Tuesday, June 10, 2014
Pentecost – what a great and wonderful day! I have always loved the day that my sister grew up referring to as “red dress Sunday.” Of course, the American Heart Association has stolen that one from us by claiming a day in February as the day for everyone – across race, creed, and religion – to wear red for a great cause; heart health for women. And here in Lafayette we wear red every Friday – especially during football season.
In the face of cultural religions and national campaigns for health and salvation, the red of Pentecost almost seems an idle tale. In fact, when I was thinking of the way in which we have romanticized the story of the birth of the church, I am reminded of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Indeed, Arthur and his gallant knights come in sight of the castle and each say the name wistfully, “Camelot. Camelot. Camelot.” Then the rude squire acknowledges the obvious concession of filmmaking, “It’s only a model.” After a very silly interlude about the rigors of courtly living, Arthur and his knights keep riding and searching for greater meaning and purpose. They do, of course, find their purpose – the search for the Holy Grail – even if they do not actually complete their purpose (or even the film for that matter).
I am reminded of this film because I think that we can often get stuck at the point of admiring the castle of Pentecost without considering the rigors of courtly life or the opportunity for finding greater meaning and purpose through a Holy and noble quest. That may sound like the stuff of legends – a quest handed directly from a divine being to a mortal who makes heroic sacrifices and usually dies tragically – but we who follow Jesus are in fact called to be a community that enacts the will of God through sacrificial living. And though our sacrifices, we demonstrate and point toward the hope of resurrection.
When I say the hope of resurrection I am not just referring to the end of this mortal life and the beginning of the next. I am referring to the thousands of little deaths we experience that open us to a lifestyle of redemption and hope and expectation that God is present and active in this world – right here, and right now!
I think that is why the story of Pentecost is so fascinating to so many of us. It’s one of the few times that we can point to in our collective witness as a people of God and say that God did something massive, miraculous, and entirely obvious! Yet, even in that story there was at least one heckler in the crowd shouting, “Shut up ya bunch of drunks!”
And perhaps we are still responding to that in some way. Perhaps we are still trying to demonstrate, and always will be, that we are not simply intoxicated by our own story or by our own identity – not even by our own beliefs. Interestingly, at the last Presbytery meeting we were warned not to become too self assured by the comparison of beer goggles – that state of perception which makes all things more attractive than anticipated – and the lenses of faith, or as John Calvin would put it – the lenses of scripture.
Therein lies the rub with our celebration of Pentecost. The collective memory of the church has colored this event as an unstoppable spiritual tsunami resulting in shiny, happy churches that shared everything and would have been fine, thank you very much, without the oppression of Rome. The Bible, which indicates a slightly different truth, is the only historical witness to this event, and with the timey wimey type of time traveling the readings go through it is a bit hard to keep the story straight sometimes.
Here’s what I mean. Paul’s letter to Corinth was written first. It was probably written even before the gospels and before the fall of the temple, and it was written to a cosmopolitan group of people that were not exclusively Jewish yet probably met in synagogues and wealthy homes. Acts was written by the author of Luke, who was a contemporary of Paul. Think of Luke and Acts as the back story that filled in the missing details about this person who was being talked about in the letters of Paul as the perfecter of faith – this Jesus, whom people followed even as the Jewish rebellion and Roman oppression were starting to boil over and the temple was being destroyed.
Then we have the gospel of John which was written after the others, and certainly after the destruction of the temple. It was written to a particular group of Jesus’ followers who needed to define themselves as distinct from Judaism while also battling against competing philosophies from within and from the outside influence of differing regional religions.
So, the timeline is Corinthians, Acts, John, but the narrative is John, Acts, Corinthians. And all of this was written down, we believe, after the event of Pentecost and the gift of the Holy Spirit. Or, as Jesus says in John’s gospel, those who believe in him have received living water and will never thirst, because they have rivers of living water flowing from their hearts.
And we, like those who first received John’s Gospel, stand on the other side of the story. We live after the outpouring of the Holy Spirit! We could argue all day long whether it was a matter of the Spirit not being active and present beforehand or if it was a matter of people becoming aware of it, but in the end all that matters is that God is with us. God sustains us. God gives us gifts. God gives us meaning and purpose.
Like heroes of antiquity we are given divine characteristics of wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, spiritual discernment, prophecy, and perhaps even miracles. Each of these gifts is a result of the indwelling of God’s Holy Spirit. Each of these amount to nothing when I forget the source and try to use them to get things done my way. That is why we have one another. Christ formed the church so that we might be grounded in our faith and moved by our love for one another. That is our quest – to be the body of Christ, broken for the world.
Lately, in conversations about our calling as the church, I have been talking about our impending “Pentecostal Moment” because of the expectations for population growth in our region. Last week I challenged the notion of the church as an established institution with the idea that we must first be established in God’s Spirit, and that getting ready for the influx of new community members has more to do with our ability to be hospitable than our ability to demonstrate institutional correctness.
I want to stress that I do believe with the conviction of a Prophet that we are standing at an opportune moment to demonstrate the active presence of God in a new and unique way. I believe that doing so will connect us with people who yearn for a knowledge of God’s presence. That is something that has never changed. People will always yearn for meaning and significance, and we are here to demonstrate the way in which the Spirit of God – the ground and source of all being – has been unleashed and dwells richly in every heart and mind that is willing to understand this simple fact. God loves you.
You matter to the One who manages the cosmos. Through Christ we come to understand that we matter because we are a part of the whole. We are muscle and sinew. We are vessel and flesh. We are the Body of Christ, and individually members of it.
We are not waiting like the Disciples. We have received great gifts from God! We are not waiting on God to come and pull us up or out – for God is with us in all things, bearing with us and believing in us. The place to begin is not one of begging, waiting, or hoping. The place to begin is thanksgiving.
Even when we face trials that feel like a thousand deaths, there is yet hope and wonder and blessing found in thanksgiving. In her book, One Thousand Gifts, Amy Voskamp writes of a simple life in a farming community that includes tragic loss and daily struggle. She claims that thanksgiving is the core for living in God’s presence. Thanksgiving is the fundamental act of the Eucharistic feast of communion, and it provides a pattern for living in God’s presence. “Eucharisteo,” as she calls it, is all about letting go of the self in favor of the greater reality that we are already a part of.
“Humbly let go. Let go of trying to do, let go of trying to control, let go of my own way, let go of my own fears. Let God blow His wind, His trials, oxygen for joy's fire. Leave the hand open and be. Be at peace. Bend the knee and be small and let God give what God chooses to give – because He only gives love – and whisper a surprised thanks. This is the fuel for joy's flame. Fullness of joy is discovered only in the emptying of will. And I can empty. I can empty because counting His graces has awakened me to how He cherishes me, holds me, passionately values me. I can empty because I am full of His love. I can trust.”
Give thanks. Become empty of self to experience the fullness of God. For God is active and present. God’s Spirit is indwelling and overcoming. God’s peace is enduring and overwhelming. God’s love is intoxicating. If we are proclaiming it well, someone will surely ask us if we are drunk. If they do, just offer them a drink – so that they may taste and see that the Lord is active, present, and inspiring acts of mercy and kindness.
The quest to become a perfect Christian, or the ideal church, or the perfect anything is sort like the quest for the Holy Grail. It’s a good thing to do, but it’s not a destination or goal to be reached. Ours is not to be perfect but to be perfected. Ours is to have faith, to give thanks, and to live in response to the immeasurable riches that we have received and have become as the Body of Christ broken for the world. Amen.
Established – this is one of the most dangerous words we can encounter as a church. 1 Peter claims that God will “restore, support, strengthen, and establish” us. Generally speaking, these are good things. Yet I believe that the past tense of the last part of that promise – to be established – can be as much of a curse as it is a blessing. Of course, I am taking the term “establish” completely out of context, so let me back up and fill in some holes before I go too much further.
All three of these readings were most likely written close to the end of the first century. To put it in perspective, scholars believe that Jesus’ death and resurrection were around 33 AD. Rome exercised total control over Israel and Judah, and tensions were rising that eventually spilled over into outright rebellion in 66 AD, with the result of the temple of Jerusalem being overrun and destroyed in 70 AD.
Around this time, or a little later, these letters and stories were written and began to circulate. The other Gospels, and some of the letters of Paul, are believed to have been written earlier, but these were all written after the fall of the temple. Rome had destroyed and scattered the Jewish state and the center of its religious authority. Followers of Jesus were finding it important to do two things: make sure the Romans knew they were different from the Jews that were in rebellion, and write things down before the generation that walked and talked with Jesus had died out. At the same time, they had an immense hope that the promises of Jesus about God’s judgment and their salvation were going to come true in their lifetime!
What’s interesting is that in the letters of Paul we find a greater emphasis on Jesus returning soon. But in these passages, we begin to see a transition. In Acts, the resurrected Jesus walks and talks and teaches the disciples for forty days, and they say, “OK, Jesus. We’re ready. Are you? Is this the time to take it all back?” And Jesus simply tells them not to worry about silly things like the timing of God’s redemptive action, but to wait in Jerusalem, receive the Holy Spirit, and then go share it with all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth!
I can’t blame the disciples for trying, though. Somehow it seems to be a part of our human nature to expect that God wants what we want. You find it throughout the Bible. Whether it is the cry for a King or because of one, whether it is a desire to build a golden cow for a made up God or booths for people made to represent God, we just can’t help but assume that saying that something is good means that, “it benefits me and people who are like me.”
I think that is why passages like 1 Peter are hard for us to understand. If my ability to understand is conditioned by my experience, and if my experience of good is related to my own comfort then how in the world am I to understand what the author of 1 Peter is saying about suffering. One might even get the impression that the God being described is at best cruel and at worst sadistic!
Seriously, this God expects us to suffer – even thinks our suffering is a good thing if it happens because of our belief in his chosen One? Taken out of context, these passages can then become a very convenient justification for some pretty bad behavior on behalf of some pretty selfish so-called followers of Jesus – things like picketing funerals and condemning others for disagreeing.
The context of 1 Peter is not – as far as we can tell – the outright persecution of Christians. That probably came a bit later. Maybe the author was reading the writing on the wall about coming problems, but most scholars agree that the issues have to do with acceptance or rejection. That may sound easy in the face of other horrors, but it affected every aspect of their lives – family, work, connection to community, and resources for basic survival.
So, how do we understand that kind of suffering while we live on 1 planet separated into 3 worlds – developed, developing, and undeveloped (whatever that means) – and we post problems and share articles on the internet such as, “my robot vacuum cleaner died” or “we are hurting our children by protecting them from everything”?
This is not to say that we do not have problems. Some in this room have suffered more than others, and all of us have had our trials. That is precisely why it still matters to hear and to say that there is a God who loves you – a God who loves you enough to let there be chaos in the world. There is a God who holds a final word, and that word is not suffering. That word is redemption. There is a God in whose love you are established, fixed, and made to last.
Now, here is where I will take the word established out of context and tell you why I think it is a dangerous word for the church. When we say that something is established, especially in the church, we expect that it is something that will never change. We expect that it will never need to be changed. We expect that closets and tables that have been named after people we love will always serve the same purpose, and that making changes is a waste of energy that is simply as productive as trying to re-invent the wheel.
We love to quote the old adage, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!” yet we forget that “doing the same thing and expecting new results” is one way to describe insanity. The problem is that we often think that something works because it used to, and because it seems good to us. The result is a church with rock solid doctrine, declining membership, and no relationship with the community that surrounds it.
You see the same thing in the business community – only, people will pour money into a dying church a lot longer than they will a failing business. In 2008, after finding that only 16 of the 100 largest companies that were around in the early 1900's are still with us, Donald R. Keough’s wrote The Ten Commandments for Business Failure. The top four reasons were: 1. Quit Taking Risks 2. Be Inflexible 3. Isolate Yourself 4. Assume Infallibility.
On the contrary, scripture tells us to be humble, to let go of anxiety, to be disciplined, ready, and alert, and to expect God to be with us, to bear with us, and – ultimately – to keep us from failing.
To be established, or to expect God to establish us, truly has nothing to do with permanent structures. It has everything to do with a rhythm of life that expects God to be involved and is grounded in an eternal hope of life in God’s embrace.
The unique claim we find in John’s Gospel is that Jesus wants the disciples to know that he has truly revealed the identity and experience of God’s active presence to them. The proclamation about Jesus makes a dramatic shift in this prayer from a prophet calling for repentance to a person who demonstrates the very presence of God. Eternal life is not simply a prize at the end of the game; it is found in the knowledge of God as active and present. And so, in the way that God and Jesus are one, we are called to a more common unity – or perhaps an uncommon unity, uncommon in all the world because of our desire to love when it is least convenient to do so.
Interestingly, community as a result of our relationship with God is a place of common ground in these texts. In Acts there is a list of the disciples – the first church directory. The names matter, but the calling, the activity, and the discipline is a result of being joined together through faith in Christ. The letters of Peter were also written to a community, and they held the assurance that brothers and sisters in faith throughout the world were suffering with them.
Maybe misery loves company, but maybe the deeper meaning of this passage is something like, “If someone isn’t getting mad somewhere, then we must not be doing our jobs. And if people are pushing back against us all over the place, then we must really be doing something good!” Of course it isn’t that simple – just because someone resists you does not mean that you are in the right.
The reality is that the world is a self-centered place. To be God centered – or worse, to encourage other people to be God centered – is going to create conflict. Add to that the fact that sometimes life is difficult no matter what you do, and it becomes really important to know that you are not alone in this world. Add to that the fact that some people that claim to share the values and beliefs that you hold to be true will still reject you. Add to that the fact that you might want to reject some of them, and you can see how difficult the task of joining with others as Jesus joined with his heavenly Father can become.
It may sound trite, but I think that loving one another is a crucial task of this congregation as we grow. One of my first observations about this congregation was the way in which a wide variety of social classes and theologies are embraced in one place. A member responded to my observation matter-of-factly. She said, “We have no choice. We’re too small to lose anyone.”
That used to be true. As we continue to grow, the new normal is not that we have no choice but to love. It is that we must choose how to be a community grounded in love. As difficult as that can be, I saw something like it at my daughter’s ballet studio the other day.
Several classes gave presentations of the work they had been about. It wasn’t a recital so much as a window into their world. Most of the dancers were in sync. All danced beautifully. The few mistakes that were made were some of the more beautiful moments, in my opinion. A dancer dropped her hat during a jazz routine and kept on dancing, moving her hand as if the hat were there. A girl turned the wrong way in a ballet piece and giggled as she watched her friends and moved back in sync. There were one or two other minor mistakes. The important thing was the dance. Correct and purposeful movement in time with music and crafted by instructors was punctuated by simple mistakes and grand artistic gestures to create something unique in all the world and dependent on every piece to become complete.
That’s the church. As we bumble and glide toward our own Pentecost event, let us be humble, let us be disciplined, let us take the risk of an uncommon common unity established in the Holy Spirit, revealing the active presence of God – and to God be the glory, now and always. Amen.
The three most common claims that I hear about God these days are that God wants to have a personal relationship with you as an individual, God is uninterested in us, or God doesn’t exist. I don’t intend to argue for or against any of these claims, because I think they are unarguable. I am willing to accept that any or all of them might be true, because my faith and my understanding of God is not changed, stretched, or challenged by any of them.
Instead, I would like to suggest that the answer to the question of God’s existence and our understanding of God’s will is not based on who or what God is, or who we are, or what we do. It is based on the fact that we are limited creatures with the ability to do something that no other creature – as far as we know – can do. We can hope. We can live with struggle and pain and suffering, and we can still expect that something better is on the way. Not only that, we even have the ability to expect that our difficulties create the opportunity for better things to come!
Maybe that is because we are the only creatures – as far as we know – that think of ourselves as something special and unique. A seed doesn’t have to hope that it will grow into a plant. It simply grows or rots. Most animals have brains that limit their cognitive process – as far as we know – to functions of fight, flight, eat, sleep, and reproduce. Sure, there are herd mentalities and pairing behaviors, but the point is that the basic animal brain function is to respond to stimuli in a way that allows them to keep responding to basic stimuli – it’s how they stay alive.
Humans, on the other hand, have a knack for survival that is based on something more than reacting to the world as it is. Although we can get stuck in survival mode, and frequently do, our brains are wired in a way that anticipates, expects, and moves toward the world as it can be – the world as it will be. Sometimes we find that we can control the outcome, and sometimes we find that we simply can’t. Historically we have taken the events that are out of our control and ascribed them to the gods – beings that exist beyond our control.
Perhaps nowhere was this more clear than in the ancient city of Athens – named for the Greek Goddess, Athena – and that’s where Paul found himself in our passage today. In Athens, the Greek Gods were still worshiped, but the Gods were not worshiped in the way that we think of worship. Some scholars suggest that there was more of a separation between practices of worship and daily living than we tend to talk about when we describe practices of worship today. Then again, some things have not changed a bit.
The Gods were a resource when things weren’t going right. In some ways it was like an early version of the smart phone. Crops aren’t yielding? We’ve got an app for that. Fertility? We’ve got an app for that. Somebody died? We’ve got an app for that. The Gods were really not interested in personal choices or ethics. The Gods were simply the explanation for forces that were beyond control. They were moody and easily offended, yet they were really only concerned with their turf. Given that creation was held at their whim, it was only natural to try to curry their favor when times were tough.
And just to be sure that no god was left out, the Athenians had a statue for “an unknown god.” As Paul’s travels had taken him to Athens while he awaited his traveling companions, he was overwhelmed by the number of gods and the confusion these people must be experiencing. So, he argued in the synagogue for Jesus. They weren’t buying it. He argued with anyone who would talk to him, and eventually they took him to the Areopagus – because that was the place to hear different opinions and discuss the meanings of things.
At first they thought he was telling them about a foreign god – for they believed that gods held sway in certain regions, just like Kings and Princes. And Paul tells them that they have been wise to hedge their bets, but that the unknown god is THE God; that God created all that is; and that God had scattered humanity so that we might search, grope, and perhaps find the One in whom we live and move and have our being. Then Paul lowers the boom by borrowing the words of their own poet, Aratus, to say that we are not the offspring of Zeus, but of the God who is so powerful that even death does not limit God’s activity and love.
Of course some of the Athenians scoffed. Death? They had an app for that. But some listened and said,“We will hear you again on this.” We have no way to know,but I wonder if the thing that struck home was the fact that Paul told them that if they are God’s offspring, then they can’t have come from an image or creation that they formed out of the stuff that God made. The statues and idols were believed not only to represent the Gods but also to embody them. To say that the things we make are divine flips the relationship and makes us the creators of our gods. Paul is simply saying, “God is God, and you are not.”
Now – as elementary as that sounds, and as locked and loaded in ancient history as this story is – I can’t help but wonder if we do not still need to hear the same thing today. Our culture is ever more pluralistic. The image of the melting pot of America where everyone seasons the stew to create a unified and complex Judeo-Christian flavor has given way to the concept of the tossed salad where each contribution is appreciated for the flavor it brings. We have celebrity “Idols.” We have celebrated individualism to the point that it has become a center of value, and we have so many centers of value that we find it hard to say what and whom we are devoted to – also known as worshiping – and to what and whom we are not.
So, with all that tugs at us, and all that keeps us reacting to the present moment, and all that limits our vision of hope for the future, the first thing we have to hear and to be willing to say in the Areopagus is that “God is God and we are not.” The next is that this God, the one we do not know and cannot fathom or see, is bigger than the God that we can conceive. And the last is that this God is not waiting for us to establish a relationship, because God – being God – is already in a relationship with all of creation.
Yes, it is through Jesus that we understand and see God’s love, but it is almost like jumping in a pool and realizing that you were already swimming in it! In God, we live and move and have our being. We can say that God or God’s love is like gravity or oxygen or even a consuming fire, but God simply is. God is the ground of all being.
Still, we need things to point to that describe things we cannot understand or see. We need touchstones and talismans to remind us of where we have been and where we hope to go. Our offices and homes are littered with them like tiny shrines to little gods.
I confess that on my desk there are a few. First is the miniature Red Flyer wagon filled with jelly beans. It was a gift from some followers of Jesus who became my family at a summer camp. The wagon reminds me of the whimsey God created me with. The jelly beans remind me of a time when my dad showed me the delights of an Amaretto flavored bean. This altar reminds me that God created me, has carried me through difficult times, and that a life of faith is filled with endless combinations of bitter and sweet.
There is also an acrylic paperweight with a quote from Isaiah that came from a member of the church that raised me, though she joined the church after I had already left for seminary. The clear acrylic reminds me of the waters of baptism and of God’s claim upon me. The giver of the gift and the scripture upon it reminds me that, in a church, we are all in it together and all strengthened by God.
Along with these is a wooden desk set that was carved for my grandfather by a friend. The wood originated in the boards of a church that burned long ago. It reminds me how fragile life can be – especially life lived in community – and it reminds me that nothing we create is ever as sacred as the One who created us.
Clipped to the desk set is a clothespin with the words, “Pass it on” written in marker. It reminds me of a time when I played games with children to see who could clip the most pins on the most people without their knowledge because sometimes grace is best understood anonymously. Next to these is a permanent marker. The marker is to remind me that there are only two things that are truly permanent. The first is change. You can always count on change. The second is God’s love. God’s love will never change.
Lastly, on my desk is a Hazelnut. Next to it is a quote from Juliana of Norwich, a Christian mystic who lived in a time of plague and destruction and experienced deep spiritual revelations in the midst of her own suffering. The quote says, “All she needed to know of God lay in the hazelnut: God made it. God loves it. God looks after it.” Lady Juliana of Norwich
In the midst of our idols and talismans – no matter how well intended – we must hold fast to the hope that we receive from knowing that God is God and we are not. We must remember that the God in which we believe is bigger than the God we can conceive. And we must be willing to speak and to act in the Areopagus in ways that demonstrate the love of God, in whom we live and move and have our being.
In that way we will keep the commandments of Jesus to love as we have been loved. And in the words of Jesus, “On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.”
I pray that it may be so with you. I pray that it may be so with me. And to God be the glory,now and always. Amen.