cradled in the arms of loving parents, making lofty promises. Or an adult, making the decision to stand before God and a congregation and pledge their commitment to a life of faith and discipleship. A congregation beaming with pride as if they really did have something to do with all of this. A minister rejoicing in the honor of being allowed to play a role in the goodness of the day and of the moment. And in that moment, all are beholding the future of the child with their whole life ahead of them… full of possibility and hope. Or embracing the journey of the adult with an already partially lived life with all its joys and mistakes and successes and choices, good and otherwise. And they are all saying “yes” yes to somehow, mysteriously, be connected to and in relation with a God who has, before they could even think it, said “yes” to them.
Once that moment is done it feel like yes… life will go forth… Carry on.
But no one really knows what will happen after that. Life will go on. Life might even go on the way you’ve planned but, if life teaches us anything it’s that life can’t be planned entirely. But, here’s the thing: when God makes a promise to be in relationship with us, we’re pretty much stuck with that no matter what happens to the life we’ve planned. We’ve been named and claimed by God. If the faith story is anything, it’s a about how sticky God is about God’s promises. It’s like the strongest Velcro, glued together with super glue, wrapped with duct tape and tied up with bailing twine. It’s perhaps the only thing that we can expect when we take on this life of faith. Once the promises to resist oppression and evil have been made, once we agree to grow in the Christian faith and follow in the way of Jesus and some water is splashed across our brow, we’re pretty well stuck. And, we can expect that, even though it won’t all go as planned, God will be with us. We can hope that it will all go well and easy and the way will be clear and our future will be free from chaos and challenges and heart ache. I haven’t met the person who hopes otherwise. But hopes don’t always become reality. Not all of life can be planned and laid out with nice and neat expectations.
Illness and injury come upon us or those we love. Death comes too soon. Job loss and disasters seem to, too easily, send us spiraling into chaos and uncertainty. Emotional hurts leave scars that cannot be ignored. Even faith faces crises that leave us stumbling and disappointed.
And in the middle of all of that we are given the opportunities to open up space for something that will change our lives. For Linda and Jeff, it was a young girl with a fatal disease and an indomitable spirit. Definitely not what they expected but, in the end, what they had hoped for.
Helen died on Christmas morning several years ago. She died in the home of my friends who had made room for her there, knowing that they would never be able to plan for any of it. She died holding the hands of those who had made room for her in their hearts because God had made room for them in the divine heart. If I’ve learned anything from Linda and Jeff and Helen it’s that life and faith isn’t about making well laid plans and then living into them. It’s about living life and opening up space for others in love and grace and acceptance and relying on the eternal promise that God has made through the ages to be always near. Not always to heal. Not always to solve problems and make things “right.” Not to take away pain or sorrow but to be near.
Ours is to lean into and live into that promise. Perhaps to open up space in our homes and hearts for someone. Perhaps because we have had space in the divine home and heart opened up for us. But for certain to hold fast to the promise that we are indeed named and claimed by God. Always.