Tuesday, January 1, 2019

What can we say April 28? Easter 2

   Rachel Hollis, TV personality and author of Girl, Wash Your Face, posted an Instagram photo of herself that went viral with this caption: “I have stretch marks and I wear a bikini… because I’m proud of this body and every mark on it… They aren’t scars, ladies, they’re stripes and you’ve earned them.” Liberating, this robust view of what women have tried to cover up for centuries.

   If you get a tattoo, you choose to be wounded a bit, to be marked forever. Stretch marks, like many wounds, are more accidental but no less telling. I love the insight Graham Greene shared in The End of the Affair.  A woman notices what used to be a wound on her lover’s shoulder, and contemplates the advancing wrinkles in his face: “I thought of lines life had put on his face, as personal as a line of writing – I thought of a scar on his shoulder that wouldn’t have been there if once he hadn’t tried to protect another man from a falling wall.  The scar was part of his character, and I knew I wanted that scar to exist through all eternity.”

     The scars in Jesus’ hands and side, earned when he gave life to all of us, were not blotted out by the resurrection (John 20:27). I love Jean Vanier's remark: “These wounds are there for all ages and all time, to reveal the humble and forgiving love of Jesus who accepted to go to the utter end of love. The risen Jesus does not appear as the powerful one, but as the wounded and forgiving one. These wounds become his glory.”  And what do we sing in "Crown Him with Many Crowns"?  Behold his hands and side. Those wounds, yet visible above, in beauty glorified. I've sung that a thousand times, and have never given it the briefest thought.  How profound...

     All this after the scene of intense fear: doors are locked. In all the post-resurrection appearances, they are slow to recognize Jesus. "I think they are blinded by their unfulfilled expectations and their feelings of loss and despair" (Jean Vanier).  To such people Jesus utters a word, with the power of the one who commanded stars, sky and earth to come into being, and it's the one who stilled the storm: "Peace."  As Jesus clarified earlier in John, this peace isn't the one the world gives! (John 14:27).  Jesus doesn't give you some peace of mind or serenity you think you want.  Jesus' Peace is his personal presence.

     In Jesus' presence there is no fear.  Or maybe the way Jesus banishes fear might get us a bit agitated and in rapid motion.  Elie Wiesel famously said “If an angel ever says, ‘Be not afraid,’ you’d better watch out:  a big assignment is on the way.”  Jesus comforts with one hand and then shoves them out into hard labor and danger with the other.

     One of my favorite details in all the resurrection narratives is in verse 22: “He breathed on them.”  I’ll acknowledge there is powerful symbolism here – like God breathing the breath of life into people, the winds of Pentecost to come.  But what if he actually breathed on them?  What was that like?  You have to be very close, physically, to someone before they can successfully breathe on you.  Proximity to Jesus allows the sensation of his breath. 

   And lest we forget:  the note of forgiveness, once again, is sounded in a resurrection story.  Jesus is risen, therefore you get eternal life?  No: in the Scriptures, Jesus is risen, therefore you are forgiven – and you’d best get out there now and forgive others. It is our Baptism that plunges us into this life of forgiveness. The Amish forgave Charles Roberts, who brutally murdered 5 members of their families in Nickel Mines, Pa. back in 2006. Many stories arose from the Peace & Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. Peter Storey, after the fall of Apartheid in South Africa, told what the new governors and legislators said at a party they threw for the church people who’d worked so valiantly. One, who’d been on death row during Apartheid, thanked the church people: “We want to thank you church leaders for having visited our families while we were in prison, for having visited us in prison.  We want to thank you for having sat there in the court room while we were on trial, for standing in the witness box and speaking for us when we were on trial.  All of these things, you will never know how much they meant to us.  But above all, we want to thank you for baptizing us.  Because when you baptized us, you told the world we were not rubbish, you told the world we were not trash, you told the world we were made in the image of God.  And you told us that, too.  And that is what gave us the courage and the tenacity to risk even execution.” 

    The Acts 5:27-32 lectionary reading makes the same point. Because of the resurrection, and because of Baptism, “we must obey God rather than human authorities.”

    We’ve all heard sermons about “doubting Thomas.”  Doubt is hardly praised in this story.  If anything Jesus dings him, contrasting him with those who haven’t seen and yet believe.  He is loved and treated with immense compassion; Jesus invites him to touch the wounds.  The Greek is graphic, with Jesus saying “thrust” or “press” or “cast” your finger into (like down in there) my side.  Caravaggio captured this in a stunning way…

     This whole business of Jesus appearing suddenly behind closed doors, then vanishing just as suddenly, and yet you can poke a finger into his side and not just see but feel him raises questions about the resurrection.  Long books have probed this – but my shorthand answer is that Jesus is the first of what we shall be, and that is: we will be raised with (or in, or as) what Paul called “spiritual bodies” (1 Cor. 15).  No simplistic resuscitation here.  Your old body doesn’t revive and live on.  You are transformed, metamorphosized maybe.  Jesus was not recognizable, but then he was recognized; the mortal and spiritual bodies are kin, similar, but hardly identical.  It’s still a body though, not a ghost or a floating spirit.  It can cook and eat, but it might vanish too.  Paul uttered the understatement of the Bible: “Behold, I tell you a mystery” (1 Cor. 15:51).

What can we say May 5? Easter 3

     The impact of the resurrection was immediate, and then lingered. John 21 wasn’t long after Easter; Acts 9 many months later. Both are startling and transformative; conversion in both entails commissioning.

     I love the statue by the Sea of Galilee at The Primacy of Peter, a church built over a flat stone, allegedly the table where Jesus served breakfast to his disciples. This story has so many riveting details. Jesus cooking breakfast? Eating fish together? The fishing: notice in the Gospels the disciples never catch any fish without Jesus’ help!

     The haunting conversation between Peter and Jesus is memorable, and cuts to the heart of what adherence to the risen Christ is all about. Jesus doesn’t ask him Are you doing what I told you to do? or Have you been good? Jesus wants to know from him and from us, Do you love me? Way too much gets made about the variation in the Greek between agapĂ© and philo – as if Jesus yearns for agapĂ© but Peter can only muster philo? These two terms are pretty much interchangeable in John’s lexicon – and Jesus and Peter would have been chatting in Aramaic anyhow.
     Mary Magdalene’s plaintive puzzlement in Jesus Christ Superstar, “I don’t know how to love him,” is a fair starting point. What does this peculiar love feel like? Or look like? By the time Jesus parts from Peter, he has told him and us how.

     But the question itself: I love the moment in Fiddler on the Roof when Tevye surprises his wife Golde by asking “Do you love me?”  Her reply? “Do I what? With our daughters getting married and this trouble in the town, you’re upset, you’re worn out, maybe it’s indigestion. Do I love you? For 25 years I’ve washed your clothes, cooked your meals, cleaned your house, given you children, milked the cow – After 25 years, why talk about love now?”

    Without oversimplifying, church folks (and clergy) might hear themselves responding to Jesus’ query by saying For years I’ve read your book, sat in your pew, given money, tried to be nice, volunteered at the shelter, gone to seminary…  But do you love me?

    Of course, the simple fact that Jesus asks him not once or four times but three shows Jesus’ tender care, providing Peter with redemption for the three denials just a couple of nights earlier.

    The shape of this love is explained to Peter, and it has to do with giving up independence, and private dreams, and then being led. It’s not about doing what you want, or doing what you want to do for God, for doing what God wants you to do.
     Henri Nouwen wrote an entire little book that is a sustained reflection on this encounter in John 21: In the Name of Jesus, which I commend regularly, a poignant expression of what loving and leading are all about. The business about the belt, and going where you don’t wish to go, are for Nouwen a vision of maturity: “The world says, ‘When you were young you were dependent and could not go where you wanted. When you grow old you will be able to make your own decisions, and control your own destiny.’ But Jesus has a different vision of maturity: the ability and willingness to be led where you would rather not go. The way of the Christian leader is not the way of upward mobility in which our world has invested so much, but the way of downward mobility ending on the cross.”

     The ominous remark about Peter’s death fed the tradition that Peter was crucified upside-down – a curious development, as Jesus invites us not to invert his sacrifice but to be very much one with him. We wish we could follow Peter's career and life - and witness what really happened in his final hour. 

     Our Old Testament reading, which laughably (to me) is Acts 9, reveals something of the nature of the risen Christ. Not just a dead guy resuscitated, but a spiritual body, a body, recognizable, able to be seen and heard, yet utterly transformed, transfigured. Well after he’s ascended into heaven, the risen Jesus is still on the loose, changing everything. Appearing to Saul. Fulfilling Martin Luther King's admonition that "Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend." A blinding vision from heaven works pretty well too.

    In this case, Saul, soon to be Paul. I don’t preach much about instantaneous, visionary conversion – but it is a thing, and I should find fresh ways to speak of it. Do we point to Luther’s dramatic experience when he “felt I was altogether born again”? or Wesley’s warmed heart? Do you have a story? 
F.F. Bruce points to Sundar Singh’s conversion. After years of hostility to the Gospel, he saw a great light one night (in 1904): “I saw the form of the Lord Jesus Christ, an appearance of glory and love. If it had been a Hindu incarnation, I would have prostrated myself. But it was the Lord Jesus Christ I’d been insulting the day before. A voice asked, ‘How long will you persecute me? I have come to save you.’ I realized Jesus is not dead but living. So I fell at his feet and received this wonderful peace, and the joy I was wishing for.”

     I love the suggestion, “Go into the city, and you will be told what to do,” which makes me wonder if that’s the word to us, that we discern our calling, the point of being a Christian, when we go into the city, and listen to the challenges and sorrows, the injustices and agonies of where real, and usually unchurched people live, work and play. You won’t take Jesus into the city. He’s already there.

    Ananias intrigues. The greatest of Christians are debtors to someone who ushered them into the Body. Naming yours, or others will make great illustrations. He said “Here I am” – and so perhaps models the readiness for Paul, and for us. We’ll sing #593 from the Methodist hymnal…

     Notice Church isn’t an institution just yet. It’s still called “the way” – and it might be a way, a path, a journey even for us as we reimagine things. Quirky thought: is there any irony that he is at the “house of Judas”? A common name, yes – but foes of Jesus aren’t tossed aside but redeemed in this story. Unlikely instruments everywhere.

     The scales falling from his eyes – symbolic of the spiritually blind now seeing, such a key miracle in Jesus’ ministry – reminds me of Puff the Magic Dragon: “His head was bent in sorrow, green scales fell like rain.” Childhood lost – so what did Paul lose when he saw the light? Plenty – and we hear the pain of his loss repeatedly in his letters: family, reputation, the security of the Law, much more.
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[2 Caravaggio paintings above!]

What can we say May 12? Easter 4

  This week’s Gospel is (to me) the least fascinating of our texts. It’s Easter 4, but also Mother’s Day – so we can look closely at the life of a woman (Acts 9), or at what may have been your mother’s favorite text (Psalm 23), which may have been read at her funeral, maybe along with the Epistle, Revelation 7:9-17.

    First up: Acts 9:36-43 (which I preached on last go round) takes us to Joppa – the port where Jonah attempted to flee the Lord’s call, and the town where Peter had his vision (at Simon the Tanner’s home) of all the food on the sheet.

   Center stage for today is Dorcas, the Greek name for Tabitha (meaning “gazelle”). “She was always doing good and helping the poor.” Always! John Wesley wryly told us that the doctrine of the devil is to do good when you feel like it – a surefire formula for spiritual hollowness, and a vapid church.

   Suddenly this saintly, valuable woman died – so they summoned Peter, a known miracle worker, from Lydda, just 10 miles away. Notice this lovely detail: when he arrived, “they showed him the clothing she had made for them.” Artifacts of holiness. At her funeral, the poor came. A preaching question: will the poor or disenfranchised attend your funeral? Only if you’ve delivered aid instead of sending it (per Wesley again!).

    For my people to get the feel of things, I may speak of some knitters and carpenters and other craftspeople I’ve known who’d made amazing things, many of them for the poor. How do we use our creativity, our calling, our “therapy” for the good of the world? Doesn’t God’s love happen and become tangible when a team sews a prayer blanket or a men’s group hammers an accessibility ramp for a neighbor? Rosa Parks, like Dorcas, was a seamstress. Mary sewed Jesus’ clothing.

    Is there a male equivalent of seamstress? Seamster? How about Silas Marner, the miserly weaver, who discovered a little girl, Eppie, and as he cared for her, he was the blessed one, discovering sunshine, joy and life.

    Peter speaks to the dead, the lack of a pulse being no barrier to the hope of the gospel. “Tabitha, get up!” made me scramble to the Greek… and leaving me speculating if in Aramaic Peter would have said “Tabitha, kum,” a rhyming echo of what Jesus said to Jairus’s daughter, “Talitha kum” (Mark 5:41). What resonance!

    How to handle such a moment? I’ve never raised or really tried to raise the dead – although Jesus did commission the disciples to be Jesus in the world, to do works even greater than his (John 14:12). Yes, it’s a sign of the resurrection to come. I wonder if in preaching I can name my own sadness, frustration, sense of ineptitude and failure in that I have prayed but been so very impotent in the face of suffering and death. The people know.

    Last year I was in Kenya visiting the fabulous, effective, empowering ZOE ministry there. In a little rural community, the chaplain of a group of working orphans, Lena (only 19 years old), preached in Swahili about Dorcas. I couldn’t translate one word – but have rarely been so moved by a sermon. She began jauntily, stroking woven fabrics she’s hung along the wall. Then she fell down as if dead – and then she knelt and wept, audibly. I followed along as I supposed Peter to have arrived. He knelt, and she rose up from the floor – and there were shouts and laughter from the Kenyans listening, huge, tears of joy. If you’re an impoverished orphan in Kenya, news and the hope of a resurrected life, the possibility of a miracle, are so longed for, and even expected, that it’s real enough to elicit intense emotion. Americans slump in in their pews and yawn.  I want to explore this in my sermon, without scolding anybody.

    Psalm 23 is so very preachable – partly because it’s so familiar, and yet it withholds it greatest surprises and secrets until we probe deeply. We think of Jesus the good shepherd as sweet and placid. But the first shepherd I saw the first time I went to Israel was wearing an Elvis t-shirt and golashes, wielding a switch, swatting the recalcitrant sheep and hollering expletives at them. The Lord is my shepherd.

    One of my choir members is very devoted to the word “through” in verse 4. We don’t walk down into the valley of the shadow of death. We walk through it. I’ll amen that. What’s more fascinating to me is that some clever person counted the Hebrew words in the Psalm, and discovered that the very middle word is ‘immi, really just “with.” Sam Wells, in his brilliant and hugely important A Nazareth Manifesto, has said “With is the most important theological word in the Bible.” Jesus’ nickname? “Emmanuel.” His parting words? “I am with you always.” God is with us. God doesn’t shelter us from things or fix every broken thing. God is with us. And therefore ministry isn’t fixing others. It’s being with them.

   What is this table “in the presence of my enemies”? Is it a taunt (which I explore in my sermon from last time around)? Or is it implied the enemy will be invited and welcomed – and therefore no longer an enemy but a friend? Think Luke 14, or Martin Luther King’s admonition that love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend.

     Another time, I preached on Psalm 23, pairing it with John 10 – and explored the kooky but promising idea that the speaker of “the Lord is my shepherd” might not be the sheep, but the sheepdog. I love what Evelyn Underhill wrote about the sheepdog; such a lovely image of life and service with God: "You want to be one among the sheepdogs employed by the Good Shepherd.  Now have you ever watched a good sheepdog at his work?  He is not at all an emotional animal.  He just goes on with his job quite steadily, takes no notice of bad weather, rough ground, or his own comfort.  He seldom or never comes back to be stroked.  Yet his faithfulness, his intimate understanding with his master, is one of the loveliest things in the world.  Now and then he just looks at the shepherd.  When the time comes for rest they can generally be found together."

     We are having Holy Communion at our place on Mother’s Day, fitting for Psalm 23, and fitting as many will recall being at their mother’s table – and so we remember Jesus’ table and hers, and anticipate the feast of heaven to come. There will be no hunger in that day (our Epistle, Revelation 7:16) – not because the hankering of hunger will be removed, but because there will be plenty, always, and good company for all.

What can we say May 19? Easter 5

     Four solid texts for Easter 5. If you are continuing the narrative thread of Acts (our Old Testament reading??), the long story of Cornelius, Peter’s trance, the sheet with the non-kosher food presents itself (Acts 11:1-18). To me, it’s complicated, more for a Bible study class than a sermon – and hard to preach it without supersessionist or even anti-Semitic overtones.
     I also hesitate a bit over the narratives that seem to toss the Torah into the garbage bin – so we saved-by-grace people can, evidently, do whatever we wish. At least Peter and his fellows cared about what they ate, and reckoned with whether it was pleasing to God. The issue here isn’t merely unclean food anyhow; it’s unclean people – those dastardly Romans, abusive, oppressive heathens. Eat their food – and with them? Jesus, of course, set a high bar (or an absurdly low one…) for meals.
     I’m leaning toward preaching on Psalm 148. Years ago I co-authored a book with Clint McCann, Preaching the Psalms – but don’t get around to it very often. 148 is one of the most imaginative and eloquent of all the Psalms. David Ford once wrote (in Living in Praise) that the antidote to despair is praise. I need to ponder that – and try some praising too. Praising is counter-cultural for us consumers. Praise wastes time. Praise isn’t about me, or even what God’s done for me.  Can I get out of myself long enough to praise? Could my sermon not be utilitarian, but simply an expression of how amazing God is?
 
    For Psalm 148, people are insufficient to the praise required – not merely because their words and songs are too feeble. We need every creature, the animals, and even the celestial, heavenly beings to join in our chorus to stand a chance of honoring God well. At Christmas, we sing “O Come All Ye Faithful,” including “Sing, all ye citizens of heaven above.” They join us, invisibly, inaudibly, yet profoundly, as we lift out voices in praise of our Lord.
 
    All of creation is to praise. Jason Byassee, in his terrific Brazos commentary on Psalms 101-150, ingenuously suggests that creation is “the lock for which God’s redeeming work is the key.” Creation isn’t neutral, just a place we happen to be. It’s the setting for God’s great redemption. It’s the target of God’s great redemption, as God is saving not only us but everything ever made.
     So every created thing should rightly praise God. It’s easier for the non-human world. Thomas Merton wrote that “A tree gives glory to God simply by being a tree.”  Indeed.   St. Francis showed us the way when it comes to joining the created creatures in praise. Not only did his famous canticle extol “Brother Sun” and “Sister Moon.” He preached to the birds, reminding them to praise God for God’s goodness to them, providing them branches in trees, brooks for drinking, and their lovely plumage, the air in which to fly.
    Psalm 148 includes dangerous creatures: monsters, hail, the storm. I’m reminded of Job 38-41, where God take Job on a tour of creation, pointing to beasts, alligators, eagles, perilous yes, and part of God’s created order too, praising God by being the beasts that they are. Cedars, which were used to build the temple, and the fruit of the vine, producing wine for drink and the Eucharist: they quite evidently praise God by being themselves and fulfilling their purpose.
    Kings and princes are urged to praise.  There may be a kind of deafness about them – although is their some paradoxical weirdness that, unbeknownst to them, their regalia, pomp, palaces and wealth say something, not about their greatness, but the greatness of God who created such beauty? God seems to envision such a bejeweled, immensely valuable destiny for creation – if our Epistle, Revelation 21:1-6, is any indication.
     Then the Gospel, John 13:31-35, which has one simple point – which make it a treasure. Love is the one thing Jesus seems to require. He became an infant to elicit our love. As a teacher, he said the whole Torah hangs on the words about loving God and neighbor. We might have someone sing Beth Nielsen Chapman’s wonderful “How We Love” – and as a minimum, I’ll be listening to it all week so I’ll get the feel of love being not the most important thing, but just the thing.
    Jesus adds a haunting twist: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” – as if he anticipated we might just struggle with this, as we do and mightily in our day. Francis Schaeffer, the philosophical godfather of modern evangelicalism, wrote maybe his best little book about love, which he calls The Mark of the Christian. He ponders if it’s possible to be a Christian without showing this mark, “but if we expect non-Christians to know that we are Christians, we must show the mark.” He calls this “the final apologetic,” and then adds, “In the midst of our present dying culture, Jesus, upon his authority, gives the world the right to judge us, to judge whether you and I are born-again Christians on the basis of our observable love toward all other Christians.” They do judge us – and God would have it that way. So can we love?

    Aren’t we way more obsessed with being right? I love Ephraim Radner’s tender observation (in Brutal Unity): “When the greatest decision that human beings ever made was to be made, what did Jesus say?  How did he contribute?  When the truth was debated, did he speak his mind?  They led him to Pilate’s bar, and he never said a mumblin’ word; not a word, not a word, not a word… Jesus leaves behind his conscience as he moves toward those who would take it from him.  So that his truth becomes a way into a life for others.”
    I might press this even further to remind myself and others that we may not understand others in Christ’s Body – but this is no barrier to love.  Who can fail to be moved by the final sermon Rev. Maclean preaches in A River Runs Through It? Having struggled with, and then suffering the death of his son, he gave voice to the “mark” when he said, “Each one of us here today will, at one time in our lives, look upon a loved one in need and ask the same question:  We are willing Lord, but what, if anything, is needed?  For it is true that we can seldom help those closest to us.  Either we don’t know what part of ourselves to give, or more often than not, that part we have to give… is not wanted.  And so it is those we live with and should know who elude us… But we can still love them…We can love – completely – even without complete understanding.”

What can we say May 26? Easter 6

   Acts 16:9-15 is Scene #1 in the drama that is Paul’s visit to Philippi (which I try to recall as in the background when I read Philippians). The healing of the possessed woman, and the jail non-escape are to come, and frankly are part of what makes the overall story thrive and pulsate with meaning and hope.

    Responding to a voice, in a vision, Luke’s “we” set sail from Troas (ancient Troy? – now that’s interesting), “a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis” (the port for Philippi). We skate right by this, but ancient readers would have said “Wow! You’ve gotta be kidding!” With the wind and waves being so moody, and the rocks near the shore so perilous, such a journey might usually take a week or two. The implication is that the Spirit (the “wind”!) is engineering this.

     Philippi was a “little Italy,” where Roman veterans had been resettled as part of the reward for battle. I wonder if they had something akin to Memorial Day, when they thought of their comrades who had died in the battles they had survived? Can a sermon touch on this without glorifying war and country unduly? Perhaps just envisioning the ongoing grief and memorializing that surely happened in Philippi might show we understand.

     They go “down to the river to pray” (think Alison Krauss and O Brother, Where Art Thou?). There was no synagogue for them to attend on the Sabbath – and so, failing to find a quorum of Jews for worship, they come upon some women including Lydia. She is “a worshipper of God” – which we’d size up as someone not needing conversion! The Greek term indicates she was a God-fearer, interested in Judaism, even prayerful, but not a fully observant member of the community.

     She’s fascinating. A “dealer in purple cloth,” which the wealthy purchased – and so was she at least relatively affluent? “The Lord opened her heart” – reminding us clergy that at the end of the day the work of preaching is in the Lord’s hands, not ours. She beseeches them to come to her home – which, if verse 40 is taken into account, becomes the church in Philippi!  In its earliest days, Christians gathered in homes, and a wealthier person would have a larger space.

     What’s intriguing about this new church in Philippi is its shattering of social convention. Wealthy Lydia, a slave girl, and then a middling government official, the jailer. People going to the wrong side of town, diverse peeps eating together, doing ministry to the needy together (could we even think of Lydia’s house as the outreach center?): this must have provoked whispers, raised eyebrows, even harsh words.

    No need to give your people a thrashing – but who comes to church? Who doesn’t? Who comes to your home? Who doesn’t? Isn’t Christianity holier, nobler, and more itself when we bridge gaps, when we shatter isolation and segregation? Lillian Smith, in Killers of the Dream, dreamed about our overcoming of division by musing, “If we could realize our talent for bridging chasms.”

     Our Gospel, John 14:23-29, looks at the heart of what made the previous passage happen yet from a different angle. It is love – God’s for us, ours for God, ours then for one another – that gets us busy keeping God’s word. I love Lewis Smedes’s thought: “Somewhere people make and keep promises. They choose not to quit when the going gets rough. They stick to lost causes. They hold on to a love grown cold. If you have a ship you will not desert, if you have people you will not forsake, if you have causes you will not abandon, then you are like God.”

     The promise God keeps is beautiful depicted by Jesus. Speaking of himself, and God his Father, Jesus says “We will come to them and make our home with them.” I might just repeat that a few times and call it a sermon. How lovely, how provocative, how tender, how hopeful.

     I always hesitate in preaching to say a little about the Holy Spirit. Need to go full-in – as our people carry thin, emotive notions of what the Holy Spirit is. It’s a surge of feeling – right? Never in Scripture, actually. Here we see a few of the Spirit’s tasks. Advocate – and we need one. Teacher – as we don’t know a zillionth of what we need to know just yet. Reminder – as we get spiritual amnesia and need constant recollection of all Jesus was about. This parakletos makes Jesus present to us once he’s gone. I wrote a very short little book on The Holy Spirit (called The Kiss of God), really a collection of brief daily devotionals, trying to help people – and myself as a preacher! – think carefully, truly and biblically about what the Holy Spirit really is all about.

    This Spirit brings peace. Think Hebrew shalom in its fullness: not simply placid calm, not the absence of conflict, but the rich delight in God’s presence, the joy of community, the sharing of God’s blessings among all God’s people, the implementation of justice for all. I wonder if a sermon might lift up instances of shalom. When have you seen it – in your life, in your church, in your city, even in the world?

What can we say June 2? Easter 7 (and Ascension, and Visitation)


     The full set of texts in the lectionary presents an array of options. May 31 marks the “visitation,” when Mary arrived to see Elizabeth, both pregnant with hugely important people. The tenderness of their time together is moving, lovely, theologically provocative. For me, it’s a classic text that doesn’t have a “takeaway” or a “go thou and do likewise.” The preacher can just marvel, gawk, stare in awe at this moment when two women are simply with another another.

     Elizabeth’s words form part of the rosary recitation Catholics recite. Henri Nouwen’s moving “A Spirituality of Waiting.”  It’s been excerpted or printed partially various places, but I’d advocate listening: you can download an mp3 here.  Nouwen’s voice and inflection and stunning, and he draws you into the experience, exploring how we hate to wait, what underlies that anxiety, but then how Mary and Elizabeth waited – and did so together.  And the distinction between waiting for and waiting on – and how we might wait on God while we wait for God.

     The day before, May 30, is the Ascension, with Acts 1:1-11 as our text – and then Acts 1:12-26, which is hardly a break from 1-11, for Easter 7! I preached on this 3 years ago, if you'd like to watch.  Skeptics hoot over the idea of Jesus defying gravity (Wicked, anyone? or John Mayer, anyone else?) and floating up into heaven.  The art is all hokey - of course.  Own it.  What better time to say to the skeptic, the intellectuals, the doubters, that yes, there's room in church for you too.

     The ancient view of a 3-storied universe becomes no real problem at all if we recall that Jesus was raised with a “spiritual body” (as we will be too) – a body, but a transformed kind of body that appears and disappears…  Oswald Chambers (My Utmost for His Highest, March 28) asks if we are loyal, first to my intellect and only then to Jesus?  “Faith is not intelligent understanding, faith is a deliberate commitment to a Person.”  How can we entertain solid science questions with candor, grace, and flat out interest, and yet stay committed to whatever is at the heart of the story of the Ascension - which shows up in our creed every week?

     I'll never forget a sermon I heard early in my ministry from a hardscrabble, not-very-pious preacher who tackled the Ascension story with loads of quibbles and questions - but then said "All I can figure is that this story gets Jesus back home where he belongs, with his Father in heaven."  Not bad.

     What commitments does this Person ask of us and inspire in us in Acts 1:1-14?  There are at least three – and John expands on those.  Jesus exits, leaving the disciples alone.  Think Lord of the Rings: Gandalf is with the hobbits for a while on their adventure, but then he leaves them on their own for some time.  They face horrific difficulties, requiring courage and hope; they need one another; they have to stick together.  Gandalf shows up again at the climax, but then bids them farewell once more.  The plot mirrors the Bible’s:  Jesus heals, dazzles, teaches, suffers, is raised – and then he leaves.  He trusts them - the little, unlikely ones. And he trusts us, we unlikely ones.  Instead of dominating them, or creating codependency, he entrusts his future to them.  We are Jesus here, now. 
In the words attributed to St. Teresa of Avila:
Christ has no body now on earth but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours. Yours are the eyes through which the compassion of Christ is to look out on a hurting world.  Yours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good.  Yours are the hands with which he is to bless now.  My first book, Yours are the Hands of Christ, spent 100 pages explicating this.

     This takes us to the wonderfully suggestive phrase in verse 1: “In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach.”  That is, Luke’s Gospel is what Jesus began; Acts is Luke’s narrative of how his people continued what he began.  So, whatever Jesus did, we do the same kinds of things.  WWJD?  We can only answer this by becoming open-minded students of Luke (and Acts helps us) – as then it’s never mere niceness, or judgmental attitudes, but sharing property, touching untouchables, and more.  Does the church today – does my church today – continue what Jesus began, and what the first disciples continued?

     The lectionary also supplies us with Acts 16:16-34. How humorous: Paul encounters a possessed woman, evidently traipsing around after him, and he gets annoyed! The response of the citizens in Phillipi – a “little Italy” of relocated Roman veterans – tells us about early Christianity and raises a question about our purpose today as Christians: “These men are disturbing our city… They are advocating customs that are not lawful.” Light years from us blessing America and the status quo. Paul clearly didn’t get the memo about keeping politics and religion separate… And so they are imprisoned in what must have been a cold, hard, dark stone cavern with zero amenities.

     And instead of whining, they sing. In The Children, David Halberstam tells about the night in 1961 in a Jackson, Mississippi jail. A young civil rights protester with a stunning voice began to sing.  The cells grew quiet, enthralled by James Bevel’s solo.  The white prison guard demanded quiet.  But Bevel sang on.  The guard arrived at the door and asked for the radio:  “No radios allowed in here – you niggers ought to know that.”  Bevel replied, “You ain’t getting the radio – not this one.”  And then he continued singing “The Lord is my Shepherd.”  The guard, uncertain if he felt anger or faith, walked away.

     Ponder the Philippian church. Meeting in the home of relatively wealthy Lydia, we have her, a slave girl, and a middling government official, the jailer – and his wife and children. The Jesus movement fashions churches that cross social boundaries – and then there is a unity in Jesus that the world thinks impossible:

     Our Gospel reading, John 17:20-26, shares Jesus’ prayer for unity among his followers – and clearly Jesus continues to pray for that same unity. We talk unity quite well – but typically we mean “I want unity – my unity. Come be like me.” But real unity is about Christ, and real unity requires sacrifice. And repentance. And forgiveness.

    A few geniuses have written recently about Christian unity. Consider Ephraim Radner, in his aptly titled book, Brutal Unity: “When the greatest decision that human beings ever made was to be made, what did Jesus say?  How did he contribute?  When the truth was debated, did he speak his mind?  They led him to Pilate’s bar, and he never said a mumblin’ word; not a word, not a word, not a word… Jesus leaves behind his conscience as he moves toward those who would take it from him.  So that his truth becomes a way into a life for others.” 

   Or Gerhard Lohfink: “Unanimity within a community assembly only happens when those assembled finally cease looking at themselves. As long as the only have themselves in mind they will constantly discover new things that the other has not yet understood, finding new offenses and injuries, new problems not yet resolved. The miracle of unanimity is only possible when the assembly turns away from itself and its own interests and asks about God’s interests.”

     And then Radner again, pondering the unity that was the disciples at the Last Supper: “What they achieved was not so much agreement as an act that allowed members to be joined to the figure of Christ… It was when Jesus was walking around with his disciples – and yet they were confused, mistaken, and Jesus quite deliberately included Judas, and even washed his feet and ate and drank at table with him.  The thief was already thieving, and the greed was already growing, and the disappointment in Jesus’ claims was already gnawing.  This was always a part of their unity.”

What can we say June 9? Pentecost

   On Pentecost and the Holy Spirit in general, and attention to Acts 2:1-21 (and the alternate reading, Genesis 11), check out last year’s blog. To keep myself from the same old same old, I think I’ll focus on the Epistle, Romans 8:14-17, or the Gospel, John 14:8-17 (25-27) – or both (daring to commit the semi-schizophrenic sin of focusing on two texts).

    Periodically, when preaching on one of Paul’s letters, I invite people to imagine him sitting at a rough, simple desk, pen in hand – or even better, pacing back and forth, furrowing his brow, dictating to a scribe who had to be slack-jawed in admiration as Paul, out of thin air (or in a spasm of inspiration), spoke of eternal, emotional, empowering things with unmatched eloquence. If Paul dictated nothing else, Romans 8 would stand as a masterpiece of theology. Maybe Pentecost implies that God moved in untold ways in Paul’s mind and heart, enabling him to perceive what no one had ever perceived – and then, miraculously, it comes across the centuries to us in a Bible. Ours is to read slowly, in considerable awe, praying to that same Spirit to show us something, to move our minds and hearts.

    We are “children of God,” a notion we might take for granted until we ponder that no other religion ever dared such familial intimacy. The Roman deities had children, usually the fruit of sophomoric encounters. Achilles might be a typical “child of a god,” heroic, muscular, flawed but not your ordinary guy. Paul wrote to nobodies, and to somebodies, and they all are God’s children not because of their abilities or brilliance or derring-do, but as the gift of God’s Spirit.

    As children, they address God as “Abba,” an idea frequently preached upon. Recently I’ve wondered what Jesus’ first word might have been. He adored his mama, of course – but did he look at Joseph one day and intelligibly utter “Abba”? He knew Joseph’s tender mercy; did that help Jesus fathom the wonder of God his Father’s tender mercy?

     Knowing people trembled before petty, moody deities like Achilles’ dad, Paul in his thin place explains we need to fear God or anything else. We aren’t in slavery. Well, we are. We are slaves to self, to sin, to the culture, to our brokenness. God in Christ through the Spirit liberates us to be God’s children. And it’s adoption! Astonishing: when conceiving of the most wondrous relationship possible with God, Paul fixes his gaze upon what might seem as second rate relationship: the adopted, not naturally born one.

    I have a book coming out later this year about Birth – with a chapter on adoption. Let me share a few excerpts as we explore adoption theologically (and this fits both Romans 8 and John 14!). How many people through history were adopted? Leonardo da Vinci, Babe Ruth, Edgar Allan Poe, John Lennon, Eleanor Roosevelt, James Baldwin, Steve Jobs, Leo Tolstoy, Lafayette, the Roman emperors Trajan and Hadrian, Aristotle, Confucius, and Nelson Mandela. Queen Esther of the Bible was adopted. Superman was adopted, and so was Buddy, who was raised by an elf at the North Pole but then finally located his father, Walter, in New York. The profoundly moving film, “Lion,” tells the story of Saroo, adopted by an Australian family, finally managing to locate his mother in rural India. The themes of vulnerability, love and reconciliation in such stories fascinate all of us, including those who’ve never adopted or been adopted.

     Consider Harry Potter: Albus Dumbledore delivered him as a baby to the Dursleys after the murder of young Harry’s parents. Of course, Harry wasn’t the only thing that Dumbledore left behind him on this occasion: he also granted Harry some strong magic granting him absolute protection from Lord Voldemort and his Death Eaters while he lived with the Dursleys – until he came of age on his seventeenth birthday. And what story of an orphan is more compelling than John Irving’s stellar Cider House Rules, where Dr. Larch not only cares for orphans, but reads to them from great literature before bedtime, bidding them off to sleep with these immortal, encouraging words: “Goodnight, you princes of Maine, you kings of New England.”

     Kelly Nikondeha, in her thoughtful and theologically profound book Adopted: The Sacrament of Belonging in a Fractured World, reflects on her own quest as a grownup to seek out the parent who gave her up for adoption: “We want that dark corner illuminated. We imagine our own transformation at the revelation of our true origin. What goodness might be unlocked, what possibility unleashed?” Nikondeha offers a picturesque retrospective on what being adopted was about: “A woman scooped me out of the white-wicker bassinet in the viewing room of the adoption agency and claimed me as her own. Her physical emptiness prepared the way for my fullness.” Then she wonderfully suggests that adoption is “like a sacrament, that visible sign of an inner grace. It’s a thin place where we see that we are different and yet not entirely foreign to one another. We are relatives not by blood, but by mystery.”

    Relatives by Baptism, by the blood of the cross, by the gift of the Spirit at Pentecost. How cool is it that Jesus, at the Last Supper, and in our Gospel reading for this week, promised his disciples and us that “I will not leave you orphaned.” The Greek, orphanous, is sometimes translated “desolate.” Jesus embraces and enfranchises not to well-born, but all who are born. Prevenient, prevailing grace.

    But before we rummage around the John text, don’t neglect Paul’s one condition to his even more fantastic promise: you not only get adopted, but you inherit the wealth of the glorious kingdom! It’s like Rockefeller or better took me in and left me the riches! We surely may wish Paul had put a period after the word “heirs.” But no: he had to add “if we suffer with him.” It’s not, Oh, you might suffer for him. You will. And only if you do will that inheritance come. 

    The preacher has to parse what this might look like – not just for them but for the preacher. I do recall going to the Mel Gibson “Passion of the Christ” film. The guy sitting in front of me was sobbing after it ended. I asked “What are you feeling?” He said “Jesus suffered so I don’t have to.” Paul suggests precisely the opposite in Romans 8, and saints through the centuries didn’t become saints because they were shielded from all difficulty by God. In a world out of sync with God, and if it’s Jesus whom we’re attached to, there will be pain, friction, some piercing.

    Finally, a couple of thoughts on John 14:8-17 (25-27). “Show us the Father” prompted Jesus (was he frustrated, annoyed, patient?) to say “He’s right here in front of you, you’ve been walking around with a clear window into the Father’s heart for three years!” But notice it’s not just a window. Maybe it’s a mirror. “You will do even greater works.” Show us the Father? We, inept, confused, broken disciples, are Jesus Body; we are the window to the Father. How odd of God to choose a fledgling band of such weaklings. And yet that is God’s own glory. 

    Gerhard Lohfink put it beautifully: “How does God’s omnipotence reach its goal in the world? – only through people… God is revealed as omnipotent precisely in the fact that God stakes everything on the intelligence, free will, and trust of human beings, thus surrendering all power and yet achieving the divine purpose in the world. God attains this goal because in this world joy in God’s story is ultimately strong than all inertia and greed, so that this joy seizes people and gathers them into the people of God.”

     And quickly: Jesus very dangerously said “If you ask for anything in my name, I will do it.” False – or true in a spiritually robust way. It’s not that if you mutter “in Jesus’ name,” God is obligated. To ask in Jesus name is to ask with a heart very close to Jesus’ heart, in sync with what Jesus would will. Praying in Jesus’ name is more likely to be “Not my will, but your will,” or “Love does not insist on its own way.”