Compassion Reaches Out

(sermon 7/23/17)

reaching toward you

Luke 7:11-17

[Jesus] went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went with him. As he approached the gate of the town, a man who had died was being carried out. He was his mother’s only son, and she was a widow; and with her was a large crowd from the town. When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, “Do not weep.” Then he came forward and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, “Young man, I say to you, rise!” The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother. Fear seized all of them; and they glorified God, saying, “A great prophet has risen among us!” and “God has looked favorably on his people!” This word about him spread throughout Judea and all the surrounding country. 

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They continued along the road, Jesus and the group of people who were following him. Some of them, of course, were with him long-term; others were just tagging along to hear what he said and see what he did while he was passing through their neck of the woods, before they returned to their normal routine after Jesus moved on. The day was hot and the road was dusty and they were tired and thirsty, but it wasn’t so bad because now they could easily see their destination – the walled town called Nain, which was a solid four- or five-hour walk south of Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth, in the northern part of modern-day Israel and very close to the northern edge of that part of Palestine that we call the West Bank.

As they got closer, they could see the main gateway into the town – small and narrow so it could easily be defended, with stone-walled rooms on either side of the portal meant to house armed men who could take care of any enemy troops trying to enter the town by attacking them from both sides as they tried to get through the narrow opening just a few soldiers at a time. Usually, though, it was much more mundane than that, being just a pinch-point for people trying to get out and others trying to get into the town.

Just inside the main gate would have been a stone-walled courtyard – again, with relatively narrow access points to it could be easily defended. This was the main public gathering place in town. It was the coffee shop where people came to have offsite business meetings and cut deals. It was the magistrate’s court, where the town elders heard and settled legal disputes. It was the park, where young people hung out and laughed and watched each other and did the things young people do; and where old people hung out and read the paper and talked about the good old days and complained about the young people. It was the central gathering place for public celebrations, like weddings, and public mourning, like funerals as we heard in this gospel text was happening on this particular day.

Just as Jesus and his followers got to the main gate, this funeral procession was moving out of the courtyard and was coming through the gate. And just as we pull over or stop to let a funeral procession go by or pass through an intersection, Jesus and his followers and all the other people who were trying to get through the checkpoint and into town moved over to the side of the road to let them by.

While they waited, I imagine they had the same kind of thoughts that run through our own minds when we’re in a similar situation; a combination of respect and compassion, and if we’re being totally honest, maybe also mixed with some minor annoyance that we’re being held up as the procession goes by. And with thoughts running through our heads:  I wonder who it was that died? Did they die from old age, or were they younger; was there maybe some illness or tragic accident? What was their story? Who are they leaving behind; will they be OK? Yes, there but for the grace of God go I, and even at that, I’ll go that way all too soon. So sad. Oh well, the road’s clear now; I can get back on my way. I wonder what I should have for dinner?

But that isn’t what happened on this particular day, at least not completely. This day, as the procession came through, Jesus didn’t just stand quietly and respectfully on the sidelines. He stepped into the procession and into their grief. He learned that this was the only son of a widow, whose well-being, maybe even whose very survival, was threatened by the loss of this last male provider, beyond even the grief that any parent would feel over the loss of a child. And having compassion for her in her suffering, he reached out, raising this man from the dead, bringing life back to not just him, but to his mother too. Put simply, Jesus didn’t just passively watch this situation play out. He didn’t just continue into town after they’d gone by. He didn’t just organize clusters of people to walk around town and pray for the widow’s well-being. He stepped into this most public of tragedies as it unfolded, in the moment, and he concretely did what was in his power to bring physical and emotional and spiritual healing into the lives of these total strangers. He apparently didn’t know and didn’t care about any of the details of the man or his mother. Were they good people? Were they devout Jews? Had they lived the kind of life that people would approve of? Did they deserve this special attention? None of that seemed to be important to Jesus. Apparently, he raised the man from the dead strictly out of compassion and because they were beloved children of God.

We’re supposed to do the same kind of thing, of course – to step in and provide life and love and hope and compassion and healing into people’s lives, even the lies of total strangers – people we know as little about as the man and his mother, and to do it in the same unqualified way that Jesus did.

You think you can’t do this same kind of thing? You think you don’t have the power of life and death and healing? Jesus would disagree. He told his disciples that after he left them, that through the Holy Spirit they would do far greater things than even Jesus himself had accomplished. And by definition, that’s true – I mean, Jesus was just one man, whose earthly ministry only lasted about three years or so; while more than two billion followers have been working for good in the world in Jesus’ name for two thousand years now.

Well sure, you might say, we have the ability to do good things, and to help people, but we don’t actually have the power over life and death; that’s in the realm of miracles…. Really? Collectively, through our voices, through our actions, we have the power to shape our society. We have the ability to push our social policies in one direction or another, toward more ethical action and compassion, or in the opposite direction. When we hear on the news about official government analysis that the proposed changes to our current healthcare insurance system would result in the unnecessary, premature deaths of an additional 23-30 million people over a ten-year period because they’ll be stripped of the healthcare coverage that they currently have – friends, we do very much have the power of life and death, the power of health and healing, in our hands.

In compassion, Jesus reached out, and he calls us to do the same, in our own way, in our own time and place.

Is that hard? Yes, sometimes. Is it something to dread, or to do because we’re trying to earn God’s approval? No, we’re no more able to earn God’s approval than the dead man on that stretcher was. We need to work this way on behalf of others out of gratitude, thankful for the grace that God has filled our lives with. And we can have that kind of gratitude because of the full power and meaning of this gospel text. I know that I’ve said that it’s a good thing to try to experience a story from scripture by imagining it, experiencing it, through the eyes of different people in the story. In this case though, I don’t think we get the full power of the message of God’s compassion, or develop a true sense of gratitude, by seeing this story through the eyes of one of the people standing along the road watching it all play out. We don’t even get the fullness of this story if we see it through the eyes of the widow. We don’t get its full meaning seeing it through the eyes of the people carrying the stretcher. We get it when we see it through the eyes of the one being carried. Through the eyes of the one who Jesus reached out to, and touched, and healed, and gave new life to. Because whoever we are, I think we’re a lot like him.

Thanks be to God.

Hell Has Indeed, Apparently, Frozen Over

Eugene Peterson.  Screenshot from Youtube

Eugene Peterson, perhaps wistfully wishing he’d never granted that recent interview.

At least, I suspect it must have, because I find myself in the extremely rare position of agreeing with Albert Mohler.

Well, kind of.

Mohler is the current president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary here in Louisville, and a high-powered bullhorn for conservative Evangelical Christian theology. Without giving a list of particulars – it would be long – let’s just say that it would be hard to find someone whose understanding of Christianity differs more from my own.

Still, I will give Mohler credit for at least one statement that he made that I think is absolutely spot-on, even while I disagree strongly with his ultimate conclusion.

In recent days, the best-selling Evangelical author/retired pastor Eugene Peterson created a stir in religious and some broader social circles when he gave an interview to Jonathan Merritt of Religion News Service. Peterson has recently announced that he’s leaving the lecture circuit, slowing down, and taking life easy from this point on. And at 84 years old, why not? The man has clearly earned it.

Given that, and his long string of best-selling books, this interview should have been a fluff ball – a victory lap of sorts for Peterson; a nice, feel-good piece that offered no big news or controversy. What actually transpired, though, was something else entirely.

Merritt asked Peterson about his views on homosexuality in general, and same-sex marriage in particular from the context of the Christian faith, and whether his views on these issues had changed at all over time. Even though Peterson’s popularity has largely been within conservative Evangelical circles, he was actually a long-time pastor and is a member of the Presbyterian Church (USA), one of the most progressive of mainline denominations and one that, thanks be to God, has affirmed LGBTQ individuals’ place in the full life of the church – including ordained positions, and the appropriateness of church-blessed same-sex marriages.

Merritt’s question arose out of comments that Peterson had made in recent years that he’d changed his mind and had become affirming of LGBTQ people – including in this appearance at Western Seminary in 2014.

To be honest, I thought Peterson’s answers to Merrit’s questions in the interview were a bit lukewarm in their support. His comments were couched in phrases like “I didn’t have much experience with that,” or referring to a lesbian couple in his congregation that “didn’t make a big deal out if it,” and so on. I could almost imagine him saying that he could accept LGBTQ parishioners as long as they “didn’t shove it down my throat;” that great cliche that seems to mean “It’s OK if you’re gay; just don’t do anything that might publicly show that you are. Don’t say or do anything, either as an individual or as a couple, that straight people do with regard to their lives and relationships without any problem. Don’t talk about your significant other, don’t hold their hand, and certainly don’t kiss them where anyone else could see you.” That was the sort of tepid support I heard in most of Peterson’s answers. Still, they were several steps ahead of the typical conservative Evangelical party line. And he did, simply but clearly, say that he’d officiate a same-sex wedding if asked.

Of course, to have someone as influential as Peterson come out (sorry) and say these things was big news for conservative and progressive Christians alike, for obvious and opposing reasons.

Within 24 hours, though, Peterson felt forced to release a clarification and retraction of what he’d said in the interview. People across the full spectrum of American Christianity were confused by this bizarre flip-flop, what had led to it, and whether it was a good or bad development. Had an 84-year old man simply gotten confused in the moment and said some things that he didn’t really believe? Had conservative backlash – he was blowtorched by conservative Evangelical mouthpieces within hours –  and threats to book sales (LifeWay, the largest U.S. retailer of Christian publications, and an affiliate of the Southern Baptist Convention, threatened to stop sales of all of Peterson’s books) led to his overnight reversal?

In the wake of this bit of theological whiplash, many people have offered their thoughts about the issue. And here’s where Albert Mohler enters the picture.

As would be expected, Mohler firmly occupies the conservative, traditional, exclusivist, non-LGBTQ-affirming understanding of the Christian faith. Mohler himself would define his views as the “biblical” position. I refuse to grant him that semantic bit of theological high ground, since it incorrectly assumes that the Bible “quite clearly” calls for anti-LGBTQ theology; and that those who have reached LGBTQ-affirming understandings of the faith have done so without, or in spite of, the scriptures, a position that is categorically false.

But I digress.

In an article he wrote about the Peterson kerfuffle, Mohler criticizes Peterson for what he sees as indecisiveness – not offering clear-cut, definitive, conservative Evangelical answers to LGBTQ questions, and sticking to them. Perhaps Mohler sees Peterson’s initial answers as having been an attempt to curry public favor by adopting more socially acceptable positions; a situation of society inappropriately influencing one’s understanding of the faith. Maybe he sees it as a legitimate theological struggle within Peterson’s heart and mind. Or maybe he sees it as something else. Whatever the explanation, Mohler says that indecision is a problem, and not only for Peterson. He writes:

“First, there is nowhere to hide. Every pastor, every Christian leader, every author  — even every believer — will have to answer the question. The question cannot simply be about same-sex marriage,” he says; at its core, the real issue is having a decisive understanding of what one believes to be the will and purpose of God with regard to human sexuality and gender, based on sound scriptural interpretation.

“Second, you had better have your answer ready. Evasive, wandering, and inconclusive answers will be seen for what they are. Those who have fled for security to the house of evasion must know that the structure has crumbled. It always does.”

And on this score, he’s absolutely right.

Mohler and I would clearly disagree on what “sound scriptural interpretation” would be. In fact, I couldn’t even agree with some of his wording in the quote above; hence my partial paraphrasing. But we both agree that we need to have studied and prayed about the question of LGBTQ individuals in the life of the church, and we need to reach a solid, scripturally consistent answer to the question, and then be willing to stick with it. Of course, Mohler and I diverge radically from that point on, but on this, we agree.

This isn’t a question about which a person can be ambivalent, ambiguous, both/and. You can’t be a little bit pregnant, and you can’t be a little bit affirming (or non-affirming). Affirming theology hinges on a person’s core beliefs about God, creation, human anthropology, and the nature of the divine-human relationship. In order to work out where you are regarding LGBTQ people, you need to have first determined in your heart and mind whether homosexuality is a sin. If it is sin, is it a sin of choice, or a part of so-called “original sin” and therefore, impossible to eliminate from human existence? If it is a type of unavoidable “original sin” as a result of “the fall,” what is the proper response of God and humanity to that? Or, is homosexuality merely a normal variation within the full spectrum of what it means to be human, and therefore of having been created in God’s image? And if this is the case, is refusing to be accepting and affirming toward LGBTQ people refusing to accept and affirm the One in whose image they were created? If you believe that homosexuality is a sinful choice, is it possible to affirm same-sex marriage? How about if it is part of “original sin;” can same-sex marriage be accepted and affirmed as the best possible “option B” for people who don’t have opposite-sex marriage as an option to still have loving, committed, sacrificial unions that are blessed by God? And if you believe that homosexuality is just another variation in human creation, can you somehow not accept and affirm same-sex marriage?

There is no meaningful way that individuals or faith communities can accept these divergent theologies as equally valid options for believers. Each one inherently negates the possible validity of the others. Just as it is impossible for a person, or a faith community, to claim that it’s equally valid and acceptable to both accept and reject slavery, or segregation, or the subjugation of women, so it is also with this issue. It goes to the fundamental way that we understand God and human creation, and whichever way you believe, logically, it’s a package deal – you’re either all in, across the board, or you aren’t in at all.

There really is no middle ground with regard to affirming LGBTQ people, except as a transitional place while moving to a final position. For virtually everyone who has adopted affirming theology, myself included, the process has been a journey with several interim stages.  That’s understandable. But to be partly affirming of LGBTQ people, accepting this part of them – whether in the life of the church or society in general – but not some other part, just isn’t viable long-term theology. On this score, Mohler is absolutely correct.

He’s also correct in saying that a person needs to be ready, when asked, to give a decisive, consistent , cohesive explanation of what they believe about LGBTQ people – because if you try to voice some waffling middle-of-the-road theological stance in order to try to please everyone, it will be immediately obvious to everyone, and you will end up being rejected by those on both sides of the issue.

The price that Eugene Peterson has paid in the last week shows how fraught with risk the transitional, middle places of such a journey toward LGBTQ affirmation can be, and how important it is to  move toward the final destination as quickly as possible. Ironically, I don’t think Peterson himself is still in the process of making that journey at all – I think that in his own way, he’s already completed the journey to full affirmation, despite his written retraction. If Eugene Peterson has indeed retired from the public eye, and if this was his last interview, the final lesson he seems to have inadvertently offered the faithful is just how important it is to have the courage of  one’s convictions, and of standing up and voicing them clearly, boldly, and publicly even in the face of opposition.  It’s an important lesson for all of us. I hope we don’t have to wait for hell to freeze over again before Peterson learns it for himself.

The Compassion-Killer

(sermon 7/16/17)

piano

Mark 10:17-27

As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’” He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”

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I have a piano. It was made in Chicago in 1911. It’s five feet tall, five feet wide, 28 1/2 inches deep, and weighs about 754 pounds. It bears a lot of scars earned over the last hundred and six years, but all things considered, it looks better at 106 than I suppose I would. It didn’t cost me anything, at least not up front; the people who owned it said we could have it if we just paid to take it away. Once we got it home, I painstakingly refinished its beautiful book-matched walnut veneer, removing a fair amount of both pink and mint green paint left in crevices from two different paint jobs it endured over the course of its long life. After that, I had a piano technician install new key covers to replace the old chipped ivories; level the key bed, repair and regulate the action, and give it a good tuning; and after all that, it still wasn’t a great piano, but it wasn’t a bad one – definitely a good one for the two girls and I to take lessons on. After a while, all three of us gave up on the lessons. But after all these years, I’m still lugging this thing around with me wherever I go; it’s been through three moves in three different states now. I almost got rid of it before I moved here, but when I said something about that around my older daughter, she said with a pained tone in her voice, “Oh, no, you can’t get rid of the piano!” So I still have it. In this most recent move, the movers ended up giving it a few new scuffs, they bent my storm door, made a hole in a wall, and broke a caster off of it – but they did finally get it into the house, ending about a year of it being in storage in two different garages. As you might guess, all that has had an effect on its feel, its touch, its playability, but then again, as I’d mentioned, there really isn’t anyone around to play it regularly anyway. So it sits there, silent for the most part, holding up the television, and gathering dust,  and taking up way too much room in my already snug living room.

I have a piano.

Well, since the piano wasn’t invented until 1700, it’s pretty safe to say that the rich young man who struck up a conversation with Jesus in today’s gospel lesson didn’t own one, but apparently, he did have a lot of other possessions. This is one of those passages that can make us squirm a bit when we hear it. Even if we don’t ordinarily think of ourselves as rich, we know in our hearts that by the world’s standards, even the least well-off among us is wealthy beyond imagination. As I mentioned in the Thursday email, there are 3.8 billion people in the world who live on about $1,300 per year. So when we hear what Jesus tells this young man, somewhere deep down, we wonder if Jesus might give us the same advice = and we worry that the answer to that question might be yes, and we aren’t comfortable with what our response to that might be.

We want to follow Jesus, and we want to help others out of gratitude for God’s grace and love that’s been showered on us. But we don’t want to give up our stuff. Seriously. We’ve worked hard for it, to be able to enjoy it. And really, Jesus doesn’t expect us all to be poor, does he? I mean sure, there are scriptural passages, from Amos, and Hosea, and Ezekiel, and a number of other places, and even Jesus’ own words here, that don’t have very favorable things to say about wealth and the wealthy; but there are also lots of other passages that say that having wealth is a sign of God’s favor; it’s a blessing. And truth be told, that’s been a common theme in a lot of our own Reformed, Calvinistic history, too. So Jesus wouldn’t really want us to get rid of all of our possessions, would he? Maybe that was just a comment specifically for this young man, not a universal commandment for all of his followers, right?

Well, I can’t speak to that part of what Jesus might have had in mind. But I do think that he’s addressing something related to wealth and money and possessions, but which goes far beyond that. I think he’s really teaching the man – and by extension, us – about the dangers of fear.

I believe that in one way or another, fear is at the root of almost all of the problems in the world. People don’t hoard money, or other possessions out of an abstract greed; they do it out of fear of an unknown and uncertain future, and that money, those things, make it possible to be insulated from that uncertainty and, theoretically at least, to be able to control it. We fear other people, especially people who aren’t like us, because we worry that they pose a risk, a threat, to what’s familiar, fixed, predictable – controllable – in our own lives. We fear real honesty in our relationships and friendships, setting up barriers and facades and projecting false images of who we really are and what we really think and feel, because honesty and openness makes us vulnerable to injury, rejection, hurt. And when we are hurt, we fear letting go of that hurt, because as much as me may even know that holding onto the hurt is harmful, at least it’s familiar to us, comfortable, predictable. We fear letting go, and trusting God.

I own a piano because my daughter seemed so upset at the thought of my getting rid of it, and I feared what that might do to her. There’s been a lot of brokenness and hurt and sadness in our family life in the past, and I thought that maybe for her, the piano, this big, stupid, hulking thing that weighs more than a boat anchor, actually does anchor her to some of the good times and happy memories. And I suppose if I’m completely honest with myself, I want it to do the same thing for me, too. So despite all the good, and the hope, and the promise that I have for the future; despite all the love and compassion that I feel from God, the piano still sits there – a constant, scratched, slightly out of tune reminder of my fear of letting go of things in my life that deep down I know I should let go of, for my own spiritual and emotional well-being.

Fear, in any of its manifestations, handicaps us. It blinds us. It ties our hands, and clouds our brains. Fear is the ultimate compassion-killer that paralyzes us by keeping our focus excessively on ourselves. It’s the compassion-killer that keeps us from doing and being so much of what we know God would want of us. It’s what causes us to build walls around us, to protect us, to insulate us, to isolate us. So in fear we build those walls, whether the bricks that we use to build them are dollars, or possessions, or opinions, or even pianos; and then we sit behind our walls, less and less able to show compassion to others.

In this passage, Jesus has compassion on the young man by addressing the particular way his fear was holding him back, keeping him from a deeper experience of God and God’s love for him. It wasn’t a particularly reassuring message for him, or for us.

For the reassuring part of the message, we have to hear all the other times that Jesus told us, and the many times that God tells us throughout the scriptures, to not be afraid. To be at peace. To have the assurance that God really does love us, and has compassion for us, and will always have our backs, through whatever is causing us fear and uncertainty. To trust God, with more and more of our lives, unlike the rich young man in the story.

So today, and throughout this coming week, let’s try to do that. Let’s ask God for the strength to let go of the fear and anxiety that surpasses all reason, and instead, to allow ourselves to accept the peace of God that surpasses all understanding. That promise of God’s unfailing compassion for us should be music to our ears; whether that music is played on a beat-up old piano, or otherwise.

Thanks be to God.

Compassion in the Stillness

(sermon 7/9/17)

white_coffee_on_the_table_2

Matthew 9:35-38

Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”

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We’ve been considering compassion these past few weeks, and in this passage from Matthew, we heard that Jesus had compassion for the people he was meeting as he went from town to town. That compassion arose in part out of his perception that they were “like sheep without a shepherd,” as Matthew’s author put it. Just reading it now, we get good general understanding of his meaning with that phrase, but in writing his gospel to an original audience who primarily grew up within Judaism, they would have known that this phrase that shows up multiple times in the Hebrew scriptures, particularly to condemn government and religious leaders who haven’t led the people wisely or well; who haven’t looked after the people’s best interests, and leaving them to fend for themselves.

A lot of times when this passage is used as a preaching text, the sermon emphasis will be on Jesus’ last line – “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few.” The sermon becomes a call to action; to evangelize more, and to do more for others in the name of the gospel because the amount of suffering in the world is so great.

There’s nothing wrong with taking the sermon in that direction; it’s a perfectly logical message to draw out of Jesus’ words. As we’ve thought about compassion, we’ve certainly emphasized the idea of being the face of Christ, and being more compassionate to others, both inside the church walls and especially beyond. But you know, after a while that can become a real burden, to be told over and over and over again that we need to do more and more for others. We know we’re supposed to be self-giving and compassionate, but there’s just so much need in the world, so much that needs to be done, and with few clear answers on exactly what should be done, and how, that in our efforts to be compassionate, it’s very easy to feel like a ship without a rudder, like sheep without a shepherd. With all the need, we can start to feel like whatever we might do adds up to less than a drop in a bucket. And after a while, we can find ourselves slipping into “compassion fatigue;” that we’re depleting ourselves as we keep trying to do more and more for others. And along with that compassion fatigue, we can start to feel resentful of the continual calls to do more, more, more – and then, when we don’t – can’t – live up to all that, feelings of guilt and shame can set in, and in the end, we don’t feel like being very compassionate at all.

Imagine being a woman with a husband and three kids and a fulltime job outside the home, and you do all the cooking and cleaning and grocery shopping and laundry and all the other housework and get dry cleaning and get the kids to soccer practice and dance class and youth group and the dog to the vet and your mother to the doctor and make dinner and clean up after dinner and then help the kids with their homework and you give of yourself all day and all night long for the good of your family – so that by the time you flop into bed at night, you’re exhausted, you’re spent, and you realize you haven’t had a moment of the day just for yourself, and you start to wonder if there’s really any “you” left at all – only to get up the next morning, get all the kids out of bed, and ready to go, and get out the door to church… only to hear the preacher – and yes, it’s usually a man – tell you for the umpteenth time that you need to stop being to selfish; you need to  think less of yourself, and that you have to give even more of yourself for others. If that’s your story, I just don’t think that’s the sermon you need to hear.

So today, I want to suggest that we hear this gospel text from a slightly different vantage point. A lot of times, when we hear a story from the Bible, we tend to picture it as if we’re watching it on a movie or television screen, watching it all unfold in the third person. But this morning, Instead of considering Jesus’ having compassion for some abstract group of other people “over there,” picture this story in the middle of the action, as one of those people. Imagine this story, seeing it through the eyes of one of those people that Jesus is helping and healing and having compassion on. I’m suggesting today that it’s important to recognize that we aren’t always the distributor of Christ’s compassion in the world, but we’re the recipient of it, too. It’s important to recognize that we’re worthy of that love and compassion.

That can be hard for us to imagine or accept sometimes. Maybe there’s something in our past, or our present – something that we did that was immoral, or even illegal. We hurt another person. We were unfaithful. We were dishonest. Whatever it was, or is, it’s something that maybe we feel guilt or shame about, and it’s keeping us from feeling that we’re worthy of Christ’s compassion.

And I have to say that some of the language that the church uses feeds into those kinds of feelings. We talk about God’s grace as being something that God extends to us strictly as a matter of God’s own choice; something that God unilaterally decides to offer to us and that we could never obtain from God by way of earning it through our own efforts. That’s very true, and it’s something we should all be grateful for. But then, we take that concept further, saying that we aren’t deserving, we aren’t worthy, of God’s compassion and love. I know that that’s standard, orthodox Christian doctrine. But honestly, I wonder if putting things that way doesn’t go a step too far. I mean, I think of the entire, overall biblical record of God’s dealing with humanity; I think about God’s entering our existence in the flesh; and I think of the crucifixion; and I can almost hear God saying “Unworthy? Unworthy? Look at what I’ve done for you – look at how I’ve walked in solidarity with you in the flesh. Look at how I suffered for you. I did these things precisely to show you that you are worthy of my love and compassion!  I call you precious, and loved, and worthy! So don’t let anyone – not the world, not even the church, not even yourself – call you unworthy after I’ve called you worthy!”

As most of you know, a couple of weeks ago a group of us marched in the Kentuckiana Pride Parade. It was a great time; a lot of fun. But it was more than just fun. We were able to represent our congregation and witness to our welcoming and inclusive nature to some 18,000 people who were at the parade. And with the exception of one or two screaming street preachers with bullhorns, we received a very favorable response from the crowd, and several of us were able to have good conversations about our faith and our church along the way. At the end of the parade, while we were just standing round chit-chatting, a young woman was standing on the sidewalk, and she said to one of us, “Wow, that’s really cool, that a church would march in the Pride Parade and show support for us.” And our member said “Yes, we do.” “And you allow gay people like me in your church?” “Yes, absolutely; in our church we say all are welcome, and we really mean it. You should come check us out sometime.” “Oh, I don’t know. I mean… I loved being part of church when I was younger, before they told me I wasn’t welcome there anymore. I’d like to be part of a church again, but there are just so many things in my life, that make me feel unworthy to go.”

Doesn’t that just break your heart? Can’t you just hear God saying, “I call you worthy; don’t let anyone convince you that you aren’t!”

I want us all to do something this morning. We did this at Montreat; I’ve done it before, too, and probably some of you have also. I want you to get comfortable in your seat, and close your eyes. Sit in the silence; feel the stillness. Now take a deep breath in, and hold it…. Now breath out. Again, breathe in, and as you do, imagine that God, and all goodness and peace and love are entering into you along with your breath, then hold it… and let it out, and as you let it out, imagine all that stuff that’s a barrier between you and God, all that stuff that’s causing the feelings of unworthiness, is leaving your body. So breathe in… hold it… breathe out…. [repeats]. Now imagine yourself in someplace that’s special to you, someplace where you feel at peace, someplace that you have fond memories of…. And imagine that you’re sitting at a table, or maybe on a blanket spread out for a picnic…. And imagine sitting across from you, the most special people in your life, the people you love the most…. And now, imagine loved ones that you cared for the most who have passed away; you’re all there together… And now imagine in the center of them, looking at you, is Jesus… Now imagine that they’re all looking deeply into your eyes, into your very heart, and they’re smiling, they’re beaming at you… and they’re all telling you, assuring you through their eyes, that you are a beloved child of God. That you are loved; that when you were created, God called you very good. That you are worthy…. Embrace the compassion of this stillness; feel it throughout your body….Now, imagine yourself coming back out of this, breathe in… hold it… breathe out…. Breathe in, and as you do feel the warmth and beauty of knowing that you are worthy and loved by God. Hold it… … Breathe out. [repeat]. OK, open your eyes.

Remember that we are indeed called to be compassionate to others; it’s an important, inseparable part of what it means to follow Jesus. But before we can offer Christ’s compassion to others, we have to know it, and be assured of it, for ourselves. So remember the compassion you felt this morning in the stillness – and remember that if you ever start to feel overwhelmed with compassion fatigue, or you feel guilt or shame creeping in, if you feel unworthy again, you can go back to that place in the stillness, and feel that compassion again.

Thanks be to God.

Compassion in Community

(sermon 7/2/17)

meal

2 Kings 6:8-23

Once when the king of Aram was at war with Israel, he took counsel with his officers. He said, “At such and such a place shall be my camp.” But the man of God sent word to the king of Israel, “Take care not to pass this place, because the Arameans are going down there.” The king of Israel sent word to the place of which the man of God spoke. More than once or twice he warned such a place so that it was on the alert. The mind of the king of Aram was greatly perturbed because of this; he called his officers and said to them, “Now tell me who among us sides with the king of Israel?” Then one of his officers said, “No one, my lord king. It is Elisha, the prophet in Israel, who tells the king of Israel the words that you speak in your bedchamber.”

He said, “Go and find where he is; I will send and seize him.” He was told, “He is in Dothan.” So he sent horses and chariots there and a great army; they came by night, and surrounded the city. When an attendant of the man of God rose early in the morning and went out, an army with horses and chariots was all around the city. His servant said, “Alas, master! What shall we do?” He replied, “Do not be afraid, for there are more with us than there are with them.” Then Elisha prayed: “O Lord, please open his eyes that he may see.” So the Lord opened the eyes of the servant, and he saw; the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha. When the Arameans came down against him, Elisha prayed to the Lord, and said, “Strike this people, please, with blindness.” So he struck them with blindness as Elisha had asked. Elisha said to them, “This is not the way, and this is not the city; follow me, and I will bring you to the man whom you seek.” And he led them to Samaria. As soon as they entered Samaria, Elisha said, “O Lord, open the eyes of these men so that they may see.” The Lord opened their eyes, and they saw that they were inside Samaria. When the king of Israel saw them he said to Elisha, “Father, shall I kill them? Shall I kill them?” He answered, “No! Did you capture with your sword and your bow those whom you want to kill? Set food and water before them so that they may eat and drink; and let them go to their master.” So he prepared for them a great feast; after they ate and drank, he sent them on their way, and they went to their master. And the Arameans no longer came raiding into the land of Israel.

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Back in my days as an architect, I had a business associate, a commercial real estate leasing agent named Don. For twenty years, Don and I shared business leads back and forth. We also shared a lot of our business and personal ups and downs. We were there to congratulate each other on the birth of our kids, and shared in the joys and challenges as they grew up. Don was a valued business associate, but he was more than that – he was also a dear and valued friend.

Don was an extreme go-getter, Type-A personality. He was passionate about his work and everything else in life. He was constantly smiling; an eternal optimist; you almost never saw him down. And he could talk to anyone, about anything, any time. He could find some connection with you and draw on that, and encourage you, and build you up. That kind of personality is almost literally gold in the business world. It was a gift that I could only dream of having.

Of all of his really amazing qualities, though, his driving wasn’t always one of them. Consistent with his supercharged personality, Don never met a speed limit he couldn’t beat by twenty or thirty miles per hour. Multiple lanes of busy traffic were seen as a challenge – a personal slalom course for him to navigate as he tried to get to wherever the first and the fastest. One morning, Don was driving on the highway between his home and the office, on his way to work. He was undoubtedly in the hottest, newest BMW of the time. Those seemed to be a weakness of his; I always envied him for the great cars that he drove. But on this day, Don encountered another driver like himself – and before you knew it, the two were engaged in what I’ll just politely call “competitive highway driving.” At some point in all of this, Don was even nudging the other guy’s car with his own, trying to get him to do what he wanted. Eventually, the two of them pulled off to the side of the road. The other driver got out of his car, loaded for bear, spitting mad, yelling and screaming at Don, just itching for a fight. Don, for his part, just stayed calm as he listened to the man. He took it all in stride, and then, with a calm and friendly demeanor, he said “Yes, you’re right, I was being a jerk – in fact, we both were; we both got carried away, we let our egos get the better of us. What we were doing was wrong, and dangerous. We’re both better than that. Of course, I’ll pay for whatever damage I did to the side of your car.”

As the man had started to calm down, Dan started to chat with him. Asked him what he did for a living, who he worked for. As they were exchanging information, Don said “Oh, your last name is _____? I know someone with that same name, ________; do you know them?” “Yes, he’s a relative.” “Oh, well if you know him, you probably know _______, too.” “Yes, in fact we went to school together; I was just talking to them a few days ago.” And on and on. By the time they were done talking, the man was at ease, and smiling, and the two of them even laughed at the situation. When they were done, the two of them shook hands and parted ways. Now if this were a perfect story, Don would have ended up leasing the man some office space. That didn’t happen, but I’m sure that he at least had tried to line up a showing.

That incident came to mind again when I read today’s sermon text. This story deals with the prophet Elisha – who is not to be confused with his mentor, the prophet Elijah. In this story, the king of Aram – the king of the Aramean people – is having constant setbacks on the battlefield in his war against the Israelites, and he’s enraged when he’s told that it’s been Elisha, with his direct line to God, who has been advising the king of Israel regarding where the Arameans would be and what their plans were. So he sends troops to capture, or maybe kill, Elisha; they surround the city he’s living in. But as you heard, Elisha asks God to temporarily, partially blind the soldiers. Then, in a classic bit of scriptural orneriness, Elisha tells the soldiers “Oh no, the man you’re looking for isn’t here; this is the wrong town. But I know where he is; here, let me take you to him!” And he leads the Arameans to Samaria – a city that’s stongly fortified by Israelite troops. And then, once they’re there, the Arameans’ sight is restored, they see that they’re completely surrounded and hemmed in.

At this point, the king of Israel, as excited as a kid who wants to tear into his presents on Christmas morning, asks Elisha “Can I kill them?!! Can I kill them?!!!” It made sense. God had brought the enemies of Israel right into the palm of their hand. Surely, God would want them to finish them off. But contrary to what anyone would think, Elisha says no, don’t kill them. In fact, don’t just refrain from killing them – throw them a party. Prepare a big banquet, lay out a feast for them. So that’s what they did. I can only imagine the conversations among the soldiers from the two armies had at that meal. Telling one another where they were from; what they did for a living when the king wasn’t sending them off to war. Showing one another pictures on their phones of their wives, their kids, their pets. Complaining about their king, and taxes, and the lack of rain for the crops. And after it was over, the Arameans were granted safe passage home, and the passage says that they ended their hostilities against the Israelites.

Elisha had instructed the king to do, by way of a common meal, and being compassionate in community with the Arameans, the same basic thing that Don had done out along the roadside – to not just defuse a tense, dangerous situation, but to actually turn it into something positive and constructive.

There’s something universal, something that cuts across all cultures and all times, about the sharing of a common meal. There’s something almost magical in the way that a meal can bring about healing and reconciliation, and create a sense of community. And since the gospel – God’s good news of compassion for all people – is primarily enacted in the world through forgiveness and community, it seems only natural that one of the most sacred expressions of our faith is the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper – a remembrance of God’s faithfulness and compassion, seen through the reenactment and continuation of an eternal, communal meal.

Since we’re continuing to examine God’s compassion this Sunday, we should recognize that reality – that God’s compassion is primarily enacted in the world through radical forgiveness and being in community; in contrast to the opposing attitude of trying to earn God’s compassion through personal acts of would-be holiness and self-righteousness, and concentrating on individualism instead of community.

That’s important for us to remember, because our society has almost always had a strong emphasis on individualism. We’ve sung the praises of the rugged individualist; the one who settled the frontier, the captain of industry, the self-made man who pulled himself up by his own bootstraps, who got everything he had by his own hands, who didn’t get any help from anyone and who didn’t owe anything to anyone else. We need to recognize that these attitudes are completely contrary to the kind of community accountability and responsibility that Christ himself has called us to. As our society has evolved, we’ve placed an unhealthy – and I’ll suggest, an immoral, and even sinful – emphasis on individualism over the importance of community, and communal accountability to and responsibility for, one another. And you don’t need to go any further than the evening news, and the ongoing debates over how, or even whether, we have any responsibility for providing healthcare for people in this country, or affirming equal rights and equal protection under the law, to see examples of this ongoing battle to balance individualism and community responsibility in our society.

Our excessive focus on individualism has shaped a lot of American Christianity, too, and usually not for the better. It’s partly why there are so many different denominations – individualists set their own rules and feel no accountability to the rest of a community when there’s any disagreement; they can just go off and start their own church. It’s also why there’s so much emphasis in parts of the church about Jesus being someone’s personal Lord and Savior, minimizing the essential community aspect of the faith. It’s why you hear so many people say they can be a Christian but not be part of a church family.  It’s why there are so many Christian songs full of references to “I” and “Me,” versus “Us” and “We.”

As we look at how we’re supposed to live as God’s people, in both church and society, we have to recognize the high importance that God places on being in community – and that that community has to be as broad as possible. It has to include people who are different from us. People who look different. Who think different. Who vote different. Who live different, who love different, who worship different. And as Elisha showed us, it even has to include people we consider our enemies. Being in *that* kind of community is how God’s compassion breaks into the world, and into people’s lives. That’s how God shows a better alternative to a world where otherwise, Don and the other driver would have ended up in a fistfight, and the Arameans would have been slaughtered.

Being in that kind of community with others isn’t always easy. In fact, most of the time, it’s downright hard. But part of the good news for us in all of this is that we know that God does actually empower us and enable us to be able to model that kind of community, and to extend it beyond ourselves and out into the world – whether that ends up being somewhere  literally at a meal around a table; or in the workplace; or at school; or in the neighborhood – or even along the side of the road.

Thanks be to God.

Compassion on Account

(sermon 6/25/17)

using atm

David asked, “Is there still anyone left of the house of Saul to whom I may show kindness for Jonathan’s sake?” Now there was a servant of the house of Saul whose name was Ziba, and he was summoned to David. The king said to him, “Are you Ziba?” And he said, “At your service!” The king said, “Is there anyone remaining of the house of Saul to whom I may show the kindness of God?” Ziba said to the king, “There remains a son of Jonathan; he is crippled in his feet.” The king said to him, “Where is he?” Ziba said to the king, “He is in the house of Machir son of Ammiel, at Lo-debar.” Then King David sent and brought him from the house of Machir son of Ammiel, at Lo-debar. Mephibosheth son of Jonathan son of Saul came to David, and fell on his face and did obeisance. David said, “Mephibosheth!” He answered, “I am your servant.” David said to him, “Do not be afraid, for I will show you kindness for the sake of your father Jonathan; I will restore to you all the land of your grandfather Saul, and you yourself shall eat at my table always.” He did obeisance and said, “What is your servant, that you should look upon a dead dog such as I?”

Then the king summoned Saul’s servant Ziba, and said to him, “All that belonged to Saul and to all his house I have given to your master’s grandson. You and your sons and your servants shall till the land for him, and shall bring in the produce, so that your master’s grandson may have food to eat; but your master’s grandson Mephibosheth shall always eat at my table.” Now Ziba had fifteen sons and twenty servants. Then Ziba said to the king, “According to all that my lord the king commands his servant, so your servant will do.” Mephibosheth ate at David’s table, like one of the king’s sons. Mephibosheth had a young son whose name was Mica. And all who lived in Ziba’s house became Mephibosheth’s servants. Mephibosheth lived in Jerusalem, for he always ate at the king’s table. Now he was lame in both his feet. – 2 Samuel 9:1-13

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Being together with our high school students at Montreat got me thinking about when I was around their age. And reading this week’s sermon text made me remember a particular incident that happened when I was just a little older than them. It was right after I graduated from high school and headed off to college, and I was doing all the things that a college freshman moving into a new town had to do to get settled in. One of those things was opening a checking account at a local bank. This was the Fall of 1978, a time when banks were just starting to dabble in having ATMs. Not all the banks in town even had them, and I picked my bank in part because they did – and I liked the flexibility that it offered, being able to do my banking any time of day or night. And I did. I used my new ATM card a lot. One of the times that I used it in the middle of the night, I was pulling an all-nighter in the architecture design studio. It was around 2:00 or 2:30, and I needed a break, and I was hungry. I wanted to go across the street to the Penn State Diner for a Sloppy Joe and a coffee, but I didn’t have a dime to my name at the moment, either in cash or in my bank account. I had actually deposited a check that my parents had sent me in the mail, but the problem was that the bank took three days for an out-of-town check to clear, and here I was, at two o’clock in the morning just before the dawn of the third day. I knew the money really wasn’t in my account yet, but I figured I could walk down to the bank and withdraw twenty dollars, and by the time anyone came in the following morning to see that I’ve overdrawn my account, the deposit would have posted and it would be a moot point. I felt a little guilty about it, but, did I mention I was really hungry? So I walked to the ATM to withdraw the money that I knew wasn’t technically there. I inserted my card and punched in my PIN number and my withdrawal request – but when I did, the machine swallowed my card, and the screen said “Unable to process transaction at this time. Please see a teller during banking hours for more information.” Crap. I was busted. I was mortified, knowing I was going to have to go into the bank in the morning and admit what I’d tried to do, and that I knew it was wrong, and apologize and throw myself on their mercy, and hope I wasn’t going to have to pay some hefty penalty for having tried it. I walked back to the studio, still broke, and still hungry, and now worried about what the morning would bring.

diner state college

The Diner, pretty much as it looked back then on the night of the attempted crime. Oh man, how I wanted one of their Sloppy Joes, a coffee, and an order of their famous Grilled Stickies – sadly, on this particular night, it wasn’t to be.

So the next morning, I went into the bank and stood in line waiting for a free teller. When one was open, I started to spill my guts to him, explaining that I knew what did was wrong, and I won’t do it again, and I’m sorry, blah, blah, blah, until he finally broke in and said, “No, no, no, wait a minute, hold on! The machine didn’t hold your card because of that. We just instructed the machine to do that the next time you used your card so you’d come into the bank to retrieve it. You see, you use our new ATM more than anyone else in town, and we just wanted a chance to thank you in person for making use of the new service. In fact, we’re actually giving you twenty-five dollars, just as a small token of our thanks for embracing the new technology!”

Well, I was shocked and pleasantly surprised that this didn’t go at all the way I’d expected. But to this day, I still remember the dread and worry and fear that I felt about being summoned to the bank.

That memory came to mind when I read today’s sermon text, the story of David and Mephiboseth. I like this story – and not just because it’s fun to say the name “Mephibosheth.” I can’t help but think that Mephibosheth had to have a similar kind of dread that I had waiting to talk to the bank teller, only much more so, when he was summoned to meet with King David. He knew that not only had his grandfather, King Saul, been killed, but all of Saul’s children were hunted down and killed too, including his own father, Jonathan – partly out of revenge, and partly to eliminate anyone who could claim to be the legitimate heir to Saul’s throne, and posing a challenge to David’s reign. For his own part, he’d suffered permanent injury when he was just a five-year old, when Saul and Jonathan were killed, and his nurse, knowing the great danger that the boy faced, was hurrying so quickly to run away and hide him that she dropped him, crippling him.

I imagine that for the rest of his life, Mephibosheth did everything he could to keep a low profile, and to keep away from David. But now, all these years later, when Mephibosheth was a grown man with a child of his own, David finds him and summons him to the palace. By all normal expectations, Mephibosheth probably thought that this was the end for him, and his son, too.

David undoubtedly recognized the potential political threat that Mephibosheth posed to him. And maybe a part of the way David’s decision to have him live in the king’s palace was a page torn out of Don Corleone’s playbook, to keep your friends close but your enemies closer.

But he was also concerned with something much more important than just that. David and Jonathan, Mephibosheth’s father, had had an intensely close, loving relationship, one that far surpassed any normal friendship. In reality, in the midst of the division between David and Jonathan’s own father, Jonathan’s heart and support were actually with David, even though he stayed on his father’s side out of a sense of obligation owed to his father. Because of the deep, steadfast love that the two had for each other, they had sworn a covenant of commitment, loyalty, and care, for one another and for each other’s families as well. Now, David was making good on his covenant with Jonathan, bringing Mephibosheth into his own household, restoring his grandfather’s property to him, and considering him one of his own sons in the royal household. In a sense, he was adopting Jonathan’s son as his own.

This was an amazing expression of grace that David was extending to Mephibosheth. But it was also an expression of hospitality and compassion – and undoubtedly one that David’s recommended against, in the name of personal and national security. Some people have said that this relationship between David and Mephibosheth is a representation of the relationship between us and God, and the unexpected grace that we receive from God. I guess in some sense that could be true, but I think it’s more an illustration of how we’re supposed to treat one another. David treated Mephibosheth with compassion in spite of the potential threat he posed, keeping his covenant and honoring the deep love that he’d had for Jonathan.

How many times have we withheld grace, or compassion, or hospitality to someone because we see them as a potential threat to our own safety, security, or well-being? How many times have we done that to people we’ve seen as a threat on a national scale? How many times have we done it on a personal level? The story of David and Mephibosheth point us toward a different way, a better way – the way of the kingdom of God.

Whatever else it might be, this story of David treating Jonathan’s child with grace and compassion should be a reminder that just as David and Jonathan were in a covenant of love, so are we in a loving covenant with God, too; one that requires us to extend grace and compassion to all of God’s children. When it’s easy, and especially when it’s hard. When it might even come at personal risk. When others would say we need to think of ourselves first.

It isn’t any secret that showing people this kind of grace and compassion can be very risky business. But we need to do it, and we can do it, because of the grace and compassion that God has already given us – that God has already deposited into our account, expecting us to give it to others, and to do it now, not later. We don’t even need to wait three days for the deposit to clear.

Thanks be to God.

Pentecost

(sermon 6/4/17 – Pentecost Sunday)

springdale pentecost in the park-communion

Participating in the Lord’s Supper as we celebrate Pentecost in outdoor worship at Beckley Creek Park this Sunday.

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

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

But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’   – Acts 2:1-21

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Take a minute, if you will, to imagine what Jesus’ disciples have gone through in just a month and a half, leading up to this story that we just heard. Within that short time, Jesus has been arrested and executed; they’ve been demoralized, scattered, terrified; they’ve seen Jesus raised from the dead and ascending into heaven. After that, they gathered together – we’re told that there were about 120 of them – and they started to figure out what they’re going to do next. One of the first things that they did after Jesus’ ascension was to fill the leadership vacancy left by Judas Iscariot, selecting a man named Matthias to replace him. Then they started getting down to the business of what they do now.

And so it was on this one particular day – it happened to be the Jewish festival of Shavuot, or Pentecost, which was a festival celebrating the wheat harvest that came fifty days after the second day of Passover – Jesus’ followers were all gathered together, maybe meeting to develop a mission statement, when it happened. Suddenly, throughout the whole city, there was a loud, chest-shaking sound like a powerful wind that confusion, and undoubtedly some fear, in the hearts of everyone who experienced it. It caused people to run out into the streets to see what was happening. Inside the house, Jesus’ disciples heard it and felt it too, and added to the noise were the flame-like appearance over all of their heads, and their suddenly speaking in languages that weren’t their own.

pentecost painting

An ancient wall painting of the Holy Spirit coming to the disciples on Pentecost

As they went out into the street, they encountered the other people of the city – all of the Passover pilgrims and visitors had long since gone home; these were the actual residents of the city now. As we heard in the reading, these residents included people originating all the nations surrounding Judah, and speaking all of those different languages. Jerusalem had a very diverse, pluralistic population, and now here they all were, encountering these Galileans with flames dancing on their heads and all speaking their own native languages. I’d imagine this just made people even more confused and knocked off balance, wondering what all this really meant.

In the midst of all the confusion, Peter gets out in front of everyone, and just weeks after he and all the others were cowering behind locked doors for fear of their lives, he boldly tells them what this is all about.

Our observation of Pentecost is a celebration of this event – this coming of the Holy Spirit and filling and energizing God’s people, certainly not for the first time, but definitely in a bold, unmistakable way, and in a way that gave those disciples the courage and the tools to quit hiding behind locked doors, to come out into the open and proclaim God’s truth and good news for all people, from any nation, any language, any background; in a way that enabled them to get on with the work that God had called them to. So for that reason, we observe Pentecost.

But we don’t celebrate it as just a remembrance of a single historical event; a single, finite point on a timeline. We see it as an important milestone, but just one milestone, in the overall history of the work of the Holy Spirit in human history, which continues to this day. On that day, the Holy Spirit filled those disciples with a combination of courage, and comfort, and challenge, and uncertainty, all at the same time. And the Spirit does the same thing within our lives, in our time, too. God certainly works within us to equip us and embolden us do whatever it is that God is calling us to, drawing us to, in our own individual mission and ministry in God’s kingdom. But as clearly as we can see that, we also know that we also have some uncertainties, maybe about where it will all lead. It has always been that way.

That day in Jerusalem, we see the Holy Spirit enlightening and empowering people and maturing their faith and sending them out beyond just their own small body of the faithful, even in spite of what had to be some misgivings. And we see the same thing happening over and over again in the lives of God’s people. In just one example, we saw the Spirit at work in this country in the 1960s, in the Civil Rights movement, in the life of Eugene Carson Blake, who was the Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church at the time. Blake was asked to be part of the famous March on Washington organized by Dr. King in 1963. There are historical photos of Blake taking part in the day’s activities and that we can point proudly to. But looking through Blake’s papers, it turns out that he really was torn about participating; he didn’t originally want to do it. He was worried that his participation would cause further dissention and division within a denomination that already was not of one mind on the issue of civil rights. And he also worried somewhat about his own personal safety, too – to be that close to Dr. King place one’s self in potential harm’s way, to be sure. In the end, though, Blake knew that the Holy Spirit is leading him, drawing him to do it, because it was the right thing – the God thing – to do. To stand up for justice and equality wherever it’s being denied is always the right thing to do. And so he did it. He put on his clerical collar, and his iconic straw hat, and he marched, literally arm in arm with Dr. King at the head of that march, and he delivered a speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial just a few minutes before Dr. King delivered his now-famous “I Have a Dream” speech.

march on washington 1963 montage

Eugene Carson Blake, in his iconic straw hat, marching with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the March for Jobs and Freedom in Washington DC in the summer of 1963.

And today, as we observe Pentecost Sunday, we see this same work of the Holy Spirit in our midst just as clearly as it was in today’s reading, too. We see the Holy Spirit leading us into new things, new ventures, new ways to worship, just by virtue of being out here in the park. And most importantly, we see and we acknowledge God’s Spirit present and working in the lives of these young people who are being confirmed this morning. And we see it in the lives of the high school students who we’re commissioning to represent our congregation at the youth gathering at Montreat this coming week. Both of these groups of young people, and the adults who are traveling with the high schoolers, are evidence that God continues to work in our lives, challenging us to understand God, our faith, and ourselves more deeply; and challenging us to move out beyond our own small church family and out into the broader church, the broader world, in service to God.

springdale pentecost in the park

Confirmands being received into full membership of the church on this day

commissioning of high school youth 2017

Commissioning some of the high school youth and adults about to participate in the national High school gathering at Montreat

So today we celebrate the work of the Holy Spirit who has always been sending the church out to new and different places by worshiping in a new and different place, and by seeing God at work in the lives of each one of the people we’ll confirm or commission today. For each of them, and for the love of the God who dwells within them, we say

Thanks be to God.