Every time we have a gospel reading about the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove, I think about an Anglican Church in Montreal that had a baptismal font shaped like a dove. The church was built in the 1960’s which emphasized custom flourishes. And the architect didn’t just mount the dove on a pedestal like a typical font. Instead they suspended the dove from the ceiling at the front of the church. It looked like the Holy Spirit as a dove hovered above the people, ready to splash unsuspecting people coming up for communion with the waters of baptism. The dove was attached to a winch, so someone had to unwind the dove so that it would gently flutter down where it could be used for baptism. The dove’s back was filled with water. I always wondered what would happen if kids started a game swinging the dove back and forth, suspended from the wire. Or if they gave the Holy Spirit an under-duck like on a swing. I just imagine an unsuspecting person walking into line just as the dove swings back and thumps the person in the gut. Slain in the Spirit as they say.
We hear another big impact from Holy Spirit in the gospel reading. In particular we hear about big love. The Father sending the Spirit as a dove is an act of love. And then we hear the voice of the Godhead proclaiming Jesus is “the Beloved.” Jesus is not only beloved by God, but Jesus *is* love. We hear about God’s big love not only in the gospel but also in the reading from Genesis, about God’s covenant of love symbolized in the gift of the rainbow. Love also is at the center of the psalm as well.
Miriam Samuelson-Roberts is a commentator with the Disrupt Worship Project who connects the readings on love with their Lenten project of dismantling white supremacy. God’s love put into action. They mention Rozella Haydée White who has a new book out called Love Big, which I definitely want to check out. Following the murder of George Floyd, Rozella Haydée White shared the following reflection that love move us as white folks beyond just forming reading groups about anti-racism to taking action:
I don’t want the beloved white people in my life to keep reading and keep listening. I want y’all to do the hard work of CHANGE. I want you to dismantle your lives – your beliefs and your behaviors. I want you to deconstruct your values. I want you to create a new vision, one that affirms and values the dignity, humanity, and worth of EVERY BLACK LIFE.
I need you to LOVE BIG – first yourself and then others. I actually am of the belief that white people suffer from lovelessness most and have allowed shame, scarcity, and fear to guide your lives. I need you to stop doing so damn much and start being…
Being just. Being open. Being connected. Being bold. Being fearless. Being love.”
I was struck by Rozella Haydée White’s reflection for a couple reasons. One is that she shares an honest reflection like this out of love for all of us as white people in her life and in the church. Another is to sit with the question: why do we have a tendency to be so loveless? It’s important to remember this is not a personal critique of any one in particular. This is a general trend she has repeatedly observed in her work as a spiritual counselor and leadership coach.
According to Rozella, white people’s indifference towards Black lives is rooted in our lack of love for ourselves. There is something fundamentally wrong with the ways in which we engage with ourselves and the world.
I think that rings true insofar as the colonial project our ancestors brought to North America is grounded in individualism, competition, and scarcity thinking. We’ve built a society around how each of us can get ahead. How each of us can secure our piece of the pie, rather than beginning with the lens of mutual flourishing.
We’re seeing this in spades right now in the humanitarian crisis in Texas where elected officials have told the constituents they serve at times not to look for the government or society to rescue them, but that they should rescue themselves. The mayor of Colorado City, Texas, who has since resigned had written in an on-line post:
“No one owes you or your family anything; nor is it the local government's responsibility to support you during trying times like this! Sink or swim it's your choice!"
Note to pick on Texas, we know sentiments like this exist in Canada as well. We even see churches that put their religious freedom to gather for in-person worship ahead of the health and safety of the most vulnerable members of society. Survival of the fittest is not a gospel ethic and it’s an especially dangerous ethic during a pandemic and humanitarian crisis.
Gospel emphasizes God’s love
Our Bible readings today can help us unpack some of these issues. Consider God’s response following the flood in Genesis. God promises to make a covenant with all of creation, one of unconditional love for human creation and all God’s creatures. And God is exuberant about the covenant, making a rainbow displayed lavishing in the sky every time it rains. [Although we realize there isn’t a rainbow in the sky every time it rains on the west coast, especially in the winter. But there have been some dramatic rainbows this year.]
Thinking about Rozella Haydée White, God Loves Big! God is not afraid of there being too little love to go around for all of creation. There is no concern that in this housing market and a competition for space, that we need to carefully apportion our love and empathy. Instead it’s about beginning with there being enough love. Big love. For everyone.
We also see signs of God’s exuberant big love in the Gospel of Mark. There is drama as Jesus is baptized, the heavens were torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove. And the voice from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” These are big, flourishing gestures of love. God leaves no doubts that Jesus’ presence is one of love, that there is continuity between God’s love before and God’s love now. It’s different than the kind of scarcity thinking that undergirds so much of white supremacy and the colonial project, that it’s each person for themselves. And that it’s privileging the rights of one group over those of another. We call this white supremacy because this is the legacy of the places we live including British Columbia that is founded on the theft of Indigenous land and resources and displacing a people from their homes.
As Rosella and the gospel affirms it doesn’t have to be this way. We can love big. We can live into Jesus’ love for us. We can trust in that love and reciprocate that with one another and all our neighbours. As Rosella and other people of colour have been telling us, this won’t happen through osmosis. We need to do the work, first within ourselves. We need to believe the gospel we proclaim is for us. That’s Jesus’ love is for us. That God’s big love is for us, so that we have the love needed in having empathy for others.
Perhaps this is the biggest surprise of all, that as Lutherans we never expected to have to relearn grace. We’ve always understood grace intellectually, but we need to feel it in our bones. We need to experience grace unfiltered through inter-generational trauma and scarcity thinking.
Here is a Lenten challenge. To name ways we feel God’s grace and love in our lives. Think about ways we can love big. A love that is big enough to dismantle all the barriers that have been built up in our hearts, in our society, that separate us from the love of God. That separate us from loving neighbour.
I would like to wrap up with a story. At the Anglican Church with the baptismal font in the shape of a font, a friend and now colleague of mine, named Stephen, served his internship there. Stephen and Mary are this amazing couple who love big. They trust Jesus’ love is big enough for everyone. Presently they are doing ministry with children on the streets of São Paulo, Brazil, a place they have served over decades. It’s not about what they do, so much as their way of being. As we heard from Rozella White earlier, less doing, more being:
“Being just. Being open. Being connected. Being bold. Being fearless. Being love.”
For me Stephen and Mary embody these ways of being. There is a peace around them which is real. I know you’ve met people like that to. Imagine that person for you right now.
I heard a grandchild talk about Roland that way during the funeral livestream yesterday. A faith and a joy that was infectious. It made me sad I didn’t get to meet Roland earlier to get a sense of the fullness of his character. It’s great people have these memories and stories.
Think about someone who loved big in your life. Use that to ground your own love and think about Rosella’s invitation to embrace this new way of being grounded in Jesus’ love. Amen.