Sunday, May 31, 2015

Sermon: Three In One, One In Three

Grace Presbyterian Church
May 31, 2015, Trinity B
Romans 8:12-17; John 3:1-17

Three in One, One in Three

Today is Trinity Sunday, the last major Sunday observance before the liturgical calendar stretches into the long, green processional of Ordinary Time, at least until October or November. It’s a curious commemoration, one in which instead of a particular event, a theological concept is the subject of the day. And it just happens to be one of the trickiest doctrinal concepts of all being marked, one that contains a whole host of possibilities for leading the pastor astray.
Indeed, the early history of the church is dotted with theological attempts to grapple with the doctrine of Trinity, which later came under official condemnation of the church and led to creedal statements attempting to steer believers away from such unorthodox beliefs. Some tried to argue that one or the other of God the Son or God the Holy Spirit was somehow “less equal” to God the Father, such as Arianism, Psilanthropism, or Pneumatomachianism; teachings that stress the unity of God to the point of denying the Trinitarian nature of God, such as Patripassianism or Sabellianism; or teachings that stressed either the divine or the human nature of Christ to the exclusion of the other, including Nestorianism, Monophysitism, or Docetism, the latter of which taught that Jesus’s entire physical existence was an illusion. That would make the whole Holy Week and Easter cycle rather superfluous, to say the least.
Even attempts to draw analogies to explain the Trinity end up running aground on some sort of heretical concept, even such famous attempts as the three-leaf clover or shamrock supposedly used by St. Patrick of Ireland to explain the Trinity. According to those who spend way too much time thinking about these things, Patrick (had he actually used that metaphor, which is not certain) would have been guilty of partialism, or the teaching that God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit individually could not be regarded as God, but only the three in combination could truly be regarded as “God.”
Even those attempts to explain the Trinity that actually pass theological muster can be more convoluted and confusing than helpful. Take this line from the Athanasian Creed, one of the earliest of creeds, created as a doctrinal response to some heresy or other:
“Uncreated is the Father; uncreated is the Son, uncreated is the Spirit.  The Father is infinite, the Son is infinite, the Holy Spirit is infinite.  Eternal is the Father, eternal is the Son, eternal is the Spirit; And yet there are not three eternal beings, but one who is eternal; there are not three uncreated and unlimited beings, but one who is uncreated and unlimited.”

It’s little wonder that one of the most popular social media memes of the last few weeks has been one which offered the following advice to pastors preaching on Trinity Sunday: say nothing, and show pictures of kittens. I fear, though, that somebody out there is sharpening up their critical knives for an argument that kittens are somehow heretical.
Not helping the cause is the fact that scripture nowhere explicitly states or develops anything that could be truly called a doctrine of the Trinity. That is not to say that the idea of the Trinity isn’t there; it is only to observe that the concept is more or less assumed without ever being explained to any degree.
One could point to the stories out of the Book of Acts that we’ve been examining since Easter; as Jesus – God the Son – is about to be taken up from the disciples, he promises that the Holy Spirit – God the Holy Spirit – will come to the disciples to empower them to proclaim the good news. A similar, and even more explicit, formulation is found at the end of Matthew’s gospel, in the Great Commission, in which Jesus commissions the disciples to go to all the nations and make disciples, “baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Matt. 28:19). 
Similarly the language of Trinity is found embedded in today’s readings from Romans and John. Jesus’s discussion with Nicodemus could easily have been used for last week’s observance of Pentecost, particularly in its observation of the qualities of the Spirit, here being described by no less than God the Son.
Paul, grappling with how to explain the great eternal inheritance of believers, makes recourse to the language of Trinity as well. The Spirit (as in God the Holy Spirit) becomes the enabler of believers, the one who enables us to put to death the works of the flesh and to be “adopted” as children of God (the Father), and joint-heirs with Christ (God the Son).
In short, scripture is a lot less interested in explaining the Trinity than it is in describing how God has moved and acted in the world, using language that expresses “God in three persons,” to quote the first hymn we sang today. And yet, as the second hymn of the morning puts it, “God is one, unique and holy,” even if “never single or alone.”
Trying to nail down exactly what’s going on in the doctrine of the Trinity ends up seeming like a fool’s errand. And maybe that’s not a bad thing. Maybe, in fact, it has a very beneficial effect on us, when we come to realize that the more we demand certainty out of God, the more we demand that we must know exactly what’s going on, the farther we are from actually following and living in the Spirit, living a life that looks as much as possible like the life Christ lived. That the Trinity is, is one thing; trying to dissect in fine detail what exactly that is or how it works might just be what John Calvin would call “inessential.”
Still, though, there are some important lessons we can take from the understanding of God as Three in One, One in Three – enough to justify a Sunday on the liturgical calendar.
For example: If God is Three in One, One in Three, God is inherently community – “never single or alone,” to return to that hymn. If even God lives in community, how can we possibly think we are suited to go it alone?
Let’s extend that a little further. We are taught from way back, alluding to Genesis, that we are created “in the image of God.” Most of the time we tend to interpret that as saying that each one of us, individually, somehow reflects or contains something of the image of God even in our finite created-ness, and I don’t particularly intend to argue against that, but what if the idea of God as Trinity, Three in One, One in Three, opens up another possibility here? What if it is in all of us – the whole, messy, beautiful diversity of humanity – that we see the image of God? Might that possibly change how we relate to one another? Might that challenge us to take yet more seriously the whole business of being a church, being a community, being together as followers of Christ, taking care of one another? One would hope so.
But there’s also another angle to this whole business, that God expresses God-ness in three, specifically.[i] Not two: three.
Think about it. Two is an “even” number; three is an “odd” number. We say “two’s company, three’s a crowd.” We speak of the “odd man out,” or of being a “third wheel.” We speak to each other “face to face” or “one to one,” not “one to one to one” or “two to one” or “one to two”.
A three-way conversation, for example, requires more energy than a conversation between two people. There are two different trains of thought or perspectives to keep up with, not just one. It can be difficult for us to focus equally on two other folks instead of one; we can, if we’re not careful, end up being the aforementioned “third wheel” as the other two end up chatting merrily away. Three is work.
Even with God we can sometimes face the unwitting temptation to “dualize” God, particularly we in more mainline denominations. We can’t really ignore God the Creator, the one we most often simply call “God.” And the life, and teaching, and death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ makes up the core of our faith, and indeed the very one who is our way, truth, and life. Given the prominence of those two “persons” in our theology, the third “person” of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, can fall into a kind of neglect or forgetting (particularly when we haven’t just observed Pentecost a week ago), despite the theological reality that it is the Spirit who most represents God with us in our now, in our everyday living and acting.
Even the historic confessions of the church can sometimes seem to fall into this trap. Look in your bulletin at the Apostles’ Creed, the Affirmation of Faith we will speak together in just a few moments. “I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth…” is the very first thing we say, and it’s hard to say much more than that. There follows a very substantial evocation of Jesus Christ, all the way from being “conceived by the Holy Ghost” to his being “seated at the right hand of the Father, from whence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
And then…”I believe in the Holy Ghost…” and without any description or explanation we’re immediately off to the church. Not much of a way to speak of the third person of the Trinity. They didn’t cover this in church history or worship classes, but I can’t help but wonder if this is why we observe that day, and do so the week after Pentecost to boot; to shake us out of our tendency to “dualize” God and forget the full triune communion through which God relates to us and through which God abides with us.
It can seem a little messy at times, it can be unwieldy, it can be hard for us to comprehend, and it certainly isn’t easy to understand. But this is how God interacts with humanity across time. One can even argue that the Bible reflects this in its unfolding of God’s action in humanity; the Old Testament, the Pentateuch in particular, reflecting God the Creator, God’s choosing and delivering of a people; the Gospels unfolding the intervention of God’s Son in the world; and God the Holy Spirit unleashed in the world in the Book of Acts and thereafter.
God relates to us as community; God relates to us in a way that challenges and illuminates how we relate to each other. We may not be very successful in explaining the Trinity, but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn something from it.
For the God who is Three in One, One in Three, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (PH ’90): “Holy, Holy, Holy” (138); “God Is One, Unique and Holy” (135); “We All Believe In One True God” (137); “Come, Thou Almighty King” (139)

[1] I am indebted to Karoline Lewis, “Dear Working Preacher: The Necessity of Three,” Working Preacher 24 May 2015 (; accessed 30 May 2015.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Sermon: Purposeful Chaos

Grace Presbyterian Church
May 24, 2015, Pentecost B
Ezekiel 37:1-14; Acts 2:1-21; John 16:4b-15

Purposeful Chaos

It’s a scene out of a Hollywood special-effects dream.
A great rushing wind blowing through the room. “Tongues of fire.” A glut of languages – a sound of chaos. Really, the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark has nothing on this, does it?
The Pentecost story is a strange one, in that on one hand its regular return in our liturgy almost guarantees that it suffers from the extreme familiarity that comes with such repetition, the kind that can cause us to tune out unconsciously; on the other hand, it’s rather a strange story, and one that has gained some uncomfortable associations for us mainline types, and therefore we tend to shy away from it. In short, it is both extremely familiar and extremely unfamiliar at the same time.
Perhaps we can break through both of those roadblocks by breaking the story down a bit, and maybe clear away some of the misconceptions and misunderstandings that have accrued around Pentecost, starting perhaps with those two vivid images from the first four verses; wind and fire.
First of all, these are not literal statements. What came from heaven was “a sound like the rush of a violent wind,” and “divided tongues, as of fire.” In other words, these are examples of that favorite literary device, the simile.
But similes matter. When a biblical author like Luke invokes things like wind or fire, even in this comparison fashion, it is no accident. These images evoke a long history of God’s interaction with the people of Israel.
Think, for example, of the burning bush that set Moses on his path to the Exodus; engulfed in fire, yet not consumed, from which God’s command went out to Moses. Think of the pillar of fire proceeding by night before the people of Israel during that Exodus. Think of the fire that consumed Elijah’s soaked altar, as well as all the altars of the Ba’al prophets in that contest on Mount Carmel.
Think of the strong wind that drove back the Red Sea, so that the people of Israel might cross ahead of the Egyptian army. Think of the whirlwind out of which God spoke to Job. Think of the very breath breathed into man at creation.
And think of those dry bones.
The Hebrew word ru’ah has a complex of meanings; it can refer to breath, to the wind, or to spirit. When Ezekiel is commanded to prophesy to the winds, to the breath, to breathe life into the lifeless, this whole complex is evoked. Similarly the Greek word pneuma carries both “breath” and “spirit” in its complex of meanings. We see this kind of association played up in hymns like the old gospel hymn “Holy Spirit, breathe on me.”
So is the Spirit a wind, or a fire? No, but something about wind or fire gives us a picture, an idea of how the Spirit is, or how it moves or acts. It’s a useful simile or metaphor, but we should do our best to avoid getting too caught up in the metaphor and confusing it with fact or literal description. In fact, we should probably just steer clear of anything that goads us into thinking we’ve got it down, that we have any kind of firm grasp on the nature and substance of anything about God, Holy Spirit included.
Ezekiel’s vision points us toward another misconception that can be cleared up; this story should not be construed as the first-ever appearance of the Holy Spirit in the history of God in humanity. It isn’t “new”; it has been, from the beginning, with God, as also is true of God the Son. What happens here is not a debut, but closer to an unleashing. The Holy Spirit is loose, not bound by any physical form or invocation. Nor, for that matter, is it bound by the rules and regulations of the Temple, or the Torah, or by any decree or proclamation of the nascent church itself.  The Spirit doesn’t follow your script; if anything it’s much more likely to rewrite it.
Something else we might want to think about is what happens in verse 13. The Spirit has driven the disciples out to proclaim, in these languages heretofore unknown to them, but that just happen to be the languages spoken by the crowds who are in Jerusalem for this particular festival (more on that in a moment). These crowds are portrayed by Luke as being from some of the most remote regions known to the people of Jerusalem and basically every direction one could go from Jerusalem – our curious metaphor about “the four corners of the earth” is the effect of the varied regions Luke describes. While they are puzzling over the fact that these people – who didn’t exactly look like linguistic scholars to anybody – were somehow speaking to them, each hearing exactly their own language (and not in the broken fashion of a non-native speaker either), the naysayers make their presence known. While people are wondering just what’s going on, the catcalls begin. “They are filled with new wine.” Go home, apostles, you’re drunk.
Now this just doesn’t make sense. Personally I’m not a wine-drinker, but I’ve never observed anyone for whom drinking wine was a means of speaking a language new to them. I’ve seen plenty of people who had trouble speaking their own language after a few glasses, but not the opposite. But I’m pretty sure that wasn’t really the point. In the face of something inexplicable, beyond any kind of miraculous that any of the crowd had seen before, there were those who resorted to belittling, meanness, and spite.
It is not the work of the Holy Spirit to make you more popular. It is not the work of the Holy Spirit to make you respectable, or socially esteemed. It is not the Holy Spirit’s task to make your life easier. To the degree that your life is shaped and moved and motivated by the working of the Holy Spirit within you, there’s a real strong chance your life will be characterized by others deriding you, ridiculing you, belittling you, and even calling you a “heathen” or something similar. And there’s even a real good chance those people belittling or deriding you will be the “good church people.” Go home, followers of Christ, you’re drunk. In the end, these disciples would find their lives being required of them, once they were moved by the work of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit wasn’t there to make their lives easier, not by a long shot.
So, what is the Holy Spirit about? What is it up to?
There are huge crowds in Jerusalem, from all the compass points of the earth. Many if not most of them are Jews, living abroad – expatriates, if you will, returned for the Festival of Weeks, an event on the Jewish calendar timed to occur fifty days after Passover – hence, Greek-speakers called the festival “Pentecost.” (Today the equivalent Jewish feast is called “Shauvot.”)
These crowds would have most likely known nothing of the events that had formed this local group of Christ-followers – the Crucifixion and the Resurrection, not to mention the ascended Christ. Their reason for being in Jerusalem was about Shauvot, marking the event of the reading of the Torah to the people of Israel. Jesus? Who was he, and why would they care?
The Holy Spirit moved among the Christ-followers, placing languages on their lips and on their tongues specifically to reach out to these souls, to proclaim to these people from all over the earth – children of God, all of them – the good news, the gospel of Jesus Christ. And this means that all of these people are welcome, male or female, slave or free, young or old, to be drenched in the Spirit in ways unimaginable before.
The Spirit is no longer the property of prophets or kings, scribes or priests or elders. The unleashed Spirit will work through anyone to proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God come near. Because this band of Christ-followers waited in prayer, they were ready to be messengers of Christ, even in languages they had never known before.
This was no random, chaotic event. The Holy Spirit at Pentecost was at work to proclaim gospel to the nations. Not only the miracle of the Christ-followers speaking languages they didn’t know, but the miracle of all those in the crowd hearing the message, each one in his or her own tongue, was all about spreading the Word. Here was a step on the way to fulfilling the promise that Jesus had made back in 1:8, about being witnesses “in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
In the days to come the disciples would be pulling their resources together, supporting one another and lifting one another up. Peter and John would be confronted by the sight of the paralyzed man in the Temple, and responding to the moving of the Spirit, would heal that man and thus be brought to take a stand before the Temple authorities. Before long the followers of Christ would begin to scatter throughout the region, and the Word would be truly proclaimed “in all Judea and Samaria,” and the Word would find the Spirit moving hearts to hear and receive it, hearts not only of Jews but also of Gentiles eventually. For the moment it may have sounded like chaos, but the Holy Spirit was working for a purpose, and will always be working towards that purpose.
For the purposeful chaos of the Holy Spirit, Thanks be to God. Amen. 

Hymns (PH '90): 
"Let Every Christian Pray" (130), "Come, Holy Spirit, Heavenly Dove" (126), "Spirit of the Living God" (322), "Every Time I Feel the Spirit" (315) 

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Sermon: The Minutes From the Church's First-Ever Business Meeting

Grace Presbyterian Church
May 17, 2015, Easter 7B
Acts 1:15-17, 20-26

The Minutes of the Church’s First-Ever Business Meeting

One of my favorite writers of any sort is the science-fiction and fantasy author Ray Bradbury. The author of such renowned works as Fahrenheit 451 (my personal favorite), The Martian Chronicles, and Dandelion Wine had, to me, a knack for finding just the right words to express the particular moment of the story, no matter how expansive or how pithy.  One of the prime examples of this knack is found in Chapter 31 of another of his most popular novels, Something Wicked This Way Comes. Because it is so precisely worded and so particular to its moment in the story, I feel that I must quote the chapter in full:
"Nothing much else happened, all the rest of that night."
Yes, that’s the whole chapter.
In today’s reading from the Book of Acts, the remaining disciples find themselves in Chapter 31. You may remember from last week that the disciples were instructed by Jesus, just before he ascended and was taken up to the presence of God the Father, that they would soon be “baptized with the Holy Spirit,” but that in the meantime they were to go back into Jerusalem and wait. It’s been a few days now since that ascension and that promise, and…the disciples are still waiting. And nothing much else is happening, all the rest of that day or night.
When we last left the disciples they were being chided by the two men in white for staring up into the sky, which seems unfair to us; a person being lifted up and disappearing into the clouds seems stare-worthy to me, at least. The intervening scriptures tell us that the disciples then returned to Jerusalem, to the upper room where they had been staying (possibly the same upper room where Jesus had had his last supper with them? Possibly). We learn that their days were occupied with prayer, along with “certain women” and also members of Jesus’s family, who haven’t been part of the story for a while now. We also get a roll call of the disciples, all eleven of them.
Ah, there’s the rub. Eleven. It was the elephant in the room; their number was reduced by one, and the one was about as painful a subject as possible. The traitor. The one who went beyond denying Jesus (like Peter) or running away at the first sign of danger (like the rest of the disciples). The one who collaborated with the ones who wanted Jesus out of the way. Judas Iscariot. One has to feel sorry for the “other Judas,” the disciple listed with the others in verse 13.
Luke had, in an act of blatant foreshadowing, identified Judas Iscariot as the one “who became a traitor” all the way back in the gospel of Luke; now the author slips in a rather gruesome account of Judas Iscariot’s demise, as if to reinforce that the betrayer’s absence was permanent. There would be no chance either for any kind of reconciliation or for holding Judas to account. He was gone, and his crimes would live on well after his death, even to this day. The name “Judas” still works as a shorthand for a betrayer or traitor.
Besides Judas’s act of betrayal, though, there is another factor nagging at the disciples, though. “The Twelve” aren’t twelve anymore. The original disciples, reminiscent of the ancient twelve tribes of Israel, are no longer whole. Eleven just doesn’t have the same impact or historical heft. Already feeling a bit cut off with Jesus departed, the disciples seem to be cognizant of their incompleteness and perhaps of their seeming loss of connection to their heritage.
At least this seems to be part of what motivates Peter when he begins to address the gathering of Jesus’s followers in verse 15.  It’s as if he can’t go any longer with this specter of the traitor hanging over the group. Not surprisingly, he turns to the scripture to back up his idea; verse 20 mostly consists of two different citations from the Psalms. As Peter quotes them, Psalm 69, verse 25 and Psalm 109, verse 8 respectively, they sound quite respectable and important and certainly appropriate to the situation; when read in their context, as parts of Psalm 69 and Psalm 109, however, their citation by Peter here seems to be a stretch at best. Psalm 109:8 seems to be particularly inappropriate, as the psalmist is decrying the actions of his enemies against him, accusing them of seeking to bring a false accusation against him and to have another take his position. Still, Peter is moving on, and armed with these conveniently picked verses he moves forward with his agenda item; choosing a new apostle to replace the traitor Judas.
Aside from his psalm verses Peter doesn’t really get into why he is so eager to get a replacement in place, aside from the idea that someone “must become a witness with us to his resurrection” as expressed in verse 22. It’s possible that he’s really hung up on the idea that the twelve apostles should somehow mirror or replicate those twelve tribes of Israel as recorded in the Torah. Maybe he’s just determined to get over Judas Iscariot’s betrayal and move on somehow. Maybe it’s just his well-established and often-demonstrated impulsive personality that can’t sit still.
For whatever reason Peter makes his proposal and the group, numbering around 120 in all, goes along. Two names are proposed, or at least two individuals – one of them, “Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus” was a three-named monster – and one was chosen by casting lots. This no doubt sounds bizarre to us, and is not a recommended course of action for nominating committees, so don’t get any ideas. It did, though, have a fairly extensive place in Hebrew tradition as a way of removing the human element and leaving a choice entirely up to God. The lot fell on the man with a simpler name, Matthias, and he was from then on numbered with the apostles.
If Matthias is of particular interest to you, you’re out of luck; he is never mentioned again in the Bible. But he is hardly alone; most of the other, “original” apostles don’t show up again either. Peter and John make appearances in the early chapters of Acts, some of which have been heard in sermons in recent weeks. Peter in fact manages to maintain some visibility throughout much of Acts.
On the other hand, the apostle James is only named one more time, in Acts 12, when he becomes the first of the apostles to be martyred. A man named Philip appears preaching in Samaria and then witnessing to the Ethiopian treasurer in Acts 8, but it is not Philip the apostle but Philip the deacon, one of the seven appointed in Acts 6. Otherwise, none of the apostles names in verse 12 appear again in the history of the church recorded in Acts.
This is not to say that they are somehow “failures” by any means. But it is to point out that the church – such as it was at this point – was not going to stay under the control or leadership of this particular group of twelve. It was going to grow, and expand, and branch out in ways that could not be managed or controlled by this structure that they had known for so many years.
Instead, the figures who become increasingly important as the book of Acts unfolds are people like Stephen, one of the seven deacons appointed in chapter six and a very early martyr for the faith; the aforementioned Philip, possibly also one of the seven; and of course Paul, the unlikely persecutor-turned-apostle. Then individuals like Paul’s missionary partners, first Barnabas and then Silas; James, the brother of Jesus, who eventually becomes the head of the church at Jerusalem; and “foreign-born” missionary partners like Timothy, the wife-and-husband preaching team Priscilla and Aquila, and individual figures like Lydia, the “God-worshiper” who housed the missionaries Paul and Silas in Thyatira.
The point is not to denigrate the “original twelve.” The point is, however, that no matter how much they had devoted themselves to prayer, they hadn’t necessarily caught on to the kind of transformation that was coming to them. While they were busy preserving or recreating the structure in which they had worked and lived for their years in Christ, the Holy Spirit was getting ready to blow through that structure and break down the barriers the little group of believers had unwittingly built up around themselves. They had yet to truly grasp the truth of Jesus’s words in verse eight, about being witnesses “in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
The book of Acts illustrates this progress remarkably well. The group of believers in Jerusalem remains the focus through the first seven chapters of the book, before the believers begin to be scattered in a wave of persecution after Stephen’s death. Even though the disciples (we’re starting to call them “apostles” now) remained in Jerusalem for the time, the Holy Spirit didn’t remain confined to Jerusalem. As Philip the deacon (not the apostle) found himself in Samaria he began to witness to the resurrected Christ, and they began to believe and be baptized. Peter and John were sent out from Jerusalem to check out the story, but returned to Jerusalem after. In the meantime Philip the deacon was sent out by the Lord to witness to that Ethiopian treasurer, sending the faith even further along to an even more distant people.
In the meantime the newly-converted Paul stirs up trouble with his preaching, and Peter learns a hard lesson about God’s wide-open arms in his encounter with the centurion Cornelius and his family, having to process the fact that even (shudder!) Gentiles are receiving salvation, something with which the church at Jerusalem never fully makes peace. While Paul and Barnabas are sent out by the Holy Spirit to “the ends of the earth,” the church at Jerusalem, to the very end of the book, still remains deeply uncomfortable the idea that Gentiles can go straight to faith in Christ without becoming “Judaized” by undergoing circumcision or some other similar rite. And it’s hard to imagine what the Jerusalem church, which after all had gone along with Peter’s decree that only a man could fill the role of Apostle #12, would have made of such preachers and leaders as Priscilla and Lydia.
In short, the little group of believers really didn’t know what was coming. They would be faithful, to be sure, as we may recall from the experiences of Peter and John in the Temple. But the Church just wasn’t going to continue to be what they had known. The Holy Spirit wasn’t going to be contained in the ways they had known. That Jesus had ascended and gone to the right hand of God the Father did not mean “the restoration of the kingdom to Israel,” as they asked in verse six, nor did it mean the life that they had known with Jesus in person was going to be restored or restarted.
Yes, this might well be a cautionary warning to us here in this place; if we are truly seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit for the future of this church we had better be prepared for the possibility that it might be something we currently can’t imagine. But it’s also a warning to each of us in much the same way. If you had told me eight years ago, when I was accepting a job offer at the University of Kansas, that I would end up back in Florida as pastor of a church in Hogto--, er Gainesville, I’d have laughed at you so hard.
And yet as a church this is all we can do. We cannot recreate what was before. We cannot grow this church, in numbers or in faithfulness or in spiritual maturity, only by replicating ourselves. We can keep doing what we do, and simple demographics state we will be gone in ten or twenty or fifty years – whether we speak of this church by itself, or our denomination, or the church more broadly.
But if we truly submit to the guidance of the Holy Spirit, there is the threat of change. It might not look familiar to us. It might involve people we don’t like or don’t trust. It’s scary. And yet, if we truly want to be the people of God, the body of Christ, we really have no choice.
Pentecost is coming. The Holy Spirit will come in like a rushing wind. Are we ready?

Hymns (PH ’90): “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” (260), “The One Is Blest” (158), “Arise, Your Light Is Come” (411)

Monday, May 11, 2015

Sermon: Ascension

Grace Presbyterian Church
May 10, 2015, Ascension B
Acts 1:1-11; Luke 24: 44-53


It’s right there, in the Apostles’ Creed, the one we use most Sundays for the Affirmation of Faith. The same line is also found in the Nicene Creed, the one the church typically uses when the Lord’s Supper is celebrated. It’s a pretty basic statement, made without much elaboration or development. It goes like this:
He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father…
That event is the subject for today. Actually, if you want to be precise about it, it is the subject for Thursday, which (ten days before Pentecost, or forty days after Easter) is marked as the day for observance of the Ascension of the Lord. As most Protestant churches have no service planned for Thursday proper, some of them will observe the Ascension next Sunday, while many will let it pass unobserved. As New Testament scholar Brian Peterson observes, “we really don’t like goodbyes, and we don’t quite know how to celebrate this one.” Forgive me for jumping the gun and observing the event a week early.
For an event that shows up in creedal statements and gets its own separate day on the liturgical calendar, it’s curious that only one biblical author actually describes the event itself. As we discovered on Easter Sunday, the gospel of Mark offers no accounts of Jesus’s post-resurrection appearances at all, and while the gospels of Matthew and John both cover at least some of Jesus’s time on earth after the resurrection, somehow neither of those authors saw fit to describe the event in which Jesus departed from earth to be with God the Father.
On the other hand, the one author who did cover the event apparently felt that it was so important that he actually recorded it twice. Both at the end of the gospel of Luke and the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles, this author includes an account of the ascension. It’s not completely unlike an author writing a sequel to a novel in which he or she finds a way to recapitulate events from the first book, or a television show picking up where its last episode left off with a few scenes from that episode with the foreboding introduction, “Last time, on…”. Of course we’ve just heard both accounts.
It seems that in Luke’s second account of the ascension, found in Acts 1, the author felt the need to fill in a few more details than had found their way into the first. For example, in Luke 24, the author makes no mention of the forty days Jesus spent appearing with and among the disciples that are mentioned in Acts 1:3. There is a bit more dialogue between Jesus and the disciples as well, and Jesus leaves the disciples with a much more direct and clear commission in verse 8, not unlike the “Great Commission” found in the last two verses of the gospel of Matthew. Perhaps most notable is the appearance, after Jesus has ascended and been caught up in a cloud, is the appearance of two men, dressed in white robes, chastising the disciples for staring up into the sky and leaving them with a promise that Jesus would return in they way they had just seen them leave.
As our reading from Acts describes the event, there are important things happening here that we could wish our co-religionists would heed. While the disciples were promised that they would be “baptized with the Holy Spirit,” they were also told that they had to wait for it. Their commission wasn’t to charge off into action immediately; they were to stay in Jerusalem and “wait there for the promise of the Father.” 
Waiting, to put it precisely, stinks.
It isn’t in our nature to be patient. We are conditioned, by our culture or our own personalities or by need, to charge off into action. No time to wait; we have to take action now, before it’s “too late.” Churches, maybe even churches like ours, face this temptation routinely in a time in which there is no branch of the church that is not seeing its numbers in decline. We’ve got to do something. We think we can’t wait. And the church rushes off and does something rash or even destructive.
Our time, as we are reminded in this story, is not God’s time. Even Jesus himself says, for example, that “it is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.” Aside from being a rebuke to those wannabe preachers who appear at regular intervals claiming to have deciphered the exact time and date when the “rapture” will happen or when Jesus will return, this is a rebuke to us as well, when we as the church charge off without the time for discernment or listening for the moving of the Spirit.
I get it; that’s hard to do, not just because waiting is hard, but because we probably feel like we don’t even understand what we’re listening for. If you had asked the disciples what it would be like to be “baptized by the Holy Spirit” as they stood there watching Jesus lifted away from them, I doubt any of them would have come up with the kind of event that happened a few days later, the day we call Pentecost. We don’t know what it means to listen for the Holy Spirit, and we don’t know where that will lead us. When what is safe and familiar has been pulled away from us, and we don’t know what’s next, waiting, discerning, and being patient is the hardest thing. We are, you might say, in the “in between time,” and no human being can usually exist there comfortably. Still, the church, or a church, or even our church is still called to listen, to discern, and even to wait.
There are other key points to glean from this story. It is this story of ascension, the story of God the Son going to God the Father, which ultimately changes the way we understand God. Another scholar, Mark Travnik, describes the change this way:
The ascension of Jesus into heaven alters our picture of God. We can no longer define God in a way that leaves God completely detached from human experience. The ascended Jesus, who sits at God’s right hand, reveals a God who is vulnerable and even approachable. When we turn to God in times of distress or temptation we are not addressing a deity aloof and unfamiliar with our struggles. God knows our trials intimately well and not only comforts us by identifying with our pain but also assures us that affliction will not have the final word because it is the risen and ascended Christ who intercedes for us and nothing can separate us from his love (Romans 8:34).

The presence of Jesus at the right hand of God means that God is not a distant, unfeeling God; because Jesus, who has lived among us and with us and knows our weaknesses and our sorrows, God the Father knows our weaknesses and our sorrows.
We are also reminded that even as we wait in the “in between” time, we do have a charge. Verse 8 puts it in terms that are unambiguous; we will be witness to Christ, in every reach of the earth – “in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” While the urge to do something is strong with us, it’s also true that such an expansive and formidable commission as this can stop us in our tracks a bit. We have enough trouble conceiving of being a witness to Alachua County. How can we possibly be a witness to “the ends of the earth”? Look at us. We are, by any official metric you can find, a small church. We’re not particularly rich. And for many of us, getting around ain’t what it used to be.
Obviously we don’t go it alone. We are one church, part of the church, the body of Christ. The church, the whole church, answers the commission. We are all in it together. We work as one. Even so, it’s a daunting commission. Where do we start? Where do we fit into this commission? What is our place? See, this is why patience and discernment is important. We have a role to play, as a church within the church, and our task, in this “in between” time, is to discern where God is leading us to be witnesses, to find whatever “end of the earth” is in need of the ministry we are prepared to offer.
We also need to remember from this story that the absence of Jesus from the earth physically does not equate to the absence of Jesus from human life. Because God the Son goes to God the Father, Jesus is able to send God the Holy Spirit to be with us and among us, to be our comforter, our Paraclete. All of this gets heavily Trinitarian, which is a subject we will get to explore in a few weeks, but for now let us take note that Jesus’s physical departure may be discomfiting to the disciples, but it is our preservation; it is the reason we can claim the presence of God among us. Pentecost is coming, and our God will be among us.
And this continues to be our comfort even today. Because Jesus is ascended to the right hand of God the Father, the Holy Spirit continues to be among us and minister to us even now. We continue to encounter the risen Christ in worship, in preaching, in sacraments; through ministering to the world around us; and in the fellowship and support of one another. Because Jesus has ascended to God the Father, the ministry of Jesus continues. “All that Jesus began to do and preach” – a frankly more accurate translation of verse 1 – continues because of the ministry of the Holy Spirit among us.
On this day, however, we are “in between.” We are waiting. We are listening. We are seeking to hear, to understand, to know, and to be prepared for whatever unpredictable and unknowable thing the Holy Spirit is going to do among us.

For patience and trust in the “in between,” Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (PH '90): "Christ, Whose Glory Fills the Skies" (462), "You, Living Christ, Our Eyes Behold" (156), "We All Are One In Mission" (435)

Monday, May 4, 2015

Sermon: A Table That Rejects Rejection

Grace Presbyterian Church
May 3, 2015, Easter 5B
Luke 15:1-2; 24:13-35

A Table That Rejects Rejection

“A riot is the language of the unheard.”
These words, spoken in an address by Rev. Martin Luther King in March 1968 (only a few weeks before his own assassination), have gained fresh currency and citation in the wake of numerous events in the past year, from the disturbances in Ferguson, Missouri to this past week’s events in Baltimore.
The statement gets at some truth; rioters in most cases don’t riot in expectation that anything will change; quite the opposite – riots happen precisely because those rioting are convinced that nothing will ever change. And they are convinced that nothing will ever change because they are convinced that no matter what they say, no matter how desperate their situation or how many promises are made, no one in fact is hearing their concerns, no on is interested in their troubles; no one listens.
In truth, though, I’m not quite sure that this applies to all such situations. What were the unheard cries of those who rioted in San Francisco last October, after the Giants won the World Series? Or in Lexington, Kentucky, just a few weeks ago, after the Kentucky Wildcats were eliminated in the NCAA Final Four in basketball? Oh, I forgot. We don’t call those “riots.” We call those “unruly behavior.”
For now city officials in Baltimore are looking at weeks of not only pursuing charges related to the riots or the police-custody death that served as the immediate trigger (though by no means the underlying cause) of those riots. At the same time, those same officials can no longer look away from the crushing economic inequities that generate despair and anger, hopelessness and resignation, and (when some triggering event occurs) violence. Promises made and forgotten can no longer be deferred.
We have to acknowledge, though, that “the unheard” do not always come to our attention because of events like those in Baltimore. Unless someone in congregation has harboring plans to climb Mount Everest, it’s unlikely that this congregation has spent much time, collectively or individually, thinking about the nation of Nepal before this week. At last report the death toll from last week’s earthquake in that country had reached a horrifying threshold of more than six thousand lives lost. Beyond that staggering toll, the loss to that nation is incalculable; countless homes and other structures have been destroyed, and numerous artifacts of Nepali culture – temples and artworks, for example – have been lost.
It’s probably not unfair to speak of the people of Nepal as “unheard” – though there may not necessarily be any hostility involved, Nepal is simply a long way from the everyday average concerns of most Americans, including most American Christians. And let’s be honest; if it doesn’t involve us, our immediate family, our local church, or our immediate community, we Americans are prone not to think about it, whatever it is. And so the people of Nepal go unheard until an earthquake devastates their country and their lives.
There is one other example of “going unheard,” one that indicts us perhaps most strongly. Sometimes the cries of others go unheard because we’re too busy yelling at each other.
For the past several years the Presbyterian Church (USA) has faced a number of disagreements and controversies, hard choices and decisions that have caused some churches to pack up their toys and go elsewhere. Now that the dust has settled, to some degree, the churches of this denomination are awakening to a harsh and startling reality; mission giving in the denomination has fallen so precipitously that unless more funds come in, PC(USA)’s Presbyterian Mission Agency, Office of World Mission, will be forced to call home as many as forty mission workers from the field over the next two years.[i] In this case, the cries of our own have gone unheard.
We need to face this. We as a church universal and a church particular need to own up to our own failure to listen, to open our ears to the world around us. I get it; it’s far more comfortable to settle in among our own and enjoy the fellowship of those we know. It’s comfortable, but it’s not Christlike, and that’s the challenge that is put before us today as we come to this table.
The brief reading from the fifteenth chapter of Luke speaks volumes about the Jesus we claim to follow. It comes not in Jesus’s own words, but in the words of Pharisees and scribes, religious leaders, observing Jesus’s teaching and the number of “undesirables” who flocked to hear it. You know the type…sinners. Tax collectors. Those people.  And at the sight of all those people, these righteous types (you can practically imagine them holding their noses or something like that) couldn’t restrain their shock and offense. “This fellow welcomes sinners, and eats with them.
This isn’t a new charge against Jesus; as early as chapter seven Jesus is mimicking these same religious leaders making this charge against him. In short, this is Jesus’s reputation. Among other things, Jesus is known for eating with sinners, with those people.
Backing up to the previous chapter we see that this very exchange is taking place in the context of a meal; apparently Jesus had been invited by one of the Pharisees to a meal, on a Sabbath day. On the way he had stopped to heal a man, a violation of Sabbath rules in the eyes of some. Upon arriving and observing the jockeying for position at the table, he had offered some trenchant observations on honor at the table, suggesting it was wiser to choose a seat of less honor and let your host bump you up to a more honored position. He then suggested that it was better to invite the poor and paralyzed and generally outcast to your feasts, and told a parable of a man whose invited guests bailed out on him, leading him to do exactly that. A couple of random parables later, we come to the incident in our reading. Right there in the context of the meal, Jesus is welcoming those whom the good righteous folk don’t want to be next to or associated with.
It’s a small token of a theme that gets bigger and bigger as our Bible goes on. As far back as the prophet Isaiah, we’ve been told that the Lord’s temple would be “a house of prayer for all nations.” Jesus would echo these words in the incident known as “the cleansing of the Temple,” the one where he flipped the tables and let the sacrificial animals loose. The book of Acts will continue to expand on the theme of expanding the reach of God’s table, so to speak, as first the crowds at Pentecost, the Ethiopian treasurer in Acts 8, the centurion Cornelius and his family, the Philippian jailer, and numerous other Gentiles – those people – are added to the church, sometimes to the great consternation of the original, Jewish followers of Jesus.  The limits that Jesus’s followers set up, almost reflexively, keep getting broken down, right after Jesus spent so much of his ministry “welcoming sinners, and eating with them.”
This pattern, this repeated and ongoing practice of Jesus, eventually became not only his reputation, but also the way his own disciples would recognize him at what seemed to be the darkest time they had ever known.
We are of course familiar from this story at or immediately after Easter.  Two disciples, identified as “disciples” even though not among the numbered twelve, are walking from Jerusalem to the nearby town of Emmaus on Easter evening, their world shattered.  There was that strange report from the women in their group about the tomb being empty and angels being there, but no one else saw that (the angels at least).  The stranger appears and enters into conversation between the two; they tell their story, and the stranger responds with a staggering knowledge of the scripture, arguing that the events of crucifixion they described were exactly what had to happen, which they’d have known if they weren’t so foolish and slow of heart.  With day fading, the two stop and entreat the stranger to stay and be their guest, which he does.  The stranger then, surprisingly, takes the role of host: he takes the bread for the meal, blesses it, breaks it and gives it to them.  Then – and only then – did they recognize that the stranger was none other than Jesus himself.  When he disappears, the two disciples rush back to Jerusalem to report to the others, and to describe how, as verse 35 puts it, “he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.” 
We could evoke the feeding of the five thousand, or to many other shared meals recorded in Luke’s gospel. We can also recall, and do so at each observance of the Lord’s Supper, that awful night, just a few nights before, the last night Jesus spent with the disciples. The gesture of breaking bread to share was characteristic of Jesus. What we need to remember when we come to this table is that this wasn’t some esoteric, unusual event that Jesus chose to imprint upon his followers as a memorial to him; it was something they had seen him do over and over again, time after time sharing bread with them and with all manner of other undesirable characters.  If he asked his disciples to “do this in remembrance of me,” it’s at least partly because he had done exactly this with them so many times in their years together.
But what is fascinating about this Emmaus Road story, as well as a bit depressing for preachers, is that it is this gesture, this breaking of bread, that opens the eyes of the two disciples to see Jesus for who he is.  All of that amazing expository preaching that Jesus did?  Nope.  If you felt like reading the story tongue-in-cheek, you could even say that all it did was give the disciples heartburn.  But the act of breaking bread was one so characteristic, so typical of Jesus that their fogged and shrouded eyes could no longer conceal from them their Lord. 
The message came to these two disciples, not in a barrage of words and scriptural exegesis, but in the rather simple medium of bread.  Stuff of the earth, harvested, ground into flour, mixed and kneaded and baked into the most basic staple of the disciples’ diet.  But in that medium indeed was a message that had been witnessed and lived so many times by Jesus that it was one the disciples knew by heart; a message of welcome, of hospitality, not just to the good folks but to the worst sinners society could dredge up, even sinners like us.  And this medium of bread, being broken, still shapes and forms that message even today, whenever we come to the table. 
On that Maundy Thursday Jesus paired the breaking of bread, a token of humanity’s most basic needs, with a cup of wine poured.  If bread represented the basics of life, wine no doubt served as a token of celebration.  The reading from the Gospel of John reminds us that the very first sign Jesus performed in the presence of his disciples was one of turning ordinary water into wine, a sign that became the rescue and continuation of a wedding feast, one of the most joyous celebrations that culture knew. 
Bread broken, a cup filled.  These are still signs of welcome and celebration to us today.  They still point us to a Life of welcoming and making welcome, a Life that celebrated and rejoiced even as it grieved and mourned and got angry a time or two.  They point us to a Life that was so dedicated, so insistent on bringing everyone in and ministering to all, that it poured itself out in death rather than suffer any one of us not to be guests at his table for eternity. 
Perhaps the bread and cup seem a curious choice of medium, but the message that bread and cup shape for us in this sacrament is still one we need to hear, as many times as possible.  Christ calls us to come; he welcomes us to the table; he bids us be his guest.  Let us not be blinded to the message in this humble, yet exalted medium. 
The table is made ready; Jesus our host bids us – all of us, even those people – come and eat.
For the bread and the cup, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (PH ’90): “God Is Here!” (461), “Let Us Talents and Tongues Employ” (514), “Now To Your Table Spread” (515), “Draw Us In the Spirit’s Tether” (50