Sunday, May 20, 2018

Pentecost Sunday - Year b


Acts 2:1-21     (Gen 11:1-9)                                      

                                                  The Spirit-Gift to Community for Mission

            Thomas G. Long, professor of homiletics at Princeton Theological Seminary, tells of teaching a confirmation class in which he was discussing the major festivals of the Church Year.  The Children knew about Christmas and Easter, but no one in the class could remember the significance of Pentecost.  Dr. Long explained that the day of Pente­cost was the day the Holy Spirit came from heaven with the sound of a rushing wind, and fire rested on the heads of everyone gathered in Jerusalem, and they all spoke in different tongues.  At that point one girl raised her hand and said, "I don't remember that.  My family must have been out of town that Sunday."

            Pastor Long’s story exposes one of the major difficulties which confront us on Pentecost Sunday: how do we bridge the gap between the events recorded in Acts and the experience of the church today.  Many of us are troubled and confused by the circumstances surrounding the birth of the church.  If anything resembling the events in Jerusalem ever hap­pened in our church, it had to have happened on a Sunday that we were away.

            The timing of Pentecost increases the likelihood that we were away.  Today is Pentecost Sunday on the liturgical calendar; on the calendars we carry in our pockets, it’s one of the early summer Sundays.  College is out, summer sessions are yet to begin.  Our congregational calendar is also slowing down.  What do we have one more week of traditional Sunday Church School classes?  Our service at the lake is in two weeks.  With all that comes the general expectation that worship attendance will be lower from now until sometime in August.

            Confusion and calendar location - is it any wonder that the mention of Pentecost is met with blank stares?

            The story of the rushing wind and the tongues of fire is one of the best known stories of the bible.  Unfortunately, its popularity is not accompanied by a high degree of understanding.  All too often, the second chapter of Acts is the source of major misunderstandings about the role of the Holy Spirit in the Christian community.  The events recorded here are too often used to bolster the mistaken view that the gift of the Holy Spirit is a reward for special righteousness, that the Spirit is concerned only with individual believers, and that the primary manifestation of the Spirit's presence is the speaking in tongues.  In fact, the text itself makes three very different affir­mations: 

1 - The Holy Spirit is a gift, given by God;
2 - God gives the Holy Spirit to the community of faith;
3 - God gives the Holy Spirit to the community of faith for mission.

            First, Luke proclaims that the gift of the Holy Spirit is God's gift.  It is not and cannot be earned; and it is not deserved.  It is simply a gift.  This point is missed or misunderstood by too many of our contemporaries.  While none blatantly insist they have a right to an outpouring of the Holy Spirit, they speak of spiritual disci­pline in such a way as to imply that one positions oneself for the Spirit's arrival.  The pure, the chaste, the pious - - such members of the community carry themselves in such a way as to suggest that they are more deserving of the Spirit's visitation.  The author of Acts has no such illusions.

            Those who were gathered in Jerusalem were not seeking the gift of the Holy Spirit, they could only accept it.  They did not create the Spirit's power, they could only claim it.  They did not program the Spirit's arrival, they could only respond to it.  The Holy Spirit is God's gift, freely given to those whom God chooses.

            The second affirmation within the biblical text is the affirma­tion that God gives the Spirit to the community of faith.  In Jerusa­lem, the coming of the Spirit created unity were there had been division.  That long list of difficult names read for us are a remind­er of the variety of nationalities and peoples present in Jerusalem.  The Spirit comes, and diverse people become the one people of God.

            Congregationalism among the modern church has eroded our ability to see the diversity of those who assemble in God's name.  It is our tendency to join congregations where folks look and act and talk in the same way we do.  At Pentecost, the Spirit swooped through the crowd, as with an out-stretched arm.  Gathering together all those who had once been individuals; making of them children of God.

            The events described in Acts 2 are set in juxtaposition with the events in Genesis 11.  This is another well-known, but often not-so-well-understood biblical story.  Genesis 11 is the story of the Tower of Babel. On first reading, the story of the Tower of Babel seems to show human pride destroying human unity - resulting in God's punishment of scattering the people of the earth literally (geographically) and symbolically (linguistically).  But a second reading reveals a more complex plot and deeper meaning.

            The people who settled on the plain of Shinar were unified.  They shared a common language and a common purpose.  They wanted to make a name for themselves and keep themselves from being scattered to the corners of the earth.  The unity they sought, however, was contrary to God's instruction - given in Genesis 1.28 - to be fruitful and multi­ply, and fill the earth.  The Tower of Babel is a warning against all attempts to establish unity on the basis of human autonomy and self-sufficiency.  The unity desired by God is based not upon common lan­guage or common goals but on a common commitment to do God's will and to live according to God's purposes.

            The Holy Spirit is given to the community of faith.  The spirit comes to the individual believer only in the larger context of restor­ing proper relationships in the community of faith and empowering the community of faith for service.

            The third affirmation present in the story of Pentecost is that God gives the Spirit to the community of faith for mission.  The Spirit is God's active presence in the world.

            When the Spirit is considered an individual gift; when the Spirit is considered a reward for pious living; it ceases to be active - rather it becomes a trophy, held with great pride and dis­played for all to see, but never used in the accomplishment of an even greater task.  God's gift to the community of faith - the Holy Spir­it - is given to us so that we might be about the work of God in the world.

            Here again we can learn something from that story in Genesis 11. 
God punished the people by confusing their language so that they did not understand one another.  The word rendered "understand" is the Hebrew shema, the same word that appears in the affirmation "Hear, O Israel:  The Lord our God is one Lord."  (Deut 6.4)  This connection is important because it focuses attention on hearing as an essential ingredient in the divine-human relationship and in relationships within the human community.  Whether between parents and teenagers, husbands and wives, men and women, or God and humanity, when hearing fails, relationships fail.

            This emphasis on hearing, not the speaking in tongues, is the link between Genesis 11 and Acts 2.  The word “hear” appears at several crucial points in the Pentecost narrative in Acts (2.6, 8, 14, 22, 37).  The events of Pentecost do not, as is usually assumed, reverse the punishment given to the builders of the tower but rather results in a "fresh capacity to listen."  (W. Brueggemann, Genesis, Interpretation, John Knox Press.)

            In spite of all the speaking in other tongues, those who gathered in Jerusalem heard the gospel in their own language. God did not restore a single language or one homogeneous community.  Instead God enabled the diverse and scattered peoples of the earth to hear one another.  On Pentecost every nation under heaven is embraced.  It is that same Spirit which empowers and sustains the church as it seeks to give voice to God's word of salvation and become a channel of God's work in the world.

            God gives the Holy Spirit to the community of faith for mission.  When we lack an understanding of the mission God has given us; when we consider the Spirit an individual prerogative; when we link the Spirit's arrival with our own faithfulness - it is highly likely that we will be away, should the Spirit ever descend.  Let us open our hearts and our minds, receiving this gift of our God's, allowing it to unify us in Christ and setting us forth to proclaim the Good News.

Amen.


Sunday, May 13, 2018

Sermon - 7th Sunday of Easter


John 17:6-19                                                                                                                                                  
                                                      A Prayer for the Church

 We pray for our loved ones and we pray for world peace.  We pray for favorable weather and we pray for victories in baseball games.  We pray for those who have died and we pray for those who have given birth.  We pray.  We implore God to hear our cries and we ask God to care for and uphold those whom we name in our prayers.

Jesus also prays.  He prays to The Father, asking the Father to care for and uphold those whom he names.  Toward the end, he will pray for those who persecute him.  He will also pray that the cup which he has been given might be taken from him.  Those prayers come later in the story; when crisis is at hand, at a crisis moment when we would expect a person to pray.

But Jesus’ prayer life was well established long before he arrives at those urgent moments.  And in those “non-crisis” moments, what Jesus prays for is us.  He prays for those who were and who would become a part of the Church.

John 17 is often referred to as Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer.  It is his plea to The Father that those who follow might not be divided, might not be lost, might be filled with his joy; and might be sanctified in his grace.  Jesus prays for the Church.  And in his prayer he identifies those characteristics which make us more than a voluntary association of individuals.  He speaks to that which makes us The Church - his bride.

Jesus prays: protect them … that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.

Being “one” is very important for the body of Christ.  Being one, means that we do not disregard how our thoughts and actions affect others.  Being one means we share a common destiny and more importantly that we realize this and act accordingly.  Being one means seeing ourselves as part of an organism – which when separated dies; rather than as a part in a machine which can be removed and replaced by another – sometimes even increasing the machine’s efficiency.  But we are not a machine, we are an organism.  Our future and our fate are inextricably tied to that of our fellows.  We are one; not individually one, but one with those who share this common identity.

Christians are not independent agents, free to have our own personal relationship with God while ignoring those around us.  There may be theological differences; and preferences for one worship style as opposed to another may lead us to gather in differing buildings on Sunday mornings. But Christians, followers of Christ, are to be “one”, united in our common calling and united in our devotion to Christ.

Jesus finishes his prayer, goes to the Garden of Gethsemane and is crucified.  But he rises from the grave and he ascends on high.  In these acts, he makes us one.  It is no longer a hope, expressed by a departing Rabbi.  It is an acknowledgement of what God has done.  We are one.  And even when we discuss issues which have the potential to divide, we must remain one.

Jesus continues to pray.  He says to the Father, While I was with them, I protected them in your name ... I guarded them, and not one of them was lost.  Jesus prays that the disciples may never become lost; that they will never venture too far outside the protective realm of the Church.  Jesus asks God to protect them and prevent them from being lured into false teaching or improper living.

I can’t remember anyone, in my 33 years of ministry, who came to me to tell me that they had decided that they are going to fall away from the church.  Folks don’t report, or display an intentional turning away from the Church and the community of faith.  They may leave one congregation to join another – having identified a part of the body of Christ which does speak of God and worship in a style more fitting to their own experience of God -  but they don’t usually report deciding to stop coming.  Rarely do persons “leave” - instead they simply become "lost."  A new schedule, a different job, additional respon­sibilities, moving into a new house or buying a place on the lake, enroll­ing the kids in soccer/baseball/gymnastics -  these are the reasons why folks find themselves separated from the church.  New habits form; old preferences change – and as a result folks simply come less, then care less and eventually the cease to think less of this as a place where they belong.  They become "lost."

Remember the image Jesus uses, as he looks over Jerusalem and speaks of his desire to gather its inhabitants.  He speaks of a mother hen who gathers her brood under her wings.  Jesus' prayer is that those whom God has called will forever nestle, as baby chicks, under the protective wing of a loving mother hen.  There, God will protect us and prevent us from ever becoming lost.

A third petition which Jesus offers is for those who rest in God's care to be filled with joy.  Jesus prays:  "I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves."  You will notice that he does not pray for their happiness - he prays that joy may be made complete in them.

        In his last published book, Joseph Sittler writes of the difference between joy and happiness.  Sittler points out that happiness is dependent upon the ups and downs of our life.  Happiness is very fragile and easily taken from us.  We are happy when life treats us fair, when we accomplish that which we set out to do, or when our friends do not disappoint us.  Should things not go well, should our plans be thwarted - we are no longer "happy".  A very fragile and delicate thing - this happiness.

Joy is quite different.  Joy is the confidence that our lives have meaning and purpose, regardless of whether happiness is a part of our day.  Even when we are overcome by adversity, boxed in by demands, frustrat­ed with our own ignorance - even so, we can still be filled with Joy.  Joy has a permanence.  It is long lasting; it is not easily de­stroyed.

Jesus’ final petition is for sanctification.  Jesus prays that those who follow him might be sanctif(ied...) in the truth.  Falsehood abounds in our world.  It is attractive, enticing, and alluring.  More often than not, it is that which is false which catches our eye or causes us to pause.  Remaining sanctified in the truth is a diffi­cult thing.

"Truth," in the manner which Jesus speaks, differs from the way we might use the word.  Truth is not simply that which is true or that which can be proven.  Nor is it some fundamental ideal.  Truth, in the New Testament sense, is that which is in accordance with the hope and promise of God.  The Truth is God's hope for our lives, God's desire for us.  It is God's prayer offered within our own lives.  Jesus prays that the disciples might be sanctified in truth; that in truth they might be dedicated to the service of God and God's people.  To live in the truth is to live in the very heart of God.

We will continue to pray for the newborns.  We will always offer our prayers for the sick and ill.  At no time will we cease to pray for those who are in distress or those who are in harm’s way.  We will pray for the lost and lonely.  We will pray for the broken hearted.  But as with Christ, so too must we pray for the Church, for the communion of Saints who bear his mission and proclaim God’s Word.  We pray for oneness; we pray that no one might become lost; we pray for joy; and we pray for sanctification in the Truth.

This Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer.  Thus it also becomes our prayer.

Amen.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Devotion - Thursday, May 3

How fitting that for this day the appointed Gospel lesson is Matthew 6:25:  "Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall put on.  Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?"

I needed to hear these words; and I think they may be helpful to you as well.

Allow these words to help you set aside the worries and anxieties which you face.  There is the immediate issue of one more exam or the grades you will get for the semester.  Among our graduating class are some still looking for a job or path.  There are interviews for co-ops and internships, but the summer will begin before those things are in place.  Allow these words to bring calm into your life.

I will take them to heart, also.  I sometimes apologize for being to paternal in my dealings with y'all.  I do worry about you, and for you.  You are wonderfully gifted and talented and your strength continues to impress me.  But you are put upon from so many angles and I continually pray for you.  When you leave for the summer, I miss you.  When you graduate, a piece of my heart goes with you.  But the Father who watches over me is also watching over you and His presence will keep you and the awareness of His presence will allow me to not be anxious.

Have a wonderful summer.  Face life after graduation with confidence.  And know that we will forever be united in prayer and in our devotion to the one who first loved us.

Pastor Chris

PS:  Summer break is upon us.  Look for additional offerings come August.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Devotion - Wednesday, May 2

In Matthew 6, Jesus states the obvious:  "No one can serve two masters; for he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other."

Most of us live our lives without truly reflecting on the master which we serve.  We go about our lives and our days with a particular pattern and routine.  There are things we know we must do and there are things which we chose to do.

Too often (sadly) our church life and participation fall into a similar category.  We pick and chose a congregation or ministry group because we enjoy the others who have previously picked that location.  We join this club because it does the kinds of things we enjoy doing.

Not that one who carefully examines the master they seek to serve will not also find a group of like-minded servants of God - but there is a clear acknowledgement that this is a place and these are a people who will further one's commitment and devotion to following Jesus.

Martin Luther said, "That to which our heart clings is our god."

To what does your heart cling?  What is the master whom you serve?

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Devotion - Tuesday, May 1

I sometimes wonder if Jesus has just made it too easy for us.

Leviticus 16 sets forth the anual process and procedure for Atonement.  It involves a goat, someone getting the goat to sit still while the sins are named, a person to take the goat to the wilderness, several changes of clothing, and lots of bathing in water specifically set aside for this purpose.

Jesus has made atonement for us - once and for all.

There is that story in which a leper goes to God's servant to be made clean.  He is anticipating lots of rituals to illustrate to God his desire to be made well.  He is told "Go bath in the river."  He is indignant!  One of his servants asks him, "If you do mighty things to be made whole, why not do this one small thing?"

Jesus has made it easy for us.  Not because Jesus thinks we are lazy or too easily distracted or unwilling to perform great ceremony, but because Jesus loves us.  And Jesus understands that all those rituals and ceremonies may be followed to the letter, but do they give us the confidence that our sin will not separate us from God?

Jesus has made it easy for us.  We are thus set free to live in the assurance of our being united with God, our sin will no longer stand in the way.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Devotion - Monday, April 30

Your grades do matter.  And, your studies are very important.  Your job is to be a student, and you are to do that as well as you possibly can.

But how well you do your job should not be seen as the measure of your worth.

God has claimed you and has called you one of his precious children.  That identity and that claim on you is what defines who you are and your status in life.  In truth, the reason you are to do well in school is so that you might do well in the world.  You learn so that you might be a servant.  The information you absorb and the ability to solve problems prepares you for the opportunities you will have to help the world look more as God would have it be.

Study hard; do well.  But when you find yourself becoming too overwhelmed remember the simple phrase used by Martin Luther whenever he was in distress.  He simply spoke - out loud, even if to no one other than himself - "I am baptized."

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Sermon - 5th Sunday of Easter


John 15:1-8    

                                                                     Vines and branches 

A few years ago, I got myself organized well enough to get a photo on the cover of the bulletin. I wasn’t quite that organized this week.  The earlier bulletin cover was a flower bed, in my neighborhood, which had been knocked down by a strong wind.  Do any of you remember that?  What some of you are sure to remember is that I went on-and-on in my sermon about this bed of “Day-lilies”, while at least a dozen gardeners and horticulture types were looking at the photo and thinking, “Who is going to tell Pastor Chris that these are NOT day lilies?”  The photo was of Tiger Lilies; or I think Jean got even more specific and told me were Oriental Lilies.

It was a very helpful photo – the impact of which got lost in my lack of knowledge.

Never one to learn from my mistakes, I am going to try it again today.  The lack of an actual photo support might be a draw-back; or it might allow (this time) my image to serve its purpose.

Also in my neighborhood, on the path taken when I go for walk, are four very well cared for and aged grape vines.  They are in the yard of Joe Allen – he taught Chemistry at CU, and his wife established Allen’s Creations.  Trent still runs that family business.

Joe does what you are supposed to do with grape vines – he prunes them.  And when you prune as you ought, what you get is a very well established vine, and only a few runners which are following the wires of the trellis. 

I always admire Joe’s little vineyard.  When I realized I would be preaching on John 15, I took a little extra time to look at those vines, and to learn from them what Jesus is trying to say to us when he calls himself the vine, and his Father the vine-grower, and us the branches.

Have any of the rest of you kept up a vineyard?  Or paid attention to one?  Feel free to point out errors as I go along.  But, do me the opposite favor and if anything I say matches your experience, you could offer an audible, “Yes,” or the more traditional church refrain of “Amen.”

So, back to Joe’s little vineyard and the reason that I wish I had photos.  When Joe prunes, the vine looks pretty pitiful.  It was only a few days or weeks earlier when the trellis is hidden by the leaves and fruit.  There are sometimes birds hiding in there – big birds – eating their fill.  On more than one occasion, a deer was there, unnoticed Laura’s dog startled and the deer ran away.  The vine looks so huge.  And then, Joe cuts all that away.  And one would be inclined to ask, “Why?”

The answer is that leaves thick cover don’t produce fruit.  Only strong and vigorous branches.

When Jesus says that the vine-grower is coming, with pruning shears in hand, I think about Joe’s grapevines.  And as much as I hate to think of the removal of thick green leaves, I know that when God prunes it strengthens the harvest.  It may look a bit weird or counter-productive to push aside and even discard what is pleasing to the eye and so easily mistaken for indications of a plenty.  But this is what God does.  The vine-grower knows the end toward which we need to move.  And while the steps needed to get to that end might not seem good to us – they do, in the wisdom of the one who has carefully tended to the vine and the branches.

Sometimes the Church and its ministries become too attached to the leaves and the overgrowth.  In too many instances, we shy away from the pruning which will make the next season’s harvest rich and lush and flavorful.

There may be times when the pain of pruning so overwhelms our senses that we fail to share in God’s celebration of the harvest which this pruning makes possible.

That’s the first thing I want to draw from this text for this congregation, today.  We may see Farewell as painful – and it can be.  But it is also a Godspeed.  And Godspeed is what joins our gaze to that of our Father (the vine-grower) who is able to see how this separation allows the good news to move from one location to many, many others.

Here is the second thing I observed about Joe’s grape vines.  And, I want to be careful.  I realize that this observation may not sit well with a number of God’s precious children.

That vine, growing out of the ground, isn’t very straight.  It is really crooked.  And while few things ever grow perfectly straight, at least part of the reason a grape vine bends from side to side is because of the tugging of the branches.  The branches, when they get going, pull mightily on the vine.  And the force they exert does affect the vine.

As an image, not as some divine revelation, this encourages me to remember how responsive the vine (and the vine-grower) are to the efforts of the branches.

Jesus establishes his Church; and then he entrusts it Peter, and James, and John, and the rest of his followers.  God and Jesus may never change, but the way they live in the midst of the Church does (possibly) change. 

We waste too much time trying to return to an earlier mindset or construct of doctrinal affirmations.  The ancient creeds of the Church will also be foundational and essential to our life as Christians.  But, from the image of the vine and its branches draw the awareness that over the years and through the seasons what happens in the life of the branches exerts influence and bends the vine.

In preparing for next season’s growth, the vine-grower will take note if the vine is being pulled too far in one direction or another.  And the pruning shears will address the problem.

Do not be afraid or shy away from the ways in which you, as a precious branch on the vine is tugging and pulling.  Even when you realize that the vine is being moved. 

Among the things most important for any preacher to communicate is the depth of God’s love for us and the assurance that God interacts with us.  To be a person of faith is to live in the presence of God and to know that God is living among us.  Branches are not dead, impassionate objects.  They are living and growing and changing and producing.

The last image I would attempt to share with you from Joe’s vineyard, is how the vines and the branches have utterly destroyed the trellis.  The power and strength of those little bitty branches have snapped 4X4’s in half.  Joe has patched it up, with some new boards and stakes, but it is a losing battle.  The vines and the branches are going to do what they are going to do.  And the structure imposed by a mere mortal ain’t going to get in the way.

Keep that in mind.  Like others, I have come to think that the Church is going through a time of transition every bit as significant as the one experienced in 1517ff.  The vine, the branches are likely to crush more than a few of the structures so carefully crafted by decision makers and policy setters.  That is okay.  Don’t fret.  Trust the vine and the vine-grower.

If you haven’t observed a vineyard, I hope you will find a chance to do so.  The images of the bible drew on what people experienced in their daily lives.  Our lives are so distanced from an agrarian culture it may be difficult for us to comprehend the image.  That is one of the reasons why so many new writers are retelling the ancient stories in differing ways.  Their images and style may surprise or shock us – shock us because we fail to realize how shocking the twists Jesus put on the agrarian were in the stories he told.

1.       Don’t be afraid of the pruning
2.      As a branch – tug with all your might in order to correct the previous misalignment of the vine
3.      And when structures and institutions come crashing down – do not be afraid.  The vine and the branches are much stronger than frames erected to hold them.

Amen.