Wise and Thankful Living: Sermon by Keith, 8.16.15, Proper 15B/Ordinary 20B/Pentecost 12

(This sermon was delivered at Worship in the Woods, at Westminster Woods Camp, during our annual joint worship with Pendleton First Presbyterian Church).

It is my understanding that Pastor Roger has been preaching on Ephesians for a while now, putting me somewhat at a disadvantage.  The joy of preaching or studying a book of the Bible, especially one from Paul, is seeing and experiencing how the passages build upon each other.  I looked forward to hearing Roger wax eloquently as he delved into the passage and how these words speak to the greater message found in Ephesians and affects our lives today.  But it was not to be so.  When Roger called last week and let me know about his grandson’s surgery, I couldn’t say no to his request that I preach today.  But I decided that since he got to miss out on preaching on this section, I’d like the good folk from Pendleton to make a request of Roger when he returns home.  Now give him a few days to get settled back into things, but ask him to preach on the next section of Ephesians.  If you know your Bibles, you might know that the next section is the “Wives, submit to your husbands,” and just as important, “Husbands, love your wives.”

Our reading from Ephesians 5:15-20

I recently heard a definition about wisdom that I think helps us grasp what the writer of Ephesians, who, for the sake of argument, we will assume is the Apostle Paul, is talking about when he wants us to live as wise people, especially this time of year: “Intelligence is knowing that a tomato is a fruit.  Wisdom is knowing not to put one in a fruit salad.”

That is the kind of wisdom living he is talking about.  And with that wisdom, Paul is calling us to be careful.  Now, what is usually translated “live” could more accurately be translated “our living walk.”  Paul is saying “Look how you walk:”  Keep your eyes peeled as you walk, because these days are evil.  The word “careful” here modifies the word “walk,” not “look.”  Basically, watch where you step.  Paul is commanding his audience to keep their eyes wide open, so they can walk carefully in this evil age.  The first reaction to these words might be a paranoid approach to life, peeking around corners and through drawn curtains, but that is not at all the picture Paul paints later in this verse.  A careful walk through life, in fact, results in an intoxicating joyful life full of song, thanksgiving, and healthy relationships.  But we will look at that a little closer later.

For now, Paul fleshes out what careful walking looks like.  Because the eyes are wide open as one walks carefully through a treacherous world, the believer can take advantage of opportunities he or she may encounter along the way.  Paul doesn’t talk about avoiding pitfalls, or give a long list of those pitfalls that might be encountered while living in the evil days.  Paul deals with some of those pitfalls earlier in Ephesians as he delves into what it means to live into the new life of Christ.  But, instead Paul puts a more positive spin on wise living.  Wise living involves recognizing, seeing, and making the most of the opportunities that are encountered daily.

Again, Paul doesn’t give a list of the kind of opportunities he is talking about, but from the overall letter, we can deduce he isn’t talking about business opportunities or waiting for the best buy at Walmart, even though the word “making the most” is a word from the Greek found in commercial transactions.  What I think Paul is talking about is that when the culture may be trying to lull us into living the same way that everyone else does, we need to be alert to those moments when we can exhibit unique Christian living.  He doesn’t mean keep a sharp lookout for cheap real estate during a recession, what he means is keeping a watchful eye open to avoid the evil of the day and to be ever on the lookout for where God is being active in the world because that is where God’s kingdom will be found and experienced.  Direct your walking towards those God moments in which we can join God in his love and grace.

That means living wisely is understanding what the Lord’s will is.  Throughout Ephesians, Paul has written a lot describing God’s great cosmic purposes for everyday living, Thus, Christians should know both what God is doing in the world and how we should respond in our everyday living.  Paul’s call to paying attention to walking wisely is tied directly to understanding the will of the Lord.  The temptation is to just drift along with the current of the culture, where the will of the culture overtakes the will of the Lord.  Paul is calling us to pay attention so that doesn’t happen so that we can live and experience the Kingdom of God.

So, how can we live wisely in a foolish and evil world that wants to grab hold of our attention and pull us along its currents?  Paul give a profound answer—“be filled with the Spirit.”  What does that mean?  Paul uses what I think is an interesting analogy.  It’s like being drunk on wine.  I don’t think he includes this prohibition on getting drunk because it is such a great sin, because intoxication can and does cause great harm, but I think he includes this example because it is such a good comparison.  When you are drunk, you are under the influence of the alcohol and the more you drink, the more under that alcohol’s spirit you become.  Your speech slurs, your eyes roll, you stagger, your response time slows.  I think that is why it is called a DUI, driving under the influence.  You no longer are the one in charge, but the alcohol is the calling the shots.  And being under that control doesn’t last forever.  Once you sober up, you’ll have to drink again to come under the influence again.

It is somewhat similar to be filled with the Spirit.  Now, I believe that in our baptism, we all receive the Spirit once and forever.  But to be filled, to come under the influence of the Spirit, is an ongoing process.  Ironically, Paul doesn’t talk about what it takes to have a Spirit filled life in this particular passage.  I’m guessing he thinks you figured it out in the previous passages with what not to do: Don’t steal and slander.  And what to do:  worshiping together, having patience with one another, speaking the truth in love.  But what Paul does is describe a Spirit-filled life:  Speaking, singing and making music, and giving thanks.

Those who are filled with the Spirit speak to one another in a distinctive way—with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.   Now, don’t ask me what that exactly means because I’m not going to walk up and belt out Amazing Grace when I see you on the street.  But it maybe how we talk with each other as we talk to God in worship.  What a wonderful way to think about our walk and worship with God—not grim duty, not reluctant reverence, not fearful distance, but heartfelt singing together.  Paul would seem to indicate that those who are filled with the Spirit are so overflowing with joy that if flows out into song, even if you are someone like me who has a tough time carrying a tune.  Music is made first in our hearts and then outflows with voice and instrument.

And not surprising, a Spirit filled life is a life full of gratitude.  It is the level and extent of the gratitude that is surprising.  Paul indicates that if the Spirit is in control of our thoughts and desires, we will give thanks always for everything.  Now, I will be the first to say that sometimes things can be so awful that I can’t give thanks.  Maybe Paul means we can give thanks in those times, but not for those times.  Yesterday, I did a funeral.  Many times we gave thanks for the life of the one who had died, we gave thanks to the Savior who now held her close in his arms, and we gave thanks that the pain was gone.  But she died.  Death is the great destroyer of relationships.  I can’t give thanks for death.  So I think a Spirit filled life that is full of thanks is wise enough to understand what is evil and what is the good work of God in our lives, even in the midst of tragedy.  And that Spirit filled life overflows not with complaint and dissatisfaction, but with thanksgiving.

This text, and a large portion of Ephesians, calls of to kind of living that will move people to ask us to give the reason for the hope that is in us—carefully wise, always looking for opportunities to live for Christ, deeply in touch with the purposes of God in the world, but not in a way that alienates others but draws them into a relationship with Christ.  And in doing so, the Spirit will fill us with joy and gratitude, and creating relationships that demonstrate our closeness to God with hearts that overflow with song.  Amen.

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Only You Know, Lord: Sermon by Keith, 5.24.15 Pentecost B

Scriptures: Acts 2:1-21, Ezekiel 37:1-14

It’s interesting sometimes how the church calendar and the secular calendar lineup sometimes.  Like this well known passage from Ezekiel about dry bones falling on Memorial Day:  A day of memories and cemeteries.  And this definitely had to be a day where Ezekiel’s memories were being stirred up by God.  He had been a young priest in Jerusalem when the Babylonians came, torturing the inhabitants of that holy city with siege warfare.  The two year siege led disease and despair.  They took the city, razed the temple to the ground, killed many who lived there, and forced the brightest and best into exile in Babylon, including Ezekiel.

Now Ezekiel, either by vision or physically being taken up and brought back to his homeland, was being led by the Lord around this wasteland of dry bones.  These are not just any dry bones–they are his people.  Ezekiel remembers their names, their faces.  They were once a dynamic, loving people, the friends and family that he had grown up with.  Even the bones of his young wife lay somewhere among the bone heaps.  He had to have been in despair and probably even angry at God for feeling abandoned or betrayed and forced to face this scene.  His heart was broken.  This was not the kind of homecoming he had in mind.  Why had God left them and allowed this to happen?  The memories of his life, his people, and his temple were brought before him as he is being led through not only his past, but the glorious past of his nation reduced to weathered bones.

You might say that this past week the Holy Spirit led American Christendom through a valley of dry bones as the Pew Research Center released their survey results about faith in America.   Their report was not what most would call good news, but it is a scene we must face. What they reported is that there are now less people affiliated with the Christian Church than ever before as a percentage of the population. The biggest increase was in the “nones, ”and that doesn’t mean Catholic women joining the cloistered life, it means people with no affiliation to a religious group.  And people who said they were affiliated with one of the mainline churches, like the Presbyterian Church, saw some of the biggest declines.

These statistics on paper just solidify what churches have been seeing in reality and feeling in their hearts.  Previously full and dynamic churches now sit mostly empty.  Churches have been responding in anxiety and fear over the loss of membership, the loss of influence in society, a loss of any guiding mission or purpose beyond survival, and a sense that God may have given up on them.  The glory days are long gone.  How is the church to respond in an environment that sees the church as irrelevant and God unnecessary?  Denial, fear, anxiety?

All three of these reactions would be normal.  Looking out over all the bones of loved ones and knowing the history of what created this valley of bleached bones, Ezekiel answered God the only way he could when he was asked, “Mortal, can these bones live?”  Ezekiel knew only bones that only weather and dry out more as time goes by, so he gives God’s question back to God:  “Oh, Lord God, you know.”  And resurrection happens.

One of the most powerful words in all of scripture shows up 10 times in 14 verses.  The Hebrew word ‘ruach’ can be translated breath, but it also means Spirit or wind.  The same word is used at creation when the ruach blew over the formless void and the ruach filled the lifeless lumps of clay that became living humanity.  Ruach happened to these dry bones, breath and Spirit were given, life was given.  Where there was death, now there is life.  Where there was anger, now there is joy.  Where there despair, now there is hope.

And that is what we celebrate this Pentecost: hope.  Ezekiel’s home coming was not about ending back in the land he was from, but the promise of coming home to God.  The Babylonians may have destroyed Jerusalem, the temple, and the land; but they couldn’t destroy God or God’s love of his people.  God wasn’t tied to Jerusalem or the temple, and what Ezekiel learned is that God met up with the people in Babylon.  God was in exile with the Hebrew people in a foreign, strange land.  Things had changed, but what hadn’t changed was God’s love, God’s faithfulness, and God’s power.  God still had plans for his people to experience him and the life giving Holy Spirit in ways they could never dream or understand.

Friends, God is in exile with us, speaking a promise of new life to us.  Things aren’t they same as they were 50, 25, or even 10 years ago.  And that is okay, in fact it may be a good thing.  What may look like destruction and the loss of power and prestige is also an awesome opportunity for God to do something new.  Our hope lies not in ourselves, or in our churches, or our structures, but in the God who can put flesh on dry bones, who can stir imaginations that have forgotten the possibility of new life, who can give us the gift of waiting when we are restless and apathetic, who can, yes, set us free from thinking that we are the only ones responsible for the solutions to our problems.  We want to fix things, but when faced with dry bones, there is nothing that we can fix.  Ezekiel, when faced with a much more hopeless situation than the church faces today, put his hope of restoration and resurrection in the only one who could do it, God’s power in the Holy Spirit.  And only the Spirit of creation has the power to resurrect.

Friends, the promise God gave to Ezekiel is the promise he gives to us, too.  “I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live.”  God has promised to bring us home, and in that promise, God’s call on our lives as individuals and as a church is to be faithful, not successful.  And that takes discernment and prayer, waiting for God to give a word of guidance and sometimes a word of prophecy.  It means stepping out in faith to see where the Holy Spirit is moving.  It means offering up the dry bones to God for the breath of restoration and resurrection.  God hasn’t abandoned his church, but is still as faithful and active and loving as he ever has been.   This assurance can underlie all of our living, even when we are in exile.  God can and will find us even in exile, and bring us home to him.  Amen.

Receiving the Spirit: Sermon by Laura, 6.8.14 Pentecost A

Scriptures: Numbers 11:24-30, John 20:19-23

“Peace be with you.” (Congregation: And also with you). Good, you knew just what to do. It’s a good thing we practice this call and response each Sunday. Why do we do this? Is it just a nice ritual to say hello to people we haven’t seen for a few days, like a Christian version of “good morning?”

A key to understanding what this practice is about is noticing where it is placed in our worship service. We “pass the peace” after we have confessed our sins to Godand received again the good news of reconciliation: In Jesus Christ, you are forgiven! Then we go around sharing the forgiveness we’ve first received with our neighbors and our fellow disciples. We rehearse passing Christ’s peace in worship because it is an integral and formational spiritual practice for living out our identity as God’s children, an essential way in which the Holy Spirit is revealed in the church.

“Peace be with you,” says the Risen Christ to his disciples in John’s “Pentecost” narrative. Pentecost is the church’s feast day, in which we celebrate the giving and receiving of the Holy Spirit, when the disciples of Jesus were transformed from fearful followers to bold apostles, a community of believers, powerfully sent to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ. But John’s account is quite different from the Acts 2 story that we usually read. There is no rushing wind, tongues of fire, or public miracle of people speaking in many languages. We’ve noted that the original audience of John’s gospel was probably a close-knit group of Jesus-followers who’d been cast out of the synagogues and faced persecution. Befitting that context, John’s telling of the Holy Spirit’s coming seems much more private and intimate.

This story begins on Easter evening. Mary Magdalene has returned from the garden saying “I have seen the Lord,” but nonetheless, the disciples are huddled together in a house with locked doors. I imagine they are sad, confused, and afraid all at once. The text says they are afraid of the Jewish leaders who sent Jesus to his crucifixion. They know they might be next. So the disciples want some privacy and security, a quiet respite from the tumult of recent days. They are looking for “peace” defined as a lack of disturbance. The locked doors put a barrier between themselves and possible confrontation.

I don’t know about you, but that’s just the sort of peacefulness I often long for. Undisturbed calm. Our world changes so quickly, and the times we live in are so often hurried, uncertain, and anxious. Some days I crave a hideaway where I can escape.A quiet place where I can lock out disturbances or avoid confrontation with bad news.

Of course, the trouble with locked doors is that they may keep dangerous elements out, but they also trap those inside in a tight space with few options. Nothing new can enter or exit, so there is a kind of status quo paralysis. And however we may sometimes long for undisturbed calm,  it turns out we were not made for a static existence. If we must sit still too long, most of us eventually get restless and start longing for something new. Ultimately, the only place where we can truly “rest in peace,” undisturbed, is when we are lying beneath a headstone.

“Peace be with you,” Jesus says, and our first clue that he’s offering something different from this lack-of-disturbance-sort-of-peace is that he says it having somehow entered the room without going through the locked door. That’s a little disturbing, don’t you think?

Our second clue is that he says it again after having demonstrated the scars in his hands and his side. He does this because the disciples do not at first recognize him, but it is a disturbing reminder that Jesus’ identity—and those of us who follow him—will be forever bound up with his death on a cross. To this, Jesus adds a few words, guaranteed to disturb the disciples for the rest of their lives! “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Finally, to cap off the unnerving weirdness of this scene, Jesus breathes on them: “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

There is a world of implications in this brief scrap of scripture. First, the Risen Christ cannot and will not be kept out of any place in our world. It doesn’t matter how seemingly dead-end of a location our path through life has taken us. Jesus can find us and encounter us there. A stone-sealed tomb couldn’t keep him in; neither can this locked door cannot keep him out. I find this news simultaneously exhilarating and unsettling.

About Christ’s resurrection, Anna Carter Florence likes to say, “If dead things won’t stay dead, what can you count on?” Well, it turns out that we can count on the Triune God to show up when and where we least expect him offering to unbind from the locked rooms of destructive attitudes, habits, and practices and deliver us to more spacious places. We can count on him to show up and offer reconciliation in any dead-end relationship we’ve ever experienced. We can count on him to offer new life we had never imagined possible. And, in Jesus Christ, we can count on the Creator to continue creating.

Remember how John points out that the Risen Lord appears on the “first day of the week”? Flashback to Genesis 1, when the wind from God swept over the waters, and God said “Let there be light.” Remember that the words wind, breath, and spirit are the same word in Greek and Hebrew? The first day of the new creation is happening at that very moment in the room with the disciples. Jesus comes and breathes a holy wind, beginning to heal the long effects of primal sin.[i] Flashback to Genesis 2, when God breathed the breath of life into the nostrils of the man he formed from the dust. Tom Wright says, “Now in the new creation, the restoring life of God is breathed out through Jesus, making new people of the disciples, and, through them, offering this new life to the world.”[ii]

Jesus breathes the peace of Christ into those disciples, something much more profound than a surface tranquility. Paul calls it the “peace that passes understanding,” for when it takes root in you, you can walk into and through any kind of chaos or devastation with courage, determination and hope. This peace is the peace of reconciliation with God, the peace we receive as we come to deeply trust God’s gracious, self-giving, forgiving love in Jesus Christ.

And as we receive it, as we take hold of it, we are empowered to extend such love to others. This is what Jesus commissions the disciples to do. “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” That sounds pretty intimidating, doesn’t it? A big job, and Jesus is telling us to do it? We might wonder how we qualify. The truth is, we don’t—until we breathe in the Holy Spirit Jesus has exhaled upon us, and then it is God in us who makes it possible for us to both hold one another accountable and offer one another forgiveness of sins. This is the peace we offer one another.

And, my friends, remember, this is not some overwhelming task we must accomplish under the hand of a harsh taskmaster to earn a forthcoming reward.  It is a gracious gift, a present treasure we can choose to receive or not. It is given to us unconditionally by a loving Lord who invites us—each and every one of us, no matter how lofty or low we think our “qualifications—to participate in his life-saving, life-giving, new-life-creating mission.

Breath: what an intimate, personal way to share such a gift! We are invited to share Christ’s peace with others in just as intimate and personal ways. As we make ourselves available to Christ’s holy breathing in us, those ways will come as naturally to us as breathing.  We don’t have to go looking for ways to share the peace of Christ with others. They are right there in front of us whenever we remember to pay attention.

I asked Linda Fratzke if I could share with you a marvelous story she told me over the phone when I called to check in with her. It begins in another locked room, of sorts, the ICU waiting room. Linda was sitting there one day during this past month of David’s declining health. There was one other person in the room, a young woman on her cell phone. Overhearing the conversation, it didn’t take Linda long to assess that the young woman’s boyfriend was abusively controlling.

When she got off the phone, the young woman turned to Linda. “I’m sorry you had to listen to that,” she said. Linda nodded, and then felt a compassionate pull to counsel the young woman to get out of the relationship. Later, the woman told Linda her friends and family had been saying the same thing for weeks, but hearing it from a stranger made a strong impact. She finally decided to take action to get out of the situation.

Linda told me that she might not have said anything, but echoing through her mind, she heard the words the pastor of their Arizona church says every Sunday in the benediction: “Wherever you are, God has put you there for a reason.” As she sat in that waiting room, assuming she was there to accompany her dying husband through treatment, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, Linda was able to see that her purpose was even bigger than that, and she was empowered to offer her witness, letting fresh air through the doors of that young woman’s locked room, and breathing into her the possibility of new life in Christ.

My friends, this Pentecost, Jesus Christ has come to stand among us in this room and has breathed the Holy Spirit upon us. Breathe in deep of this fresh wind. Let it clear away all the distractions so that you can see the powerful truth: God has given you the peace of Christ, and put you where you are in your own life for a purpose.  Receive and breathe deeply of the Holy Spirit, that you may breathe out peace and share the forgiving, restoring, life-giving love of our Crucified and Risen Lord.

Alleluia and Amen.

 

 

[i] Tom Wright, 150.

[ii] Tom Wright, John for Everyone, Part 2, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 149-150.

I See You: Sermon by Laura, 1.19.14 Epiphany 2A

Scripture Reading: Isaiah 49:1-7, John 1:29-42

To get us in the spirit of this morning’s gospel reading, we’re going to try out a greeting I recently heard about,one that comes to us from the Zulu people of South Africa. Say you are coming down a road or a hallway, and you encounter someone; you say, Sawubona, which means “I see you.” One might respond to this greeting with the word Ngikhona, which means “I am here.”[i] Here’s what it might look like—we’ll use the English. (Ask Lay Leader to help me demonstrate). Got it? Now, please try this greeting exchange with some folks nearbyturn to someone, look them in the eye, and say, “I see you.” And if someone says it to you, you respond, “I am here.” Please use no other words, and try to say the words slowly, with a sense of intention. Pay attention to how they make you feel. Got your assignment? Okay, Go! …

So, what was that like for you? How simple the words of the greeting seem on the surface, yet how deeply moving they can be!

Author Robert Holden suggests four aspects that make this greeting powerful. First, there is the eye contact, which establishes connection. “Eye contact is akin to soul contact,” Holden writes. Second, “I see you” conveys more than a bland hello. It tells the other that you notice them, that you recognize and honor their unique presence. “I see you” affirms that you exist, you are equal to me, and you are worthy of my respect. Third, “I am here” is an acceptance that you have been seen and honored, just as you are in this moment, as well as an affirmation that you are willing to be present to the other person.

Holden notes that this greeting represents the Zulu way of ubuntu, of “humanity toward all.” He writes, “To practice ubuntu is to help your brothers and sistersremember their true identity, recognize their true value, and participate fully. Ubuntu teaches that our purpose is to be a true friend to one another.”[ii]

In our scripture today, there is an interchange that is both as simple and as profound as this Zulu greeting. The story begins with John the Baptist, pointing at Jesus. Interestingly, we don’t see him baptize Jesus in this gospel; we only get his second-hand testimony proclaiming Jesus’ identity: Jesus is the Lamb of God, God’s Son, here among us to baptize with the Holy Spirit.

Two disciples who hear John’s testimony follow Jesus. Jesus turns toward them and sees them. I imagine him looking carefully into their eyes, like we just did with the Zulu greeting. “I see you,” his actions tell them. And then he asks them, “What are you looking for?”

In typical Fourth Gospel fashion, simple words carry fathomless meaning below the surface.  The obvious response to Jesus’ question might have gone something like this, “Well, what do you think? We are looking for you! We just heard John the Baptist talking about you, and we want to see for ourselves.”  But even as the obvious is ringing out, my mind imagines Jesus repeating the question: “Yes, and what are you looking for?”

“Well okay, we are looking for the Messiah, God’s Anointed, promised to us for so long.”

“Yes, and what are you looking for?”

“(Deep sigh) Oh, Jesus, sometimes it seems like God is absent. There are so many places of hurt and hunger in our world. We want signs, that God is alive among us, really active and really doing things.”

“Yes. And what are you looking for?”

What sounds like a simple question, seeking basic information, invites the disciples to really discern their intentions, and even further, to ponder seeing in itself. For there is looking, and there is looking. There is the sequence of iris and pupil, optic nerve and brain receptors, and there is the inner call and response of the Holy Spirit, alerting us to God’s presence in our midst.

Systematic theologians call these two kinds of seeing general and special revelation. The first kind of seeing shows us the grandeur of the mountains, what one author calls our “brutiful” world (beautiful and brutal).[iii] “There must be a God,” we might say, as we try to take in the unfathomable intricacies of creation. The experience of awe and wonder is often the beginning of faith.

But God created us for more than wondering awareness. God created us for relationship. The God who created the cosmos, the God whose being is utterly beyond human comprehension and imagination, desires to be known to us and enter into a relationship with us. So God “comes down” to our reality and is revealed to us in a specific person, a specific human being, a man who is born and lives and dies and is raised again at a specific moment in history.

That’s what we celebrated at Christmas: in Jesus Christ, the unknowable God comes down to us, to be with and for us right here in our earthly reality. There is an amazing moment of recognition, when we go with the shepherds and wise men to the manger, to see with our own eyes the One of whose birth the angel chorus sings. It is a dazzling moment of special revelation.

But our faith is full of paradoxes. And even as God “comes down” to be with us, the unknowable fullness of God must necessarily become “hidden” in our earthly, worldly reality.[iv] God is revealed and concealed at the same time! Many who gaze on that baby in the manger see just that—a baby in a manger.

For us Christians, sometime the trouble begins when Christmas is over, and the shimmer and shine are put away for another year. There can be a flatness that comes upon us, and we may begin to doubt previous perceptions. Was God really there? Where is God now that we’ve returned to ordinary days?

It takes a special kind of “seeing” to perceive God’s presence, hidden in, with, and under seemingly ordinary people and things, and it does not come ‘naturally’ to us. It is a gift of grace. John the Baptist points this out repeatedly. Jesus’ identity as God’s Son was by no means immediately obvious. “I myself did not know him,” he says, even as he goes on to tell us how he comes to see.

John recognizes Jesus, not by spiritual extra-sensory perception, but because the God who sent him to baptize with water showed him the Spirit like a dove remaining on Jesus. Only then could John fulfill his calling and reveal Jesus the Christ to Israel. And then John’s testimony itself becomes a gift of special revelation for the disciples who hear it.   The disciples may have seen Jesus with their eyes before, but John’s testimony wakes up them up to look again. So they look, and this time, they begin to see Jesus, not only with their eyes but also with their hearts. They begin to recognize they are encountering a Person unlike any other they’ve ever met.

But I’ve always it odd how they respond to Jesus’ question. “What are you looking for,” he asks, and they reply, “Rabbi, where are you staying?” It sounds like they want basic information, an address; Jesus could give them a business card and be done. But we know now to look for another layer of meaning.

And indeed, the verb meno, here translated “staying,” is a key-word in the gospel of John. In John 15:4, this word is translated “abide,” as in “Abide in me as I abide in you.” One author explains this word “refers to the source of one’s life and meaning…[T]hese two disciples…are asking, “What is it that sustains you? What power do you have?  Where do you remain?  Where do you live?  How do you live?  Who are you really?”[v]

So it turns out, the two disciples are actually onto something. They recognize that a brief look at Jesus will not be enough. To perceive and receive the revelation of God in Jesus Christ requires “staying power,” a lifetime of tarrying, abiding, and dwelling with Christ where he’s found.

For his part, when Jesus looks so carefully at them, I think he sees these men are seeking more than fact-sheets or formulas; they long for a dwelling place, a home, a whole way of life. So Jesus gives them a wonderful invitation: “Come and see.” And the gospel of John tells us, “They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day.”

My friends, this is what discipleship is all about. By a gift of grace, we catch a glimpse of the Living God present in our very midst, a Person who greets us, sees us face-to-face, invites us into a relationship.

“I see you,” says God in Jesus Christ. “I see what you are looking for. I see the longings of your heart, your deepest hopes and fears, you frustrations and anxiety, your broken heart.  Come and see where I dwell, come and stay with me, that you may find what you seek.”

How will we respond to Christ’s invitation? He is longing to hear our reply: “I am here. I will come and see, I will stay with you, and I will learn to look ever deeper into the hidden places and faces of this world, seeing anew with the eyes of a graced and gracious heart.” May we notice the Living God active and alive in our midst, and may we share what we see with all those in need of a good Word, inviting each one to the transforming life in Jesus Christ: Come and see.  Amen.

P.S. The blessing I used as a benediction can be found here.

Poured Out: Sermon by Keith, 1.12.14, Baptism of the Lord A

Scripture Readings: Isaiah 42:1-9, Matthew 3:13-17

Rodger Nishioka shares a story of a ninth grader who just finished confirmation at his church.[1]  Kyle and his family had attended Rodger’s church sporadically since they moved to the area when Kyle was in the fifth grade.  But when the invitation to join in the confirmation class was given to Kyle, Rodger was surprised at the enthusiasm in which Kyle and his family gave in saying yes.  They all came to the orientation and agreed to the covenant to participate in two retreats, a mission activity, work with a mentor, and weekly gatherings for study and exploration.  And Kyle flourished!  Kyle rarely missed a class and was always engaged in the conversations.  He developed some wonderful relationships with the other youth in the group that he hardly knew.  And since Kyle hadn’t been baptized, on that Pentecost Sunday that the confirmands came before the church, he was baptized.  As Rodger puts it, “It was a marvelous celebration for all the confirmands, their families, their mentors, and the entire church.”

But then Kyle disappeared.  The party was over and he was gone.  Rodger knew something had gone wrong.  After a bit of time, he checked in with Kyle and his family.  They were all a little surprised that they were receiving a check in from the pastor.  Roger recalls the mother’s words, “Oh, well, I guess I thought Kyle was all done.  I mean, he was baptized and confirmed and everything.”  And Rodger knew something had been missed.  He realized that for Kyle, and many people, they think that the baptism of the infant or the young adult or the adult is the culminating activity of faith, and that we are all done.

Jesus’ baptism gives us a chance to exam and explore our own baptisms.  In our day and age, typically baptism has been boiled down to dealing with our sinful nature.  We hear the radio preacher cry out, “Repent from your sins and be baptized!”  But Jesus clearly had no need to repent from his sins.  John loudly cried out “Repent!” to those crowds on the banks of the Jordan River.  “Repent because the kingdom of God was at hand.”  John is proclaiming something bigger than just sins.  The Greek word that we see just previously before this passage to describe John’s baptism is the word metanoia, and it suggests a transformation or turning of the whole heart and mind and even of the body.  This turning can and does involve sin, but it is more than just that.  For Jesus, there is a turning from one direction to another.  Up to this point, he had been a carpenter in Nazareth, and that was his identity in the eyes of that community.  But Jesus had another identity, an identity given to him before the foundations of the world, an identify God affirms at Jesus’ baptism when we hear the voice from the heavens boom and Spirit descend like a dove.  “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”  In his baptism, Jesus was turning toward this God given identity of Beloved Son and embracing his relationship with God the Father through the Holy Spirit.

In Matthew, the baptism of Jesus is not the end.  He didn’t go back home and tell his mom, Mary, about his swim in the Jordan with Cousin John and then head back for the workshop.  It may have marked the end of his identity as a carpenter in Nazareth, even though I can imagine he may have picked up a hammer now and then, but it marked the beginning, the launching, of his ministry.  It is his commissioning to begin the public ministry for which he was created and to which he is called.  Surely, Jesus’ identity is confirmed in his baptism, but we know that personal identity isn’t a static thing.  Identity is also about purpose.  Being claimed as God’s beloved means that Jesus has been called to be and do the will of God in the world.  And we even see this in Jesus as his identity as God’s Beloved grows throughout his public ministry.

Friends, whether you were baptized as a squiggling baby in the arms of a preacher you don’t remember, as a young adult on a Pentecost Sunday after weeks of a confirmation class, or as someone who has years of hard living showing in gray hairs and deep lines in the face, you have an identity given to you by God.   Whether you are a student, a cook, a farmer, a doctor, or lawyer or retired, if you have no letters of credentials after your name, or a whole trail of them that you have to use the back side of your business card to list them, you have a deeper, truer identity.  That identity is from God and given by God and is formed by God.  Friends, you are the beloved children of God.  (Here I think I will stop and say, “__________, you are God’s beloved daughter.”  “_______, you are God’s beloved son.”) And this identity as God’s beloved supersedes any titles you have earned or degrees that it took years to get.  Because you don’t earn God’s love.  You can’t earn it.  It is freely given as a gift of grace from God because God is more interested in a relationship with you than he is in the titles and accolades that the world my push you to get.

In his baptism, Jesus receives both affirmation of his identity and receives his commission for ministry in the world.   Jesus gives everything—his dreams and deeds, his labors and his life itself. Jesus gives himself to God’s people, taking his place with hurting people.  And so do we, both as individuals and as a community.  Our commission is different and the same as Jesus’ commission.  We are not Jesus, we are his disciples.  In following him and his example found in his baptism, we cannot make ourselves comfortable, cannot do only what will be appreciated, and cannot be satisfied with the way things are.  Our baptisms demand that we struggle with what’s right and what’s wrong, what’s important and what’s not.  The children of God tell the truth in a world that lies, give in a world that takes, love in a world that lusts, make peace in a world that fights, serve in a world that wants to be served, pray in a world that waits to be entertained, and take chances in a world that worships safety. The baptized are citizens of a community where financial success is not the goal, security is not the highest good, and sacrifice is a daily event.

And that means there will be no guarantee about what will happen next.  For Jesus, he spent the next 40 days in the wilderness, I believe, discerning what it meant to be God’s child, hungry, lost, and being tempted.  Coming out of the water’s of baptism does not provide a special protective layer from the powers and threats of the world.  If anything, being claimed as a child of God will make us more of a target of the pain and suffering the world can throw at us.  That can be seen in the life and ministry of Jesus.  He spends all the days and years that follow that afternoon in the Jordan discovering the meaning of his baptism as he lives into his relationship with God the Father as he heals, preaches, teaches, and shares the love of God with those he meets.  And that journey leads him to a cross.  He dies because he takes his baptism seriously. When Jesus cries on the cross, “It is finished,” it is at that moment that his baptism is complete.

When Rodger Nishioka had a chance to sit down with Kyle and his parents, he tried better to explain what had been missed, how Kyle’s baptism wasn’t the end, but just the beginning.  He shared with the family that not just Kyle was missed by the church, but that people wondered what happened to the entire family.  He explained that Kyle’s mentor hoped to be able to continue the relationship they had built and his friends hoped to continue doing ministry and having fellowship with him.  Roger apologized for himself and the entire church community for not doing a very good job of conveying what baptism was.  “Kyle’s baptism and confirmation was not simply about his profession of faith,” Roger shared.  “It is about his continuing to grow in his understanding of what God is calling him to do as he lives out his identity as a child of God.”

My brothers and sisters in Christ, if you are not baptized, I’d invite you to come talk with Laura or me about being baptized and acknowledging your true identity from the one who has claimed you.  Let the journey begin.  I can’t guarantee that it will be safe, but I can tell you it won’t be boring.  And if you are baptized, I invite you to remember your baptism and where your baptismal journey has brought you so far.  The journey isn’t over.  It continues every day of your life.

Amen.


[1] This story of Kyle is shared in Rodger Nishioka’s commentary in Feast on the Word, Year A, Volume 1, pages 236-240.

A New Imagination: Sermon by Laura, 9.1.13 Pentecost 15 Acts Sermon Series

Scripture: Acts 17

British author Sir Ken Robinson tells the story of a little girl at a drawing lesson. “She was six and she was at the back, drawing, and the teacher said this little girl hardly ever paid attention, and in this drawing lesson she did. The teacher was fascinated and she went over to her and she said, ‘What are you drawing?’ And the girl said, ‘I’m drawing a picture of God.’ And the teacher said, ‘But nobody knows what God looks like.’ And the girl said, ‘They will in a minute.’”[i]

Don’t you just love that little girl’s confident creativity? The marvelous, natural creativity of young children is often remarked upon. But alongside her gift of imagination, I want us to notice this child’s relationship with her teacher. Their conversation shows that the teacher made a form in which imagination can flourish, a classroom, where there is space, time, and tools for drawing–in which the child can manifest her freedom.

I’m using the word “freedom” here to signify the barrier-breaking power of creative imagination, inspiring newness and making the unknown known.  By “form,” I mean the structures, choices and commitments which ground imagination in a world of substance, of earth and flesh. Both the freedom to dream and the form to contain it are necessary for the child’s revelation of God, and for ours as well.

Today, we are wrapping up our sermon series on the book of Acts, and one of the greatest insights I’ve received from it is an awareness of the dynamic tension of freedom and form. We see it throughout the book, beginning with Pentecost, when the rag-tag band of Jesus’ disciples receive the amazing gift of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit will free them, again and again, to a new imagination, guiding them to see and hear God’s will in Jesus Christ, gathering and sending out the creative community which becomes known as the church. Luke tells us the story, how God’s imagination, God’s dream, finds form and flesh in this community seeking and struggling to share the good news of new life in Jesus Christ, in Jerusalem and onward to all nations.

As the discipleship community grows, they confront obstacles within and without. There is the challenge of sustaining the community, supporting the ministry of the apostles but also caring justly for the needy in their midst. There is the pain of division, as the believers are rejected by the Jewish communities of their roots. Persecution forces some to flee Jerusalem, and they learned to share the message cross-culturally, welcoming Gentiles as brothers and sisters in Christ.

Time and again, the church bumps up against the brokenness of the world and the limits of previous understanding, but the Holy Spirit imagines a new way and sends them out. The faithfulness of the church is found on a Way fraught with dynamic tension,  as the dream of God marches always onward in forms previously unimagined.

And who could have imagined the way God’s Spirit takes form in Paul, the rabbi known for persecuting Jesus’ followers who becomes the preeminent apostle to the Gentiles? Not even Paul himself. In Chapter 17 we catch up to him when he seems to be bumping up against the limits of his own imagination. He’s been commissioned to the primary task of sharing the good news with Gentiles. But his pattern entering a new city is always to enter the synagogue first, arguing for three successive Sabbath days how the scriptures witness to Jesus the crucified and risen Messiah. But in Thessalonica, his practice angered some Jews so much, they not only incite a riot there, but follow him to Beroea. Sent away for his protection, Paul makes an unexpected visit to Athens. Forced out of his usual patterns in this legendary city, Paul at last finds his voice as apostle to the Gentiles.

Waiting for Silas and Timothy, Paul takes in the sights. Intellectuals, culture-makers and philosophers of the ancient world, no one could fault the Athenians for lacking imagination. Indeed, if the word “imagination” combines the words  “image” and “nation,”[ii] then Athens was exemplary, for it was a “nation” populated by every conceivable image of god. There was even one shrine honoring a god the Athenians could not conceive of, a shrine to “the unknown god.”

Paul’s monotheistic sensibilities are offended by the prolific graven images, and he begins conversations about them in the synagogues and the public forums. Eventually he finds himself sharing the good news of Jesus with philosophers, who bring him to the Areopagus, the preeminent council of Athenian elders, to explain his “strange ideas.” It is Paul’s first opportunity in Acts to speak to a completely Gentile audience of non-believers.

Now we might expect Paul to lambast the Athenians about their idolatry. But as he has wandered Athens and dialogued with its people, he has been learning about them. Paul’s come to recognize that the statues of Athens represent a restless and imaginative searching for the divine. And so he begins, carefully, respectfully, with common ground: “I see how extremely religious you are in every way,” he says, pointing to their “unknown god” as witness of their seeking.

Then, he begins to share a form to ground their imagination. He tells the story of scripture, as sensitively as he can for those who have never heard it. That unknown god they honor is the Creator of all peoples, who can never be fully captured in any human-conceived shrines or sculptures or ideas. But while God cannot be pinned down to just any form, God can be known by all peoples. This God is “not far from each of us,” Paul says, quoting one of their own philosopher-poets: “in him we live and move and have our being; for we too are his offspring.”

This is the good news of the Spirit, my friends. Imagination is the common heritage of all human beings, created as bearers of God’s image, a powerful gift for seeking God. But God is as near to all of us as the breath of life within us. Therefore we are called, as one author put it, “to rejoice and to discover, to dialogue and to enjoy the common life of the Spirit,” listening for her voice with all those who grope for the divine ground of all being.[iii]

It is good for us to dialogue, as Paul did, with people whose religious imaginations are radically different from ours, attuning ourselves to the Spirit in their midst. For the Spirit is free as the wind is free, to be present wherever and with whomever she chooses. Making use of the imaginative powers she gives us, we will encounter her in places we never expect. The Spirit of creation from chaos, the Spirit of resurrection, is always and everywhere breaking through the barriers to new life.

But Paul’s speech does not stop there, because even as we embrace creative freedom of the Spirit, we must also recognize how subject we are to confusion. The Spirit’s restlessness does not feel comfortable or secure, and we are always tempted to tie her down, fixing for ourselves objects of worship, centering our lives on the images, shrines, dogmas, and ideologies we ourselves create.

That’s why Paul calls the Athenians to repentance, boldly proclaiming the even better news, that God does not leave us restlessly searching, but has revealed the form of divine grace. The pattern of God’s gracious loving ways has been written and can be known in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. All our human longings to touch, to know, to experience divinity, all restless imaginings of God’s goodness, beauty and truth, find form in the man God raised from the dead and appointed to judge the world in righteousness. As Augustine wrote, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”

“No one knows what God looks like;” “They will in a minute.”

I’m curious to know what that little girl unveiled to her teacher that day. But there’s something I’d like to know even more.  How would you draw the image of God? For here’s the thing: we are each and all, like that little girl, called to use all our imagination and all our creativity, to reveal the image of God we are uniquely created to bear. The Spirit longs to reveal God’s goodness, beauty, and truth in us. Sometimes a fresh wind of the Spirit must first blow through and blow away the faulty imagery cluttering the landscape of our imagination, so that we may discern the true outlines of God’s image by looking to Jesus Christ, self-giving love incarnate, God’s dream in human form.

I believe we are in just such a time, when the winds of change are inviting us to a new freedom of imagination. We must pray for the discernment to shape forms of the faithful life which can reveal Christ to a new generation. Like Paul, our first task is to get to know the world we find ourselves in, to look deeply beneath its obvious idolatries and recognize the common life of the Spirit. And then we are called to hold onto the form of God’s dream with a conviction that is always ready for repentance, a faith always seeking new understanding.[iv]

Our country has been honoring the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, which gave us the famous words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “I have a dream,” King declared, tracing the outlines of a world that had not yet come into being, a world where the idolatries of racial prejudice and discrimination had been cleared away to make room for the rights and dignity of all people. Let us remember that the nonviolent demonstration of that day, and the words of King’s speech were grounded in the form of a dream much older than 50 years.

It was the dream of the free and restless Spirit, spoken first through the prophets King quoted, saying, “I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.”[v]

It is the same dream which called the church into being forming a people for powerful witness, the same dream which sent Paul to Athens, across the barriers between Jew and Gentile, to proclaim the nearness of God’s presence, the dream which still sends you and me, out from all our tiny, comfortable shrines to carry the reconciling love of Jesus Christ starting right here and marching onward to all the nations of the world until that appointed day when Christ comes again. Amen


[i] Sir Ken Robinson speaking in 2006 at TED (Technology-Entertainment-Design) on  the topic of creativity and schools. Speech can be found here: http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/en/ken_robinson_says_schools_kill_creativity.html#205000

[ii] I think I got this idea from Julia Cameron, but I can’t find the location in her books.

[iv] “faith seeking understanding” was the “motto” of St. Anselm of Canterbury

“Is There a Picture of It in the Cookbook?”: Sermon by Keith, 7.28.13 Acts Sermon Series

Text: Acts 10

How many of you have read, “Lamb, The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal”?  Laura brought the book back from Indiana, taken from her dad’s bookshelf.  I haven’t finished the book, but only read the opening lines.  And boy, do those opening lines speak  to this morning’s passage from Acts.  Here is Biff, sharing his first encounter with Jesus:

“The first time I saw the man who would save the world he was sitting near the central wall in Nazareth with a lizard hanging out of his mouth.  Just the tail end and hind legs were visible on the outside; the head and forelegs were halfway down the hatch.  He was six, like me, and his beard had not come in fully, so he didn’t look much like the pictures you’ve seen of him.  His eyes were like dark honey, and they smiled at me out of a mop of blue-black cures that framed his face.  There was a light older than Moses in those eyes

‘Unclean!  Unclean!’ I screamed, pointing at the boy, so my mother would see that I knew the Law, but she ignored me, as did all the other mothers who were filling their jars at the well.”

“Unclean!  Unclean!”  Peter’s mind must have screamed as he woke up on that roof top after having the visions of the creatures, reptiles, and birds that he had grown up being told a good Jewish boy should never touch, let alone eat.  They were only allowed to eat animals which chewed their cuds and whose hoofs were cloven.  But in his vision lizards and pigs and other creepy-crawlies paraded around him and God then ordered him to eat them.  Peter was shocked and protested that he had never eaten anything that was unclean.  But three times God told him to kill and eat.  Why would God tell him that he should eat these things that God had told Moses were unfit for His people?

“Unclean!  Unclean!”  were the first thoughts that went though his mind as he looked down from the roof and saw the men at the gate calling out for him.  He could tell these men were not Jewish by the way there were dressed.  One of them even had the uniform of a Roman soldier!  He was not supposed to even associate with men like this and if he did, he had an entire purification rite he had to go through.  But speak to them he did, and he learned they were sent from Cornelius in Caesarea, that pagan, Roman, unclean city built in the midst of the Jewish heartland to keep the locals under control.  It was even named after the Roman Emperor, who expected his subjects to bow down to him as though he was a god.

And every pore of his body screamed, “unclean!  unclean!” as he entered Cornelius’ home.  He had been told from the men he traveled with that Cornelius was a God-fearer, a Gentile who had attached himself to the Jewish religion and attended the synagogue, but did not go as far to be circumcised or fully embrace the Law.  When Cornelius met him at the door, he had to wonder if Peter would cross the threshold, because even with all the Jews he knew from the synagogue, none had entered his home.  The house smelled of foods that Peter had never smelled before, there were sights there he had never seen before.  This was the first time in his life that Peter had stepped foot into a Gentile home and every Jewish bone in his body wanted him to run away from what he was encountering.

But all this time, someone was whispering to Peter.  All this time, someone was pushing him, preparing him.  His mind and body were crying out, “Unclean!  Unclean!” but his heart was hearing, “Redeemed!  Redeemed!”  During his vision on the roof top, Peter was being prepared for the visitors who would come.  In that trance, the Holy Spirit began working on Peter to unlearn the habits and traditions of a lifetime.  If this vision was really from God, then neither Peter nor Cornelius could ever live their lives the same.  Cornelius was no longer an outsider.  Peter had to make sense of things again, but he was in the midst of a wonderful new thing that God had begun in his midst.

And Peter shared the simple message that he was learning about God:  God shows no partiality and God’s peace is found in the one he sent, Jesus Christ.  Jesus lived his life in the light of the Holy Spirit, reaching out and sharing God’s peace and grace with others.  Though innocent, he was put to death and on that first Easter morning, God raised him from the dead and made him Lord of heaven and earth.  That was all Cornelius needed to know.  Without any fanfare or special ceremony, he and his family and friends were filled with the Holy Spirit and were baptized.

And it was in this moment with Cornelius and his family that Peter was continuing to learn how vast the power of the resurrection was and is.  In the beginning, God created, he created the beasts of the air, sea, and land, he created man and woman in his image, and he declared them all very good.  But they fell, spinning out of control until death had the final say in life.  On Easter, death no longer had final say and in the resurrection, God re-created his creation.  All creation was redeemed and made new in Christ.  The deeper that Peter plunged into the truth that is found in Christ, the more he realized the boundaries humanity had created, God had erased and the brokenness found in humanity and in creation was healed and made whole.

Jesus himself makes this known after the resurrection.  Jesus appeared on Easter morning first to women and then to those who had betrayed and denied him.  It wasn’t long until he appeared to one who was persecuting his followers and through the centuries he has appeared to every sort of person, from redneck uneducated yahoo to those sitting in the thrones of power.  And to each he says, “I died for you.” To each he offers God’s love, grace, and peace.  And on Easter, the good news of God’s grace flowed out of the tomb to everyone and everything.  No one is separated from God’s love by anything at all.  As the one who persecuted the church, Paul, later wrote, “there is no longer Jew nor Greek, no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, for all of you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Now the church was given this wonderful gift of unity in Christ and equality before God, but we don’t always get it right.  One of our pastor friends said he was at a meeting with a group of pastors and the invitation that was given by the host was easy enough:  Pray for the pastor on your right.  Well, one pastor couldn’t do it because the man on his right wasn’t part of his church, not the right kind of Christian.  For some it is natural to believe that unless a person is baptized in a certain way, he is not baptized at all; or that unless she receives communion in the right form, she hasn’t received communion.  We end up using the very means of grace that God gave us to bring people together as tools to separate others out of fellowship.  The Holy Spirit must sigh deeply when her name is used to separate people when she was given to bring them together.  We must pray that every time that we hear that little voice, “Unclean!” we invite the Holy Spirit to whisper to our hearts, “Redeemed!”

Friends, God in Christ redeemed all of his creation.  God did it in love and he did it for everyone.  He did it for you, for me, and for us.  Therein lies the power.  It is a power that never stops bringing things and people together that no one would ever image together.  And we are called to share in that power and we only have it because of the unity we are given in Christ Jesus.  And He is Lord of all; no boundaries, no distinctions, no differences.  May it be so.  Amen.