Sunday, June 26, 2011

Here We Go! Sermon on Matthew 10:5-15, 40-42

I was only the second person in my family to go to college. It was a big adventure. And the process of packing was an ordeal. What to take? I have been a voracious reader since my mom caught me reading “The Bobbsey Twins” under the covers with a flashlight. Do I take all the books I love? Do I take “The Diary of Anne Frank” and “The Story of a Soul,” the autobiography of Saint Therese of Lisieux? (The answer to this question was, “No.” In college you acquire additional tons of books, so you don’t take all your favorite books, especially if you are a bookworm.) Do I take all my music? Which, for a college girl in 1978 meant vinyl AND cassettes AND 8-track tapes. (The answer to this question was a qualified “Yes;” the 8-track tapes got left behind—in more ways than one.) And clothes… you leave for college in the summer, and by the time you come home for Thanksgiving break it is practically winter! So do you take all those clothes? (For me, the answer was “Yes.” And it is this single fact that necessitated the upgrade from driving to Boston in my parent’s car to the rental of a small U-Haul truck.)

What do we really need, when we hit the road, when we say, “Here we go!” and where we’re going takes us on a brand new adventure? My friends and I played a game in college that involved naming the five essentials we would want to take to a desert island—usually, five essential books, or recordings, the assumption being, I survive, that we would be able to survive on our own, a la Tom Hanks in “Cast Away.” To which my older, wiser self replies, Yeah, right.

Which I imagine might be something akin to what the Twelve said at the prospect of going on their missionary journey. Usually when I speak of Jesus’ friends and followers, I use language as inclusive as possible. I say things like, “Jesus’ friends and followers,” because the gospels tell us that there were many more than “the Twelve” gathered around Jesus. At times, his followers were in the hundreds. But in this passage from the gospel of Matthew, Jesus sends the “Twelve,” meaning, the twelve apostles. That’s what “apostle” means, “one who is sent.” And here, the twelve are living into that definition. They are being sent with the message of the gospel, into the world.

Now, they are being sent, this first time, on a relatively modest expedition. Go nowhere near the Gentiles, Jesus says, and stay away from those scary Samaritans. Don’t go to any places where a hostile reception is more or less guaranteed. Instead, go to the lost sheep of Israel—in other words, go to be among “our own people.” People to whom the apostles are already related, their own tribes. Twelve tribes. Remember, way back in the late winter, early spring, when we were talking about Matthew’s gospel, and his eagerness to paint Jesus as the “new Moses?” Here he goes again: just as Jesus as the “new Moses,” the twelve apostles and their mission to the twelve tribes are making up the “new Israel.”[i]

But packing for this trip is an ordeal of a different kind. No U-Haul required. I remember when my parents opened a checking account for me, and taught me how to use it. But, Jesus says, Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts. Take no checkbooks or ATM cards. I’ve already mentioned the mammoth haul that required not only a truck but by brother’s willingness to lift and carry and relocate. But, Jesus says, Take no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff. Don’t take your prom gown, “just in case.” I recall the college meal card, and mastering the art of making it last for the full semester, but the twelve are, evidently, going to have to depend on the kindness of strangers, for laborers deserve their food, Jesus says. Implying, that it will be supplied—not brought along in Tupperware containers.

Who, in their right mind, would agree to such working conditions? The apostles are being sent on a mission with what appears to be exactly nothing. Only themselves, and the clothes on their backs.

And what they are supposed to do? Well, proclaim the Good News, Jesus says, Tell those lost sheep, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.

Oh fine. Just go about Galilee being Jesus? Is that what he’s asking? Is he serious? And it’s true. Jesus has been going all around Galilee and points beyond, and he has been sharing this news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near,’ which is polite and pious Jewish shorthand for ‘The kingdom of God has come near.’ Which is Jesus’ way of saying, ‘Here I am.’

Jesus is the kingdom of God come near. Jesus is healing, and life-giving, and accepting the people who were otherwise considered unacceptable—like the demon-possessed and the lepers. Jesus embodies all these things, all without benefit of his dog-eared copy of “The Catcher in the Rye” or his lucky baseball glove or any extra baggage whatsoever. He is all these things in himself, and by sending them out with absolutely nothing, he tells the twelve, You are too. You are all these things.

And so he sends them out, to embody the dawning kingdom of God. That time and place—already here, and not quite here—when we will all be healed, and we will all be given new life, and we will all be accepted. He sends them out to accomplish all these things without the benefit of a mobile army surgical hospital or a tony spa in the Adirondacks. He sends them out without a whole lot of training, and even fewer provisions. He sends them out to simply be themselves, and to bring healing and new life and acceptance for all God’s children with them. Because that is how we go about proclaiming the Good News: we do it with our own lives. This is that wonderful advice attributed to Saint Francis of Assisi: “Preach the gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.”[ii]

But, you know, as reassuring as all that is—that we can embody the gospel, that we can bring new life like Jesus did, etc. etc.—as reassuring as all that is, the prospect of actually doing the thing still paralyzes us. Doesn’t it? Who here has their 2-minute long elevator speech ready to go? You know, the short pitch to invite people to your church? Or, even bolder, to tell them why you love Jesus? Anyone?

If we feel daunted—well, we can start small. One-cup-of-cold-water-small. Did you catch that part? If going out armed with only your sweet self and the clothes on you back and the joy, joy, joy, joy down in your heart is just too much to contemplate—well, just consider welcoming someone else who is doing that, by giving them a cup of cold water when they’re thirsty. No, not even that—giving a cup of cold water to a “little one” who knows someone who’s spreading the gospel. That’s it! That’s our way in. The kingdom of God/ kingdom of heaven is so vast, so unfathomably enormous. And we get to participate in it by starting small, by starting right where we are, right here, right now. With what we can do, now. We can give a cup of cold water.

So here we go! Because, you knew it, didn’t you—we are being sent, just like the twelve. And we don’t need special training or provisions. We don’t need a seminary education, or a million dollars, or the “right” program. All we need is to have been paying attention, to who Jesus is, and what Jesus does. All we need is the willingness to be who and what God made us to be, and to let our genuine selves bring forth God’s healing, and new life, and acceptance for all God’s people. All we need is the willingness to pour out a cup of cold water for someone who thirsts, and to know—this, right here, right now, is God’s kingdom, breaking through. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Stephen Butler Murray, “Matthew 9:35-10:8 (9-23): Theological Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Volume 3, Pentecost and the Season After, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Editors (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 140.

[ii] Fr. Pat McCloskey, OFM, “Great Saying But Tough to Trace: Did Saint Francis Really Say That?” in Saint Anthony Messenger, October 2001. Original quote: “Let all the brothers, however, preach by their deeds.”

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Meditations for Trinity Sunday

Which I preached without benefit of the text, as I forgot to email it to myself. Oops!

11Finally, brothers and sisters, farewell. Put things in order, listen to my appeal, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you. 12Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the saints greet you. 13The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you. ~2 Corinthians 13:11-13

Meditation 1: The Grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ

How would you say “Good bye” to someone who was driving you crazy? Someone who, in your opinion, had their priorities all wrong—who spent their money on the wrong things, or wouldn’t spend it at all? Someone who couldn’t see past glitz and glamour to the empty sentiments on the other side of it all? Someone who rejected you because—you didn’t have that glitz and glamour?

Paul faces this situation at the end of his second letter to the church in Corinth. The Corinthians are driving him crazy. After speaking his mind, telling them what he thinks of their shortcomings, when it finally comes time to say good bye, Paul says, “Grace.” The first words of his farewell benediction are “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ.” And grace is all about forgiveness. Grace is all about the sufficiency of God, even (or especially) when we have found ourselves to be sorely lacking. Grace is all about the work of Jesus on our behalf—the totality of his life, his ministry, his death and his resurrection. To the tough and recalcitrant Corinthians, Paul gives a blessing of grace, and says, “Take heart. All is not lost. Far from it. There’s still grace. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Meditation 2: The Love of God

And then, Paul says, “Love.” The confluence of Father’s Day and Trinity Sunday give me an opportunity to speak of the first person of the Trinity, whom Paul here calls God, and who for much of church history has been referred to as “Father.” Jesus called God “Father,” but he also called God “Abba,” which is an endearment, like “Papa” or even “Daddy.” Today the father of the family may be the breadwinner or the stay at home caretaker. Today the father of the family may never enter the kitchen or may be the best and most creative cook. Today the father may be the strict disciplinarian or the soft touch. Today almost all the functions of father and mother can be taken on by either parent—almost.

But in Jesus’ day, the Father was always, in addition to the one who gave you life, the head of the household, the breadwinner, and the one on whom the family depended on for protection, for stature in the community, for identity. The good father was a tower of strength. And Paul commends the very difficult and frustrating Corinthians to the “love of God.” And so “the love of God” resonates with all these things—it speaks of our identity as God’s children, of protection, strength, security, and, yes, tenderness. To those whom Paul has criticized mightily, there is the still more mighty “love of God.”

Meditation 3: The Communion of the Holy Spirit

And finally, Paul says, “Communion.” Communion is a word, that in it’s most basic meaning, is “union with.” Last Sunday I spoke at some length about the Holy Spirit. One of our Presbyterian creeds tells us that The Spirit… binds us together with all believers in the one body of Christ, the Church.” The Spirit is the one who brings it—the one who brings us—all together. It is by the power of the Spirit that people who are different in every conceivable way—old and young, rich and poor, healthy and weak, hawks and doves, liberals and conservatives—it is by the power of the Spirit that such people can live together, and thrive together, and do God’s good work together. Name any obstacle, construct any dividing wall, delineate any barrier, and the Spirit is capable of overcoming it, breaking it down, moving powerfully and gently around it.

In the final words of Paul’s benediction, he invokes the Trinity—the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit—to remind the Corinthians of the abundant blessings of the God in whom they live and move and have their being. They are living in grace—in forgiveness. They are living in love—in powerful identity and protection. They are living in communion—in the ability to come together as one, despite the forces that might try to drag them apart. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit constitute the reality of the life of faith. Grace, love and communion—these are our heritage, too, something to fill our hearts with songs of praise. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Problem With Pentecost: Sermon on Acts 2:1-21

I just can’t resist this story. I can’t resist a good story, generally, but the story of Pentecost is really so wonderful.

The risen Jesus is gone from sight into heaven. Jesus’ friends and followers—hundreds of them—are all gathered together in one place. They are undoubtedly studying scripture together, because that is what Jews do on the feast of Pentecost (Shavuot is the Hebrew name for it), the commemoration of God’s giving of the Torah to the people. So here they are, all gathered together, waiting, watching, wondering what on earth could be next. And suddenly, all heaven breaks loose. A mighty wind blows through, filling the room. Tongues of fire appear on all their heads, young and old, male and female. They all begin to speak in new languages, languages they did not know before. The Spirit, the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of God and of Jesus, has come upon them.

They pour out into the streets, where their ability to speak new languages means that everyone can understand what they are saying, what they are preaching, the Good News. All the people who have come to Jerusalem for the festival, no matter where they come from, can hear the words being spoken in their own tongues.

So many beautiful things are happening, it’s hard to convey them all at once. Those who were hidden away in fear are filled with courage, and come out into the open. Those who were silent are speaking out. Those who were divided, separated, are united, they have become one. So many beautiful things. The power of the Spirit unleashed.

But—and you knew there was a “but,” didn’t you? Wait a minute. Hold on. A sour note is sounded. A sour note intoned by at least some of the bystanders. “But others sneered, and said, ‘They are full of new wine’” [Acts 2:13]. And there it is. Where some see a miracle, others see dissipation. Where some see God’s power at work, others see misbehavior, or worse. Where some see a marvelous example of people coming together, others see drunken revelers who ought to be off the streets, home in bed.

And there you have it, the problem of Pentecost. A mighty wind blows through, and suddenly you have a mess of downed tree limbs and power lines. Tongues of fire alight on everyone’s heads, and sooner or later someone complains that they’ve gotten burned. You start speaking new languages, and now old friends are acting strange. They shake their heads. They say you’ve changed.

And we are left wondering, what on earth (or in heaven) has just happened? Hasn’t the Spirit come in power? Isn’t this a great victory? Yet, we’re left feeling more like the people in the cartoon I just saw this week, in which a voice from heaven declares, “I shall send down my Spirit, and it will be like a flame upon your head.” So one person says, “Does this mean I can’t wear a hat?” And another says, “We’d better have a fire drill.” And another says, “This is a health and safety nightmare!” And yet another says, “What if I set off the fire alarm?” And, of course, someone says, “But my church is a non-smoking [facility]!”[i]

The Spirit comes. And we are not sure what on earth to do about it. We’re not even sure if we’re happy about it. We’re not even sure what it means.

So, perhaps, a refresher course is in order. Title this part of the sermon, “Holy Spirit: 101: A brief introduction.” Except for Pentecost, when the Spirit comes with so much bluster and fanfare, lots of us tend to think of the Spirit as the “shy” member of the Trinity. We are much more aware of God the Father or Creator, and of God the Son, in Jesus Christ. But God the Spirit? Slippery. Invisible. Dare I say, ghostly. And yet, a look at our creeds reveals that the Spirit is where the action is, in terms of our lives and faith. The Brief Statement of Faith of the Presbyterian Church (USA) describes the work of the Spirit in this way:

“We trust in God the Holy Spirit, everywhere, the giver and renewer of life.”

“The Spirit justifies us by grace through faith, sets us free to accept ourselves and to love God and neighbor, and binds us together with all believers in the one body of Christ, the Church.”

“The same Spirit who inspired the prophets and apostles rules our faith and life in Christ through Scripture, engages us through the Word proclaimed, claims us in the waters of baptism, feeds us with the bread of life and the cup of salvation, and calls women and men to all ministries of the church.”

“In a broken and fearful world the Spirit gives us courage to pray without ceasing, to witness among all peoples to Christ as Lord and Savior, to unmask idolatries in Church and culture, to hear the voices of peoples long silenced, and to work with others for justice, freedom, and peace.”

Here’s how I like to think about it: anything we do that in any way enables us to more fully and authentically love God and to love our neighbor is the work of the Holy Spirit. That means that the Spirit is busy, busy, busy at work, in us, around us, through us. That means that everything we do that is good—whether it is praying, or reading scripture, or reaching out in kindness, or bearing witness to our faith, or hugging our children, or listening to our beloveds, or visiting someone who is lonely, or helping someone who is in any way in need—everything that we know is good and pleasing to God, we are empowered to do by the Holy Spirit.

And here’s where the problem of Pentecost comes in. As one working preacher has put it:

“The Holy Spirit does not come to solve our problems but to create them. Think about it: absent the coming of the Holy Spirit, the disciples could go back to their previous careers as fishermen. I can almost hearing James and John explaining, "Sure, it was a wild and crazy three-year-ride, and that Jesus sure was a heck of a guy, but maybe we needed to get that out of our system before we could settle down and take on Dad's business." Once the Spirit comes, however, that return to normalcy is no longer an option. They will now be propelled throughout the ancient world to herald the unlikely message that God has redeemed the world through an itinerant preacher from the backwaters of Palestine who was executed for treason and blasphemy. The Holy Spirit, take note, doesn't solve the disciples' problems, it creates them.[ii]

The mighty wind of the Spirit does fill us with inspiration, but it also takes down tree branches and power lines, blowing away old structures and requiring us to create new ones. The flames of the Spirit do set us on fire for God, at the same time they expose us to the risk that we will be burned by the passion of our love. The ability to speak a new language will mean that we find ourselves sharing the love of Jesus with new friends, but that can result in all kinds of complications with our old ones. Allowing the Holy Spirit to work in us and through us is not a guarantee of a life free from complication, or pain, or difficulty. It is just the opposite. Case in point: Jesus.

Jesus let the wind of the Spirit blow through him, and in everything he did, he was at one with the will of God. And that ended in a spectacular defeat, failure, ignominy. In Jesus’ day, it just didn’t get any worse than crucifixion, because it was not only death, it was a painful, humiliating death at the hands of an oppressive state. But God raised Jesus from the dead. God vindicated him. God created the most spectacular victory from the most horrifying defeat, because that is how God works. As a dear friend of mine likes to say, in God’s economy, nothing is wasted. The question is not whether we are successful. The question is whether we are faithful.

The problem of Pentecost boils down to this question: are we willing to be faithful? Are we willing to be punch-drunk with love for God, so much so that people start looking at us a little funny? Are we willing to throw ourselves into new ventures on behalf of God’s hurting people, create new structures from the wreckage of the old—even if we risk failure in doing it? Are we willing to listen for the voice of God in the words of those it is all too easy to ignore or discount? Because that is where God has told us he will be speaking—in the completely powerless, and those who are too young, and those who are too old, the ones who will prophesy, and see visions, and dream dreams. Are we willing to listen to them?

Here we are, all gathered together in one place. The wind of the Spirit is already blowing through this place—stirring up new ideas in one, setting another one’s heart on fire with conviction, teaching another a new way of speaking. The Spirit comes, ready or not, to upset, complicate and, in the end, remake our lives in strange, unexpected and beautiful ways. So many beautiful things are happening already! Those who were hidden away in fear are filled with courage, and come out into the open. Those who were silent are speaking. Those who were divided, separated, are united, they have become one. So many beautiful things, as the power of the Spirit is unleashed. Thanks be to God. Amen.