Sunday, June 26, 2011

What Was a Pickup Truck Doing in the Bushes?

Get it? A ram was caught in the thicket. Yeah? No? Never mind.

This is a crowdsourced sermon, thanks to my friends on Twitter: Barbara Vaughan (who lent me her sermon on this subject), Candi Vernon, Kathryn Johnston, Ben Robbins, Kirk Jeffery (who also blessed me with sermon materials), and A Williams, among others. Also thanks to the writing of Mary J. Scifres of "Ministry Matters."

The good parts of what follows are thanks to them. Anything sub-par is the result of my own effort.

Romans 6:12-23
Therefore, do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions. No longer present your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and present your members to God as instruments of righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.
What then? Should we sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God that you, having once been slaves of sin, have become obedient from the heart to the form of teaching to which you were entrusted, and that you, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. I am speaking in human terms because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to greater and greater iniquity, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness for sanctification.
When you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. So what advantage did you then get from the things of which you now are ashamed? The end of those things is death. But now that you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God, the advantage you get is sanctification. The end is eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Matthew 10:40-42
“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple — truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”

Genesis 22:1-14
After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.” So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.” Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together. Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So the two of them walked on together.
When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son. But the angel of the LORD called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place “The LORD will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the LORD it shall be provided.”

This is the Word of the Lord.

It wasn’t an unreasonable request, at least not for that day and age. Human sacrifices, and especially infant sacrifices, were common in the Philistine culture which surrounded Abraham. Human sacrifices evidenced a deep devotion to this or that god, or a deep desperation to appease whatever malevolent deity was causing this drought or that disease. When someone wanted to really prove their faith, they performed a human sacrifice.

But up until now, it had always been “those people” who sacrificed their children. “Those people” who spilled innocent blood to satisfy the thirst of their idols. Now, YHWH was calling upon Abraham to do the unthinkable, the unimaginable, something so out-of-character for YHWH that, had it happened today, we’d all be left wondering if God’s website had been hacked.

It’s too easy, I think, to read this text as if Abraham jumped out of bed, gathered his supplies, and toddled off into the distance whistling, as if this was just another day in the life of a sojourning follower of the Almighty. We know the outcome of this familiar story, and because of this we too easily skip over the difficult-to-comprehend bits, celebrate faithfulness, and pass the plate.

And I do not want to present myself as someone who knows exactly what’s going on with this story. By now, I hope you know me better than that. This is one of those passages that refuses to be easily explained. It’s like a bag of coathangers, all pointy corners and things that don’t fit together. God is not acting like God, Abraham isn’t acting like Abraham, at least not the Abraham who so boldly bargained with God for the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. And Isaac? He doesn’t act like any teenager I’ve ever met.

All I have is an idea.

Don’t forget that Abraham was far from perfect in his devotion to God. He had lied to the King of Gerar, Abimelek, passing Sarah off as his sister in hopes of saving his own hide. And rather than suffering for it, he profited! Later, he sent Hagar and Ishmael off into the desert, neither knowing nor particularly caring how they would survive. Perhaps in finally seeing the fulfillment of God’s promise in Isaac, knowing that his legacy is secure, Abraham grows too comfortable among the Philistines. Maybe, just maybe, Abraham has put his faith, his hope for the future, his trust for the future in Isaac rather than in God.

Perhaps, to Abraham, Isaac has become an idol. And we know how God feels about idols. They must be pulled down, destroyed, utterly wiped away. Abraham knows this, too. And perhaps, when God spoke to Abraham, deep down Abraham knew that this disaster, this horror, was his fault.

So when Abraham gathers his supplies, loads the donkey, and wakes up Isaac and the servants for this road trip, he does it with a heavy ball of dread sitting in his gut, doggedly going through the emotions in the same way someone would if they’re going to the doctors office to hear a bad test result, or to the funeral home to make arrangements.

They walked for three days. I wonder if, as they made camp every night, Abraham was hoping that God would come to him in the night, giving him an opportunity to bargain, to renew the covenant, to seek forgiveness, anything.

But the only time he hears a peep out of God is on that third day, when he looks up and sees the mountain, and knows that this is where his child will die.

But all the time, over all the miles, the nagging certainty had to be there. YHWH had made a covenant with Abraham! A solemn vow, in blood! His descendants would suffer four hundred years of slavery, but come out from bondage to become a great nation. The idea that God would break a promise was preposterous!

But there is the mountain.

And Isaac, how on earth could he have been silent for so long about this whole thing? Here he was lugging a huge load of wood, with his dad carrying a torch and a knife… maybe in the rush the old man had forgotten the “animal” part of the animal sacrifice?

Maybe he was so quiet for so long because he was trying to figure out a way to gently broach the subject without making his dad angry. But finally…

“Um, Dad?”

“Yes, son?”

“Um, like, for this sacrifice thingie? We got, like, wood, we got, like, fire, we got, like, that totally awesome knife… but, like, um, there’s… there’s no lamb. I mean, it’s totally cool if you like forgot it, OK? I mean I just was only asking.”

Perhaps Abraham just says this to have a response, or maybe he’s just realizing it himself: “God himself will provide…”

Then the wood is stacked, Isaac is bound and laid across the altar (without, apparently, any argument or struggle!), and Abraham raises the knife. The altar that Abraham had built up in Isaac had fallen, and it, along with Abraham’s hope for the future, and God’s promise of countless generations, was about to be destroyed…

In many ways, Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac foreshadows God’s later sacrifice in Christ, and Christ’s willingness, like Isaac, to undergo that sacrifice. In fact, the writer of Hebrews contends that Abraham fully expected to kill Isaac, and quite confidently expected God to raise Isaac from the dead, because if God was to keep covenant, something drastic would have to happen.

And, of course, God provided. Not just a voice from heaven and a ram as a sacrifice in place of Isaac, not just proof that Abraham was, indeed, committed to YHWH, but a lesson in just what God wanted from Abraham and, by extension, all of us.

What did God want from Abraham? Abraham discovered that his faith in God required more than emotional agreement, more than mental assent, it required active involvement. God wanted Abraham. God wanted every bit of Abraham. Abraham passed God’s test because he demonstrated that he could do the hard thing, even when it made no sense. Even when it meant giving up everything. Somehow, when there was no hope left, no turning back, Abraham believed, and it was that belief which made him right before God.

In the book of James, the second chapter, we read that Abraham’s “faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. And the scripture was fulfilled that says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,’ and he was called God’s friend.” From this, James concludes “You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.”

I think one lesson for us today is that it’s OK to not know the answers. Keep asking. It’s OK to not even be sure where we’re going. Just go.

After all, God’s plan is not destruction. . . God’s plan is resurrection. Isaac was snatched from the jaws of death, and Abraham was snatched from the depths of despair. It is easy to assume that God demands destruction when our backs are against a wall, and there are no options left. It is easy to assume that God is testing our faith when our lives are in shreds. But in Abraham’s story, and in our own, God’s loving promise – not our assumptions – is the common link, the steadfast thread that we can grasp when all else fails or the path seems hazy. Holding on to that promise of love and life is always our calling!

And for that we say, thanks be to God.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

...But Some Doubted.

I'm indebted to the work of several bloggers and preachers for this sermon, including R. M. C. Morley, Craig R. Koester, Stephen M. Crotts, and E. Carver McGriff.

Doubt isn't the enemy. Complacency is.

Genesis 1:1-2:4a
In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.
And God said, “Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” So God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome. And it was so. God called the dome Sky. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day.
And God said, “Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.” And it was so. God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good. Then God said, “Let the earth put forth vegetation: plants yielding seed, and fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it.” And it was so. The earth brought forth vegetation: plants yielding seed of every kind, and trees of every kind bearing fruit with the seed in it. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, the third day.
And God said, “Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night; and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years, and let them be lights in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth.” And it was so. God made the two great lights — the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night — and the stars. God set them in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth, to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, the fourth day.
And God said, “Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the dome of the sky.” So God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm, and every winged bird of every kind. And God saw that it was good. God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.” And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day.
And God said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind: cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind.” And it was so. God made the wild animals of the earth of every kind, and the cattle of every kind, and everything that creeps upon the ground of every kind. And God saw that it was good.
Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” God said, “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so. God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.
Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude.And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done.So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.
These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created.

2 Corinthians 13:11-13
Finally, brothers and sisters, farewell. Put things in order, listen to my appeal, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you. Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the saints greet you.
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.

Matthew 28:16-20
Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

This is the Word of the Lord.

Our Gospel reading this morning places us in the final moments of the disciples’ time face-to-face with the risen Lord. Think of it: they had seen Him appear in the Upper Room on Easter Sunday, they had spoken with him repeatedly since then; they had felt his breath as he blessed them and said, “receive the Holy Spirit; they’d eaten fish for breakfast with him on the beach, and watched as he’d strolled down the beach with Peter. According to the Apostle Paul, over five hundred people had seen him at once! How could there be any question in their minds, this was Jesus, the Christ, the Son of the living God, conqueror of death, Hell, and the grave!

And on that day they go to the Galilean mountain to once again see their Lord, and our Lord. And they see him, and they worship him… and then the three strangest words I have ever read appear in the text.

“…But some doubted.”

I confess to you that I spent years reading this, listening to preachers speak on this text, and never noticed what it was saying. I had the same habit that many readers have; I get going at a comfortable reading speed, and especially with what I think of as a familiar text, the Great Commission, I find myself thinking I’m paying attention, but not really. But one day these three words jumped up and caught me by the allegorical ankle, and brought me up short.

Think of it! They are right there! Looking at Jesus, real as can be, clear as day, big as life, no special effects or computer generated graphics, no smoke or mirrors, Just them and Jesus on a mountaintop.

“…But some doubted.”

When the travelers meet the living Jesus, some worship. Others doubt. Amazing! Here, on the mountaintop, we see in the same group worship and uncertainty, devotion and hesitancy. Certainly, in the presence of the living Christ, there would be something clearer and unequivocal.

“…But some doubted.”

I want to suggest to you this morning that these three words are not a puzzle to be unlocked by theologians. They aren’t simply a tossed-off comment intended to give the account some color. These three words are a powerful declaration of hope for everyone.

What does the risen Christ, preparing to ascend to the Father, say to this mixture of faith and doubt, this amalgamation of wholehearted commitment mixed with careful reservations?

He gives them the same commission, all of them: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

If it was me, I might have told the uncertain ones to go and get things figured out. I might have instructed the hesitant ones to go get answers for their questions. But not Jesus. No, Jesus speaks to them all in the same way, "Go and make disciples."

These disciples were called away from the security of their fishing boats and fig trees and tax collection booths to an uncertain future, following a traveling Rabbi across the countryside. Now Jesus once again called them into an uncertain future. There is no guarantee that they will survive, much less if anyone will listen to their message of hope.

And there’s no mistaking the fact that these disciples have issues. Peter, as just one example, is a mixture of headstrong courage and waffling cowardice. Even after Pentecost, he goes from a powerful proclaimer of the Good News to thousands to a guy who the Apostle Paul has to call out for trying to act like a good Jew around other good Jews, when he knew full well that the Gospel was meant for the Gentiles as well! And lest we think that Paul, who isn’t even with the disciples on this mountaintop, has a corner on perfection, remember that he and Barnabas had a falling out halfway through the book of Acts, and couldn’t stand to work with one another after that.

Whether they believe or they doubt, these are not the flawless vanguards for Truth-with-a-capital-T that we might have expected.

“…some doubted.”

Nonetheless, the word is "go."

And isn’t that a relief? After all, if Jesus chose those wobbly, cracked, imperfect vessels to carry the Gospel into all nations, making and baptizing and teaching disciples, then it is safe to assume that you and I, as imperfect as we may be, are just as called as those disciples?

If you’re like me, doubt has always been a bad word. Somehow, I’ve lived under the impression that if I had enough faith, I wouldn’t ever doubt. If I prayed enough, read enough, spent enough time in church, then I wouldn’t find my certainty coming up short, I wouldn’t be plagued with nagging questions.

Yet there it was, leaving me feeling inadequate and unworthy of the title “disciple.”

What I’ve come to learn is that doubt is a normal phenomenon, and it could well be a healthy one. George Buttrick called doubt "the reverse side of the coin of faith." He wrote: "Everybody doubts, skeptic and believer, pulpit and pew. That is a prime fact."

Sure, maybe the church sanctuary on a Sunday morning isn’t a place where we confess our doubts. Perhaps we don't share that doubt on a warm, sunny day, when we feel well and our loved ones are safe. Doubt is the kind of thing that rears its head in the dark of night, when the pain is most severe, or our child long overdue, or our discouragement at rock-bottom.

“…But some doubted.”

Paul Tillich argued that the person who has never been troubled by the problem of doubt is a person who has never genuinely struggled with the problem of faith. In his classic Dynamics of Faith, Tillich wrote: "If doubt appears, it should not be considered as the negation of faith, but as an element which was always and will always be present in the act of faith. Serious doubt is confirmation of faith."

"Doubt does not question whether a given proposition is true or false. It does not reject every concrete truth, but it is aware of the element of insecurity in every existential truth. At the same time the doubt which is implied in faith accepts this insecurity ... is an act of courage. Faith includes courage ... There is no faith without an intrinsic 'in spite of' and the courageous affirmation of oneself in the statement of ultimate concern."

Just like those disciples on that mountaintop, you and I share in the Great Commission, that directive to “go.” We too are called to "go" to where Jesus will meet us. We too are called to worship. We are directed to the place where we will meet the living Christ.

We trust that he comes as he said he would, and we trust that he will indeed be with us until the end, whatever that means. And for many of us this is reason for thanks and worship. Making confession, offering prayers, voicing our faith, singing our praise--all of this is worship in the presence of the living Christ. And along with the worship, many of us continue to wonder whether any of this is true… and that’s OK.

Like the first disciples, we bring our doubts to the place where Jesus promises to meet us, and in great and small ways, Christ does meet us. And in great and small ways, we are called to live out the Great Commission, just like the disciples did, day to day, minute by minute, step by step.

Thanks be to God!

Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Spirit Still Moves!

This is a reworked sermon; the original can be found here. The poem at the end is by Callid Keefe-Perry, co-convener of the Emergent Cohort in Rochester, NY.

1 Corinthians 12:3b-13
No one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit.
Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord;and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.
For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body — Jews or Greeks, slaves or free — and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.

John 20:19-23
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

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.

The Feast of Pentecost was, like Passover, a Jewish festival. It commemorated, in part, the day that Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments. In a very real way, that event was the birthday of the nation of Israel. It was the day that the Hebrews ceased being escaped slaves, following a pillar of cloud and flame, and became a cohesive people, dedicated to the worship of the one true and living God, guided by stringent communal and sacerdotal laws.

Moses came down from the mountain, and nothing would ever be the same. From that moment the Hebrew people would go on to found a great nation, respected and feared for its valiant warriors and famous for its wise kings.

But those days, glorious as they were, were gone. Beginning with King Nebuchadnezzar, the people of the once-mighty Kingdom of Israel had suffered under one oppressive foreign power or another for six hundred years.

By the time this particular Pentecost rolled around, the nation of Israel had gone from a magnificent beacon of hope for all nations, an example for the world to follow, to a dim, dusty backwater called Judea. The mighty Kingdome which had been ruled by giants like David and Solomon was now just another province of the Roman Empire, buckling under the weight of corrupt rulers and outrageous taxes. The great things God had done were legends, stories, memories written in great scrolls that the priests read from, that the scribes debated over, that the children learned to read. They were holy scrolls, yes, the very Words of God… but when viewed in the harsh, biting reality of dusty, malnourished, thirsty, conquered and subservient Judea, they were just words.

There was reason for hope, of course. One could not be Jewish and not have hope. God had promised a Messiah, one who would re-establish David’s throne and return Israel to its former glory. Yet as the years rolled by, a person would pop up over there, claim to be the Messiah, would gather up a band of followers, would end up getting himself killed, and the followers would scatter. Theudas was one name, and Judas the Galilean another, according to Gamaleil, a teacher quoted in the Book of Acts.

There had been another one recently, another fellow from Galilee; there seemed to be a lot of promise in this guy. People had seen him perform miracles, they said. The blind received their sight, the lame walked again, the lepers were cleansed. Some folks said he even raised a person from the dead! Still, he had died just like the rest of them. And most of Judea didn’t even notice. People went on with life, went on with the feast of Pentecost. Just like every year before, pilgrims came in to Jerusalem from all across the globe, packing in to once again remember the day that Moses came down the mountain with the tablets of stone.

None of them really had a clue what was going on in that little two-story house right over there.

Not quite two months ago, you see, in the big room on the second floor, the people who had followed that Galilean fellow, the one who had gotten crucified? Well, they had seen, they had spoken with, and touched that Galilean. They had seen, spoken with, and touched him because he had risen from the dead. And not more than ten days ago, they had watched, with their own eyes, as that same crucified-and-risen Galilean ascended into the clouds to sit at the right hand of God.

And even now, if you listened real hard, you could begin to hear a noise – the sound of rushing wind.

When the Law was delivered, Moses ascended Mount Sinai, and God came down from on high to meet Moses there. Moses received the Law directly from God, and when Moses came down from that mountain, one could assume that God went back up, to heaven. ‘Way up there somewhere… distant, removed, and, it seemed, out of reach except through the rituals, sacrifices, and instruments of worship.

On that Pentecost day, God came down, with the sound of a mighty wind, with tongues of flame and a message in all languages for all people…

…and nothing would ever be the same.

Peter’s message, shorter than any I have ever heard or preached, started a firestorm that, to this day, burns unabated. Three thousand that first day responded to God’s grace; in the months and years that followed, God continued to move in directions that no one could anticipate, and at a speed that very nearly left the Apostles in the dust. People who would never have been allowed in the Temple courts came joyfully into relationship with their Creator: eunuchs and Samaritans and slaves and women and even Gentiles!

And God still moves today. God has not gone back to heaven, up there, in the distance, removed and remote, no. The Holy Spirit is here! Still active, still moving in directions no one can anticipate, and at a speed that leaves us breathless in its wake. Maybe the noise isn’t like the wind, and perhaps we don’t see many tongues of fire, but the Spirit still falls today.

The Holy Spirit falls across the globe, in countries where being a Christian will still get you imprisoned and killed, as well as in our own country, where in many areas it seems you can find a church on every corner. The Holy Spirit falls in cathedrals, and it falls in storefront churches. The Holy Spirit falls in suburban America and in the colonia of Reynosa, Mexico

God’s Spirit moves in traditional denominational circles, and in new and growing fellowships outside of traditional church models and boundaries. Places like “Ink,” in West Virginia, a small discussion group officiated by Brandon Mouser, which meets at a local Books-A-Million. Places like Pete’s Candy Store, a bar in Brooklyn, where Jay Bakker and Vince Anderson’s “Revolution New York City” meets every Sunday afternoon. God’s Spirit still inspires and supports people like Pastor Nar Martinez, who has spent a lifetime mentoring young people, or Phil and Stephanie Shepherd, who reach out to the marginalized and forgotten through their church, “The Eucatastrophe,” in Fort Worth, Texas.

The Holy Spirit still moves, still falls, still empowers, in ways we cannot recognize… but move and fall and empower it does.

The website challenged a variety of theologians, speakers, and writers to tell, in 100 words or less, how the Holy Spirit moves today. Their responses were both interesting and challenging. For example, Sam Hamilton-Poore, Adjunct Professor at San Francisco Theological Seminary, wrote, “Closer to us than our own breath and breathing, the Risen Christ fills us with his own Spirit – quietly, intimately. With this breath, this power, we then go about the everyday, unspectacular, grubby work of forgiveness. Breathe, forgive; breathe, forgive; breathe, forgive. Although we often long for the dazzling or spectacular, we live in a time, a world, in need of people who breathe in, regularly, the quiet power and grace of Christ's Spirit – and people who, likewise, breathe out, regularly, the power and grace of forgiveness. Our world – so spectacularly broken and burning – needs people for whom reconciliation is as normal and natural as breathing.”

Author and speaker Brian McLaren wrote, “On the grass-roots level, there are tens of thousands of Christians who aren't waiting for denominational leaders to fix things. They're just getting on with it. They're doing it, living it, making it real in their lives, in their neighborhoods, through small groups and mission trips and so on. When you have leaders at the top working for needed change, and people at the grass roots doing the same, and when you're confident that the Holy Spirit is behind it all, eventually the tide will turn and a new day will come.”

God is still here, the Holy Spirit still active, alive, vibrant. The Holy Spirit still moves, still falls, still empowers, in ways we cannot recognize… but move and fall and empower it does.

And just like on that Pentecost when the Spirit fell on the disciples, we in whom the Holy Spirit resides are called upon not to draw inward, but to reach outward, to be a beacon of hope. The Good News of the Gospel, the evidence of the now-present Holy Spirit is that God is not distant, incomprehensible, our only point of contact through ritual and Law, through recitation and rote prayer.

God in the Holy Spirit is active, right now, moving in corporate boardrooms and dirt-road slums and in public housing; moving in mansions and mud huts and in the rubble of neighborhoods destroyed by natural disaster; moving in great crowds of people and small-group prayer meetings and across the table at a Waffle House.

The Holy Spirit is moving.

“My God is in the next room,
cooking unseen feasts
and humming;
moments of ache before rain
when the whole June cloud
is ready to burst through
though no drop has yet fallen;
dandelion blades that insist
adamantly they must reside directly
in the middle of your neighbor's
blacktopped suburban driveway;
sights of the shadow of a bird flitting
by the sill near the bed of an aging Grace,
who can no longer move but counts herself
lucky because at least she can still see.
This is my God:
expectant and grinning
wild and near.”

Let us pray.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Monkeys and Unity

Thanks go out to Jimmy Spencer Jr., and his book "Love Without Agenda" (which you can download and read for free!) for help in focusing my opening premise.

This was a tough one to wrap my brain around, because I see the call for Christian unity in Jesus' prayer, and find none, anywhere. That I am posting this sermon and not curled in a fetal position trying to untangle the knots in the narrative is thanks to Lyndon Marcotte, who pointed out something obvious and game-changing in the text.

Finally, a shout-out to the dozens of folks on Twitter who offered their insights on the John passage. My favorite was Rebecca Haller's.

Oh, and here's how to open a banana from the "wrong" end.

Acts 1:6-14
So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away. When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.

1 Peter 4:12-14, 5:6-11
Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed. If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the spirit of glory, which is the Spirit of God, is resting on you.
Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you. Discipline yourselves, keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour. Resist him, steadfast in your faith, for you know that your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering. And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you. To him be the power forever and ever. Amen.

John 17:1-11
Jesus had spoken these words, he looked up to heaven and said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him.3And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do. So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed.
“I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”

This is the Word of the Lord.

In his book, “Love Without Agenda,” my friend Jimmy Spencer Jr. talks about a revelation he had while watching the National Geographic channel.

It was a documentary about monkeys and, as monkeys do, they were eating bananas. Jimmy’s world was turned upside-down by one monkey who took a banana and, rather than holding the banana to peel from the stem, he turned it upside down. Jimmy thought the monkey was stupid. What kind of monkey doesn’t know how to open a banana, for cryin’ out loud?

Then the monkey pinched the end, and effortlessly extracted a perfectly peeled banana.

It turns out, of course, that the monkey wasn’t wrong. Rather, because Jimmy had always only seen a banana peeled from the stem, in the same way that we’ve all always seen a banana peeled for as long as we can remember, Jimmy assumed that there was only one way to peel a banana. But there are at least two, and both do what they need to do quite well: they produce fruit.

I read our Lectionary texts, and I can’t help feeling, just a little bit, like Jimmy Spencer Jr. did when he watched that monkey. I read Jesus’ words as he speaks to his friends for the last time before his Ascension, and when he prays in John 17, and it’s like I’m reading it for the first time.

I read Jesus’ words promising that the Holy Spirit would give the disciples – and yes, by extension, you and I – power to spread the Gospel message of love, hope and restoration to the entire world. I read Jesus’ prayer, stating clearly that eternal life is defined as knowing God the Father. Then I read this: “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”

“So that they may be one, as we are one.”

There are, according to some experts, well over thirty thousand Christian denominations in existence right now. Within those denominations you’ll find people divided over specific issues of theology and polity, divided over political affiliations, divided over football loyalties… whose definition of “one” is Jesus using?

Rather than enjoying the catalyst of the Holy Spirit to spread a unified message of love and hope, all it takes is a quick surf through the channels on the TV or a Google search of religious websites and weblogs to see that Christians are using most of their energy in an effort to prove their particular doctrinal and theological position right. We may be many things, we Christians, but we are not “one.”

Danielle Shroyer points our that “We don’t have to get to Martin Luther, or even to the East/West schism of 1054, to know that Christian unity hasn’t lived up to Jesus’ prayer for us. Peter bailed on Jesus and his friends just a chapter later. Paul and Barnabas parted ways halfway through the Book of Acts. And us? …We aren’t one as Jesus and the Father are one. We spend most of our time competing with one another, finding scapegoat enemies on whom to blame the world’s problems, and yelling. We’re running a repetitive grinder of anxiety in our collective stomachs.

“If Jesus is praying on our behalf for us to attain a higher, more lofty sense of togetherness, we sure haven’t listened. So what does that say about us?

“What does that say about Jesus’ prayer? For all those who were taught that their heartfelt prayers would be heard and answered, it is quite problematic to see the Son of God’s unanswered prayer staring us in the face. What does it mean when even Jesus’ prayer isn’t answered?”

I have struggled with this question, personally, for decades. I’ve taken part in efforts to try and get Christian denominations of many different stripes to work together, to ignore their differences, to join forces to address one issue or another. Time and again, I’ve come up against resistance, refusal, rejection, and failure. And though I am and will always remain absolutely convinced that Jesus is God, and the Scriptures are the written Word of God, I confess that I have, at times, wondered if Jesus’ prayer here really wasn’t answered… I’ve wondered if Jesus got something wrong.

Left to our own devices, we are like the monkeys that Jimmy Spencer Jr. saw on the national Geographic channel, only we’re fighting over the best way to eat a banana, some peeling it from the stem, some pinching the other end, some splitting it in the middle, still others deciding that Kevin Spacey had it right in K-PAX, and eating it whole, peel and all.

The real problem isn’t Scripture, the real problem is us – Christians as a whole. One may conclude, then, that what we need is a reformation, a revolution, a sea change in the way everything is done!

That was the original idea behind the Emergent Church movement when it started years ago: to deconstruct the idea of church, of faith of Christianity, and reform it. Yet, as much as I enjoy participating in Emergent Church discussions, conferences, and activities, I am beginning to see many of these movements within the Emergent Church develop much the same structures and patterns they strove to destroy. They have their favorite groups, their favorite authors, their favorite special identities… It is, it seems, human nature to want to be right, to be best, to be first, and to be unique as long as it is unique like everyone else…

…and we’re back to arguing over who can peel a banana best.

So maybe revolution, maybe reformation is not the answer. Perhaps the late philosopher Ivan Illich had it right when he said that “neither revolution nor reformation can ultimately change a society, rather you must tell a new powerful tale, one so persuasive that it sweeps away the old myths and becomes the preferred story, one so inclusive that it gathers all the bits of our past and our present into a coherent whole, one that even shines some light into the future so that we can take the next step…. If you want to change a society, then you have to tell an alternative story.”

I want to suggest to you this morning that the problem isn’t with Jesus, or with Scripture, or even with the story we have to tell or the Holy Spirit which God has given us as a vouchsafe, a comforter, a teacher and a catalyst. Like that great theologian and philosopher Pogo once said, so many years ago, “we has seen the enemy, and he is us.”

Looking closely at our Gospel reading this morning, what is it in that last sentence of the Lectionary text that Jesus is praying for? “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” Do you see it? Jesus is praying for God’s protection over you and I, for the express purpose of us becoming one! In other words, God provides the protection, and we do the work! We make the effort, we bridge the gaps, we become one!

There is no magic formula, no special interpretation of Scripture, no universally authoritative interpretation that will make a cohesive unit from the thousands and thousands of denominations, and the hundreds and hundreds of splinter groups and factions within those denominations, not to mention the people who still count themselves as believers, but who gave up on church a long time ago.

What if we spent less time being right, and more time being one? What would that look like?

Unity and love in the body of Christ is far more important than being right. It seems for the last century the major thrust of Christendom is about who’s right and has the answers. We’ve lost something when we fail to love one another and love others who may be difficult to love. Can we really call ourselves Christians just because we believe certain things and go to special places, if we don’t truly love people?

Jesus said, in this same section of John’s Gospel narrative, that people would know that we are his followers not because we had the right doctrines, or followed the correct theological teachings, not because our eschatology was properly Scriptural or our understanding of the Trinity or the Lord’s Supper was accurate, but because we love one another!

It’s time to put down the stones we wish to throw, and begin making people inside and outside the Church feel loved, wanted, believed in, and hoped for. It’s time to begin bringing out the best in one another rather than the worst.

What if we spent less time being right, and more time being one? What would that look like? What if we spent less time praying about being right and more time praying about being one? What if we spent less time condemning those who are different than us, and more time praying for the grace to love those who may be difficult to love? What if we spent less time pointing out where others fall short, and more time praying for opportunities to show God’s love to others, whether or not we have the chance to explain it, or be noticed for it, or take credit for it?

What if we could sing this, and mean it?

“We are one in the Spirit, we are on in the Lord.
We are one in the Spirit, we are on in the Lord.
And we pray that all unity may one day be restored.
And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love,
Yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our love.”

Let us pray.