Saturday, May 30, 2009
You may not fall victim to this, but I know when I read the Pentecost story, I get swept away in the supernatural elements. The winds, the flame, the astounding gift of tongues. And then to hear about the last days where there will be portents of blood, fire, and smoky mist, when the sun will be darkness and the moon turned to blood. Moon to blood - it’s hard not to get distracted by that!
With all these signs, it’s easy to miss the really amazing part of the story – a part that’s not even in the lectionary section for today - that on that very day three thousand people were baptized. Because of what they had heard – the good news in their own language.
This is the beginning of the church - the community of faith. Not just that the Holy Spirit came or that the disciples went from the room they were hiding in into the world, but that people who did not believe came to believe. It is from this moment that the church – our church – our family in Christ will continue to grow, to spread beyond the city of Jerusalem, to cross mountains and oceans and last longer than even the most powerful empires of the earth.
The church grew because along the way, followers of Christ continued to speak the Good News in new languages. And these languages aren’t just Greek or Hebrew, Spanish or English. The disciples could and did speak languages of different cultures and communities. That’s one of the reasons our four gospels sound different from one another. Not only did the writers have different perspectives, but they were writing to different communities – communities that might hear the good news in the language of Jewish prophecy fulfilled as was the case with Matthew or in the language of Greek rhetoric as was the case with John.
Empowered by the Holy Spirit, Christians have been able to reach out to people from different communities and nations and share the good news. The Holy Spirit has gifted those who would seek to share the Gospel with the ability to speak with people with different languages – languages made of words and languages made of culture.
The Holy Spirit has gifted and continues to gift the body of Christ with the languages we need to reach out and share the good news. The Holy Spirit continues to empower us to birth the family of faith in new communities and grow abundantly.
Then why are we dying?
Why does the church in our nation continue to hemorrhage members? Why does it seem people are more comfortable saying they are “spiritual” than to claim a community of faith? Oh, yes, individual churches may be growing but overall the church attendance in the United States is down just as the number of those who say they don’t believe in God is up.
There are certainly many reasons we can say why the church seems to be dying – division, moral relativism, the natural and historic growth patterns of the church that mean we shrink while new places like Africa or Latin America grow.
Or maybe there’s something else. The Holy Spirit has gifted us with the languages and ability to reach peoples of all ages, races, creeds, and contexts. And yet we don’t seem to be doing the best job of that. It’s not as though the Holy Spirit has stopped working or just isn’t around anymore. But something is different than it was on the first day of the church. And what’s different is us.
We have the gift of languages. Even if we can’t speak Swahili or Portuguese or anything like that, we can speak to people who would hear the good news in a different way than we do. Through the Holy Spirit that comes as fire and wind, we can speak as many languages as there are peoples.
But we aren’t. We aren’t speaking new languages – not loudly, not boldly. Instead of acting like we’re on fire with passion for the Gospel, we often act like the disciples before Pentecost, scared and silent, stuck up in the safety of our room, our comfort zone, with no one to worry about but ourselves.
But that’s not who we are called to be. We are called to run out of the safety and security of our walls, to speak loudly of God’s love, and to do so in ways that may be unfamiliar to us, in the hopes that the language we speak resonates with others.
When God sent the Spirit, began the church, the Holy One didn’t demand that all peoples hear the good news in the one true language of Aramaic, Greek, or Hebrew. No - the good news came to the people in their language. As children of the reformation, we can appreciate that God’s living word is one that is meant to be spoken in the language of the people - whatever that language may be.
We are called to speak new languages - not to demand that others learn ours.
The Good News is multicultural and multi-generational. So too must we be. While we - Covenant Presbyterian Church - cannot speak all the languages out there, we can learn a few more. We can learn to understand that brothers and sisters like those in our confirmation class hear and live out the Gospel in new ways and new words - though the Gospel is the same as it was in my generation or yours or yours. While we appreciate our way of worship or our way of education, our partnership with the Bedele congregation in Ethiopia reminds us that different practices and different priorities can still reflect the same faith.
I was talking with an acquaintance of mine the other night about not really being a morning person but managing to pretend reasonably well on Sunday mornings. He looked at me and said, “Yeah, what’s up with that? Why does church have to be in the morning?”
You know, I couldn’t think of a good answer.
That’s in part what I mean by speaking new languages. Maybe church doesn’t have to speak in the words of a morning service – other churches have services in the evenings, on different days. Maybe if we worshipped on Sunday evening this young adult would be more inclined to come since he didn’t have to get out of bed at an hour that in his language he would call too early. Or maybe if we learned to speak through mission instead of just hoping people will come to hear our speech in worship, or maybe if we were just bold enough to say “I love Jesus!,” without any shame, we would connect to those for whom our current language is just babble.
I don’t know. And we won’t know - we won’t know if these are the words we need to speak until we at least try some out. We won’t know if something is the language the Holy Spirit has gifted us with until we try to speak.
We have been hesitant to speak and live the Gospel in new ways in part because our old ways are really comfortable. We know what to expect and know we won’t be ridiculed for them. We know that if we go out into this world, alive and bright and burning with the power of God and the love of Christ, that when we shimmer and shine with the Holy Spirit, we’re gonna stand out. Like with the first disciples, people may look at us and think we’re crazy, foolish, or want to know what we’re on.
But we - like the disciples - need to risk appearing a bit foolish. Need to risk doing something that won’t work or stretches us past our comfort zones, knowing and trusting that the Advocate is still at work among us and within us.
We need to speak new languages so that those who do not hear the Good News in the words we speak now, will. So that they may come to know of God’s love and come to know a community of faith where they can be both nurtured and sent out into the world to share God’s grace with others.
Sunday, May 24, 2009
Text: John 17:6-19
“I’ll pray for you.”
These words are ones that – I hope – we all have heard. A comforting offer in the midst of suffering, an empathetic gesture from a loved one when you’re in dire straits, even when you know that they are spoken because they’re the only thing someone can think to say. These words are appreciated and even needed.
Of course, there are times we may have heard these words that they were not quite so appreciated. Times and ways that you know they aren’t spoken in pure love and empathy. Ever hear something like: “Oh honey, I’ll pray for you,” as though you’ve gotten yourself in situation so bad only divine intervention will get you out. That kind of prayer, most of us can do with out.
But mostly, when someone reaches out and offers to think about you in their conversations with God, that gesture touches you deep. It’s thoughtful, moving, and reminds you that you’re not alone in your struggles. You have both God and the community of brothers and sisters in Christ.
As moving as it may be to have a friend, family member, even stranger, offer prayer on your behalf, think how powerful it is that Jesus – Son of God, Savior of All, the one who has been betrayed and—when we meet him in our text this morning—is soon to be crucified by the world and abandoned by most of his followers – Jesus prays for his disciples. He prays for us.
Jesus has been with his followers since the moment he called them – he has watched over them, taught them, empowered them. On the eve of his arrest, he takes time to offer prayer on their behalf. The prayer he offers is beautiful: “protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” Protect them – God – for I have watched over them and now they are leaving my immediate care and all they have is each other. This prayer is one that I imagine many parents who have seen or will soon be seeing their children go off to college can identify with.
What the disciples will face—however—goes way beyond the tyranny of choice and temptations that can be found on college campuses. Jesus’ followers – the ones he called in person and the ones he continues to personally call – will be faced with a world that hates them.
Not strongly dislikes or doesn’t really enjoy being around – hates.
The world Christ talks about is not a specific people or even all those people who do not know Christ. The world—this cosmos—is the powers and principalities, that interlocking web of laws, nations, cultures, values that we human beings contribute to yet which is beyond any one humans control or influence. This world is one full of those isms (racism and sexism), one that supports the theory of survival of the fittest, and one that hates those who follow Christ just as it hated him. Why? Because those who follow Christ do not follow the ways of the world – they don’t – we don’t – belong to the world. Which means that this world does not have the final word for us nor hold our ultimate allegiance.
And that makes Christ’s followers dangerous. And worthy of hate.
Hate… you know, love is so much nicer to talk about. Jesus loves the little children, God is love, love is all you need. While we are called to love – love God and love one another – it doesn’t mean that hate shouldn’t be or won’t be part of our conversations. For though God so loved the world that God sent the only Son, the world hated him and hates those who follow him.
Being hated is probably not something many of us are all that comfortable with. It’s much nicer to be loved, adored, respected. The parting gift at beauty pageants is Miss Congeniality, not Miss Contentious, after all.
I—for one—don’t want to be hated. I don’t want to know that because of my religion I may be mocked, derided, even despised. I don’t want to think that I may be called to follow in the footsteps of those who fled to these shores in search of freedom from religious persecution. I don’t want to believe that by believing in and working toward the kingdom of God, the kingdoms of this world will hate me or any of my brothers and sisters.
But being a follower of Christ means we are to love and know that we will be hated for that love. The world’s hate is not by itself a marker of whether or not we are following Christ fully – hardly. Hate unfortunately comes in too many packages for that. But it can be a telling sign of just how faithful we follow.
Looking at our history, those who followed Christ – who didn’t buy what the world said – who rejected the idea that the status quo was just fine – who spoke out for those who have been oppressed by the systems of dominance – have been met with the hatred of the world – and sometimes lost their lives to it. Martin Luther King, Jr, Oscar Romero, Dorothy Kazel and her fellow Ursuline sisters are just some of the names that stand out from the last 50 years.
Christ knows this is what will happen to those who follow him – knows when his disciples challenge the idea that certain people deserve to live in poverty or that violence is the only way to peace, that they will know derision and even death.
Knowing this, Christ—on the night before he himself is crucified for daring to speak against the world’s ways—offers prayers for those who follow him. He prays for many things but one thing he doesn’t pray for is that Christ’s followers would be sheltered from the world. No, indeed, those who follow Christ are called to be in the world.
It would be so much nicer if we could just stay out of the way. Do our thing and let the world revolve without any word of objection from us. Maybe build some walls to keep the world’s ways out and us safe. It may be easier, but if we follow Christ, it’s not an option.
We are sent into this world in Jesus’ name to live and love as he did – regardless of the consequences. Those who follow Christ are vulnerable in this world. We risk everything—yes, even our very lives—for the kingdom. But we are with God, are God’s, and that should bring us comfort and strength. In this season of Easter we should especially be aware that in Christ, through the power of the resurrection, that which seems the end isn’t. So when we risk our very lives, our standing, our popularity for the sake of the gospel – even that which seems the end (failure, hate, death) isn’t.
Christ prays for our unity with God and with one another because he knows—and has lived—the hard path his followers will travel. He knows that without a doubt, those who follow Christ will be hated.
So the question I have this morning is this: are we?
Are we hated? Do the systems of dominance and oppression of this world look at the church and tremble? Do they look at our church—our individual congregations, our Presbyterian community, the church universal—and see one challenge to the worldly reign after another? Do they see our worship, our outreach, our education as a threat to the forces that keep some people down while holding a select few up, that encourage blind eyes and deaf ears, that prop up idols of wealth, status, and power.
Or does the world that hates the followers of Christ, those who preserve the truth, look at us and see nothing to worry about? Nothing to hate?
This question won’t be answered by me this morning. I dare say it can’t be answered from any pulpit alone. Rather, we will find the answers (or at the very least more good questions) when we gather together around the word Christ has given us, in conversation, in action, in prayer.
As we gather together, we may dare to ask one another whether or not we’re too comfortable, whether or not we are taking risks, are putting ourselves out there for the sake of the Gospel. If yes, then we may find comfort in Christ’s prayer for us. If no, then perhaps we will find a challenge as well as compassion.
Christ is no longer in this world. But we are. And it is through us that God will be glorified, through us that the world will know of Christ’s love – even if this world hates us…. Amen.
Saturday, May 09, 2009
Texts: 1 John 4:7-21; John 15:1-4
There’s good news for the economy – an upswing in spending has taken place this past week. And we can thank mothers for that. The National Retail Federation estimates that we Americans will spend an average of $124 this Mother's Day. In looking for ways to show Mom our love, nearly 67 percent of us will go the tried and true route – flowers – and thus pump the floral industry with about $2 billion dollars. Others of us will buy jewelry, gift cards, chocolate, and spa packages (these gifts, incidentally, work well for Pastors’ Appreciation day too). 50% of us will take Mom out to lunch and most of us are sending cards – all adding up to about $14 billion dollars spent to tell Mom we love her.
Not to get on the bad side of all the moms who enjoy the flowers and the chocolates, but it seems to me that there might better ways to show Mom we love her than spending money on stuff.
The Mother of Mother’s Day had similar thoughts. Inspired by her own mother, Anna Jarvis spent almost a decade campaigning to get a day set aside to honor moms. Staunton’s own Woodrow Wilson made it official in 1914. We celebrate Mother’s Day on the second Sunday of the month because it coincides with the anniversary of Anna’s mother’s death. She wanted a holy day – not a holiday – set aside to honor the dedication and sacrifice of each individual mother with – at best – a single white carnation and a handwritten letter given as tokens of affection.
Over the years, white carnation have some how transformed into white diamond pendants the commercials tell us will really let Mom know we care. It broke Anna’s heart – among other things – when Mother’s Day began to be the commercial holiday we know today. She wanted this day to be about love, not profit. And as far as all those Hallmark cards go, they are – according to her – “a poor excuse for the letter you are too lazy to write.”
As a daughter who is hoping a phone call to her mom will be enough this year, those words of Anna’s strike a chord. Quite frankly, I don’t know of many moms who would rather have a box of chocolates over something heartfelt and time-consuming—like a hand-written letter, or your amateur painting, or (one of my mom’s favorites) a list of chores she does around the house that you’re taking over for awhile.
Those thoughtful things often get left behind on the “good idea” shelf while we take the easier option. Enter the diamond pendants and $2 billion spent on flowers. Showing someone you love them – whether that someone is your mother, father, sibling, partner, friend – can be a challenge. Especially when we’ve been taught that showing someone you love them means getting that perfect gift – that perfect thing. We’ve been taught this and many of us have come to believe it to be true, even though I doubt many of us would be able to say “I knew my husband loved me when he bought me a new car,” or “I knew my friend really cared when she bought me an iPod case.”
We can say “I love you, I love you, I love you,” but our actions need to match our words—after all, they speak louder. And that’s not as simple as treating Mom to dinner once a year. Showing those we love that we love them takes time, energy, and effort. The hand-written letter versus the greeting card. Love isn’t easy.
When it comes to the one who is Mother and Father to us all – it certainly doesn’t get any easier. Oh, some things are easier. We don’t have to wonder if sending God a card or a flower is a good enough way to show our love. Taking God out to dinner isn’t an option neither is that diamond pendant. We don’t have to guess about the ways in which God knows that we really care.
Our epistle lesson this morning tells us plainly, “those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or a sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.”
How do we show God our love? By loving one another. Not just a passive love – but an active one. Right before his crucifixion, Jesus tells us that those who show kindness to the least among us, offering food, water, shelter, clothes, compassion, are the ones who show our love to him. Right before his ascension, Jesus reinforces our ways of expressing love to God for when he asks Peter if he loves him, and the Rock replies “you know I do,” what does Jesus say back? “Then feed and tend my sheep.”
We show God’s love to the world – and our love to God – when we love one another.
No worries about the perfect present, no doubts about if God will understand what we’re trying to say when we mow the lawn or do the dishes without being asked – we know how to express our love. But just because we know how doesn’t mean it’s easy to do. It would be so much simpler to be able to love God by coming to church every Sunday, putting money in the offering plate, and leave it at that. While worshipping God and stewardship of resources are certainly part of loving God – they aren’t the totality.
God asks us to love the unlovable. I’m talking about those mean, nasty people that make you cry, make you angry, make you so frustrated. God asks us to take care of those who are in need – even if we may wonder just how they got themselves in such dire circumstances in the first place. God asks us to share the good news of the gospel in word and deed with all – not just our children here in the safety of our church walls - but all God’s children, just outside these walls and far beyond.
We do not do these things in order to earn God’s love – that would be impossible. For the only way we can love is because God first loved us. No, we do these things in response to God’s love – to show God our own love back.
It would be some much easier just to send God a greeting card. I don’t have to tell you how tough it is to love people you just don’t give you any reason to love them – in fact, give you every worldly reason to not. Nor how against the grain it can feel to go out of your way to help someone you’re not quite sure deserves to be helped. Nor how uncomfortable it can be to tell people about the love of God when you’re pretty sure they don’t want to hear it.
Yep, a greeting card or one of those edible fruit bouquets would be so much easier.
But love isn’t easy. Not even when it comes to the One who is love.
It’s not easy, but it’s not impossible.
“If we love one another, God lives in us, and God’s love is perfected in us.”
Our epistle lesson reminds us that when do all of these things – love our enemies, take care of the poor, proclaim the good news and so much more – we do so with the aid of the One who loves us first. When we love, it is God’s love we are sharing and showing. When we love one another, we know God and are empowered by God to love back.
“God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God and God abides in them.”
Abide – not just stopping by for a cup of tea. But staying, dwelling, sinking in deep. When we let love dwell in us, God is there. God is in our heartbeat, our breath, our hands and our souls. As Jesus tells his disciples – we can only bear good fruit if we abide in him as he abides in us. And we can. We can show God our love by loving one another because God is in us, empowering us, strengthening us, perfecting love within us.
Loving God – expressing that love in true and faithful ways – is not an easy task. Much more challenging than any hand-written note. But it is so worth the time, effort, and energy. God’s love is so powerful it created the world, redeemed the world through the Son, and renews the world every single day. The love that flung the stars into the heavens, brought forth the rules of physics and beauty of music, gave creatures breath and imagination, is the same love that abides in us. This love can do anything – God can do anything – and do anything through us.
When we find it hard to love as God would have us love, we can remember how much we are loved and find strength in that. Turn to the perfect love in which we cannot fear. Draw on the source of love in order to bear good fruit of peace, justice, compassion, and mercy.
Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God – and love is for God. God is love. May we abide in the One who is love and may God abide in us. Amen.
 Mother’s Day Gifts. 5/9/099. < http://www.nbc-2.com/Articles/readarticle.asp?articleid=29351&z=3>
 Anna went broke with lawsuit after lawsuit, trying to bring Mother’s Day back to her original conception. She died penniless in a Pennsylvania mental institution.