The Way of Love: Turn

A few weeks ago, my cell phone broke. I had it sitting up on the arm of my couch. Maybe my daughter knocked into it, or maybe I bumped it with my elbow, and it fell to the ground. Now, this had happened probably two-dozen times before, so I wasn’t worried. But when I went to pick it up, the screen was wrecked. Most of it was blacked out, and the part that wasn’t was just a starburst of color. I knew it was finished.

It was going to take me a few days to get to the store and get a new phone, and so in the interim, I would be without it. I was phoneless! After two-and-a-half years, I was without a smartphone.

A day or two after this, I was here at work, and I walked over to a restaurant on Pennsylvania Avenue for lunch, one I had been to dozens of times. I got my food and sat down. Now, every other time I had eaten here, I had always pulled my phone out and read the news headlines while I ate. Of course, on this day, I couldn’t—I was still phoneless. I had to sit there and eat my meal with no electronic distractions whatsoever (yes, it was truly a tragic and traumatic experience!)

As I sat there and ate, I noticed something very interesting: just a few feet in front of me there was a tall plant. As I said, I had eaten at this place many times before, but I had never seen this plant before! Or, rather—I’m sure I had seen it before. I’m sure light bounced off this plant and entered my eyes. But I had never noticed it before. I had always been so distracted by my phone, that I had missed this five-foot tall plant right in front of my eyes!

This got my wondering—what else was I missing? Not noticing a plant isn’t really the end of the world. But I was sure that there were other things going on around me in the world—and other things perhaps going on within me as well—that I wasn’t noticing.

Now, this isn’t that sermon, the sermon that warns about the dangers of smartphones and social media. That might be a worthwhile sermon, but that’s not where I found myself led to as I reflected on all of this. Because in truth, humans have always faced distractions. New technology may be introducing new forms of distraction, but the basic problem of missing what’s really important is as old as our species.

As Michele announced last week, throughout the season of Epiphany, we are going to be preaching a sermon series on The Way of Love—a daily spiritual practice developed by our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry (yes, that Michael Curry—the royal wedding preacher!). The Way of Love is a set of seven actions that Bishop Michael recommends Episcopalians try to do each and every day. And  today we consider the first action: to Turn.

Bishop Michael summarizes the act of Turning like this: “pause, listen, and choose to follow Jesus”. Pause, listen, and choose.  This is what it means to turn, and it can be a powerful practice in the face of distractions.

I think our passage from The Acts of the Apostles this morning shows us a profound moment of turning. We hear about a new church community who is visited by some of the apostles. This is what the author of Acts tells us:

[Peter & John] went down and prayed for [this community] that they might receive the Holy Spirit (for as yet the Spirit had not come upon any of them; they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus).

Now, on the very day when we celebrate the baptism of Jesus,  it’s very interesting to hear the author of Acts say that these people “had only been baptized”, as if baptism really isn’t that big of a deal at all. This author is far more concerned with this business about “receiv[ing] the Holy Spirit”. This point really struck me.

I think the author of Acts is on to something really important here. Because as  important as baptism is, it’s really just a beginning, a commitment. When we baptize someone, not only their family, but indeed our whole community—all those gathered on that day—stand here and we make commitments. We commit to seek God, to learn from Jesus, to love others and to respect the dignity of every human being.

But committing to something is not the same as actually doing that thing. And so the question that this passage of Acts asks is: OK, you’ve made a commitment—now are you going to follow through with it? I think this is what the author means by “receiving the Holy Spirit”. Our passage from Luke makes this fulfillment of commitment really clear too. Just as Jesus is baptized, the Holy Spirit manifests over him. And even more to the point, we know that Jesus went on to really live the commitments he had made: to feed to hungry, care fort the sick, love the lonely, and speak truth to power. Baptism only means anything if it’s a commitment that we follow through on.

The passage of Acts makes it clear that the Spirit was hovering over this community nearly 2,000 years ago, calling them to action, to live out their commitment. And I think the Spirit is hovering over us here today, likewise nudging us to really live our commitments out in our daily lives. Are we open to the Spirit’s presence?

When we gather for worship on Sundays, we spend a lot of time praying. And our prayers take many forms: intercession—asking for healing, help, and guidance; thanksgiving for all the good things of live; mourning and remembering those we have lost; wondering and questioning about God and the world; and even complaining (and if you think prayer can’t be about complaining, just open your Bible and read some of the Psalms!)

But one kind of prayer I think we Christians overlook too often is: prayer as self-reflection. The quiet and focus of prayer can be an ideal time to really look inward and consider ourselves. We can pause, listen, and choose how to proceed with our lives. We can stop and take stock of ourselves.

It may surprise you—indeed, it may scandalize and outrage you!—to learn that I, Scott Lipscomb, Assistant Rector of St. Mark’s, sometimes get annoyed at people (it’s true!) And you may be even more shocked and dismayed to learn that sometimes I even get annoyed at some people at this church! Sometimes someone says or does something that just gets under my skin and bugs me. And every so often, I find myself rehearsing this petty moment of annoyance in my head, going over it repeatedly, all the while feeling more annoyed, frustrated, and self-righteous.

This might go on for a few minutes, or even the better part of an hour! And it’s at times like this that I really need to practice Turning. Because once I stop, take stock of who I am in these moments, and compare that person to who I want to be—I realize how far the one is from the other. And I feel a bit ashamed! What would Jesus say to me, if I were listening in these moments? How is the Spirit trying to speak, trying to nudge me in a different direction?

So these prayers of self-reflection can and often do yield uncomfortable realizations. They can interrupt us when we are heading down a path that, in truth, we really don’t want to be going down. And it’s at these moments where we need to pause, listen, and choose: will I keep going stubbornly down this path? Or will I turn?. . .

All of us have been baptized: many of us literally, all of us figuratively. Baptism is a commitment—it’s the act of claiming an identity. And we claim many identities: Christian, seeker, skeptic. Parent, friend, teacher. Feminist, anti-racist, defender of democracy. We christen ourselves with many names. But what matters is not whether we claim an identity—what matters is whether we actually live out these identities. Making a commitment to do something is not the same thing as actually doing that thing!

The Spirit is here, speaking, calling us to not just claim our identities, but actually live them! And so the question for us is: how can we stop and listen? Once we begin to actually do this, to turn and hear the Spirit speaking, other questions arise:

How can we really open ourselves to the Spirit’s presence?
When do we need to turn from one path to another?
How can we follow the radical life of Jesus?
How can we reflect God’s love into this world?

The Way of Love doesn’t provide any final answers to such questions. But I do think it’s a great way to begin the process of really asking them. And this is how we make that beginning: with a willingness to recognize when we aren’t who we want to be—and then pausing, listening, and turning!