Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Scoffers Welcome


Pentecost

I get the same disturbing thought every year.  Maybe it’s a crisis you can relate to, maybe not.  It gets to be close to Pentecost and I have this thought: how am I going to preach about Pentecost in a way that’s different from what I said last year… and the year before that, and the year before that.  It’s a similar existential crisis to the ones I get before Christmas and Easter, but worse.  At Christmas and Easter, there are at least other versions of those stories to choose from.  We have four gospels to choose from when we want to retell the Easter story; when it comes to Pentecost, Acts chapter two is all we’ve got. 

Within certain boundaries, sermon-writing is a creative process.  When you’re involved in creating something—especially if it’s for someone else—you want it to be new, you want it to be continually creative.  You might make a great potato salad, but you’ll want to change it up from time to time, know what I mean?  I want to create something from this story that’s new, but this is the Pentecost story.  We know this story.  What could I possibly tell you about this story that I haven’t already told you over the past nine years?  We know about the sound of wind.  We know about sight of flame.  We know about the voices raised in unknown languages, giving praise to the power of God.  And we know about the scoffers who thought they were just drunk.  What could I possibly find in this story that we don’t already know? 

And then I remember: this is a story about the Holy Spirit.  Surprises is what the Holy Spirit is all about!  This story is all about God’s Spirit breaking out into our world in surprising ways!  Do you think I’m going to find something surprising in this well-worn story?  Of course I am!  Buckle up, folks; we’re talking about the Holy Spirit today!  There is never a dull moment when it comes to the Spirit. 

The thing that surprises me most about this story (at least this time through, anyways), is the scoffers; those who sneered and said, “They’re drunk with new wine.”  First, I’m surprised by how they see all this and still don’t believe.  That in itself is surprising, but what surprises me more is that it’s never surprised me before.  Over the decades of reading and studying and preaching this story, how is it that I’ve never noticed how weird it is that they just assume that this is just drunken behavior? 

I will say, in all fairness, that this is Pentecost.  Before it was the celebration of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, Pentecost was a Jewish celebration.  And as Jewish celebrations go, it was a party.  It was scheduled to follow fifty days after (hence the name) the more-somber celebration of Passover.  Whereas Passover celebrated the mighty and violent deliverance of the people out of the land of Egypt, Pentecost celebrated the providence of God through the fruit of the land.  So although it was clearly frowned upon to be drunk at nine in the morning (or maybe it’s “still drunk at nine in the morning”), it may not have been terribly unusual. 

Still, how do you witness all of the things that Luke describes—with the wind and the flames—and not see God’s hand in it?  Well, what I surprisingly realized was that they probably didn’t.  What probably happened was that they came in late to this party.  They didn’t hear the sudden sound like the rush of a violent wind.  They didn’t see divided tongues, as of fire, come and rest on the gathered disciples.  All they witnessed was talk; and as we know, talk is cheap.
There are layers of irony that follow: they scoff because, to them, these are just strange words spoken by strange Galileans; but then Peter, one of those strange Galileans, gets up to convince them otherwise by speaking to them.  Even more ironic: his proof is that these babbling Galileans are actually the embodiment of something the prophet Joel… said.  So what they witnessed wasn’t just words, but they never would have known that unless someone spoke that Truth to them.  Speaking words, as it turns out, is sometimes the action that is necessary. 

I got into an argument with a guy the other day over a quote; and yes, it did get a little heated.  He was attributing the saying “Preach Jesus, and if necessary, use words” to Francis of Assisi.  I pointed out that the saying is not found in anything that Francis wrote and he did not appreciate being interrupted.  The truth is, Francis did say a couple of things like it and I probably should have just minded my own business; but the truth also is that I like what he did say better.  What Francis did say was: "Yes, the true servant unceasingly rebukes the wicked, but he does it most of all by his conduct."  Yes, the Spirit empowers us to speak the Word of God, but that Word has weight because the Spirit also empowers us to live out the Word of God.  We proclaim the Promises of God, while at the same time, by the power of the Spirit, we are the fulfillment of the Promises of God. 

I was visiting with a saint of God that I hadn’t seen for a while the other day.  She’s been a bit homebound recently, so we needed to catch up for a while.  I really enjoyed our time together and it was good to see that she’s doing better.  She remains the gracious and brilliant woman I know her to be. 

We talked a bit about getting older and about all of the things she has survived (her word) over the past few years.  She said, “Well I guess God is keeping me around for something.”  And the thing is, when you talk to her, it’s obvious.  She was telling me about the relationships she has with the people there and the care she shows them intentionally and in Jesus’ name.  I told her, “You find a ministry everywhere you go.”  She may not be as active as she used to be, but she is aware of God’s working through her—in word and in deed—in every circumstance she finds herself.  And although I find her to be inspirational, I also know that this is how God works in all of us. 

In the Pentecost story, as the Spirit of God is poured out into the followers of Jesus, notice what happens: they speak the one message of God’s power, but they say it in different voices.  Notice that, like light through a stained glass window, the same light comes through differently through different panes of glass.  Of course the Spirit is going to inspire different ministries in each of us, we’re different people; but we recognize that it is the same Spirit. 

I’m starting a new tradition today.  I’ve put new Time and Talent Surveys in the boxes.  Historically, we’ve put them out toward the fall, at the same time we ask for financial pledges; but we decided to ask those questions separately and I decided that the question about time and talent really ought to be asked on Pentecost.  My thinking is: we’re not asking you to take a job and fill a need, we’re asking you to hear a calling.  The surveys are simply our list of needs as they apply to the operation of the church.  Because that’s how life in the Spirit works: you see a need, you know your ability to meet that need, and then the Spirit calls you to meet that need.  Peter sees a need: he sees confusion in the crowd; he probably knows better than anyone that he has never been shy to speak right up, and he knows the answer to their confusion; and so he meets that need as he stands up, by the power of the Spirit to speak.  The Spirit works something different in each one of us, but that’s how the Spirit works; both in us individually and through all of us as a church.  We see the needs around us in this world, we assess our abilities to meet those needs, and then we find our calling to speak and to do. 

I saw a need just out in front of this church the other day that just broke my heart.  I was running the bouncy house at the block party on Thursday.  By the way, that is another talent I didn’t know I had.  I’m really good at it.  If you need someone to run the bouncy house at your birthday or whatever, give me a call.  What broke my heart came toward the end of the event when we were starting to clean up.  One of the kids, about nine or ten, that I had been talking to at the bouncy house was standing about ten feet away from me with his mother and another woman.  The other woman discreetly slipped something into the hand of my new friend’s mom and I heard him say, “Mom, that’s illegal!” 

I don’t know exactly what transpired there, but I know it shouldn’t have.  She should not have been given whatever she was given and it certainly shouldn’t have happened in front of a son who somehow knew better than his mother.  My heart broke for this boy and I’ve been praying for him and his family ever since.  I pray for whatever demons plague that poor woman and I pray for wholeness and healing for them all.  But I do have hope: you see, I know that kid got invited to vacation Bible school.  Carolyn on Thursday was proclaiming the love of Jesus in a language that children can understand: she was handing out free toys.  I know that kid got one of those toys and I know he got the flier that went with it. 

I pray I see that boy here every day of VBS and then on after.  I pray he hears words about the unfailing love of God through the stories we tell him and the songs we sing.  But more than that, I pray he sees it when we’re out back playing tag.  I pray he sees those words proven true through a church that doesn’t just talk.  The world around us is right to doubt the words we speak; but the love we show will prove those words true.  Let us speak the Truth, but then let us act.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Justus League

Seventh Sunday of Easter

I have a lot of mothers in my life; and that’s a positive thing.  I have many women in my life who function in a mothering way to me and I’m grateful for them.  Some of those moms go to church with me every week.  Now, I would never say that I had favorite moms, but there are only two who actually get a card from me on Mother’s Day.  One of them is the mom I met when I was born; she’s the mom I’ve known the longest.  The other is more the mother of my children, but funny story: she almost wasn’t. 

Here’s a scandal if you like scandals: Sherry had a boyfriend when I met her.  I would never be so bold as to say I was so charming, attractive, and funny that I stole another guy’s girl, but you know me so you can do the math yourself.  The truth is, as the story has been told to me, the guy she was dating was a perfectly good guy.  It isn’t like, after meeting me, she suddenly realized what a mistake she’d made.  But, when Sherry and I met, we had a genuine chemistry and we knew there was something there; so Sherry had a decision to make.  And because the other guy was a good guy, it wasn’t an easy decision to make. 

It was a little like the decision we see played out in our Scripture reading today: she had to choose between two good choices; only Sherry didn’t flip a coin over it like we read today.  She anguished over it.  She prayed over it.  She made lists of qualities and character traits.  She sought the council of her parents; well, her mother; her father was of no help.  The way the story was told to me goes: his only input to the conversation was, “What a great problem to have!”  Not exactly the clear answer she was looking for. 

As Sherry and I were talking about this story the other day, she said, “Well, it seems I made the right choice… so far.”  Because only time will tell if she made the right choice, right?  Even when it’s a choice between two good choices, only time will tell if you’ve made the right one.  And as we look at the choice the early church made here, I can honestly say, I have no idea if they made the right choice or not; but that’s okay. 

I have to admit that I’m not entirely sure what the point of this story is supposed to be.  Obviously, it isn’t supposed to be a model for how we make decisions in the church.  I would not be okay with picking elders this way.  I’d better not find out that the Nominating Committee just narrows it down and flips a coin; that is not a reasonable discernment process. 

We read how the early church at least prayed about it, so that’s good; but flipping a coin (or whatever) is too big a gamble.  I mean, it doesn’t even seem like they’ve fully discussed the credentials of these two men, only that they were present throughout Jesus’ ministry, like any of the twelve were (although I’m not sure why that’s the criteria).  But, someone should have at least asked, “Why does Justus have so many names.” Joseph, called Barsabbas, aka Justus.  Do we really want, as an Apostle, someone who had so many aliases?  That seems suspicious.  I would have voted for Matthias just over that. 

But the bigger point of confusion for me over this story is that I’m not sure Luke’s point is in telling it.  What are we supposed to take from this story?  Is this just a historical footnote?  Are we supposed to see this as a good thing?  Are we supposed to see it as a bad thing?  Uncharacteristically, Luke doesn’t really give us any indication as to what place this story even has in the emerging story of the church. 

I need my history lessons to have a clear point.  I need to know how those historic moments shape the future.  I look back on the choice Sherry made when we met and I can clearly see the implications of that moment in history.  It should interest you too: I don’t know where I’d be today if she’d chosen differently, but I doubt my journey would have brought me here.  I look at the children I help her raise and see the importance of that moment in our history and the importance of that one choice. 

The choice of Matthias to replace Judas doesn’t seem to make any difference to anything at all.  This is the first and last time we hear anything about him.  That in itself isn’t terribly significant; there are plenty of Apostles we don’t hear much about in Acts.  More importantly, we don’t hear anything about Justus either.  Can you imagine being Justus?  His only claim to fame is being Apostle runner-up. 

I have reason to suspect that what we read about this morning is actually a mistake.  Like I said, I’m not sure that’s the point Luke is making, but this may not have been the right decision for the church.  To be fair, this happened before Pentecost; the Spirit had not yet been poured out on the followers of Jesus.  Peter had not yet begun to realize the implications of the ascended Jesus.  He had not yet begun to realize the commission of Jesus to bear witness to him in Jerusalem, in Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. 

Peter seems to be looking at things through his old, pre-Spirit point of view.  Perhaps he was remembering Jesus saying things to them like, “Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man is seated on the throne of his glory, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel [Matthew 19:28].”  So he does what he thinks is the sensible thing: he fills the vacant throne with someone like one of those that Jesus might have chosen; like someone like the rest of the twelve.  He does what a responsible leader would: he fills a seat so the organizational structure can continue. 

The problem is, as they would soon find out, that’s not often how the Spirit works.  The Spirit of God does not care about organizational structures; the Spirit cares about calling.  I think we forget that far too often.  I appreciate that people have looked on the list of Lou Ray’s roles that I put together and I appreciate that some have heard God’s call to fill in where they feel called.  That was part of the point I was making in putting the list together; but remember, that wasn’t what I asked you to do.  I asked you to pray. 

I feel we need to reimagine how we work as a church.  For too long we have all had jobs: my job is to preach; someone else’s job is to sing in the choir; someone else’s job is to make visitors feel welcome; someone else’s job is to call members when we haven’t seen them for a while.  Those are fine things to do, but the work of the church is not a job.  When these things are jobs, we wind up feeling like we can just do a thing when the Spirit nudges us to do a thing because that is someone else’s thing.

The Department of Homeland Security has a program to combat terrorism called, “If You See Something, Say Something.”  The beauty of the program, I feel, is that the title of the program is the program.  I’m instituting a similar program around here.  It goes like this: If You Feel Something, Do Something.  We should never avoid doing a thing the Spirit directs us to do because it’s someone else’s job in our organizational structure.  Now, we may need to coordinate our efforts, but no one will get upset if you feel called to join them in their calling; healthy followers of Jesus will actually embrace it. 

One wonders how this story might have gone differently, had they waited to make this decision until after Pentecost.  For all I know, maybe that’s the point Luke is making with this story.  Maybe we’re meant to add our holy imaginations to this story and envision all of the other possibilities the Spirit might have led them to.  Maybe it would go exactly like it did.  Maybe the Spirit would tell them, “You don’t need to replace Judas; embrace eleven Apostles instead of twelve, perhaps as a scar to warn against that kind of thing happening again.”  Who knows, maybe the Spirit would have led them to calling a gentile replacement and really blow their minds.  But no, they took matters into their own hands, they took care of the organizational structure of the church, but they may not have paid enough attention to the mission of the church.  So we’ll never know might have been. 

Or maybe Luke’s point in telling this story is that not every follower of Jesus gets to be famous.  I like that point.  Just because we never hear about these two men ever again doesn’t mean that they didn’t go on to live Spirit-filled lives that served Jesus.  For all we know, they went on to teach the Sunday school classes that inspired the next generation of disciples.  For all we know they were the ushers, and greeters, and choir members, and bulletin-folders that make their worship all the more inspiring.  For all we know, these two men were exactly like us.  Well, not Matthias: he got the fancy title of “Apostle.”  No, for all we know, we’re just like Justus. 

I haven’t been so excited about a sermon-title in a long time.  For all we know, we are in the Justus League: we are those followers of Jesus who, without fame, without glory, or maybe even recognition, we do what our Savior calls us to do.  May we continue to be faithful to our Master’s calling and may we celebrate our place in the Justus League in all we do and say.  May we know our Savior’s glory wherever he calls us to go.

Monday, May 7, 2018

A Dream Come True

Acts 10:44-48
Sixth Sunday of Easter

The first line of our short Scripture lesson today is delightful; there is no other word for it.  Luke says, “While Peter was still speaking.” How wonderful is that!  Peter, in the midst of yet another sermon, is interrupted by the movement of the Holy Spirit.  I would love to be interrupted like that.  

I once guest-preached for a Pentecostal friend of mine.  Those people interrupted me right and left.  And it wasn’t just the occasional “mmm” of agreement or “yes sir!” or “amen!”  No, they’d just talk to me like this is supposed to be a conversation; “Tell me more about that,” kind of comments.  What?  That’s not how this works.

I would love to be interrupted, but by the movement of the Holy Spirit.  I want to be interrupted like Peter is interrupted; like the way the Spirit has been interrupting Peter throughout this larger story.  The interruption here is only an exclamation point on the bigger interruption Peter has been experiencing lately.  All along, the Spirit has been interrupting what Peter thinks God is like with what God is actually like.  And it all concludes with Peter, trying to preach yet another sermon, only to hear God say, “Shush Peter, I’ve got this.”  

I want to be interrupted like that.  We should all want to be interrupted like that.  We should all want our limited, closed-minded vision of what God is like and what God is doing to be interrupted so that we might see what is True; we all, like Peter, should want to say, “Now I truly understand.”  

There is a relationship between the story we heard from the Book of Acts last week and the story we hear today.  In a roundabout way, last week’s story leads to this week’s.  Last week we heard about a man named Philip, who was a doer.  God nudged Philip to go and walk with an Ethiopian eunuch, and Philip did it.  And my point last week was that we need people like that in the church: people who are spiritually nimble enough to hear the Spirit’s “nudge” and do what the Spirit says to do.  

Peter used to be like that, remember?  Remember when Jesus met Peter (he was Simon back then) by the lake where he was a professional fisherman?  Peter was literally at work.  Jesus walks by, and what does he say?  “Follow me.”  And what does Peter do?  He follows him.  Luke specifically says, “They left everything and followed him.”  That is a spiritually nimble person; maybe even too nimble; Luke doesn’t say what “everything” was.  But that was when he was Simon the fisherman; he’s Peter “The Rock” now.  A Rock can’t just flitter about, doing whatever the Spirit nudges him to do.  Good thing we still have Philip.  

But here’s the thing: maybe they’re both right.  The Church needs the Philips (and Simons), but the Church also needs its Peters too.  Philip is nimble, he can hear the Spirit’s nudge to walk with and share the gospel with the most unlikely of people.  Did I mention last week, what Philip was doing before he shared Jesus with the Ethiopian eunuch?  He was in Samaria, sharing Jesus with the Samarians!  Samarians, I tell ya!  Those people!  The people the Israelites had been hostile toward for generations!  And Philip goes and shares Jesus with those people; and what’s more, they receive it!  

Remember, this was early in the post-Resurrection Church; they didn’t even yet realize that they were supposed to share Jesus with outsiders people.  But there’s Philip, doing it anyway, not only outsiders, but with people who they were hostile toward.  Then off he goes to do the same with an Ethiopian eunuch: a person who was every bit as much an “outsider” as a Samaritan.  He didn’t ask permission first, he was just following “the nudge.”  Although I admire his free-wheeling attitude, what if he was wrong?  What if it was just Philip’s idea, he just thought it was God’s?  What then?  As it turns out, he wasn’t wrong; but that’s what Peter is for.  If Philip is the doer, then Peter is the Elder.  

Once again, Sharon has drawn a winner as far as Scripture readings go: no weird, foreign words, and best of all, it was short.  This is a delightfully short Scripture reading if you’re the liturgist, but it’s only the end to a much longer story.  As I said, when the Spirit interrupts Peter, it’s the culmination of what God has already been doing in Peter.  Peter has watched what Philip was doing: he knows about the Samaritans; in fact Peter was in on it a little.  But those were Samaritans: they are outsiders, but they’re not outsiders-outsiders.  Jesus talked with Samaritans.  But what about real outsiders?  What about Gentiles?  

And then one day, apparently after skipping breakfast (the most important meal of the day), Peter passed out from hunger.  While they were making him brunch, he had a vision.  You might remember the vision: a picnic is laid out before him, made of nothing but yucky food.  A picnic full of “all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air. Then he heard a voice saying, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.”  That may not sound that weird to you, but Moses forbid eating those sorts of things, so Peter said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.” Then the voice said to him three times, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”

And here is where the story gets interesting.  Hunger dreams are one thing, but suddenly there’s a knock on the door.  Last week, someone’s phone rang as I was starting to pray; which doesn’t bother me, I think it’s kind of funny.  What rattled me the most was the thought, “Should I make a joke about this during the prayer.”  “Lord, can we put you on speakerphone?”  I didn’t make a joke, but it’s funny because God so rarely calls us on our cell phones.  We don’t expect God to knock on the door when we’ve had a weird dream either.  But knock God does.  Well, not God exactly.  It is a delegation of Gentiles, sent from the most outsider person we’ve met yet in this story: a Roman centurion (no less) named Cornelius has sent people in search of this Simon Peter, because Cornelius has also had a vision that he should do just that.  

I think you probably see where this is going: Peter, of course, goes and Peter, of course, sees that God has a plan for this Good News that extends well beyond his own people; but it takes him time to figure that out.  Somewhere along the line, Peter has become an Elder; Peter has lost his impulsiveness, but he’s gained discernment.  Ironically and fortunately, what Philip just jumped in and did, turned out to be what God had been doing all along.  

There’s a thing I often say as we prepare to celebrate Communion.  I wonder if we always hear the implications.  Often I will remind us that this is the Table of the Lord.  In my mind, I usually think about it in terms of visitors; you know, so they know that all who put their trust in him are welcomed by him to this feast that he has prepared.  But you know, there’s more to it than that.  These words are also a reminder to those of us who already know we belong here.  It’s a reminder that we don’t get to choose who is in and who is out; this is not our Table.  This is the Table of our Lord.  He gets to choose who will be gathered around it.  And I’m going to go out on a limb and say that those he would gather here might just surprise us.  

What is so remarkable about the Spirit of God interrupting Peter and pouring out into this Gentile crowd, isn’t even so much that these are unlikely people.  What is remarkable is that this is nothing new!  We should have seen this coming.  We should have remembered the words of the Prophet Joel: “I will pour out my spirit on all flesh.” [Joel 2:28] This story doesn’t describe the changing mind of God.  This story describes the moment Peter finally sees what God had been doing all along!  And sure, it took him a while; just like it takes us a while.  But may we be surprised by the interrupting Spirit.  May the Spirit show us we’re wrong about who needs to hear about Jesus.  May we have eyes to see what God has been doing all along and we welcome them here as our Savior welcomes them here.  And may we all celebrate what the Spirit of our Risen Savior is doing even in us.