#Greeklivesmatter – A Pentecost Sermon

Acts 2:1-12

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?”

Acts 6:1-7

Now during those days, when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food. And the twelve called together the whole community of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables. Therefore, friends, select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task, while we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word.” What they said pleased the whole community, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, together with Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. They had these men stand before the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them.

The word of God continued to spread; the number of the disciples increased greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.

Disclaimer Text

In place of our Footnotes today I offer you a disclaimer: If you are following along with the sermon that I sent out in the weekly update or with one that was sent in the mail, then you should stop now. For the second time in my stay here as pastor I found myself compelled by the Spirit to give a message other than the one that I wrote for today. While this time the Spirit allowed me time to write out the message rather than preach it extemporaneously, the fact remains. What you are about to hear did not exist until this morning as I struggled with the call of the Spirit to do something other than what I had planned. The original sermon’s text is available online and a video of it will be posted here sometime this afternoon, but for now we have another lesson to learn from our Scripture and our remembrance of the Pentecost.

I would also like to say out front that we will be discussing race, police accountability, and what we in the 21st century can learn from the church of Acts in its response to issues of race. Our sermon today, in exploring it, is far from the ideal medium to talk about this in. The conversation is necessarily one way, I only have so much time to speak to the issue, and at the end of the day no one message can really tackle all that is involved in these discussions. I offer up a sermon, a meditation on the word which is the beginning of a conversation we all must have with ourselves and with one another as the community of Christ.

What the Spirit gives to the edification of the community I offer up freely. We go into our time today, I pray, with an understanding that what is lifted up is not meant to divide or to condemn, but to give us time and place to question what comes next. I invite us to be convicted by our Father where we can be, empowered by the example of Christ to overcome our failings, and in all things to live in a Spirit of Love that allows us to come to different conclusions on many things, yes, but that nonetheless sees the essential unity of the Church win out.

Sermon Text

The Pentecost tells us a story that is hard to imagine. A group of illiterate ministers gather together in the upper room of a house. They have been waiting a long fifty days since their Master had left them and ascended into Heaven. This group of people feel the rush of wind, they suddenly find themselves speaking languages they never knew, and they pour into the streets to share the message and the salvation of their Master. They preach to thousands of people, all hearing in their same language, all suddenly entering together into a community that was barred to them before.

The Pentecost is amazing because it shows God’s willingness to reach out to us, and not only to overcome differences between individuals but to utilize and embrace them. When God spoke to each person in their own language at Pentecost, the convert did not have to learn Aramaic or Greek to join the community, but the Spirit of God allowed for the difference between the two communities to live alongside one another. The Persian convert, different in dress and speech than the Greek convert, both were able to sit at a table and break bread together.

The work of the Pentecost saw people of all races, creeds, and backgrounds brought together into Christian community. There was no erasure of differences but the celebration of them. In the Chapters that follow this one, we see again and again that God lifts the restrictions that would keep people who lived differently from the Jews from communing with the Jewish Christians that made up the bulk of the Church at this time. Dietary laws are lifted, examples are given of people from across the world being allowed into the Kingdom, and perhaps most importantly of all, the Church is given a glimpse into how to settle differences between the disparate members within their numbers.

Immediately following the Pentecost event, trouble started among the church. First Peter and John were taken on trial and paddled for their preaching of the Gospel. Secondly, two members of the Church who wished to look rather than act Holy pretended to have given all they had to the Church when they really had a large portion of it tucked away in case this whole, “Christianity” thing did not work. Finally, and relevant to our discussion today, Greek widows cried out to the disciples because they were being neglected in the distribution of food.

The Pentecost event was the moment that reconciled Gentile and Jew together eternally in the economy of the Church. There could be no separation where even language was erased in the work of the Spirit. The community was growing in large part because it allowed for anyone and everyone to join its community. The first few days of the Church were full of energy straight from God, the divine pulse the thrummed through the community-made sure they did exactly as they ought to. They shared all things in common, they called all people their siblings, and they were in love with God and Neighbor such that they were always out in public and always had the good-will of the community around them.

How quickly that energy faded! The reality that they were a community of flawed individuals saved and slowly sanctified by Grace became real among them as friction started to emerge between the members of the Church. The rich hid away money from the poor, the Christian membership of the Jewish High Council stayed silent in their trial, the distribution of food was prioritized by the language one spoke and the region they came from. The fervor of the Spirit in Acts 2, the impassioned preaching of Peter in Acts 3, it already seems to be fading as we move forward just a few chapters in the book.

The Greek Widows raise up their cry to the apostles and they are given a choice – they can either listen to their concerns, or they can ignore them. The apostles remembered the day that the Spirit came, they were sitting with the Church when Greeks and Persians and Romans and all manner of people broke bread together. They had before them the image of the perfect church, and when these women raised their cry it would have been very easy for them to say, “What are you talking about!? Our workers would never do that! Stop complaining!”

Yet, they did not. The apostles heard the women and appointed a task force to deal with the problem. While we cannot be sure exactly, it is of note that they not only entrusted this work to members of their community in good standing, but that each of those appointed to tackle this problem had names with no Hebrew source. In other words, the sons, relatives, and neighbors of the Greek widows were appointed to make sure that the Greek widows were given their fair share. The Apostles not only heard the complaints of the Greeks in the community, but responded by empowering and supporting them to work to fix the problem. To chastise those who were withholding food, to bring the riches of God’s love to those who previously were denied it.

Today, we the Church celebrate the Pentecost, but we do so in the United States not as though we are in Acts 2 but as though we are in Acts 6. Around this country, there is a great deal of civil unrest because, once again, a man has been unjustly killed by an officer who took an oath to protect and serve, and once again it seemed like the killer in question would not be held accountable. This tragedy, unlike so many before it, saw many people in agreement that the officer was out of line in the methods that he took, at least as far as I have seen. There was not the ambiguity that often haunts these cases, but a clear sense of something horribly wrong having happened. What comes next, is where things get difficult.

We are not new to the discussion of police brutality in the United States. As long as there has been a police force there have been those willing to abuse that position for personal reasons. This is true of any position of leadership, take it from a minister if you give people control of a situation and they have their priorities in the wrong place they will cause incalculable harm. The existence of cruel and frankly wicked police officers does not negate the work of those that dutifully serve their communities, and I in no way wish to project that message, however, we in the 21st century as both citizens and law enforcement have a lot to learn from the first-century church.

The first case of a person of color being killed and of the world lifting their voice in protest was Treyvon Martin way back in 2012. He was the same age as me, he was killed walking from one place to another, and the exact happenings of the event were not recorded in an easily understood way. He was killed by a citizen, not an officer, and I remember at the time, I decided that it was unreasonable to put blame on the killer, because how and why would someone kill someone, a child like me, without good reason. Eight years later, I do not have the same optimism that I once did. Eight years later, I wish I could go back and give myself a stern talking to.

Since 2012, consumer grade cameras improved and many were placed in our pockets as cell phones became more plentiful. Because of this, we have seen time and time again videos released of the final moments of people of color. Scared, in pain, crying out for help, killed in unnecessary shows of force by people who should know better. It is bad enough that, ten months after I preach about racism and how it led to the El Paso shooting, we find ourselves once more discussing matters of race, but there is a darker reality even than this. If we took a moment to examine ourselves and our response to these killings every time they happened, we would hardly be able to worship normally. We are, at this point, familiar with these incidents to the point they are mundane.

Oftentimes the language used to discuss these tragedies puts us in a place of absolutism in regard to law enforcement. The choice is posed as support entirely of law enforcement, even if it means a few bad officers slip through the cracks, or else of rejecting law enforcement entirely. Both of these seem extreme, but I think the first even more so. It is harder to blame someone who, after going unheard for years and years, leaves a discussion. The cries of the unheard, falling on deaf ears, will breed a well-earned resentment.

If we return to Acts 6 though, we may find a way forward. Here, the apostles are told of an abuse – for them the overlooking of Greek widows in the distribution of food by official representatives of the Church, for us the wrongful deaths of people of color by representatives of the state. They deliberate on what to do and have a choice – they can assume the best of those they have appointed and deny the cries of those in need, or they can work to be better. The decision is made to put people in place, Greeks at that, to oversee what happens in the distribution of food.

For us today, we cannot cut off our nose to spite our face when it comes to racial injustice. We cannot defend the cruelty of the wicked who find their ways into the halls of power, to protect those who do good works. We as people should hold those in power accountable, and that means officers as well. Likewise, officers should police themselves. The only way a bad cop can continue to be bad is if the good cops who see them working let them. We often describe unfit officers as, “bad apples,” but we forget that the rest of that adage is, “One bad apple spoils the bunch.”

We also, like the Church in Acts, need to listen when people cry out to us. The Widows likely would have left the Church if they kept being ignored. If the problem persisted to the point they were starving, they may still push further and disrupt the church directly. They, following the example of Christ, may have run in and overturned the tables the apostles sat at, making their displeasure clear through destruction. However, because the widows were heard and something was done immediately to seek out a solution, then no one was pushed to the point of desperation required to make such a display.

Finally, we do well as the Church today to remember that more often than not these incidents involve our fellow Christians. George Floyd, the name that has sparked all this recent discussion, was a bible believing man. He was a member of a church and was heavily involved in its ministries. We must hear the cries of our siblings in Christ when they call out to us, and believe me, like Abel a great deal of blood cries out to us from the ground today. However, as George’s minister was quoted as saying in an article in Christianity Today, “I have hope because just like Abel is a Christ figure, I see my brother [Floyd] as a Christ figure as well, pointing us to a greater reality. God does hear us. He hears his cry even from the ground now. Vengeance will either happen on the cross or will happen on Judgment Day.” Let us purify ourselves now, at the foot of the cross, so that when Judgment comes we may stand blameless before Christ. – Amen.

Would That All Were Prophets – Lectionary 05/31/2020

Numbers 11:24-30

So Moses went out and told the people the words of the Lord; and he gathered seventy elders of the people, and placed them all around the tent. Then the Lord came down in the cloud and spoke to him, and took some of the spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders; and when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied. But they did not do so again.

Two men remained in the camp, one named Eldad, and the other named Medad, and the spirit rested on them; they were among those registered, but they had not gone out to the tent, and so they prophesied in the camp. And a young man ran and told Moses, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.” And Joshua son of Nun, the assistant of Moses, one of his chosen men, said, “My lord Moses, stop them!” But Moses said to him, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!” And Moses and the elders of Israel returned to the camp.

Acts 2:1-12

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?”

Sermon Text

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”[1] These words of Jesus initiated his ministry in the world. The work from the Incarnation to the cross can be found in the words of this proclamation. The Spirit of the Lord, resting upon Jesus, is prepared to go into the world and bring good news to those in it.

The mission of the Church began in full at the Pentecost. When the Spirit of God was poured out on the followers of Christ, the 12 apostles, yes, but also the multitude of the believers. The Spirit manifested by giving the disciples the ability to speak in numerous languages. Whether this was through the sudden knowledge of foreign languages or through the Spirit translating the words of the Church to those who heard it, we cannot know, but God allowed for preaching to happen where none was possible before.

Greek, Aramaic, Farsi, Latin, all dialects and tongues, were suddenly being used to proclaim the spectacular story of Christ. That God had taken on human form, had died on a Roman cross, and then been risen from the dead. This same Lord was then raised into the Heavens and will one day return to establish a kingdom founded on love and righteousness, free of evil and abundant in all respects. The Son of God, the incarnate Word of God, the one named Jesus of Nazareth who is called the Christ, this is who has delivered the world through the proclamation of his Good News, his Gospel.

The Church, in receiving the Spirit, takes up the mantel of Christ’s work in the world. Like Elisha taking over for Elijah, we receive a double share – the life of Christ and the presence of the Spirit as a testament of how we ought to live. When we enter into the Church and the Spirit unites us to the body of Christ that is the people of God, then we are able to become prophets and ministers of the Gospel. We serve one another through actions of love and through our promotion of our mutual good. Yet, we often minimize our ability to do the work that is set before us.

Whether out of a misplaced sense of humility or a legitimate sense that we are insufficient to the task, we do not trust our words to be refined enough to preach the Gospel, or we consider such work to be the task of a select chosen few. Certainly, the vocation of ministry is a valid designation for a person to take on. If it was not, I certainly would not be here speaking today. However, the vocation of ministry is not all that there is to do in the Church. Pastors, Priests, Bishops, Elders, whatever name that they are given they hold administrative roles in the church. Likewise, they proclaim the word and administer the sacraments.

However, if only these ministers were called to speak for God and to proclaim the Gospel, then the work would be severely limited. There are 328 million people in the United States and only a little over 440 thousand ministers. That’s ca. 1 minister for ever thousand people in the US, two if we are being generous.[2] Even the most prolific of minister could hardly be able to serve that many people, definitely not responsibly.

The preaching of the Gospel, the administration of the Church’s service, the community of love which defines the Kingdom of God, all these are accomplished not by single leaders of communities, but by the whole body of the faithful. The gift of the Spirit at Pentecost remained with us, being passed from one generation of the faithful to the next to the next.

If we believe that every member of the Church has their own ministry, their own call to act as prophets, then the task of ministry is far less daunting. A conservative estimate of active Christians in the United States sees the potential for us to understand the ratio of ministers to those ministered to as suddenly 1:5.[3] If we can imagine having an impact upon even 5 people, then we can imagine becoming ministers to those around us.

There has forever been conflict between our understanding of ministry as the work of those in the vocation of ministry and the duty of each and every Christian. Throughout history we have placed emphasis either entirely upon the ministry of the ordained or upon the priesthood of all believers. We, like the people of God in our reading from Numbers see people doing the work of God and immediately ask for credentials. Either we, as they often did in the wilderness, question the leadership and ask who gave them the right to lead or else we question the people and ask them where they got it in their head they can do the work of ministry.

Balance between these two realities is not easy. It requires all persons in the church work together humbly and trust one another. It requires that we see value in one another, that we regard one another as a diverse but united group. There is no hierarchy that can find its home in Christianity. Creating a hierarchy of race, of ethnicity, of wealth, of state of origin, of country of origin, of anything that demarcates the body of Christ in antagonism to itself is unacceptable. The Church established from the beginning that it was not an affair for any one group of people, not something to remain in Jerusalem or Judea or the Levant, but every corner of the Earth. It shows preference only for the poor and powerless, in all things it shuns accolades for righteousness. The Church is a kingdom that reinvents itself constantly to democratize itself.

The dream of Moses is that we all would become prophets. That each and every person who is called by name to be a part of God’s kingdom would be able to take on a role like Moses and to speak to the world boldly about the Good News of God. That dream is fulfilled in the giving of the Spirit at the Pentecost. We in the Church today are each called to be like Moses, the Holy Nation of Priests that was anointed by God continues today in our work. There are always those in the Church who will be called to specific roles of leadership, but the work of God is never limited to a select group.

The individual discernment of what our individual work may be, that is a more difficult path to chase. It takes prayer, it takes fellowship with one another, it requires that we are honest in every aspect of our life. Yet, when we are willing to ask questions, when we believe that our mission which God has initiated will be provided for by the Spirit, then we can work wonders. The words of Jesus which rang out so long ago, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” This is the proclamation that we in the Church now continue.

Limited to no place, no time, no single class or vocation, the word of God flows out from each person who finds the object of their love in Christ. The Spirit is able to spread from one person to another, a flame that cannot be quenched, it consumes the world in a fire that does not burn but sustains itself and the object it finds itself upon. The mission of the Church, the inheritance we receive from Christ, is passed on to us through the Spirit. The Spirit which we remember being given today, that lives within us, that unites us together as one. This is what we celebrate in the Pentecost and this is what enlivens us to take hold of the mission that we, the Church, the Body of Christ, are called to. – Amen

[1] Luke 4:18-19

[2] Statistics taken from DATA USA’s presentation of US Census Data Available at: https://datausa.io/profile/soc/212011

[3] Data taken from the Pew Research Center’s In U.S., Decline of Christianity Continues at Rapid Pace. Available at: https://www.pewforum.org/2019/10/17/in-u-s-decline-of-christianity-continues-at-rapid-pace/

An Ascendant Mission – Lectionary 05/24/2020

Luke 24:44-53

Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”

Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.

Acts 1:4-11

While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. “This,” he said, “is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”

So, when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

Sermon Text

The work of the Church is founded in the gift of the Spirit from the Father to us through the work of Christ, the Son of God. We have worked, over the past month, through how the Church has and has not found its way in the world. The work of the Church stands or falls based upon its dependence on God. We gather together and worship because God works, sometimes unseen, in our life. We prove our place in the Kingdom of God through our commitment to love for one another. We are able to love one another because we follow the example of Christ and the empowerment of the Spirit. We maintain our identity in the Spirit through Unity in the diversity of the body of Christ.

The final act of Christ on Earth was to depart to be bodily with the Father. The language used in Luke-Acts is designed to connect this exit with traditionally apocalyptic imagery. Jesus leaves swathed in clouds, a symbol of divine presence as old as the Exodus. The departure recalls the Son of Man and Ancient of Days of Daniel. This departure happens on the Mount of Olives, which Zechariah had placed as the point from which the Messiah would reenter Jerusalem. The final act of Christ on earth, the departure from Earth to Heaven and from being present among us to present with the Father, is not an ending in any sense, but a point of shift from which a definite continuation begins.

Christ leaves the disciples in a way that propels them forward. The are pushed, whether by a sheer outpouring of joy and praise or by the urging of an angelic messenger, to return to the city. The Son of God who had been killed and then raised, now is seated beside the Father. The first two definite marks of the Church’s beginning were established – the resurrection and ascension of Christ. Now the disciples only had to wait for the final sign, the arrival of the Spirit, the fulfillment of Christ’s parting promises that he would be with them always.

The arrival of the Spirit is not all that is promised to us in Luke-Acts account of Jesus’ departure. Christ implicitly gives us a strong statement about where we can find strength in our pursuit of our mission. The mission of the church is Ascendant, it aspires to climb to higher and higher heights. It is never sufficient that it should settle, even in rest it must be on the move. Upward spirals of activity follow the path of Christ’s life and work so that we who are humbled in our baptism work toward new heights of goodness and pride, not in ourselves, but in the transformation which has been worked within us.

Throughout the Gospels, and indeed the New Testament as a whole, the presence of Jesus at the right hand of God is what allows our life to be lived out as it presently is. Our prayers are heard directly by God, but also our concerns are lifted up by Christ who advocates for us. The Ascension is not the endnote of Jesus’ ministry, it is a continuation of what Jesus’ ministry has been up to this point. The descent of Christ to be among us in the incarnation established the permanent fusion of divinity and humanity. In ascending that fusion was put in a new context. Like how divinity entered humanity in a unique way in the incarnation, the ascension allowed humanity to enter into the divine realm.

We continue on as people who are caught between realities. We do not yet see the fullness of Heaven and Earth brought together, but the Spirit within us attests to this reality. The greatest proof of this possibility spent time among us and lived out an entire life exactly as we did. Then that proof went before God and remains there to this day. The Church now fulfills the role that Christ once fulfilled on Earth – we are the visible sign of Christ until Christ returns, the proof of Heaven and Earth combined. We are the sign of God’s presence in the world, and our presence must be an active one. The change of our hearts, the realization of those divine characteristics, if they do not produce activity then it is only a change of appearance not substance that we have experienced.

Oftentimes we internalize the mission of Christ as something that changes us and then stands still. We are saved from damnation or from our own evil and then we are content to have that be our story. If we branch out beyond this, we often do so in mild ways. We may share about our faith, ideally in the positive but often in the negative. We should speak to the wonders of God working in our life, but we are no strangers to identifying our faith through negating other worldviews. If a poll was put out to people on the street, it would likely be easier for people to name what the Church is believed to be against than what it is for. The things it traditionally abstains from stand out more than the things it seeks after.

Yet, we are people called to go out and preach the Gospel. A Gospel that saves not only in the next life, not in the World to Come alone, but in this life and this world. We are people who preach a message that dares to say that the Last are First and the First are Last. We cannot simply say what we believe but must also live it out. Though we cannot define ourselves through antagonism, but we stand in contrast to the world around us. The Church is an alternative to all systems of power and order, Jesus establishes a Kingdom which is like no other.

The implicit promise of the Ascension is established in Jesus’ words to the disciples on the Mount of Olives. They ask if Israel is to be restored, Rome deposed and the Davidic Kingship re-established, and Jesus redirects their thinking. “It is not yours to know the times or periods God has established…” We do not need to know what comes next and usually have no idea. If anyone sitting here today claimed that they knew where we would be today six months ago, they would be lying. The disciples in this moment did not understand the next step of the Church’s mission either. They had no idea what their journeys would consist of.

Jesus tells them that there will be two sure things. The Spirit will come to them and that will allow them to complete their mission – that is the first sure things. No less important is the statement that is given in Jesus’s apparent negation of their question, “It is not for you to know the time or periods God has established…” That implies that God has planned ahead what the Church should do. There is no mission we can undertake that God does not already have ideas about. The Spirit is not shocked by circumstance, the Son is not put off by our requests, because the Father has prepared works for us from before Creation.

This section uses two words for time which we translate as, “time,” and, “periods.” The first word, κρονους describes time generally, every individual moment. The second word, καιρους is a word that refers to an appointed time, something which is planned ahead of time. This second word is usually taught as being, “God’s time,” (καιρος,) however kairos just means an opportune or preplanned instance. The text allows us to read it in two ways – that we do not know what God has put before us, either in the moment to moment existence we live or in the set events of the future, but neither do we know our own plans, our own experience of time.

Plans are changed constantly. Trips planned years in advance can be canceled because of rain. Budgets are reworked because of unexpected expenditures that are nonetheless necessary. Ministries are reworked because needs or resources change. Even in smaller affairs, we do not know what will happen. If we walk into the kitchen and eat some grapes we cannot know if they will be sour or sweet. Our best predictions and models fall apart regularly. We may, through experimentation and experience, make better and better projections of things to come, but until we live in a moment it is a mystery to us.

Of all that we see in the Ascension of Christ, there are few things as reassuring as this brief statement. No matter how we choose to understand God’s sovereignty over time and space, the reality of God’s sovereignty remains. We are given freedom to act in our life. This freedom allows us to make right choices and wrong choices, to find ourselves on paths that lead to life and to decay. Yet that freedom is under observation, not so as to make our freedom into an illusion, but to see that we are never so far afield as to be completely lost.

The mission of the Church can never become completely derailed because God watches over it. Individuals within the Church, administrative systems within denominations, even entire congregations may lose track, but there is never a point of no return. God who sent them into the world initially never lost them, God who established the pillars of the Earth has authority enough to see all time, all seasons, to completion. God is not a tyrant that stands over us with an iron fist, but the established work of God is toward restoration. Even though we do not know the moment of our restoration, it is always there, prepared for us for when the time is right.

This does not mean that our life is guaranteed to be easy, living it properly means we will have our fair share of problems. It does not mean that we will always have a clear road ahead of us, obstacles will appear and twists will occur that we never could have anticipated. What it does mean is that we have the complete experience of our advocate working with us. Christ who lived out a life sufficient to know all that we may experience personally. The Spirit that inhabits us and testifies to us about Christ. The Father who sees the road ahead, every twist and turn it will take for us, and gives us grace upon grace enough to respond to it.

The mission of the Church is built off of the foundation of Christ, and like Christ its end point is the Heavens. In Christ’s incarnation Heaven came to Earth, in the Ascension Earth came to Heaven. When Christ returns Heaven and Earth will meet again, never to be separated ever again. In the meantime, we have this assurance, that even if we go astray, even if we lose the plot, God sees where we are, God can and will save us. The mission begun by God, will be finished by God. This is the nature of our faith.

Defending the Faith – 05/17/2020

1 Peter 3:13-17

Now who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good? But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence. Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil.

Sermon Text

Our text today is part of a long section of 1 Peter in which the worshipping community is asked to grapple with difficult concepts about their faith. The culture of the community outside the church was one that allowed slavery, that put women into positions of servitude, and that generally made it difficult for the church to live out its egalitarian existence as a community of those called to the service of God. Christ, who showed no preference, preached to people who were specific about theirs. There were the ruling classes and the subjugated ones, and it was primarily in the latter category that the Christians in 1 Peter’s context were found.

What has inspired and vexed the Church for centuries is that the people are not charged to rebel against this system. Slaves are told to be obedient and women to be submissive, not because these are what God wants, but because in doing so they may win the good favor of the people around them. The church was to go above and beyond the standards of the community they found themselves in so that when they were accused of any malice and wrongdoing, it was painfully obvious how trumped up the charges were. More than this, it ensured that the vulnerable populations of women and the enslaved were protected from the cruelty of the world around them. It was a policy of survivor, not the ideal community of Christ.[1]

The kernel which we read today is not specific to any group. It is offered not only to the congregation in 1 Peter’s audience, but to all of Christianity. That every faithful person should abound in doing what is right, and that they should be prepared to answer the questions that are asked of them, “with gentleness and reverence,” so as to put to shame their opposition. Again, the theme is that by being good we can never go wrong. That if ever we are asked to suffer on behalf of good, we should consider it a blessing, because to give in to what is wrong to avoid punishment would be to let evil win.

All of this is complicated. Gender relations in the Biblical World are not what we in the modern world see or expect. Still, mutual submission is the overwhelming theme of scripture, and it places men and women equally in God’s kingdom. In fact, it is only in select texts and particular contexts that men and women are delegated different lots in God’s kingdom. Unfortunately, those select texts were often the most popular throughout history.

Similarly, slavery was different in the ancient world than what our American sin of slavery constituted. It was no less dehumanizing and no less a sin, the Christian Church is historically abolitionist.  Still more, ancient slavery is so foreign to us that the comparison between slaves in Rome and America simply do not bare out. The antebellum gospel offered to American slaves that they must be obedient was a perversion rather than a fulfillment of divine mandate.

Yes, these two are more complicated and nuanced issues of biblical interpretation. A full study of 1 Peter, if you embark on one, requires a great deal of preparedness to undertake. Perhaps, one day, we can tackle that as a community. However, we are made to return to the most difficult concept in this book – the one that is not locked to context, but asked of us all, and that is to be people of good conduct and to be ready to provide an answer for our hope.

It is important that we understand that we are to give an answer to those who question us. Oftentimes we translate the Greek word used in this text (απολογια) as defense. Certainly, in the ancient world a defendant in court was asked to make a defense, and that defense was called an apologia. Even today, when you’re not ready to say you’re sorry for something, and instead hope to explain why you did the thing you did, you offer an apology. Defense betrays this text, it shuts down what the point of this discussion is. Namely, can we as a church, answer those who question us, even if the accusation is vile and cruel, and still do so with gentleness and reverence.

Defense is oppositional language when the text is asking us to think communally. We are not just fighting against faceless accusers, but our neighbors, our friends, our family even. We are not brave crusaders fighting the scourge of unbelief. We are fragile vessels carrying impossibly valuable treasures. Away from the context of persecution, we have no excuse not to answer questions put to us, and we have no excuse not to respond in gentleness and reverence.

There are many things that the Church did for centuries that have become sacrosanct in Western Culture. Christian burial, in the medieval sense, is still primarily how we bury. Christian holidays, though commercialized to a deadly point are still the dominant holidays in the West, to the point that we receive time off for them almost universally. Even Biblical names, across cultures and languages, are still the most common names in the West. Joseph, Jesus, John, Ian, Janos, Mary, Mariam, Abigail, Sarah, I could go on… The Church has changed society fundamentally, but we only left a shadow of an impression, one that now begins to fade away.

We leave a shadow of an impression because, as a previous sermon stated, we lost track of the community of the faithful. We loved power, we loved anger and wrath and control, and when we started to lose it we locked ourselves away. Modernity saw two major movements of the Church. There were those that embraced modernity to the point they really just became a social club that enjoyed sipping wine and eating bread once a month, and there were those who rejected it completely and hid away from it. On one side the witness of the church became equivalent to popular perceptions and on the other popular perception was written off as completely sinful and something that should be rejected.

The church is a radical thing. It asks that all members be committed to one another in love. It asks that even when persecuted and treated poorly, we should still be good. There is never a point where a Christian could act cruelly and say, “They made me do it!” Because we are called to something higher than that. When the world debases us, we bless them. When the community rejects us, we reach out and try to help. When all manner of evil is said against us, we call ourselves blessed.

All this to say that the ethic of gentleness and reverence is not one of moderation. In our era of polarized politics and discourse another party has emerged that insists that the middle road is always the best. This is an impossibility. The middle road of slavery was Liberia. The middle road of the Holocaust was appeasement. The middle road of Christian witness is luke-warm and good only to be vomited out. We must be radical, but we must also be gentle. We must be confidant, but we also must revere one another as fellow members of Christ’s body. We must work with Christians we disagree with to find the center of our faith and band together as one.

The diversity of the church demands that there will be differing opinions about what is the best way to live out the Christian life. Some people, for example, believe that communion should be open only to members of the denomination that offers it – like Catholics – others like the Methodist church hold that all Christians should share in a common cup. Some Christians believe the universe in billions of years old, and others that it is six thousand. In both cases the Church still stands somewhat apart from the world around it. Both parties hold that the Eucharist is more than just bread and juice, but a gift from God that dispenses grace. Both parties believe that the universe is created with a purpose and that God initiated that construction. Even in the midst of differences on certain matters, the core message of Christianity emerges.

Of course, these are softball issues. Rarely do differing perspectives on creationism or communion cost lives. When we go into the more complex issues that face us today, more trouble emerges. Matters of economic inequality, of racial justice, of political allegiance, and even basic truth claims further divide the church. However, we cannot afford to stand a bicker about these forever, the church must begin to have dialogue internally and sort through our mess before we ever can hope to bring change outside ourselves. We have to find what is good and do it, we must find what we have done that is evil and do away with it. Because, the fact is that people look in on us and see that we are no better than anyone else, they will have questions.

When those outside the Church see the poverty that surrounds our sanctuaries, they will have questions for us. When they see the segregation that we continue in our pews despite the fact no law forces us to, they will have questions. When we as people of faith side with conspiracy theories that suit our political needs rather than authentic knowledge that keeps people safe, there will be questions.

The reality is that we as the church cannot begin to give an answer following the model of 1 Peter. 1 Peter asks that we be of good conduct, so that when we are accused the accuser is put to shame because it is unfounded. Unfortunately, we as a body of faith have much to apologize for, centuries of bad work and twisted roots to sort through. If we are accused of wrongdoing, we will often be found, if not as a body, as individuals, to be guilty.

We must sanctify ourselves as we sanctify Christ as Lord. We must follow the example put before us if we hope to effect change in the world. We can memorize the entire works of C.S. Lewis, Lee Strobel, Thomas Aquinas, Polycarp, and any other defender of the faith throughout time so that we have an answer ready for any quibble someone has against us. That will not matter if we do not follow up our belief with action. Our accusers will not be put to shame unless we authentically remove evil from our life.

The first evil we can remove is the divisiveness we have accepted as the norm. Why should the church be as divided as the world around it? Why can we not come together and find the center of our faith and work outward? We are working toward a schism in the Methodist Church in which we will split progressive from traditionalist in the same way our country has split conservative and liberal. Not because the other side, whoever they may be to us, is belligerent, but because we both have refused to have dialogue. We do not answer one another’s questions with gentleness and reverence, how could we ever do so with the world outside the Church?

Let us listen, let us seek truth, let us love one another more than our opinions. This is just one step toward a clean conscience, the beginning of a conversation we all must take place in, and one that we will be able to stand together afterward and finally answer our critics as people who are free of guilt, and whose innocence will put anyone who stands against us to shame. Only if we repent, only if we can learn to love and revere one another can we ever truly defend the faith. – Amen.

[1] This premise is explained at length in Richard B. Vinson et al. 1 & 2 Peter, Jude. (Macon Georgia: Smyth & Helwys 2010)

The Work of Christ – Lectionary 05/10/2020

John 14:1-14

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”

Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.

Sermon Text

The work of the church is never done. Until Christ returns in final victory we will be working in this world. Telling the Good News to all who will hear, loving neighbor and fellow believer with all our heart, and pursuing true worship of God in all its forms. Even after we enter into paradise, we will not become inert. Instead, we will find ourselves employed in whatever mysteries exist in perfection. When all of our existence is communion with God and loving community with one another.

The work of the Church is too numerous to name except in the categories of loving neighbor and God. This is because the work the Church pursues is contextual. At times one course of action must be taken, at other times another. The general virtues and ethical ends that we hold for ourselves manifest differently across the wide and varied iterations of life scenarios. The course of action which is appropriate in one situation would be ill-suited for another. We have to be discerning in how we act as members of Christ’s body.

If we were left to discern this on our own, then we surely would be lost. There is not enough evident in our world and our experiences to make it clear what is and is not the will of God and the work of Christ laid out for us. If we were blindly sent into situations, then we would find ourselves lost in the mire of the situation itself. We need something more than raw intuition, our virtue has to be born out of more than experience, we need an infusion of something greater. We need Christ and Christ’s work on our behalf to know what our own work as the Church consists of.

Our scripture captures a moment in which Jesus is presenting this basic paradigm to his disciples. Jesus says, “You will follow in my footsteps, and you will know the way to go because I have shown it to you already.” Likewise, he says, “You will do the work I have done, still even more than what I have done, because I first did the work and now before the Father will support your work.” The text is a complicated construction in any language, and translators are utterly unsure throughout John 14 what function each member of the Trinity is ascribed in the work of the Church. John weaves such a complicated picture that after two thousand years, the only way we can see this text clearly is through its manifestations in our life.

This passage is famous for its opening “In my father’s house there are many dwelling places.” Usually, the King James is invoked for its usage of the word, “Mansions.” We imagine a spacious house for us all to enter into. Our worldly desires for opulence translate into our conceptions of Heaven and the simplicity of the text is lost upon us. A more apt translation is, “In my Father’s house are many places to stay,” or rendered differently, “many apartments.” The emphasis is not on the kind of place that we are given to inhabit but on its proximity to God who owns and maintains the household.

Jesus says that he goes to prepare the way for us, no doubt through the work of the Cross and the ascension, but Jesus also makes it clear that to follow him we must take the same path. Our entry into the blessed household of Christ requires the same sort of work, the taking up of our own cross, and the pursuit of God’s righteousness even to our death. It is a heavy statement. It invites us to think about our following God, to count the cost appropriately lest we get in over our heads too soon.

Thomas’s question of Jesus is often put against him as further signs of his doubt and hardheadedness, but in truth, it captures our own feelings toward Jesus. We often find ourselves looking to Jesus and saying, “What comes next?” Only to find Jesus replying, “I told you, but did you see me showing you and hear me saying it?” We are hard pupils to teach, yet Christ is patient.

When we encounter opportunities to serve Christ we do so as Thomas did. We enter in with little context and oftentimes lost in our own presuppositions of the situation. We miss that Christ’s example in life and on the cross is the framework by which we evaluate and plan our entire life. A life of service to all the world, a willingness to suffer on behalf of others, a pursuit of truth that is willing to turn over tables when necessary. Jesus’ life is the framework for our own – the perfect form of humanity married to the fullness of divinity to show us what we must become.

This would be an overwhelming task if we were not given still more guidance. We can read the Gospel and see what Christ did, but what do we do in situations that do not have direct parallels? Jesus told us to be kind, but how do we balance kindness and truth in a digital space? Jesus shows us how to serve one another, but how does one wash the feet of someone they risk spreading infection to? These questions do not have direct or obvious answers in the writ of scripture, and we depend still further on divine revelation to interpret our life and the next steps we must take.

Our Scripture goes beyond asking us to look behind at what Christ has done and forward toward what we will do. Jesus goes so far in his teaching here to suggest that what we as the Church will do is greater than any work of Christ! How can this be? Rather than evaluating how we can measure up against Christ’s work on the cross, it is better to look at what Jesus is intimating by making such a claim.

For Jesus, the work of his ministry was primarily in two functions – firstly in the salvific work, he undertook on the cross and secondly in the disclosure of God the Father to the world. Jesus is simultaneously the substance of God in his identity as God’s eternal Word and the sign of God in his concrete form of a spiritual God. Christ is an icon in the purest sense, a window into a reality we would not be able to conceive of otherwise. Still, Christ does not limit God the Father by locking him into a fleshy image. Christ perfectly displays God the Father as God the Father perfectly displays Christ. They are a united mystery we can scarcely begin to conceptualize.

Yet, this basic unity allows for us to see Christ and know God. If we know God, then we can speak to God and what is more, we are told that Christ also speaks to God on our behalf. We are granted through Christ’s going before us the opportunity to speak directly to God and the assurance that Christ does the same for us. We are initiated into relationship and then gifted further assurance that that relationship is authentic. We become the beloved of God in a way similar to Christ and then participate in relationship with the Godhead in Christ and in the Father.

All this is achieved through the intermediate of the Spirit. This divine Helper is no less God than the Father or the Son, nor does the Spirit exist only as a divine telephone. The Spirit enters into our heart and undertakes two roles. The first is to remind us of the example of Christ, and therefore unite us to the identity of the Father, the second is to educate us further in our understanding of the divine and what our ministry in the world should look like.

A complicated web to get to an understanding of how we know what we must do, but a necessary one. The fullness of God meets us whenever we are given the opportunity to act. We pursue a life that models the selflessness of Christ, even selflessness that ends in a cross. We receive the instruction of the Spirit that equips us for ministry and reveals more and more the truth of God and the disclosure of Godself. We are conformed to the image of God and in doing so begin to comprehend just what the image of God is in itself. The three members of the Trinity manifest in our lives, of one will and acting in perfect concert, to perfect us into what we were meant to be, what we must be.

Our work is often not as simple as flipping open a page of scripture and following step by step what we should do. If we are lucky, we will find it. Situations like church struggles, for example, are described procedurally in Jesus’ teachings. Still more often though we will find ourselves in a place where the teachings of scripture and the work of the Spirit in our heart have led us to a point where we have our moral compass set in the right direction and our general idea of what is right, but the particular action must be decided. In the infinite fraction of a second which we have between a situation presenting itself and our reaction to it, we must process and immense amount of information and begin to act.

We can train ourselves to react to situations in many ways. Workshops and seminars that teach us what the most advantageous actions are in a situation. How to manage conflict, how to speak to someone in distress, how to give responsibly to those in need. All these are good things and things we should seek out, so we are equipped with education and resources enough to effectively do what is right.

However, when the moment comes and all our learning flies from our heads, we must hope we have more than a list of things to do. We need deeply held beliefs and standards we hold ourselves to. More than that we need advocacy and support to see us through that moment. Luckily, we are afforded all the help we need in the Spirit’s movement in our hearts. It calls us to see what God has done, and what God is calling us to do. We work with the example of Christ behind us, the cross on our shoulders, and the Spirit blazing a path ahead of us. All the while with the assurance we have the blessing of our Father in Heaven.

Still more, at the end of it all, we know we enter into rest. Into a dwelling place prepared especially for us. Nothing grand, nothing lacking, but exactly we need and enveloped in the loving presence of our God. Our example, our guide, our beloved, and our savior. – Amen.

The Breaking of Bread – Lectionary 05/03/2020

Acts 2:42-47

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.

Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

Sermon Text

The church fulfilled the promises of Christ in its creation. This was the thesis of what Luke hoped to prove in writing Acts.[1] The lessons of Jesus that began in Luke are met with parallels in Acts that show how Jesus’ teachings and pronouncements about what the Kingdom would be like are reflected by the reality of assembled believers living and worshipping with one another. The abstract is made concrete, the spiritual is made to inhabit the enfleshed.

Today’s passage presents some of the most obvious connections between Jesus’ vision in the gospel and its completion in the work of his apostles. The people gather together for worship, they bring together what they have into a common pot, and all people are cared for within the community from this sharing with one another. Not only are needs met and community brought together, but the Church went out into the world around it and became known for the good works they did. They held the good will of, “All people,” and they prospered in community together. .

The fulfillment of their work was exemplified in the erasure of certain problems from their midst. The word, “poor,” so integral to Luke’s gospel, never appears in Acts. The idea being that the Church has provided the answer to poverty in the fellowship of believers. The realization of God’s kingdom is tied to the eradication of poverty, of class, and in their place the establishment of a new community. This community was led by the love of the Spirit, the love of Christ, and the kind providence of the Father. Community and mission were tied together inseparably. Later in Acts we even get to see how the Church reacted to problems, facing issues of corruption and neglect within their community. The Church was born, the Church grew, the Church sanctified itself to the service of God.

Many have wondered why this is not our present reality. Why is it that the Church has become a secondary concern in the lives of so many? I do not mean here any of the churches of this charge or the United Methodist Church alone, but the entire Universal Church. While the church still holds a great deal of influence, and Christians still include the privilege of at least a nominal majority in the Western World, it is clear that the Church today is not the Church we see in Acts Chapter 2.

Perhaps the most obvious difference in our two realities as worshipping congregations is that while the Acts Church grew, the Western Church is obviously shrinking. In the United States alone there has been a drop of twelve percent in people who identify as Christian. That translates to about 40 million people leaving the fold of the faith. Of the remaining Christians, seventy percent claim their faith is important to them, but only 45% attend church regularly. While Church attendance does not automatically determine the earnestness of a person’s faith, we have to wonder how a Christian exists outside of community. Church is after all called, “Ecclesia,” in scripture – an assembly of people.

At this point discussions of the state of the Church usually turn to finger-pointing. Political parties, philosophical movements, historical happenings, are all put forward as potential causes for our apparent decline. However, if we are honest with one another then I do not think we can place the blame too far afield. Especially when, no matter the demographics, the numbers I stated above remain fairly consistent. While there are variations in datapoints no single groups can be blamed. Politically the worship practices of Americans are consistent across parties, age groups fall mostly within historical ranges. We cannot blindly point fingers at large swathes of people because we have met the enemy and they are ourselves.

The Church in its purest form can never be called ineffectual. The Church is transcendent. It is the Spirit initiated gathering of believers for the purposes of friendship with God and love of neighbor. The Church is found wherever the Spirit is found, and where the Spirit is allowed to work freely it will work well. The problem emerges, as seems to be the problem in the West, is that we as Christians can easily try and push the Spirit away from us. We can reject our God-given mission and transform ourselves into something other than the Church. We can become a nominal social club sliding into obscurity.

It is only natural that we should experience such a slide in status. The Church from Constantine to Luther was unquestioned as a political entity as well as a faith community. When Luther jumpstarted the reformation, it was not long before infighting among different groups in the Church began to demystify the body of Christ. How could we call ourselves divinely anointed when we killed one another over how we celebrated communion? How could we claim to be holy servants of God when we were more concerned with taking power than serving one another?

It is not completely because of poor stewardship that the Church has arrived at its current state, but it is a part of the path we have taken. More than that, it is the part that we as the Church can affect. We decide whether we live into the mission the Spirit has placed in us or if we let ourselves get lost in our own pursuits and desires. The Spirit of God has not changed in the centuries that the Church has existed, so it must be something else. People have not changed just the means by which they act like people, so it must be something else. Yes, it seems that for the Church to reclaim the accidents of the Acts 2 Church it must also take on its substance. We have to push beyond looking Christian and actively become Christian. We must not settle for anything less than this.

When we look at the Church in Acts we see the Spirit manifest among them in specific ways. They form a community centered in the worship of God. They come together in small assemblies together and then together again in the Temple. They were known for their devotion in worship such that they were often spotted praying or singing hymns, not out of vain shows of faith, but authentic outpourings of love for God. The foundation of the Church was in worship, and it can be for us too. How often do we truly take moments to praise God? When we see the blossoming flower or feel secure in our homes? We can express our praise anytime, in any number of ways. Let us commit ourselves to such worship.

The Spirit also manifested in a community that cared for one another. As previously stated the community was so well taken care of that poverty fell out of the vocabulary of the Church in acts. What can we do for those we around us? There are plenty of contributing factors to poverty in the modern world, but we cannot deny that a lack of opportunity and community support contributes a great deal to it. There should be a commitment among the Church to help people find stability, both in our local community and abroad. As we have provocatively stated before, it is a shame that poverty exists anywhere in the proximity of churches.

Finally, the community of the faithful was defined by the breaking of bread. The communal meals they shared were more than just symbolic actions or simple meals together. They were experiences of God’s grace, retellings of God’s actions in the lives of the faithful. We too must join together as often as we can, if not in person than in other ways. We must share the abundance God has given us and tell stories of God’s saving work in our life. If we share together, then we have achieved community. If our resources, our stories, our pain all come together as one, then we have achieved the unity of the Acts church. Then, perhaps, we will see growth once again. Not just in numbers, for they are a side effect of something much more important. We will see growth in ourselves, in the community we are a part of, in our character, in our faith, and in our love. Then perhaps we will be as the Church of old once was, whether we be numerous grains of sand or only two or three gathered together. Then perhaps we will once again have the goodwill of all the people. – Amen.

[1] All data taken from the Pew Research Center. Specifically, the Religious Landscape Study and the article In U.S., Decline of Christianity Continues at Rapid Pace

Walking with Christ – Lectionary 04/26/2020

John 20: 1-18

Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?”

He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.”

Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.

As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

Sermon Text

Walking along life’s way we are not always at risk of getting lost. Sometimes we are on the exact road we need to be taking, working our way in our own time from where we have been to where we are going. Long and winding though it may be, the path from the past to the present to the future seems at times to consist of a single path – step by laborious step we head down the road of time.

That simple path that we are on, ever forward and never backward, is contrasted with the day to day experience we have of choice making. From the moment we wake up to the moment we go to sleep we have choices to make. What to eat or drink, what to do in X or Y scenario, and what to say to those who we speak to. The forward momentum of time is married to the infinitely branching paths of our own life. Thus, even as we constantly move forward, even with a relatively certain end to the journey, the path along the way is constantly shifting – equal parts circumstance and choice.

Our scripture today captures Cleopas and an unnamed disciple of Jesus taking a literal journey with many shifting parts. They have just left Jerusalem, just seen their Lord crucified and buried. Now, as they are making their way to the town of Emmaus a ways out of the city they begin discussing the news that came to them on their way out of town. “Jesus is risen… Or else his tomb is empty, either way he’s gone.” The two walk along the road, trying to make sense of this tangled mess of emotion and information that has been given them. If Jesus was stolen then they must mourn again, if Jesus is risen then nothing can ever be the same again.

The rest of the story we know, Jesus comes to them and begins to join their discussion. Though it is the same Jesus they knew and loved, the resurrection has altered Jesus in some way or else altered how they see Jesus, and they cannot recognize him. Ever the teacher, Jesus explains scripture and the events of the past week to them in a way that, “opens up,” the scripture to the disciples. They encounter God’s word as they never have before, and they cannot part from this apparent stranger who has come to talk with them.

Finally, over dinner, in the moment Jesus breaks and blesses the bread the disciples are suddenly able to see Jesus for who he is. The revelation occurs simultaneously with Jesus’ disappearance from the scene.

This is the second to last major event in the Gospel of Luke. More than that, it is proposed as being pre-Lukan, that is to say, that Luke had this story as one of his sources for his Gospel and chose to include it. Luke is upfront about his Gospel being an aggregate of other sources. Throughout Luke, there are passages that are identical to Mark and Matthew, yet this story is only in this gospel. More importantly, the language does not quite line up with Luke’s stylistic choices. That Luke placed a source document in his Gospel and with very little stylistic edits left it as is, indicates this story is significant to the overall message of the Gospel.

Indeed, a great deal of ink has been spilled on the discussion of the Emmaus Road and whether or not this person or that could be Cleopas’ companion. It is used as the foundation, along with Paul’s writings and the last supper in Luke’s Gospel, of our eucharistic liturgy. The image itself burned into the hearts of all who read it.

The significance of this text is not in establishing a historical event of Jesus’ resurrection appearance. While the story definitely does so, it is not written just to tell us a thing that happened and who was there. As with many gospel passages, it is equal parts object lesson and historical fact, there is no separation between sign and signifier, The walk along the road is a thing that happened, it is also a thing that constantly happens to us every day.

We often read this passage only in terms of a person’s conversion into the faith. The journey whereby we, en route somewhere, meet Jesus and find the scripture opened up to us for the first time and our hearts on fire. The journey that sees us enter into fellowship with Jesus and the church for the first time. While we often see this passage as only about this moment in the life of our faith, we can push further. The reality is that this is a story about two faithful people making a journey and encountering Jesus. It is about people like you and me meeting the risen Lord as we make our way through life.

Christ, and with him the promises of the Resurrection, is constantly appearing to us, always showing us the way, the scriptures ought to be read. Our heart is not fit to be kindled once and for all, we must have it lit again and again by Jesus’ speech. We never just take a journey with Jesus once, we are constantly walking on our way to Emmaus, constantly with Jesus beside us.

What combines the symbolic language of phrases like, “our own Emmaus,” to our daily life is the weekly pattern we all participate in. We live our lives and do our work separately from one another. We each take our own road to our relative Emmauses. For some of us, that is the simple survival till Friday that allows for our weekend and the Sabbath that comes with it. For others, there are particular destinations that they reach week in and week out. The completion of that case, of those assignments, of X, of Y, and even of Z.

The path we take week by week would only be a rote repetition if not for the people we travel with. The unknown companion of Cleopas allows us to imagine anyone in that position. Several traditions of the church have provided several answers, each to a different theological end. In our own life, we can never be sure who will be in our lives in the week ahead. Yes, our family and friends likely will play a part in the week ahead, but what of the people we do not expect a call from, the people we run into on the street or in the store? Our travel partner week after week will be different, we must take the journey with them, nonetheless.

Then comes Jesus. The teacher of all scripture, the savior of all the world, and now another companion we have along the walk of life. Jesus listens to our discussions, our questions, paying rapt attention to our interrogation of life and God and faith. Jesus also gives us direction if we listen. This is not always in auditory sensation, in fact for many people it is not. More often than not Christ speaks to us through others in our life, through circumstance and providence that is expressly divine.

How do we acknowledge that it was God who told us such wonderful things? Where is our confirmation of God’s presence and activity in our life? The assurance of our divine help comes in the moment that the bread is broken and blessed. In table fellowship, the most common image in Luke for Jesus’ interactions with his people, we see that Jesus never left our side. In liturgy we find this in the Eucharist, in worship in the fellowship of believers. The walk we take from Monday to Sunday is important, because as we gather to worship God, as we bless the gifts we are given and share them with one another, as we meet our eyes are made to see. We understand Jesus and faith as a community, not as islands.

So important is this community to our understanding scripture that Cleopas seemingly misspeaks in describing what Jesus did along the road. While most translations render Cleopas and his friend as saying, “Were not our hearts burning within us…” the text is actually written with “heart,” being singular. Cleopas does not see he and his friend as having separate divine experiences, but a single one. They share a, “heart,” which is now burning because of Jesus’ walk with them.

We gather today in the same way. Our heart, that inner seat of discernment and understanding, is one today. We gather together after our long walks throughout the week and come together to speak about what God is doing in our life. Our eyes are allowed to open up, and we begin to see that our companion was none other than our savior. We cannot help but share what we have received with one another, our revelation significant enough to shake the world. Today we all move back from our own Emmaus’ to Jerusalem. Telling what we have seen to the other disciples, praising God, and fanning the flames that have consumed our hearts. – Amen

Service of Lament – 04/19/2020

Invitation to Lament

Today, we come together to take time and acknowledge the hardships of life. Whether they be the trouble we face communally in this era of COVID-19, or our personal struggles and the many forms that they take. Whatever the burdens we carry, today we bring them before God. This is a service of Lament, the forgotten language of faith which is God’s gift to those in pain.

Introduction to Lament – Orientation

          Today, we embark on a journey through the waters of lamentation. We gather, Easter still fresh in our mind and the promises of Christ’s resurrection still ringing in our ears. Yet, when the candles are snuffed and the incense clears from where the sermon is filmed, we still face the world. We face hardships again and again, after we already mourned so much last year, we now find new reasons to cry, new people to mourn the loss of, more trouble in the world we live in.

Lament is that Biblical language that we have been given, thousands of years of our spiritual ancestors have granted it to us as a gift. It is the means by which we explore our emotions, interrogate God’s promises, and ultimately begin to heal from the distress that we have suffered. Walter Bruggeman, a scholar of the Hebrew Scriptures, gives three general categories of our human experience.[1] There are the moments in life where all is well, we are happy, and our mind and soul are at rest. All is right with the world, and we can praise God without reservation. This is a place of Orientation in our life. It is from here we can pray out confidently the words of Psalm 16. Let us hear the words of the Psalmist as they proclaim the goodness of a God who gives them security in the face of all adversity.

A Psalm of Security                                                                                                             Psalm 16

Protect me, O God, for in you I take refuge. I say to the Lord, “You are my Lord; I have no good apart from you.” As for the holy ones in the land, they are the noble,  in whom is all my delight. Those who choose another god multiply their sorrows; their drink offerings of blood I will not pour out or take their names upon my lips. The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup; you hold my lot. The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; I have a goodly heritage.

I bless the Lord who gives me counsel; in the night also my heart instructs me. I keep the Lord always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved. Therefore my heart is glad, and my soul rejoices; my body also rests secure. For you do not give me up to Sheol, or let your faithful one see the Pit. You show me the path of life. In your presence there is fullness of joy; in your right hand are pleasures forevermore.

Introduction to Lament – Disorientation

What a wonderful prayer to pray. What praise offered up to the God who provides… Yet, what happens when we begin to move away from a place of security. When the check doesn’t come in the mail, when the hospital calls us in to hear the results of our latest test, when no matter how long the door is look at, it will never open up with the beloved coming home again.

When the certainty of the world breaks down around us, we move from orientation to disorientation. We look out into the world and cannot find respite. We seek and do not find. We knock and find a door slammed in our face. Provision becomes a fantasy, and we cannot sleep because our tears keep us awake. We are transformed, we shrink into ourselves, we are lost in the wilderness of life and worry. It causes us to cry out to God, as the Psalmist does in Psalm 74.

A Psalm of Lament                                                                                                              Psalm 13

How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?  How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart? How long will my enemy triumph over me? Look on me and answer, Lord my God. Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death, and my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,” and my foes will rejoice when I fall. But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation. I will sing the Lord’s praise, for he has been good to me.

Introduction to Lament – Re-Orientation

The Psalms of Lament all follow a general pattern. While heavily detailed rubrics exist to explain the flow of the Psalm, we will break it down into three main sections. Firstly, the lamenting Psalmist cries out to God. “How long, Lord?!” This usually flows into an introduction of their problem to God, in this Psalm, “my enemy triumph[s] over me.” We will call this – Plea and Complaint

The Psalmist will then make a request of God, “Look on me and answer,” and express what is at stake if God does not act. “My enemy will say, ‘I have overcome him,’ and my foes will rejoice when I fall.” – this highlights both why God would be good to act and the iniquity of the Psalmist’s enemies. – We will call this Naming the Stakes

Finally, the Psalmist lets God know what they are willing to do in response to God’s work. This is not, as it may seem, an instance of Divine bribery – as if one person who offers to praise is less than a person who offers to praise and give – but is an invitation to God to re-enter the Covenant relationship with the plaintiff.  – This is a section of Praise and Hope[2]

This re-entry is what constitutes the third stage of human experience – Re-Orientation. Here we find ourselves secure again, able to praise God freely and trust as we once did, but not in the same way. It is a re-orientation in a different place and time to the original place of orientation. We have grown, and our relationship with God and self has changed.

What happens when our disorientation extends beyond our limits? What happens when we cannot seem to come back to a place of peace and trust? Do we just grin and bear it? Do we force ourselves to move beyond our problems and force our way into a place of comfort again? Let us look to Lamentations, a book devoted to our crying out to God, and find out.

The Old Testament Lesson                                                                         Lamentations 2:17-22

The Lord has done what he purposed, he has carried out his threat; as he ordained long ago, he has demolished without pity; he has made the enemy rejoice over you and exalted the might of your foes. Cry aloud to the Lord! O wall of daughter Zion! Let tears stream down like a torrent day and night! Give yourself no rest, your eyes no respite!

Arise, cry out in the night, at the beginning of the watches! Pour out your heart like water before the presence of the Lord! Lift your hands to him for the lives of your children, who faint for hunger at the head of every street. Look, O Lord, and consider! To whom have you done this? Should women eat their offspring, the children they have borne? Should priest and prophet be killed in the sanctuary of the Lord?

The young and the old are lying on the ground in the streets; my young women and my young men have fallen by the sword; in the day of your anger you have killed them, slaughtering without mercy. You invited my enemies from all around as if for a day of festival; and on the day of the anger of the Lord no one escaped or survived; those whom I bore and reared my enemy has destroyed.

Meditation on Lament                                                                                 When Refuge Fails

Lamentations, like Lament itself, is a book we do not like to encounter. We fear looking to deeply into a book that begins and ends with desperation. The opening line, “How deserted lies the city, once so full of people!” Is never resolved, and the book ends with the terrible question lingering in one final request for help, “Restore us to yourself, Lord, that we may return; renew our days as of old unless you have utterly rejected us and are angry with us beyond measure.”

We encounter the ambiguity of the book, its demand for us to question where God is in the midst of all the problems of this life, and we run away. The ruined city of Jerusalem, destroyed by Babylon, is the place we utterly do not wish to be. To borrow from our celebration of Holy Week recently, we love Palm Sunday and Easter, but we often do what we can to ignore Good Friday and Holy Saturday. The days of Death and Silence are covered up in our desire to put on a happy face. If we do not acknowledge the hurt we feel or the troubles in the world, then we imagine it will go away.

Even the book of Lamentations struggles with this back and forth. Early in the book an observer reprimands a woman, representing Jerusalem, for weeping. “You got what you deserved; you have to move on!” They say. Yet, as the speaker sits in the ruined city, they cannot help but acknowledge the sorrow that they and the city feel. This is where our scripture for today enters in. The voices that once criticized the weeping Zion is now calling on her to cry more.

The grief of the community is finally acknowledged, the once critical speaker is now forced to reflect on what God is doing in the world. They challenge God, “How can you claim to be doing right when innocents are dead! When people starve to death and sickness spreads like wildfire! Behold the ruins of the city and ask yourself, o’ God, how is this right?”

The sight of devastation was enough to move this speaker to join in on the lament. Where Zion was crying out before and initiating the conversation with God, this voice now offers the challenge to God – “Why, O’ Lord! How Long, O’ Lord!” They speak on behalf of Zion who, it would seem, is at a loss for words.

Yet, following our scripture comes what Lamentations is best known for. After still more descriptions of disaster a voice calls out, “God would never mean to hurt us! We must have done this to ourselves somehow. God will come back!” The whole of Chapter 3 almost reads like a lament Psalm. Complain becomes petition because praise of God… Yet, immediately the language falls back into the utter destruction surrounding those who are gathered in the city. The language of praise is quickly lost in a sea of tragedy – the knowledge that God’s love is steadfast was not in itself enough to silence the pain of the people.

Lamentations goes on and concludes in ambiguity and darkness. It is not a book of hope, because it is a book written by people readily suffering disaster. Hope is present throughout, cries that the various speakers throughout are confident (to varying degrees,) will be heard.  Yet, the hope coexists in the pain. The people are not ready to be at peace, their pain is too new, their complaint is too valid. They cannot grin and bear it, they refuse to pretend all is well, and they do not let themselves skip disorientation and land in re-orientation.

We too must not deny our need to lament, our need to mourn. God is in God’s Heaven, that is sure, but all is not right in the world. Grief is all around us – for some a fresh thing poured over them again and again, and for others a new visitor they are just now meeting. Mourning for opportunity, mourning for income, mourning for loved ones gone from us. Mourning overtakes us… Yet, we must not chase it away.

Last week we discussed how we come to Easter as people who are in mourning, yet we can still find the resurrected Christ speaking to us. What we cannot lose in making such a statement is that we will still be weeping in the garden before Christ arrives. Until God makes the showing and the relationship is restored then there is the need to cry out and demand to be heard. The need to let our emotions be plain to God and the need to set on the table what we expect from the Covenant we are a part of.

Lament is not telling God that God doesn’t know what God is doing. It is not a sign of weak faith or immaturity. It is what keeps the relationship between God and humanity strong. The knowledge that we can cry out and be heard, that our concerns are important to God, that even in the midst of all the pain we have an advocate even when we cannot see or hear them.

Lament is necessary, lament is here for us, let us take for advantage of this gift of God. Let us not be afraid to listen to our scripture that demands of us, “Cry aloud to the Lord! Let tears stream down like a torrent day and night! Give yourself no rest, your eyes no respite!” – Amen

Prayers of the People

In acknowledgement of this service’s focus on lament. The Prayers of the People will be different this week. A time will be given following the communal prayer for us to share our concerns with one another and a prayer will be said afterward lifting up our concerns. However, instead of going through petition by petition, this week we are all encouraged to take the template, which is provided in our order of worship, and to give language to our concerns as laments to God.

Given our digital format, this means that after the prayer below is read, the general pattern of lament will be provided, and time will be given for everyone to craft their own lament. These can be shared in the comments of the video after the service, kept privately and prayed at home, or else shared any way you may choose. I will read out my own lament as an example, but other than that the service will conclude with the outline and the opportunity for each person to make their own. Our benediction will be in the prayers of the people, and otherwise your words to God will mark the end of our time together.

Please pray now with me: Most merciful God, hear our prayers when we are in trouble. Come to our aid and prevent us from perishing. Today as we gather together, we do so as people with heavy burdens, in particular we lift these up to you…

Time is given for sharing of concerns

Lord, hear our prayers this day and always, and as we come now to a time devoted to sharing our laments with you, hear to the depths of our pain. Let us learn to experience all our emotions fully and well, and may we take the long and winding road from disorientation to re-orientation knowing that you are with us all the way on the road. – Amen

“Cry aloud to the Lord” Writing a Lament

The following Template is provided for you to pray your own Lament to God.

The template is offered only to remind you of the Biblical models provided,

You may alter it anyway you wish and use it to share your laments or

To pray privately whenever you need to lament before God.

General Structure of Lament:

  •  Plea and Complaint – “Hear me, O’ God! This is my problem…”
  • Naming the Stakes – “If this does not happen then this will…”
  • Praise and Hope – “You will hear me; I want to know peace again… Please hear my prayer.”

Example Lament:

A Lament of Pastor John,

Plea and Complaint

O’ Lord do not forsake your servant! Though the rush of a wild world swirls around me, do not abandon me to the floodwaters. My mind is awash with worry, my bones ache with anticipation of disaster. Release your servant from all concerns, destroy the chains constructed within and for my mind.

Name the Stakes

Remember God your own agony in the Garden. How you wept and sweated blood contemplating the disaster awaiting you. Would you have another suffer as you did? Bring relief to the pain of your servant. Though the cup of your suffering cannot be refused, surely relief can be given to the soul who drinks of it. Do not abandon your servant in their despair!

Praise and Hope

I long to see your courts fully once more. Open my eyes to the joys of your light. Let me delight once again in the spring of your glorious provision. Eliminate all obstacles to our relationship, that no shadow of fear or anxiety should overtake the light of your love. Lord hear your servant’s prayer! Do not forsake and take me once again into your courts! You alone save, Lord! Save me now!

 

[1] Walter Brueggemann, The Message of the Psalms (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1984), 19.

[2] These three stages are adapted from Sally A. Brown. “When Lament Shapes the Sermon.” In Lament: Reclaiming Practices in Pulpit, Pew, and Public Square. (Louisville, Kentucky: John Knox Press, 2005) 29

The Hidden Life – Easter 2020

John 20: 1-18

When Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb.

He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes.

But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”

When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

Sermon Text

The Resurrection, like so much of Christ’s life – is both a single moment and an eternal reality. When God brought Christ from death and into life there was only one tomb that opened, only one Sunday morning that saw the glorified feet of Christ touch its dew. Only one morning, in a garden so long ago and far from us, where all the wonders of creation were silenced for a moment and God-breathed a deep breath into lungs that had days ago ceased to function. The miracle of the Resurrection, the fulcrum on which all creation turns, is a single event centuries ago.

Yet, the Resurrected Christ does not cease to be active in the world. We are not left out of Christ’s redemption because we are not present to see his body. We are not excluded because of circumstances of particularity but are included through the eternal presence of Christ in the Holy Spirit. The oft-forgotten member of the Trinity that moves among us, that inhabits us, that encloses creation and cares for it. The source of life of all things living, the breath of God that revivifies even our own dead bones.

The Spirit moves over the earth. It seeks out the needy and gives them provision. It seeks out those who mourn and gives them comfort. It meets those of us who are weeping in the shadow of death and it calls us by name. The Spirit is here among us today, in each of our rooms and households, weaving us together into the tapestry that constitutes Christ’s body – the eternal Church which is present in Heaven and upon the Earth.

Our scripture today gives us a snapshot of what the day of Resurrection was like. The women come to Christ’s tomb and are distressed to find it empty. The assumption is that grave robbers have carried Jesus away, perhaps to disgrace his followers even more. To remove him from proper burial and to place him in a place of shame.

The distraught disciples, finding the tomb empty, left the tomb. Death had already robbed them of their beloved teacher and friend, and now they were robbed of proper mourning – of a decent burial for their beloved. All the disciples left the tomb, all but one. Mary Magdalene, one of Jesus’ closest confidants, remained in the garden surrounding the grave and wept for the loss she had now had to suffer twice.

It is not uncommon that we who are called together as the Church find ourselves in just such a state. When the promises of God seem unfulfilled, with all the hardships of life have overwhelmed us. The reality of death hangs over us, or else of a lack of provision. When the cupboard is empty, or a spot in a chair is left unattended, or else we cannot live our life normally for one reason or another. Our expectations are shattered, we are left in a place of disillusion and disorientation. Falling into such a state is not a sign of infidelity to God, it is a reality of life and its fullness. The onslaught of disaster and horror throughout history cannot leave us unmoved.

Even as we now are in the midst of disaster, even as we prepare to vocalize our dissatisfaction and concern next week in a service of lament, we find ourselves in a mixed place emotionally. We are today celebrating the return to life of Christ, the entry into glory of the human race. Yet we are tramped down. The burden of all that presses in around us is too powerful to ignore. Death hangs heavy over us. Like Mary we are seated in a place of life, a garden of fresh hyacinth and blossoming fruit trees, yet with a tomb casting a shadow upon us from a distance.

Though the particulars of this Easter place us all in this place of mourning, there is no Easter that does not happen in the shadow of death. We always gather as a mixed multitude of people who have more than enough reason to celebrate and more than enough to mourn. Easter is always the first Easter without a loved one for somebody. Easter is always the day after someone’s world is shattered. We experience today universally what is usually a particular reality. We are apart from one another. We are isolated by a need to keep others safe. We sit in cold and terrified anticipation of what comes next – will it be deliverance? Will it be yet more disaster?

Of all the images that place in stark contrast life and death at Easter time what occurred only a year ago in Sri Lanka stands out. As people gathered to worship the resurrected Lord, an explosion went off – killing many who were present. A day of celebration was turned immediately into mourning, where baptisms were planned funerals needed to be held instead. A community lost all that it had – not only its members but its feelings of security and of certainty. The world turned and wept for these people, for the conditions that would allow for such evil to be carried out against people worshipping God in peace.

A year ago, in response to this disaster, I wrote these words, “The beauty of Easter is that before the resurrection came the tomb, that Christ has full knowledge of what it is to suffer and die. Christ does not tell us that this life will be easy, and honestly being Christian should mean that life becomes more difficult for you, but Christ’s command is one of experience – not of despotism.”[1] A year later, I think that these words should settle with us in a different way.

We are people suffering. For some of us, life has gone on as normal and then some. Some of us are working the same job we always have, but with much more responsibility added to it. Many are dealing with this disaster head-on and then working with people they know and love as they too face the disaster. As I have said to many of you during this time, when asked how I am liking having a break from so much work, all I can say is, “For everything I was doing before, I seem to be doing three or four others.” For those whose work has not ceased in this time, the build of still more stress and still more work can seem overpowering.

Others of us are cut off from the normal flow of things. Students especially, who have transitioned to remote classes are now cut off from time with their friends. While the digital age allows us to meet in Snapchat, TikTok, Instagram, and Discord, there is nothing that can replace seeing someone face to face. If anything the digital world can seem even more isolating, and for those who do not utilize technology or have no access to it, this isolation is even more acute. For those who can be in the digital spaces we inhabit – whether they be chat rooms, video calls, or Animal Crossing islands – we know now they are not enough to replicate our togetherness.      Suffering is our actual greatest obstacle to understanding God and God’s promises for us. We all experience it, some more acutely than others, but none less authentically than any other. When we gather today, we do so in the midst of a tragedy. One which is worse than others we have lived through because rather than a single day of terror we are forced into months and months of it. We are a people who must mourn and will mourn for some time what is happening around us.

Yet, despite all the darkness encroaching around us. We are not alone. Louder than the disaster which crashes in around us is the proclamation of the resurrection. Let no noise cover up your Hallelujah, let your tears mingle with your triumphant cry. Christ is here with us, the Spirit has brought us together today to worship the Risen Lord. We, like Mary, are in a garden of life and potentiality, but we can still smell the grave we have just left. Do not feel shame for your tears, do not neglect to feel all the hurt and confusion you feel. Do not turn away the feelings knocking down your door.

Welcome them in, let them sit in the silence with you. Weep and pray all you people of God. Weep and pray, but do not stop up your ears just yet. For when we turn to God and we beg for deliverance, for presence in the midst of death, for something to guide us out of this darkness… When we do this, we must do so ready to hear the gentle word that comes to us from the Risen One… A gentle voice which says our name and awakens us to what has happened. A gentle voice we recognize as the one we have been seeking. The voice that we lost to death and disaster, to destruction and plague, to all evil and hardship imaginable… We suddenly hear it calling our name… And then, and only then… Does our Easter ring true. Only then is our hidden life revealed to us, and we can praise in all fullness of time. We sit in the garden, let us now weep and listen, let us seek and let us find. – Amen.

[1] The Promise of Easter – Pastor John Langenstein – Available at:
https://teachusto.com/2019/04/22/the-promise-of-easter-easter-2019/

Who is This? – Palm Sunday 2020

 

Luke 1:26-38

When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying,

“Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting,

“Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”

Sermon Text

When Jesus entered into Jerusalem long ago it made a stir. What is confounding to us looking back on his entry into the city is that so much of that day has become sacrosanct. We have images in our head, built up from years of church liturgy and sermons, from passion plays and movies, that make us think of very particular things when Palm Sunday comes around. It is a day of waving palm fronds, of joining with the crowd who welcomed Jesus into the city. It is our last outright celebration that precedes the solemnity of Holy Week.

The text we have read today speaks to a difficult reality within our reading of the scripture. Namely that we are looking back at people who lived lives that were quite different to our own. More than that, in the crowds of people who lived differently than us there was a multiplicity of voices and opinions. There was no one Jewish opinion or one Roman opinion in the ancient world. In the same way that we live in a divided and diverse world, the people of scripture encountered various people with thoughts, viewpoints, and practices different than their own.

We know of first-century Judaism that in Jerusalem alone there was something like five factions working with or against one another. Zealots wandered the streets staging assassinations of Roman forces. Pharisees lived in every town in the region offering moral teachings to anyone who needed them. Sadducees controlled the Temple, holding sacrificial authority over all the region. Meanwhile, the Greek-speaking Jews lived on the margins, and the new movement of the Nazarene was gaining traction.

All these diverse parties came together around the Passover to celebrate as Moses commanded them. They gathered together in Jerusalem and greatly expanded the population of the city. It was a time when the Jews united in their commonality, but also a time when their differences threatened to bubble up into open conflict. The first century saw several Jewish revolts against Rome and oftentimes these revolts were motivated by intrasectarian disagreements as much as they were motivated by Jewish liberationists.

For Jesus to enter the city as he did, with the crowd going before him and shouting he was a Son of David and rightful king of Jerusalem was to court disaster. If the Romans decided that a significant threat was posed by Jesus and his followers then every one of them, and much of the unaffiliated Jews who were in the city, would be killed as dissenters and rebels. The arrival of someone claiming to be King, that would certainly cause a stir for the people in the city. Fear and worry hung thick over the people within the city as they saw Jesus approaching on the colt, would he and his band of followers be enough to finally stir up the wrath of Rome.

Add to their concerns the reality that Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea – unpopular in Rome and he was in Jerusalem – had just arrived to hold court for a period of time. Pilate was known for his cruelty – in shutting down rebellions and dissent in the past he had aired on the side of bloodshed. This upset the population of Judea who saw him as a tyrant, and it upset Rome who saw him as causing more problems than he had fixed. Pilate was desperate for good press and killing a rebellion before it started could give him some clout back home in Rome.

The people of the city, here called the Πολις  (Polis,) are described as, “Trembling,” as the crowd arrives. While many throughout history have taken this to mean that there was excitement at Jesus’ arrival, to read this into the text is to assume that the people of Jerusalem were reacting as we hope we would when Jesus arrived. We project onto them the joy we feel in Christ’s arrival and attempt to clean up an otherwise complex narrative. If Jesus is universally loved upon his arrival, then we do not have to question which group of people we would be in.

When we read the text as though Jesus entering the city caused universal joy instead of anxiety then we can easily picture ourselves among those crying out, “Hosanna!” When we see Jesus triumphantly entering and imagine that he came upon a happy church service waving fronds, then we do not have to think about whether or not we would be among the Crowd he entered with or the anxious city. When we project a uniform image of Sunday School simplicity, we are not asked to evaluate our lives.

When Jesus enters into a situation, Jesus always enters as the rightful King. Jesus is not relegated to any position other than Lordship except for when Jesus does so himself, as we will remember on Maundy Thursday.  Jesus comes into divided cities, nations, even sanctuaries, and all people are made to look at him in that moment and ask whether they will celebrate his coming or be terrified by it. When we speak like this, we are not talking about the end of time, not the final coming of Christ in judgment, but in the day to day moments when Jesus appears to us and we either accept or reject his entrance.

When Jesus came into Jerusalem he had an entourage with him of people who were already convinced of his kingship and his status as Messiah. Among this group were members of all the major Jewish sects. He gathered followers who were Pharisees and even members of the High Council. He gathered Zealots who threw down their weapons to follow the prince of peace. He gathered Greek-born Jews and Hebraic Jews and had them come together as one family. His triumph in coming into Jerusalem was not that he had gotten a unified force together that all agreed on every issue, but that he had gathered together a great multitude of people who had nothing in common except their desire to be with Christ and to follow Christ into his kingdom. They learned to be united because Christ called them to be so, not as a monolithic structure of uniform ideas, but of uniform conviction and desire to see good done in the world.

The reality of the crowd we are presented within Jesus’ triumphal entry is that they were not a large group of people. Elsewhere Matthew uses the term, “Great crowd,” “multiple crowds,” or some other formulation to say when a large group of people is gathered together. Here though, here we see a rowdy band gathered together to welcome Jesus into the city. There are enough there to constitute a gathering, but they are almost lost in the vastness of the city. They are big enough to cause a noise, to put everyone on edge, but they are still a drop of water into a very large bucket.

When we gather together as the Church universal we do so as the Jews did in Jerusalem. We earnestly come together to worship God, we gather to celebrate a feast just like our ancestors did. However, like them, we gather as people of diverse opinions, desires, and worldviews. We come as people who are worried about the powers that exist in our world and whether or not we can stand against them. There is fear, there is prayer and praise, there is uncertainty.

Jesus enters into the church every day. Each morning when we wake up we all face the triumphal entry head-on. Christ presents himself in our lives and we decide every day whether that is an attractive or terrifying prospect. Do we see the arrival of our king and quake in fear that he will disrupt our lives? Or do we cry out to be saved and follow him into a world that has yet to wake up to his light?

The answer is different every day. Somedays we fail to hail our King, some days we choose to protect ourselves from disruption and curl up in resignation about how things are. Sometimes Pilate, the power of the status quo, seems more attractive than Christ, the meek and the revolutionary. The reality of sin is that we will choose one over the other throughout our life, but the promise of Christ is that we never sell out completely to the status quo, not unless we choose to.

Christ came into Jerusalem on a colt only once. Yet, as we have said, Christ comes to us every day, multiple times a day. We never are left unable to join the crowd shouting loud Hosanna! Yet, we must make the choice to follow Christ into the city. Yet we must choose discomfort over comfort, to choose what is right over what is convenient. When Jesus entered the city, the people in it expected a riot, and honestly, perhaps the church should be more like that.

The church should be a group that is excited to do the work of Christ. Organized together out of every rejected class of person in society. Those who have been told time and time again that they are not good enough, that they do not deserve what they have, that they should be treated poorly because of circumstances of birth, position, or happenstance. The church should be a ragamuffin rabble, it should be made up of ne’er-do-well on the path to redemption.

What marks the church as separate from other gatherings of the marginalized is its intent. While the past few years have shown us white supremacists, anti-semites, and other hate groups gathering people who feel disenfranchised to commit evil, we see the Church gathering to scattered people of the earth for good. The Church gathers all the poor and powerless of the world, all those who have been treated cruelly by power, all people of all races and creeds, not because it desires to become bigger or stronger or more powerful, but because it wants to eliminate all these words of domination from our vocabulary.

Jesus comes to us, Jesus calls us daily, not so we can triumphally raze the world to the ground in holy fire. Jesus comes to us meekly, on a colt instead of a chariot, seated on robes and not on fine linens. Jesus models for us what our triumph in life truly is. A riotous group of people, loudly praising God, worshipping a king whose revolution is one of peace, and whose greatest weapon is not the sword but is love large enough to die even for those who hate you. Let us all follow the lead of Christ, let us join the procession of the righteous, and let us all put aside our many differences in the name of truth, the name of love, and ultimately the name of Christ who saves us, the Son of David for all eternity. – Amen.