Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Day of Pentecost Year C 2010

"What Was Spoken"

Pentecost C 10
May 23, 2010

Acts 2:1-21

Psalm 104:24-34, 35b

Romans 8:14-17

John 14:8-17, (25-27)

"God declares" is the classic phrase of prophecy. Throughout Israel's history, the Old Testament tells of certain men and women who received God's Spirit. The prophet's job in the drama of history was to bring God on to the stage.

All our little dramas proceed along, you know, our household struggles and our family tragedies and our political conflicts and our international disasters and our oil spills and our recessions and so on, and what the prophet does is play the part of God. In the prophet, God just walks into the scene and starts talking.

Now it might be about the future or it might be about the present, but usually it has to do with a warning or a promise, and not so much fortune-telling. Not "You will meet a tall dark stranger," but more, "If you do what I tell you you will meet a tall dark stranger, but if you don't, you will only encounter short, pale people you've known for years." Do you hear the difference? There is something of a prediction here, but there is also a choice offered. In many cases, there are multiple futures out there and God is saying, "OK, you've done thus and such, and so that leaves you these two possible futures, one that I'd like you to have, and one that you will have if you don't listen to me."

Yes, sometimes the future God announces is a fixed thing, like with his message to Noah. "It's going to rain, buddy. Therefore, build the boat." But even there, the idea is that Noah has a choice. Maybe not much of one, but a choice. Build the boat or drown. And in Joel, the passage Peter quotes to help everybody understand what's happening, well, it would seem this was a fixed future, a certain thing, not dependent on human choices.

But it wasn't really. Joel was asking for Israel to remain faithful. He was granted to see this vision of the future to encourage everyone to keep on being faithful, even though being faithful didn't seem to be getting them anywhere at the time. That's the thing about faith, you know, the thing about faithfulness. The main thing about it is not giving up, even though it might not appear to be working. Why? What Joel says is, at the end of the day, finally, when all is said and done, God's going to do this amazing thing, and if you give up, you'll miss out.

Presumably, all the Jews who were present, all those people who lived scattered all over the Roman Empire, a people who were broken and oppressed, but who struggled to remain faithful to their heritage, presumably all of them knew that Joel passage and others like it, and that's why they were there in Jerusalem. They'd most of them been there since Passover, and most of them had either seen or heard about the crucifixion of Jesus, and the strange rumors that some of his followers had seen him risen from the dead. They were all there to keep the faith, even though it was expensive and inconvenient to drop everything and make the journey to Jerusalem, even though belief in their God apparently hadn't delivered them out from under the Romans, they were there to keep the faith. Their priests were corrupt, the Jerusalem Council was self-righteous and hypocritical, the king Herod was a murderous monster, but they came anyway, they came for the festival, because they were keeping the faith, hoping against all odds that God might someday do the things he promised he would do.

And what had he promised to do? Well, he promised that instead of just one person here and there becoming a prophet, one big-shot per generation, a Moses here, an Elijah there, an Isaiah and then a Jeremiah, everyone, his whole people, would become prophets. From King down to dishwasher, from daycare center to nursing home, the whole shebang. God's people, what we now call the church on earth, would become one big prophet. And the church would then take on the job that Moses did and Elijah did and all the prophets had done. Whatever was going on in the world, whatever was going on wherever the church was, the church would be God walking into the scene, making warnings and promises, and doing various miracles.

And what's going on? Portents, Joel says. I think of portents as the terrible things that drive us to our knees before God. It interested me that people did not flock to church when the economy went south. Actually the trend has been in the other direction. People have been leaving church. Now no one has studied this or figured out why. My take on it is that we are still trying to fix this thing ourselves. We haven't been driven to our knees yet. But we're getting there, I think. We'll be on our knees sooner or later, and probably sooner.

Blood and fire and smoky mist. Crucifixions and oil spills and old friends suddenly dying, bloody wars and terrorist bombings and parents getting Alzheimer's, political stalemates and rampant dishonesty and a son or daughter who's addicted, blood and fire and smoky mist, the sun turned to darkness and the moon to blood. Things that are just wrong. Things that just aren't supposed to be.

But there are the very things, old Joel is saying, these are the very things that should give us hope, because these are the things that set the stage for our longing, our calling, our shouting out for God. These are the very things that prompt us to open ourselves, to give up and ask for help.

What was spoken was a prediction that we would someday come, my friends, we, the church of Jesus Christ. Waitresses and doctors and store clerks and contractors and farmers and therapists and soft drink salesmen and professors and boatyard workers and bank tellers, that we as one body, filled with the peace of God, would walk on to the world stage, the world full of darkness and blood, to speak and act for God.

This is why the church building stands here, why we gather each week, why we collect our resources at this table, why we listen to the word of God each week. This is a last day thing, the ultimate purpose of God, to be his presence in a broken-up and frightened world. Through us and through the whole church on earth, we are each of us being saved, and are each of us also be drawn into the saving work of God for all the world.

Today is our day to pray for God's Spirit. To cry out to God in our powerlessness, to turn to God with our incapacity to make right what is clearly wrong, or even understand which is which. It's our annual day to ask God for his Spirit. We are not asking that certain of our members receive it, that we lift up this one or that one, we are not asking that the pastor receive it, so that the rest of us need not be bothered by it, we are asking for what was spoken by the prophet Joel. We are asking that we all receive the Spirit, and not only us, but everyone worshipping at Zoar, and everyone worshipping at Clarksbury, and everyone worshipping at churches in Bali and South Africa and Germany and Japan. We are asking for the one Spirit of God, the one voice that we all understand, that makes us all one child of God.

In my last long conversation with Mrs. Miller, she was telling me a good bit about what used to be at Philippi. But then she stopped and paused and thought a moment. Then she smiled and said, "But Mr. Used-To doesn't live here anymore."

There's a book we'll all be studying at the Regional Assembly called Reaching People Under 50 While Keeping People Over 60, and one of the studies it reports says that people under 50 tend to look into the future, while people over 60 tend to look into the past. And that has been true in my experience.

I remember a woman named Hildegarde. She was in her early eighties when I met her while serving her church, Faith Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I was thinking of her this morning. She's long since passed on, but she was my Liz's godmother when I baptized Liz in 1998. Most of the members of Faith were over 60, and most of them talked more or less all the time about the way it used to be.

But Hildegarde wasn't like the other older people at Faith. Mr. Used-To was really of no interest to her. Right up until she died, she was a visionary at Faith. She saw what God had in store for that church. One Sunday she came into my office and talked with me about her dreams for the future of her congregation, and at one point tears began to run down her face. I asked her what was wrong. And she said, "I just wish I could be here to see it."

But of course, she was there, and she was seeing it. She was living it. She was living what was spoken by the prophet.

"In these last days I will pour out my spirit on all flesh, so that your young people shall see visions, and your old people will dream dreams."


Seventh Sunday of Easter Year C 2010

And the Prisoners Were Listening

07 Easter C 10
May 16, 2010

Acts 16:16-34

Psalm 97

Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21

John 17:20-26

Happy Easter! Yes, it's still Easter. It began at the beginning of April and here we are halfway through May and we're still celebrating.

I've been led (I believe by the Spirit) to preach on the Book of the Acts of the Apostles. And I've been asking along the way if you can see Philippi, our own church, in these stories of the church in its infancy.

I know of an alcoholic, I won't name her, and she might not even be a woman, who found her way into a spiritual life and thus out of the grips of her addiction to alcohol. She had been a terrible drunk, ripping, as the twelve-step literature says, though the lives of those she knew and loved like a tornado. Her husband, especially, suffered. She was no kind of partner, of course. Her spending and her laziness and her moodiness and self-centeredness all conspired to make her terribly difficult to love. But the man was really a saint. No matter how often she disappointed him, he was always there to help her, to clean up the mess.

So of course, when she got sober, there was much rejoicing. The husband was very excited and all his friends congratulated him.

Then, one night, she came home from a meeting to find a bottle of her favorite gin on the table in the kitchen. It had a note taped to it. "I want my wife back."

The husband had bought her the alcohol not because he wanted her to continue to suffer, but because his own identity and status had become dependent on her being sick. When she began to heal, he suddenly lost his sainthood status. He had nothing further to suffer.

Exploitation takes many forms. In our story today, the slave girl's owners make money on her ability to predict the future. When she is healed she becomes useless. The resurrection agitates and unsettles a world that often exploits the suffering of many to make secure the happiness of a few. When God comes on the scene, wrapped in the flesh of the people of the church, those in bondage are set free, those in power are knocked down a notch, and those who are weak are lifted up.

So much of our daily efforts around the world are based not on healing the creation, but on servicing its disease. So many of our institutions and business ventures depend for their survival on the presenting problems they address remaining unfixed. We make a virtue of suffering and then laud the overworked and underpaid, instead of simply treating them fairly. We have a huge and costly health care system that depends for its profits on rampant food and drug addictions. We also have a huge and costly criminal justice system that depends on many of those same addictions. We have an increasingly global economic system that lays the prosperity of a relatively few on the back of a relatively large majority in poverty. Then, social service organizations, including the church, expend tons of life-draining energy putting bandaids on those who are bleeding to death, instead of loudly and fiercely casting out the demons that are doing the cutting.

How many of the working poor in our community might have been okay through this economic downturn if they'd been paid a living wage when the economy was good? How many Mexicans would be staying in their own country now if our nation's farmers hadn't dumped cheap corn on their markets? How much might our health care system have benefited if something other than economic growth at all costs were not the defining value taught and preached from every pulpit in the country, therefore encouraging compulsive behaviors that become the cornerstone of big profit?

The resurrection is the power of God to save the world. It is not give to us to help us cope with problems that can't be fixed. It is not given to us to favor a few at the expense of the many. It is not given to us to help us put up with injustice and keep our mouths shut. It is not given to us to gain social status as saintly individuals dependent on the suffering around us to look important. It is the power of God to save the world.

Harry Leach often serves as a spiritual mentor to me, and the Serenity Prayer is one of his favorites. He often reminds me that serenity depends on my willingness to put into God's hands those things over which I have no control. It is a worthy and important lesson, but one that can be misinterpreted.

That prayer is the favorite of recovering alcoholics and drug addicts all over the world, who begin their recoveries by recognizing their powerlessness over their own addictions. Giving their problem into the hands of God does not mean that they simply give into it. Turning something over to God doesn't mean forgetting about it, not thinking about it anymore, not doing anything about it. Recovering addicts turn their problem over to God through a series of very difficult steps. I believe those steps are the path taught by Jesus Christ. "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change" does not mean accepting a life of active addiction. It means accepting that I must turn to God to change things I cannot change myself. I will need tremendous courage to do the things that I must do to turn my problem over to God.

This is the church's work, friends, the work of resurrection, of getting up from the dead, of being reborn as new creatures, of saving the world.

When Paul and his companions were locked into the prison, they sang praises to God. And Luke tells us that the prisoners were all listening to them. Think of that for a moment, friends. Think of that rotting, stinking, dark and dingy jail, the prisoners in near despair. Think of the sound of songs of praise drifting through those hallways.

That's the sound of resurrection.


Sixth Sunday of Easter Year C 2010

"Come and Stay"

06 Easter C 10
May 9, 2010

Acts 16:9-15, Psalm 67, Revelation 21:10, 22:1-5, John 14:23-29

Happy Easter!

Yes, I know it's Mother's Day. And we're not going to let this worship service go by without honoring that national holiday. But it's also still the season of Easter. Today is the sixth Sunday we celebrate the resurrection, and next week will be the seventh and last. Of course, every Sunday worship service is a celebration of the resurrection.

I've been moved this Easter season to preach on the book of the Acts of the Apostles, which we have said seems more like the book of the Acts of the Holy Spirit. It's Luke's sequel to his Gospel. In today's movie sequel language, The Gospel of Luke 2. It's the story of what happened in the few years immediately after Jesus rose from the dead. It's a protracted story of his resurrection.

It's Christ, through the Holy Spirit, who is running the whole show. Christ enables Paul to have the vision of the man from Macedonia. And it's Christ who opens Lydia's heart to the message about Jesus.

Now before we all start talking about our dreams and telling each other how our own desires and choices are actually God's mystical guidance, let's remember that both Paul and Lydia are described in the scriptures as practiced and experienced believers. I know there are a lot of ideas I have that are not at all Spirit-led, and discerning between what comes from heaven and what comes from my own belly is not always easy. Paul grew up in the Jewish faith, and after his conversion to faith in Christ, he also received significant training. Similarly, Luke describes Lydia as "a worshipper of God," which means she has been at this thing for a while.

Lydia is of course another of Luke's women. Luke, of all the gospel writers, seems most interested in the ways in which the resurrection uplifted women. We've heard this Easter season about the wonderful saint Dorcas, the wealthy woman who bestowed lavish gifts on the poor, and here we are introduced to another wealthy female merchant, who becomes the founder of the original Philippi. You might call Lydia our congregation's spiritual mother.

When I read the passage, and the other passages appointed for this day, I was struck by the idea of God making his home in the midst of his people. In a very real sense this is what the whole life, death and resurrection of Jesus points to. God coming among his people and making his home there.

And so it was Lydia's simple words, "Come and stay," that struck me. Lydia, she of the God-opened heart, invited Paul and his companions, the emissaries of the risen Christ, to "come and stay," and in so doing, invited the risen Christ as well. And in inviting the risen Christ, she also invited God.

"Come and stay," she said.

Our own Walter Deagle has been to the city of Philippi and has visited the ancient sites. Some of his compatriots in the army were even baptized at what is believed to be the church founded by Lydia. He has a particular fondness for the place and told me yesterday that he really wishes he were here today. Philippi went on to become a major city in the ancient church, where a number of congregations sprang up, all because God opened this woman's heart. God came, and God stayed. God made his home in Philippi.

Despite the importance of women in the early church, as late as about a century ago, it was virtually impossible for a woman to become an ordained leader of the church. Many who were drawn to ministry ended up taking another route, marrying ministers. There are any number of famous ministers' wives in American history. In some cases, the minister's wife ended up having more of an impact than her husband.

In the black church, there's an honorific for a female leader, one who exemplifies everything Christians strive to be. She is called "the mother of the church." Just as Lydia was the mother of the ancient church at Philippi, so Elaine Miller is the mother of our modern Philippi. It's obvious to all of us who have gotten to know her that God indeed had opened her heart, and she, like Lydia, invited him to "come and stay." Come and stay in my heart. Come and stay in my home. Come and stay in my village. Come live with us.

I asked Mrs. Miller yesterday if she was afraid at all. Of course she wasn't. And despite her discomfort and being away from home, she grasps the hands of everyone who visits and tells them as best she can that she loves them. She's not frightened because the Spirit of God has come to her and stayed in her. And there is nothing, nothing in this world, that can kill or destroy the Holy Spirit.

I feel led to announce this morning that the church is Jesus risen from the dead. I want to say that again, "The church is Jesus the Christ risen from the dead." Another way of saying this is, "The church is God in the flesh." Another way of saying this is "The church is God's way of making his home in the world."

Let me say more about this, and I hope you're listening, because this is important. The church is meant to be a unified body of Spirit-filled members, working together to manifest the presence of God where they are. From among those members certain leaders emerge who carry the message elsewhere. Members like Paul and Peter and all the ordained ministers of the church since.

But for most of us, all the other ministers, the church is the particular embodiment of God's Spirit at home among humankind in any given place or time. It is Jesus Christ risen from the dead in the form of a bunch of people who collectively welcome his Spirit and allow him to Lord over them.

Now this may not be how we experience the church. We might experience it as yet another consumable. Another thing on the list of things we want in our lives, another thing we go out and purchase and use to improve the quality of our lives. And at the point where the church meets North American 21st century culture I suppose this is pretty much what it is. And for some, perhaps, it never ceases to be that.

For others, the church is a social club in which one works at improving one's status in the community. It's all about the public perception. I saw a play recently in which a character described a certain perfect Christian. She said, "If you just stand next to him, you just feel vile." Some folks are aiming at creating that impression. Personally I like Harry Leach's favorite Mark Twain quote: "It's my vices that endear me to my friends, my virtues that annoy them."

But deeper in, where the real church resides, are the people who have embraced the practices of prayer and meditation and deep investigation of scripture and self-examination and repentance and forgiveness and reconciliation, seeking to be filled the God's Holy Spirit, and to encounter Christ alive as Lord. And no matter who appears to be in charge, at the heart of every real church are at least a few people who are filled with God's Spirit, who are literally transformed into God's flesh, at least at those times when they are spiritually healthy.

Mrs. Miller is certainly one of those people, and it is her lifelong work and passion for Christ that has blessed this church, just as Lydia's did the ancient church at Philippi.

Let's not forget this, friends. Let's not forget that we are hear not so much to have our needs met as to have our hearts opened by God. Let's not forget that the purpose of our being here is not so much to get what we want, but to be filled by God's Spirit, who will give us far more than we could even imagine to ask for.

Let's not forget to invite God to come and stay.


Monday, May 3, 2010

Fifth Sunday of Easter Year C 2010

What God Has Made Clean

05 Easter C 10
May 2, 2010

Acts 11:1-18

Psalm 148

Revelation 21:1-6

John 13:31-35

It amazes me how difficult it is for me to change how I feel about something or someone. In fact, I would say it's impossible. My emotions seem to have a compulsive power, even though I know they don't represent reality or fact. There are times, though, that I become convinced that how I feel about something is connected to facts and reality, even when it isn't. This is the greatest trap of all.

It may be our culture has taught us to trust our feelings above all other things. We are trained, day in and day out, to assess our feelings, to ask ourselves if we are happy, if we are getting what we want and what we need, to put everything we spend time doing to that test. Is it making me feel good? This seems to be the ultimate question in a consumeristic society.

But I have learned the hard way that my feelings can't be trusted, that chasing what I feel is right and good for me or even for others can often be deeply wrong. My salvation does not come from within. It comes from God, through Jesus Christ, in the gift of the Holy Spirit. I can trust the Holy Spirit. I can't trust Mike. And you can't trust Mike either, by the way. But you can trust the Holy Spirit.

In whatever culture we belong to, there are all kinds of distinctions that are made. We are taught to stick to our own, to stay close to those we "belong to." Those outside of that circle are of no concern, or at least of less concern, than those inside it. Moreover, we are taught that we can be compromised by spending time with outsiders, that we will lose our purity or identity if we don't keep the boundaries clear. All of us, whether we are Jewish or not, have an idea of what is unclean for us, what is dirty for us.

I think at least one of the most basic issues causing the decline of the church in the Northern hemisphere is our growing inability to simply stay in the sandbox with our neighbors, to simply stick by them, stay faithful. We're always looking for someone to push out of the sandbox, or else we're looking for a new sandbox. Either way, we give up on each other, we give up on partnership, we give up on community.

This passage teaches us that, if we pay attention to the leading of the Spirit, it will almost certainly lead us to those we would not ordinarily relate to. And if we don't pay attention to the Spirit's leading, the Spirit will find whom she will find, and may in fact abandon us.

The book of Acts has been called the Acts of the Holy Spirit. It's probably the bible's premiere book on the subject. And one of the chief markers of the identity of Christ's Holy Spirit is faithful community. The Spirit seems most interested in drawing people together around the table of Jesus Christ, and keeping them there. The Spirit seems interested most in building a bigger and bigger sandbox, and keeping people together within it.

It's the Holy Spirit of Jesus Christ that gives us all our energy and power and distinctiveness and purpose. In this story from Acts, Peter remembers the word of the Lord, who said, "John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit." The purpose and intention of the Holy Spirit is primarily creative. God's Spirit is the breath that animates life and growth and newness. Whatever it is that may be wrong with us or with our community or with our world is fixed not by our efforts or ideas or opinions or power, at least not finally, at least not completely. But anything may be made whole through the infusion of God's Holy Spirit.

We in the Disciples tradition have a few slogans that address this issue. One of them is "In essentials, unity, in non-essentials freedom, and in all things, love." Unfortunately, these days I think the essentials have come into question. We have plenty of freedom and plenty of love, but in the essentials, I don't think we are unified.

Without unity in the essentials, we can't be the church. Giving up this essential unity, even for the sake of a good thing like diversity, ultimately undermines the church and robs it of its energy. It is essential for example that Jesus Christ be the center of everything we believe and do as the church. I would submit that few rank-and-file Christians could tell you much that is accurate about Jesus Christ, much less articulate how he is actually the Lord of their lives. Instead, I think we tend to follow charismatic individuals who appeal to what we feel we need or want, and justify it all in the name of Jesus. We can have all the liberty and charity we want, but without the unity in this essential, we cease to be the church and become instead just another human institution, without the Holy Spirit.

But when we come to believe Jesus Christ is alive, we receive God's Holy Spirit, and we are transformed. We see what we could not see before, we hear what we could not hear before, we do what we could not do before. Our feelings no longer rule us. We are ruled instead by God. This is how God makes us holy. And one of the many things that we can see and hear and do, that we couldn't do before, is to share this same Holy Spirit.

Peter's dream writ large has to do with the cleansing of the whole creation. It has to do with the ways in which we draw lines between what is holy and what is not, what is of concern and what is not, who is acceptable and who is not. And it is about the spiritual process, the path of Christ, toward a greater and greater presence of God in and through all people and things. It's a pivotal story in the book of Acts, because it points to the whole story, the story of the spread of the Holy Spirit, like some spiritual flood, pouring out into Jerusalem and spreading throughout the Roman empire.

God doesn't condemn the unclean. We do. It is true that there are things that have not been suffused with God's Spirit. But this is not because they can't be. It is because we haven't suffused them.

What God has made clean, we should not call profane.