Saturday, July 26, 2014

Kingdom Weeds...

OK, I confess... I posted this yesterday, knowing it wasn't really a completed sermon, but not knowing what to do with it. In the past, I've winged it from the pulpit, and I guess I've done OK.

This time, my friend Dr. Greg Brown came to my rescue. I am blessed to have many smart, spiritually insightful friends, including Dr. Brown, who can take a mess I've made and help me translate it into a sermon.

Kinda like Jesus does here with mustard seeds and yeast, huh?

I am also indebted to Kathryn Matthews Huey for her insight into today's Gospel reading.

MATTHEW 13:31-33, 44-52
He put before them another parable: "The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches."
He told them another parable: "The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened."
"The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.
"Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.
"Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
"Have you understood all this?" They answered, "Yes." And he said to them, "Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old."

This is the Word of the Lord.

Jesus asked “Have you understood all this?” And his disciples answered, “Yes.” I find that just a little hard to believe, don't you? I mean, we go from last week's reading, where Jesus took the time to explain one parable, in detail, just so everyone knew precisely what he meant by sowing and seeds and ground... and here we are with five short, rapid-fire parables, and everybody understands completely.

I guess I'd have an easier time believing that everyone understood everything Jesus was saying here if it weren't for the pages and pages of scholarly commentary on different aspects of these parables. I try to resist that kind of thing, because if we understand parables as tales told in the moment to a specific group of individuals for the purpose of making a point, then dissecting each word at length misses the point. But I digress.

You may have noticed that our readings from the Lectionary, especially when it comes to the Gospel, sometimes tend to jump around a bit, skipping verses here and there. In this case, I think we miss something ery important in the missing verses. We don't see to whm and where Jesus is saying these things. What I mean is this: Jesus speaks of mustard seeds and yeast to the crowd in general. As far as we know, he's still on that boat just off the lakeshore where he told the Parable of the Sower. He goes into a house with his disciples and speaks of hidden treasures, found pearls, and rejected fish to his them alone. It is Jesus' disciples, not the crowd at large, who Jesus asks, “Do you understand?”

Good thing, too, because what Jesus said to the crowd about yeast and seeds might have taken them a minute to digest.

Yeah, mustard seeds are teensy, but they sure do grow up big; and it doesn't take a lot of yeast to make bread rise... but wait a minute! Why on earth, with so many possible metaphors available to Jesus, would he pick those? I mean, for just one example, Jesus and his listeners would have been familiar with the pomegranate. Pomegranate seeds are small, but the trees get big enough for birds to nest.

But no, Jesus specifically chose mustard seeds and yeast. Was he trying to offend the crowd?


Mustard for the first-century Judeans wasn't the wonderful condiment we know today. It was a pungent, pervasive weed. And in proposing that someone intentionally sowed a mustard seed, not only was Jesus suggesting that someone planted a weed in their own field, on purpose, he was in effect advocating an act that was, at the very least, problematic to the faithful Jew. Richard Swanson says, “Living a Jewish life means living a life that witnesses to the stable and orderly love of God in all things. Planting a weed that was a symbol of wild disorder was judged to be an unnecessary compromise of the basic principles of a Jewish life.”

Furthermore, yeast, or leaven, was seen as a symbol of things unclean and corrupting. The Old Testament is filled with these kinds of references, and the New Testament repeats this view of leaven as a metaphor for moral corruption – the one rotten apple in the barrel – as well.

It's easy to miss these things in our day and time. I like leavened bread, and I really like mustard, too. So with the popularity of mustard and wonderful, yeasty bread, we don't hear the story the same way, and we miss the offense and – just perhaps – we miss the power of what Jesus is saying.

Kathryn Matthews Huey observes that “...our considerable efforts to avoid offense in the life of the church and in its ministry run the risk of neutralizing the gospel that Jesus embodied. If he didn't 'give offense,' would he have been crucified by the powers that be, with the crowd shouting its approval?”

So, sure, maybe Jesus was either purposely offending people, and maybe he didn't care whether he caused an affront to their delicate sensibilities anyway...

Or maybe... maybe...

During this period of his ministry, Jesus is preaching in the towns of Galilee. He's a long way from the Temple, and probably not terribly close to any Roman garrisons. So it is most likely that Jesus isn't speaking to the powerful Romans, or to the wealthy Pharisees and Sadducees. Rather, in that boat off the lakeshore, he is speaking to a people oppressed on all sides.

The Roman Empire was a massive juggernaut, bringing its bloody form of “peace” to nearly every corner of the known world. When Rome conquered, the lucky ones were merely subjugated and taxed; more than once the Romans had completely obliterated whole societies, destroying cities and selling those they did not murder outright into slavery. The only people the “pax Romana” benefited were the Romans; to everyone else, the Roman Eagle represented harsh oppression. Talk as they would of the former glory of Israel under King David, it was easy to see one's self as small, insignificant, as utterly worthless as a tiny mustard seed.

Then there were the demands of Judaism – never mind the constant pressure to pay the Temple tax and to come up with the required animals and grain and what-not for the sacrifices, no one – no one – could be expected to live up to the reams of minutiae required to be properly holy. More than eighty percent of Judeans lived a subsistence existence, barely enough food to keep them alive, constantly hungry, and constantly aware that they were not good enough, not holy enough, not pure enough, for God. They were as cast out as the leaven at Passover – reviled, forgotten, worthless.

So perhaps, just perhaps, one of the things Jesus is saying to the crowd is that the Kingdom of God is more like them than it is like the powerful Temple elite or the all-too-holy Scribes and Pharisees. Maybe the Kingdom of God isn't so much about power as it is about pervasiveness – like a weed, growing anywhere and everywhere; like yeast, multiplying and spreading and growing and thriving.

No, a mustard tree doesn't look anything like the cedars used to build the Temple, it doesn't at all resemble the columns of Roman architecture... but birds find a home in its branches, and even those who have been oppressed and forgotten by society can find a home in the Kingdom of God.

That was true when Jesus said it, and it remains true today.

And that is dangerous. And offensive. And being dangerous and offensive isn't something that Western Christianity is used to.

Maybe it's time to change all of that.

In its earliest years, Christianity was known as a religion of women and slaves. In Rome, Christians would sneak out in the night and rescue abandoned babies, left to die on the steps of the Forum. Not all of them, probably, and not every night, but it made a difference to the ones they were able to save, didn't it? Now, we have people who proclaim themselves to be Christians, waving signs and hurling insults at children who surrendered at our southern border to try and escape certain death in Central America.

In its earliest years, Christians were tortured and killed because they refused to bow their knee to Caesar. Now, we require that a politician give lip service to God before they can be elected. The facade of faith trumps competence in far too many elections.

Is this the measure of Christian faith?

Who cares for the homeless, the forgotten? Who tells the person contemplating suicide that there is hope? Who comforts the sick, who visits the imprisoned? Who becomes the family to one who has been kicked out of their home because of their orientation? Whose heart is broken by suffering, and who resolves to use whatever means are available to alleviate that suffering?

I know who it should be.

I know it should be us, the church.

I know this because time and again throughout Scripture, and particularly here, in Jesus' choice to use despised, misunderstood, and rejected things as examples, Jesus is saying this: The Kingdom of God isn't like the empires you're used to. It doesn't look like Rome, nor does it look like the Temple.

The Kingdom of God looks like you. It looks like me. And it looks like every marginalized and forgotten person everywhere, whether in downtown Birmingham or in Gaza or in Mozul or Detroit. These are the people of the Kingdom.

Maybe we look like mustard seeds – worthless weeds, worthy only for the trashbin. Maybe we look like yeast – others see us as sinful merely because we exist.

The kingdom will grow from those who have been made to feel unworthy, the scorned, the abused. Jesus says to these "insignificant" ones, this is what the kingdom of heaven is like. You are not worthless and neither are people you may see as "seedier" than you. It is from these – women and slaves, the despised and rejected of that society – I will build a Kingdom for all who dare come, a kingdom so large that there truly will be room for all.

Alleluia, Amen.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Playground Theologians...

I am indebted to the work of the Rev. Dr. Delmer L, Chilton and Stanley Saunders for their insights into today's reading.

This song kinda fits:

MATTHEW 11:16-19, 25-30
But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another,
‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
we wailed, and you did not mourn.’
For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’;
the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.”
At that time Jesus said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.
Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

This is the Word of the Lord.

There’s a story told about a Hindu disciple who asked his master, “How can I find God?” Instead of answering the question, the master led the student down to the river. They stood there awhile, looking out over the gently flowing water. Suddenly, the master grabbed his student and dragged him into the water, shoving his head under and holding him there!

It seemed to last a long time, the master fighting to keep the thrashing student’s head under. Finally, he felt the man beginning to weaken and let him go. The student sprung to the surface, only waist-high in water, and he coughed and sputtered and struggled to catch his breath.
After a few minutes, the master smiled and said, “So how did it feel down there?” The student glared angrily at the master: “It was awful. I thought I was going to die.” The Master said, “When you want God as much as you wanted air, when you feel like you cannot live without God in your life; then you will find God. Or rather, then you will realize God has already found you.”

The Scribes and Pharisees, the Sadducees and the Herodians, they appear to everyone to be seriously dedicated to finding God, committed to worshiping their Creator… but appearances are deceiving.

OK, maybe that’s not fair. They were dedicated to finding and worshiping God, or they thought they were, but somewhere along the way they’d gotten off track. What the Scribes and Pharisees and Saduccees and Herodians were all really looking for was a God made in their own image. They were looking for a religious experience that fit appropriately into their lifestyle, a religious experience that they could control and regularize. And when God sent messengers, they didn’t like them: John the Baptist didn’t match their expectations, and Jesus didn’t either.

Jesus compares them to children sitting in a playground and complaining because no one wants to play each other’s game: “We played ‘wedding,’ and you did not dance; we played ‘funeral,’ and you did not mourn.”

And there is a very good reason for that comparison – it was a game. You see, when the Scribes and the Pharisees and the Sadducees weren’t plotting together to destroy Jesus, they were at one another’s throats, fighting over who was following the rules the right way. The point was no longer finding God, the point had become being right.

And that sounds familiar, doesn’t it? We live in a day and age where complex political and moral questions are distilled down to soundbites, and where lines are drawn between “us” and “them.” Whether the subject is politics or religion, the one thing you can count on today is that people will fight – not to understand, not to persuade, not to grow and learn, no. People will fight to prove themselves right.

We even choose our news outlets based on which side we’re on. Conservatives have their news channel, Liberals have theirs, and these news sources specifically craft their news to appeal to their viewer base.

That means that the information we get – the wisdom we gain – when we watch these kinds of news sources, what we get is news that is specifically engineered, not to expand our horizons or challenge our preconceptions, it isn't intended to open our minds to a unique way of thinking or give us access to new information... no, the news we get is the stuff that's intended to make us feel right. Because then, we'll watch more.

And, to get back to the point of the Gospel reading, we can be so busy being right, that we aren’t listening anymore. When Jesus prays, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants…” he isn’t being anti-intellectual.

Rather, Jesus is referring to that false wisdom that people seek out not to expand their understanding of the world around them, but to reassure themselves that they are correct in their world view.

Back in February, there was a televised debate between a famous Christian and a well-known science educator. Ken Ham is what is called a “Young Earth Creationist,” a Christian who absolutely insists that the universe was created no more than six thousand years ago. In an effort to promote his Creation Museum, he challenged “Bill Nye, The Science Guy” to a debate.

Now, Ken Ham reads the same Bible we do. He believes in the same triune God that we believe in. He believes, as we do, that the triune God created all that is, seen and unseen. But he has decided, somewhere along the way, that anything which does not unswervingly adhere to his own rigid interpretation of the Bible must be – not simply rejected or ignored – but attacked as an enemy.

The most telling question of the night was, What, if anything, would ever change your mind?” Ken Ham, the Creationist, said that nothing would ever change his mind. Bill Nye said, “show me evidence, and the evidence will change my mind.”

During the debate, Bill Nye also said, “It fills me with joy to make discoveries every day of things I’ve never seen before. It fills me with joy to know that we can pursue these answers. It is an astonishing thing that we are — you and I are one of the ways the universe knows itself.”

I want to suggest this morning that one of the most beautiful assets that God gives each of us is an innate curiosity about what Douglas Adams called, “Life, the Universe, and Everything.” The joy of looking for answers, the thrill of learning a new thing, the pain of expanding our horizons beyond our narrow circle of knowledge, this is what I think Jesus means when he speaks of hiding wisdom from the wise and revealing it to the infant.

We humans try very hard, we always have, to put systems in place that quantify and categorize and explicate God. We desire certainty, security, even in those things which are beyond our limited grasp.

Ken Ham does it with Young Earth Creationism, yes, but there are untold numbers of theologies within Christianity, and they all have two things in common. First, by offering us easy answers to complex questions, they very subtly become a crutch to lean on, a panacea for the nagging doubt that is part and parcel of faith, something tangible that replaces the intangible and eternal.

Second, they break down somewhere, they are flawed, because we are flawed. We are the wild card in every theology, and in every moral and political system, every philosophy and grand design.

What Jesus offers us is a way out of the struggle.

I like the story I started out with, about needing God as badly as we need to breathe, but I worry a bit that it may paint the wrong picture. The point is not that we have to be theologically gasping our last breath, desperately clawing at the ring God tosses us, in order to find God. The point is that, in the same way that nothing is more important to a drowning person than air, nothing should be more important to the follower of Jesus Christ than, well, Jesus Christ. When we let go of being right, and let go of this idea that God is a thing to be found, and open ourselves to God, that is when we will find God, here already.

The Scriptural criteria for being a follower of Jesus Christ is not “being right.” It isn't rigid adherence to a set of doctrinal absolutes. As much as I enjoy theology, in the grand scheme of things, I don't really think God cares if I am Calvinist or Armenian, whether I am transubstantiationalist or consubstantiationalist or ordinalist or virtualist or participate in anabaptism or paedobaptism.

Jesus says, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

That's it. Oh, I mean, there are details, like “I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink,”and so forth, but that is almost commentary on the central truth of love.

The thing about love is that it tends to pull us away from our comfort zone. It is a natural human tendency to surround ourselves with people like us, after all. If I am Republican, I will be most comfortable around other Conservatives, if I am a Democrat, I will be more comfortable around other Liberals. I will have more fun watching a football game with people who are fans of my team.

But a hungry person doesn't care if they get food from a Presbyterian or a Baptist or a Methodist or a Mormon or a Muslim or an Atheist. They need food. The yoke of love that Jesus lays upon us, the light burden we are to bear, is to not worry about proving ourselves right to the hungry person, but to feed that hunger.

The Scribes and the Pharisees and the Sadducees couldn't see God, right there in their midst, because God didn't meet their criteria. And that is the big secret: We don't get to decide what God looks like or how God acts!

Sometimes God looks like a kid, or a homeless person. Sometimes God has rainbow hair and tattoos, sometimes God has dark skin. Sometimes God smells bad.

But God always offers us a loving opportunity to expand our horizons, to think and wonder in new ways, to grow in relationship with one another and with God, to not accept this world the way it is but to see it as it should be, and to change it and in the process, change ourselves.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

So What Do We Do With Pentecost?

No deep words of wisdom in this preamble... Hopefully, the sermon makes some sense of what, for me, is always a struggle between the danger of attempting to define a Person of the Trinity and the relative ease of ignoring the Holy Spirit because the Holy Spirit is dangerous.

And no, I ain't gonna explain what I mean by that.

Also, and probably unrelated to the sermon, I am unapologetically stating that Pharrel's "Happy" is my favorite song right now.

OK, here's the sermon.

ACTS 2:1-21
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes Cretans and Arabs — in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”
But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
In the last days it will be,God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.
Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’”

This is the Word of the Lord.

What do we do with Pentecost?

We are Presbyterians, after all. We are a mainline denomination, we aren't Charismatics or Pentecostals. Most if us don't speak in tongues, we don't do many healing services, we lay hands on people only when we're ordaining them as elders or as Ministers of Word and Sacrament.

Now, I've mentioned before that I was Pentecostal for about a decade. I've been in worship services that lasted for hours, where, in a sanctuary half this size, the preacher would scream into a handheld microphone, where people would be slain in the Spirit, where my ears rang, deafened by a cacophony of unknown tongues around me, in the shadow of a roomful of hands raised to heaven... I've been in a huge auditorium with an amazing choir singing, and I've seen a guy get so “in the Spirit” that he leaped to the back of the pew, ran along the top of it to the aisle, and down to the altar without breaking stride.

I have been awash in all of that excitement and passion and emotion, and I have subscribed to the misconception that Christians who didn't share in that kind of worship experience were missing out on all God had to offer.

And I think it is perhaps a reaction to the damage that this misconception has caused that makes so many mainline believers – or preachers, anyway – seem to shy away from the subject of the Holy Spirit. Oh, I mean, we mention the Holy Spirit in passing, the Apostle's Creed, blessings, things like that. But living, as we do, in a society where Christianity is too often defined by the worst of us – where God is used as an excuse for hatred and exclusion and bullying and bigotry – we spend a lot of our time, we mainline, less angry, more open and affirming Christians, on trying to say we aren't like them... and maybe, just maybe, we shy away from talking about subjects that might make us sound like “them.”

Like the Holy Spirit.

So what do we do with Pentecost?

Well, many churches, and I've been guilty of this, look at Pentecost as “the birthday of the Church.” It certainly is the point in history where the message of the Gospel caught fire and began to spread across the world, yes. But to say the Church started here is to miss the Resurrection – in fact, the very Incarnation – and it is to ignore the millenia of men and women and children who, by faith, followed the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob who is the same God you and I worship in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit. Were they not also, in a very real sense, a part of the Church?

If we ascribe to a Trinitarian theology – One God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – then we must recognize that God has always been Father, Son and Holy Spirit. John tells us in the prologue to his Gospel that Jesus was both present at, and active in, the creation of the universe. We know that God in the Holy Spirit was active in our Old Testament, speaking through the prophets, inspiring David to write Psalms, and on and on.

So if Pentecost isn't the birthday of the Church, what is it? What do we do with Pentecost?

You know what? That's a catchy refrain, “what do we do with Pentecost,” but it really isn't the question, is it? I'm guilty of doing what I was talking about before, of kind of shying away from the Holy Spirit... the real question is, what do we – Reformed, mainline, non-hand-waving-and-tongue-talking Christians – do with the Holy Spirit?

Well, we know that the Holy Spirit is what Jesus called “another Advocate.” We know from the book of Ephesians that the Holy Spirit is a seal, God's inscription upon us, identifying us as members of God's family, residents of the now and coming Kingdom of God. We know that the Holy Spirit is a Comforter, a teacher, and a guide.

So yes, even if we do not take part in the wild emotionalism and the sound and fury of Pentecostalism, we understand that the Holy Spirit is a gift from God that is uniquely for God's people, in whom we can abide and enjoy, and from whom we receive sustenance. The Holy Spirit reminds us that Jesus did not leave us orphaned, that in life and in death and in life beyond death, we belong to God.

And that would be a great high note to end a sermon on, but that isn't all there is to the Holy Spirit, is it?

Because the Holy Spirit is also a catalyst. The Holy Spirit makes things happen! Look at Peter, in our reading today. We make a lot out of this man, who was such a coward, denying Christ three times and all, finally standing up and preaching the Gospel so eloquently, and it's true, but the interesting thing is that the Holy Spirit didn't change the essence of who Peter was.

Think about it – who had the courage to reply honestly, from his heart, when Jesus asked, “Who do you say that I am?” Who had the guts to, however wrongheadedly, try to steer Jesus from all that fatalistic talk of death? Who stepped out of the boat and walked on water toward Jesus? Who piped up at the Transfiguration and offered to build houses for everyone? Who, rather clumsily, tried to defend Jesus with a sword when the Temple guard came to arrest him?

Peter always had the courage. The Holy Spirit gave him voice, purpose, focus.

Throughout the Book of Acts, we see the Holy Spirit giving direction for evangelism, words for defense and for testimony, comfort in persecution, and evidence of faith. And that brings up yet another point: the Holy Spirit is for us, but the Holy Spirit doesn't belong to us.

There's a story told about a seminary professor who was asked to give a talk to a youth group about the baptism of Jesus. He gave his speech, all about the significance of the event, saying basically that it was about to everyone that Jesus was God. He finished, satisfied that he'd done a good job But, that was when this one kid, without lifting his head said, “That ain’t what it means.” So the professor asks, “What do you think it means?”

The youth says, “The story says that the heavens were opened, right?”


The heavens were opened and the spirit of God came down, right?”


The boy finally looked up and leaned forward to say, “It means that God is loose in the world. And it’s dangerous.”

The Apostles would have been happy to keep The Way confined to Judea, to retain God as their sole property... but God had different ideas. Philip shared the Gospel with a eunuch, then he went, of all places to Samaria, and preached there! And if that weren't enough, Peter goes and has this vision on the rooftop and goes and preaches to Gentiles!

Then there was Paul... and you know where all he went!

Well, after Peter went and converted Gentiles, he had to go and defend himself to the others back in Jerusalem... and they argued, and they prayed, and they thought... and they concluded “So then, even to Gentiles God has granted repentance that leads to life.”

God is loose in the world, wild, out of control, and dangerous.

So this is what we do with Pentecost – what we do with the Holy Spirit... we rest in the assurance that, in Christ and through the Holy Spirit, we are adopted into the Family of God, we are citizens of the Kingdom of God, we belong to God now and for ever.


We rely upon the guidance and direction of the Holy Spirit in sharing the love of God with others through our own unique voice, our time, talents and treasures. God in the Holy Spirit speaks through us as God spoke through Peter on Pentecost, directs us like God directed Philip and inspires and teaches us as God inspired Peter on that rooftop.


We watch God in the Holy Spirit move in unexpected and shocking – scandalous – ways. If we believe, as we say we do, that “God do loved the world...”, then when God moves in communities and peoples that we, ourselves, may think are “off limits,” our call is not to judge or limit or hold back, but to let go and say, “So then, even to Gentiles God has granted repentance that leads to life.”

So what do we do with Pentecost?

What we must do is have the courage to release the Holy Spirit from the confines of Pentecost, to take the risk and reap the reward of a God set free in the world, ebullient in love, egregious in forgiveness, bold, unstoppable and dangerous... whatever that means.

Let us pray.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

"Christ is risen! NOW what?"

I am indebted to the writing of Karoline Lewis and Kathryn Matthews Huey for their thoughts on this reading.

And because why not, here's an awesome version of "Kashmir:"

JOHN 14:15-21
“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you for ever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.
“I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”

This is the Word of the Lord.

Christ is risen... now what?

Yes, I know that the reading comes from a part of the Gospel of John that's before the Crucifixion, but remember when and for whom it was written – it was written for us Resurrection People, and, more precisely, a specific group of Resurrection People at the end of the first century.

I struggled with a word to describe what kind of situation these believers were in when they first read the Gospel of John, and the best I can come up with is, they felt alone. Orphaned. The Resurrection had happened something near seventy years back, which meant that everyone who had ever seen Jesus was very likely now dead, except perhaps for John himself... and who knows? By the time the Gospel got out to most of the body of believers, John was probably gone, too.

All they seemed to have left were the writings, the traditions, and the firm conviction that Christ had risen from the dead. And that's important, yes, but wasn't Jesus supposed to be coming back any day? Where was he? Maybe he had forgotten all of that, maybe there had been a change of plan or something, they didn't know. And the Apostles, the people who had seen Christ and heard his words, seen the miracles and felt his breath when he said, “receive the Holy Spirit,” the living connection these believers had had to the focal point of their faith, were gone.

So yeah, they felt alone. Forgotten. Orphaned. Without focus or direction.

Somewhere on a sunny, cool afternoon in the Roman province of Asia, which encircled the Mediterranean Sea, a group of people sit, huddle around the cooking fire in the open courtyard of a home. Most of them are slaves and women, and many bear the scars of persecution. Someone, likely a man, is reading from a codex – that's sheets of papyrus folded in to what you and I would think of as a book these days.

Last week, you'll remember, Jesus spoke to some of the things they had been worrying about. Already several of the listeners are looking up, listening intently as Jesus talks directly to them.

But can you imagine the feeling when Jesus says, “I will not leave you orphaned...”? When he promises, “I am coming to you”?

Faces that had been downcast, looking at the dirt, are now raised to the sunlight, and Jesus reminds them of something that, just perhaps, they had forgotten.

I think that a lot of people – preachers, at least – in mainline Protestant churches don't really know what to do with the Holy Spirit. We tend to leave talking about this Person of the Trinity to mentions in the Apostle's Creed and a sermon on Pentecost, for the most part. My own experience, coming from a decade in the Pentecostal Church of God, is to be very careful in my own approach. That tradition rather goes to the other extreme with the Holy Spirit, so I confess that it is more than a little difficult to find a rational middle ground.

But maybe it's time to let the Holy Spirit loose from the cage of Pentecost, and from the sole proprietorship of the Pentecostals.

Jesus promises to send “another Advocate,” which we know is the Holy Spirit, and he is careful in his language to connect himself with the Father and with the gathered disciples, and, yes, those believers in that courtyard and yes, with you and me. “ I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you...”

The catalyst in that connection is the Holy Spirit, unseen but active in the lives of those whose lives are in Christ.

The Holy Spirit is, of course, active in many ways, but (and I never do three-point sermons, but this is kind of unavoidable) I want to look at three specific activities that Jesus speaks of concerning the Holy Spirit in this passage.

First, the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of truth. Last week, we read where Jesus revealed himself as the way, the truth, and the life. In the trial he will undergo before Pilate, the concept of truth will play a major role.

Jesus tells Pilate, “...the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.” The truth is synonymous with Jesus. Jesus is the truth. Jesus promises his disciples, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.”

Second, Jesus tells the disciples that they know the Spirit, and, we talked about this last week, the only real way to know someone is to be in relationship. The Spirit abides with you and will be in you... abiding is synonymous with “relationship” in John's Gospel. Third, the coming of the Spirit, the promise of the Spirit, means that the disciples, those at the table, those at the cooking fire, and those gathered here today, in this congregation, and in churches and fellowships everywhere, will not be orphaned.

OK, I was wrong, I don't want to talk about three activities of the Holy Spirit, I want to talk about four. Because this last one is a big deal. This last activity of the Holy Spirit keeps us from becoming a body of people intent on codifying and adhering to a strict list of rules and regulations, from leaving the worship of God for worship of doctrines, from living under the weight of condemnation for every mistake and sin we commit.

Jesus begins and ends our reading today by speaking of his disciples, those who love him, keeping his commandments. And oh Lord when we read that we can go wild with it, can't we? Over the last two millenia, we've put a lot of words in Jesus' mouth, about what day to worship on, about how wet to get when we are baptized, about what to believe when it comes to the Lord's Supper, about which people, created in the image of God, are loved by that God, and which of those created beings God despises, the kinds of war Jesus likes, what forms of government and which political parties Jesus supports...

But what did Jesus really say? What are his commandments?

Hear the Word of God from the 22nd chapter of Matthew, the 35th through the 41st verses:

“One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: 'Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?'

Jesus replied: ‘“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.'”

Again, the Word of the Lord from the Gospel of John, the 13th chapter and the 34th and 35th verses:

“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

I sense a theme running through these verses, do you?

Love God, love each other, love your neighbor – and if we learn anything from the Parable of the Good Samaritan, it is that our “neighbor” is anyone and everyone.

Anyone and everyone. Dang it. I can't do that.

Some people rub me the wrong way. They do things I don't do, sometimes they smell bad, or say things that offend me, or like things I don't like, or look different than me, or act in ways that make me uncomfortable, or believe things I don't believe, or vote for people I don't vote for, and I want to close and lock the doors and put an electric fence around the communion table and say, “not you!”

It is the Holy Spirit who works through me, and through each of us, to change that. Dianne Bergant puts it like this: The Holy Spirit “strengthens us, comforts us, guides us, and inspires us. It is the Spirit who enables us to interpret the signs of the times in ways very different from the ways of the world. It is the Spirit who works through us for the transformation of the world.”

I submit to you that this desire to protect my most precious prejudices, my most beloved hatreds, to sanctify my fear, is the definition of “the ways of the world.” Over against that, the Holy Spirit seeks to take down the fences, to throw the doors wide open – no, to break the doors off their hinges, put them up on sawhorses, to spread a meal and invite all who hunger to come.

That is who we are! We are Resurrection People, and we dare to bring the Resurrection with us beyond Easter Sunday, we are bold to free the Holy Spirit from Pentecost Sunday, and to say that, in the face of the unfathomable, egregiously lavish, belligerently generous love that God has shown for us, we must take this light of Christ that lives within us as the Holy Spirit and shine it in the dark corners, we must give of this living water that flows in us to all who thirst, we must throw our doors and our arms and our hearts open wide and welcome people in to relationship with the risen Christ, we must make it clear that whoever, whatever, whenever... God loves you.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Easter: The Cross, the Resurrection, What Does It Mean?

I am blessed beyond measure to have friends like the Rev. Debra Avery, the Rev. Dr. Kirk Jeffery, and Pastor Terry Ramone Smith. As you can see in the following sermon, the conversation with them this past Friday was crucial to the writing of this sermon.

Some of the words in this sermon are taken from an earlier sermon. Many are Kirk and Deb and Terry's words, and the words of many other scholars and friends I am blessed to learn from every day.

And because I like it, here's some music for your read:

MATTHEW 28:1-10
After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.” So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

This is the Word of the Lord.

How easily we say the words, “Christ is risen.” How simple it is to acknowledge that the tomb is empty, that the Lord has conquered death, hell, and the grave, that we serve a risen Lord. Easy, because, all too often, it’s just words, isn’t it? We are Resurrection people, after all. We live in this reality, the reality that says Jesus “is,” not Jesus “was.” We are Resurrection people. We associate springtime with resurrection because it’s an integral part of our vocabulary.

We forget, all too easily, that there was a time when, as Barbara Brown Taylor puts it, “only place springtime happen[ed]… [was] on the graves, not in them.”

The women weren’t going to the tomb that morning to check the status of the body. They were going to the tomb to grieve. This was the place where Mary Magdalene could get closest to the one person who had looked on her as if she were human, as if she were valuable, as if she, a woman, were equal. At least there, in the twilight before dawn, she could be close to him again, just on the other side of a stone, close enough to touch, really. It wasn’t much, but it was something.

Do you see how it was? No one was thinking about Resurrection, not because of a lack of faith or because Jesus hadn’t told them again and again, but because it made no sense, it was dancing to architecture, it was painting with math, completely beyond comprehension.

Jesus was dead. End of story. All those years, all those miles traveled, the stories and parables and healings and dangers and triumphs and evenings in a group around a fire, everything, all of it, gone.

So Mary Magdalene walked with “the other Mary” toward the tomb in the darkness. But it wouldn’t be dark for long.
One of the things that is most interesting to me in the accounts of the Resurrection is that each Gospel account is different. Our reading this morning is dramatic: a mighty earthquake, big, bad guards fainting in terror, and an angel relaxing on a tombstone. The Marys see Jesus as they return to tell the disciples what has happened.

Mark's Gospel is (of course) brief; this time the other Mary is identified as the mother of James, and Salome is with them. No earthquake in Mark, they find the stone already rolled away. And instead of being told they saw an angel, they meet a young man robed in white. Mark's Gospel appears to end with the women telling no one.

Luke tells us that it was a whole group of women that went to the tomb. Again, the stone was already rolled back, and the tomb was completely empty until two men in glowing clothes appeared to announce the Resurrection. The women run back and tell the disciples, who don't believe them. Peter goes and checks it out, finds the body missing, and doesn't get it.

In John's Gospel, Mary Magdalen is alone. The stone is already moved, the body missing, and she thinks the risen Christ is the gardener.

Let me ask you something this morning: what does it mean to be Resurrection people?

Judging from the Gospel accounts, it doesn't mean we get the story right every time. The writers who tells us about the most important thing that has ever happened, the central event in all of human history, can't agree on the details.

This is true of the Cross as well. The Gospels tell the same story quite differently. The main points, of course, quite agree; it's the details that are fuzzy.

So being Resurrection People doesn't mean we agree all the time.

I had a conversation this past Friday with some friends: The Reverend Doctor Kirk Jeffery, an Episcopal priest; the Reverend Debra Avery, a Presbyterian pastor, and Pastor Terry Smith, who operates The Van Atlanta, a homeless ministry. Since it was Good Friday, the subject was the Atonement: why did Jesus die on the cross?

Please understand: we Christians all agree that Jesus died on the cross, and that the purpose of his sacrifice was to reconcile humanity to our loving Creator. Where we get fuzzy is in trying to articulate exactly how that happens. Is it Penal Substitutionary Atonement, is it Ransom Atonement, was the Cross an avoidable tragedy that God redeemed? Is it something else?
What I took away from that conversation was not a clarified comprehension of Atonement, and that's OK, that ain't what I was after. What I learned from that conversation, and from reading the Gospel accounts of the Cross and the Empty Tomb is that we see different things, we hear different things, we believe different things not because some of us are right and some of us are wrong... but because God meets us at the point of our deepest need and directly addresses that need.

We are Resurrection people, but we live in a place that, all too often, feels much more like that dark path through the cemetery than anything else.

How easily we say the words, “Christ is risen.” How simple it is to acknowledge that the tomb is empty, that the Lord has conquered death, hell, and the grave, that we serve a risen Lord. And how hard it is to make those words more than just that – words.

Perhaps there is a purpose to the Gospel writers varying so widely on the details surrounding the Resurrection: was it an angel, was it a man in white or was it two people in white? Was Mary Magdalene alone, with one other woman, with two other women, or a group of women? Did they tell no one, did they tell the disciples to go to Galilee, did Peter run to the tomb alone, did John run with him? Did Jesus appear to no one, did he appear to everyone at once, did he appear to the two Marys?

Perhaps there is a purpose to the fact that for two millenia, we Christians have struggled to explain what the Cross means: did Jesus take our place on a cross that we each, individually, deserve to bear? Did Jesus pay a ransom for our souls in his blood? Was Jesus' death an act of solidarity with all victims of death – all of humanity?

I think that the answer for all of these questions, all of them, is “yes.” The Cross and the Resurrection were, indeed, corporate acts, events intended for the salvation of everyone... but the Cross and the Resurrection were at the same time intimate, personal, individual.

We celebrate the Lord’s Supper this morning, in part because it serves as a point of reference, a reminder of the fact that, and I am quoting Romans 5:8, “…God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

God has met us at the point of our deepest need - “while we were yet sinners” - and has specifically met that need.

The Cross, the Resurrection, and all of the questions and interpretations and scholarship and discussion surrounding these central events of human history are a reminder that we live in what the Arabic-speaking people call “al-fedjr,” the twilight that is just before the dawn. It's dark, we cannot see clearly... we see that the stone is rolled away, that the tomb is empty, and maybe we don't exactly know why... but because we really are Resurrection people, we know that someday the dawn will break.

Someday we will see the Risen Lord, and he will call us by name.