Inherit the Wind

(sermon 4/23/17)

inherit the wind
Spencer Tracy, Frederic March, and Harry Morgan in the 1960 film “Inherit the Wind”

 

John 20:19-31

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!”Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

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In 1955, two playwrights wrote a play called “Inherit the Wind.” It would become a hit on Broadway, and in 1960 it was also turned into a movie. The story is a memorable one, and apparently a timeless one, too – it was remade as a movie made for TV in 1988, and again for theaters in 1997. It’s become a favorite of regional and community theater, and even returned to Broadway as recently as 2007, more than 50 years after its first run. If you know the story, you know that it’s a dramatized version of the famous Scopes “Monkey Trial” that took place in Dayton Tennessee in 1925, when local high school science teacher John Scopes taught his students the theory of evolution, which was against a recently passed state law. It was a landmark case that was really the high-water mark in society’s debate between modern science and education, and specifically evolution; and Christian Fundamentalism and biblical literalism, including the belief that God created the earth and the entire cosmos in six literal days some 6,000 years ago. We’re living too close to the Creation Museum and the recreated Noah’s Ark to think that there aren’t still people who hold onto that Fundamentalist belief, but after the Scopes trial, our society and most of our churches turned more and more toward accepting this scientific reality and more modern ways of understanding scripture.

As good as the story of the play and movie is on that surface level, though, the playwrights made clear from the beginning that their real point wasn’t really the Scopes trial at all. Rather, it was intended to be a parable, a criticism of the nightmare of McCarthyism that the country had been enduring for the previous handful of years, which had been destroying people’s lives simply on the basis that their thoughts and beliefs weren’t consistent with the mainstream, majority viewpoint. The story line was meant to be a statement that we should all have the right to freedom of conscience, the right to our own beliefs and living them out even if they’re unpopular. The story makes the point that to do so can unfortunately come at personal cost, as it did with John Scopes, or Bert Cates, his fictional counterpart in the movie. In fact, the story’s title, “Inherit the Wind,” is actually part of a quote from the Book of Proverbs that’s mentioned in the story – that those who trouble their own households will “inherit the wind.” In other words, people who stir things up or go against the grain within their own group are likely to receive nothing for it – or may even receive personal chaos, opposition, even destruction.

I think there’s a connection between that and today’s gospel text. Surely, this is the “Doubting Thomas” passage, but there are several other important things going on in here too. One of those things is Jesus’ breathing on the disciples and telling them to receive the Holy Spirit, having it dwell within them. We’re all probably familiar with the story in the Book of Acts, where the disciples receive the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, but in John’s gospel, we get this earlier and less earth-shaking version of it. In the Greek language, there’s a word “pneuma” – it’s part of our language too, in the word “pneumatic” and similar words, having something to do with air or wind. This Greek word has several meanings, including air, wind, breath, and spirit. This is what Jesus was telling the disciples to receive. So yes, it may be a little corny to say so, but in a real way, in this event the disciples were “inheriting the wind.”

I think there’s a deeper connection between the play’s story line and this gospel story than just that play on words, though. We believe that the Holy Spirit dwells within us. It’s that divine presence, that divine spark, that we sense when we’re aware of God’s real presence in our lives. It’s that presence of God within us that in other parts of the gospels, Jesus calls the Advocate – who gives us comfort when we need it the most, and challenge when we get too comfortable.

It’s that breath, that wind, that Spirit that Jesus gave those disciples, and by extension to us as well, that causes us to step up and take bold, courageous stands for the kingdom of God. To stand for equality in our world, whether over race, gender, religion, economic status, or anything else. It’s that Spirit that causes us to work or justice for all as a matter of the kingdom of God, as a matter of our faith, which Jesus said boils down to love of God and love of others as we love ourselves, and because as Dr. King said, justice is really nothing more than love in action. It’s that Spirit that leads us to work against bigotry and ignorance and fear of any kind in this world because our faith is one of peace, and these things always inevitably lead to violence.

And sometimes, when the Spirit leads us in those directions, they’re going to go against the grain of some people around us – whether in society in general, or even within the church itself. Sometimes, just as happened to the evolution-teaching John Scopes, when we have to stand up for what’s right, we’ll be “troubling our own house,” and as a result, we’ll “inherit the wind” in that negative way, in the form of pushback and opposition.

Sometimes, that wind of opposition can make us want to give in, give up, go with the flow. Don’t take the tough stands; don’t make the tough choices. It really can be tempting. But friends, we can’t give in to that temptation. We have to step up, to stand up, to speak truth to power and truth to lies, because if we don’t do it, who will?

All of us can feel like it would be easier to not follow where that Spirit is leading, that it would be easier to not make waves. Are there situations in your own life that are like that? It’s true, *sometimes* having received that Spirit can cause us difficulty, challenge, tough choices. But despite the fact that it will *sometimes* cause that, remember that it will *always* mean that no matter where we go, no matter what we do, no matter what approval or opposition we encounter, God will *always* be traveling the journey with us, always comforting, always encouraging, always challenging, and always strengthening us to do the right thing – we’ll never be facing the wind alone.

Thanks be to God.

Pentecost (sermon May 24, 2015)

Pentecost - Lubbenau

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?… 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.  – Acts 2:1-8, 11b-18

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Well, last Sunday we had little green cards, and this Sunday we have big red… well, big red everything, because it’s Pentecost Sunday. We know what Pentecost is all about for us Christians; what’s going on in that passage from Acts that I told to the kids; right? The story takes place after Jesus has ascended, and now his followers are gathered in Jerusalem to observe the Jewish festival of Pentecost, that was always fifty days after Passover. It was both a thanksgiving for the grain harvest, as well as a celebration of the covenant that God made with Moses at Mount Sinai. And while they’re gathered together, they’ve finished their morning devotions, maybe they’re sitting around having some breakfast, scanning the paper, checking Facebook while they have a cup of coffee, this amazing thing happens. This incredible, indescribable thing that Luke and his sources can only describe as something like a roaring wind. Today, any time the roaring wind of a tornado rolls through somewhere and tears everything to bits, the news crews show up in the aftermath and it seems like every time, there’s always somebody who tells them “It sounded just like a freight train!” But since they didn’t have freight trains in first-century Jerusalem, Luke was stuck for a simile and just had to settle for “it was like the rush of a violent wind,” and let it go at that.

And then, according to the story, things get really weird.

Something like tongues of fire hover over all their heads, and they ran out of the house and into the street and started speaking in different languages that the religious pilgrims visiting from many different countries were able to understand as they stood there watching the scene unfold.

Thinking about this story, it’s pretty easy to see why Pentecost is sometimes called the “birthday of the church.” A bunch of people were sitting around minding their own business, when all of a sudden God lights a fire under them – well, technically, over them – to get them out of the house and out into the street, and to start sharing God’s good news with others in a way that they can understand it, and all the while them not really understanding exactly how it was all happening. I mean, think about it – other than a potluck and a committee meeting or two, that’s a pretty good description of what the church is all about, or at least what it should be all about.

The Holy Spirit, the very Spirit of God, comes to dwell within them and empowers them, energizes them in ways they’d never imagined possible. And this story continues within us, too. That same Spirit is active in our lives, and in the current church, too. Most of the time, when we think about the Holy Spirit, we tend to think about the Spirit as being a Comforter for us, and that’s certainly true. But this story is about another aspect of the work of the Holy Spirit. It’s the “get off your hands, get out of your comfort zone, and follow me into something new” aspect of the Holy Spirit that we get in this story. That always-stirring-the-pot work of the Spirit that’s always been behind the changes and advances of the church throughout its history. I think it’s safe to say that when a church congregation dies, more often than not it was because it wanted to stick with familiarity more than it was willing to hear and accept where God’s Spirit was calling them into new things. It wasn’t because people weren’t interested in God, faith spirituality Studies show over and over again that people’s desire for spirituality, and longing for an authentic connection with God and a community of faith, really has remained constant even if they aren’t interested in the same, traditional way the church is offering it. That’s exactly what the latest Pew Research poll shows – that the percentage of the U.S. population identifying as Christian has dropped by eight percent in the past seven years, while their longing for that kind of spiritual connection has actually stayed about the same.

I believe that, as many people have suggested, we’re in the midst of a period of church history that only comes around every 500 years or so, a period where the Holy Spirit is calling us, the church, to rethink almost everything in order to reconnect with people – to share the good news of God’s love and to be a real, well-rounded, connected community of faith in new ways that make sense to people today – people whose way of understanding God, humanity, and the universe is as different from the way we understood them in the 1960s as the way we understood them in the 60s was different from the days when Luke wrote the Book of Acts. Is it possible that that the findings of this latest Pew study are a sign that the Holy Spirit is telling us to get out of our house, and learn a new language, as it were, just as those disciples did? Is it possible that, if all this red fabric is supposed to symbolize fire, the most appropriate place to put it would be on our pew cushions?

I think one of the ways that the Holy Spirit can be seen teaching the church new languages today is in the PCUSA’s “1001 New Worshiping Communities” initiative, which has started more than 250 non-traditional worshiping communities in just the past couple of years – more worshiping communities, I might add, than the total number of congregations that have left the denomination in the same timeframe. These new communities are exhibiting ways of being church that many of us might hardly even recognize as “church,” but they’re proclaiming the gospel in new ways – in new languages – and they’re being heard by more and more people, and they’re growing.

As just one example of their reimagining what church could be like, a number of them meet weekly, but their gatherings would only look anything like what we’d think of as a standard Sunday worship service maybe once a month. The rest of the times, they’ll get together – sometimes, all together, other times in smaller subgroups – and they’ll have a short devotional and prayer, and then they’ll participate in some mission work – volunteering at a food pantry, or a homeless shelter, or visiting people in nursing homes, even people they don’t even know. Or they’ll have a common meal, or a picnic, or a bowling trip or a softball game; whatever. These communities have learned two things: first, that while people crave this kind of spiritual connection and sense of authentic community, contemporary schedules are just ridiculously tight, and not out of not caring about spiritual matters, but out of financial and family necessity. Whether anyone likes it or not, most people don’t have the amount of time available each week to devote to a community of faith in the traditional ways that its activities have been programmed and scheduled. It isn’t that people don’t want to participate; the way things exist, they just can’t. Second, these new worshiping communities have realized that done properly, all of these kinds of gatherings are actually valid and meaningful forms of worship just as much as a traditional Sunday service – and in some cases, maybe more so. They’ve realized that there is really no division or distinction between worship, mission, fellowship. It’s all worship; it’s all mission; it’s all fellowship.

That’s just one new language the Holy Spirit is teaching the church. It’s obviously a very different one from the one we’ve traditionally been speaking. But whatever the specifics, I promise you that in this time of major transition in the history of the church, God is trying to push us out into the street and to teach us a new language too, just like those disciples in Jerusalem. Yes, that can be scary. But they were scared, too, and the Spirit still guided them and empowered them and equipped them for the task God was calling them to. And God has promised to do the exact same for us.

So this week, I guess I invite you to think and pray about what new language God might be calling you to learn. Think about that on a congregational level, yes, but also on a personal level, too. Is God trying to lead you into some new way of living out and sharing your faith with others? If so, what might it be? If you can discern what it is, grab onto it and don’t let go. Learning that new language, and being willing to follow God where the Spirit is leading you, drawing you, will be an amazing thing – even if all the while, it will be something scary, and loud, and earth-shaking and unsettling, and you don’t really know where it’s going – just like a freight train.

Thanks be to God.

I Chose You (sermon 5/10/15)

chosen-1

As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another. – John 15:9-17

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There was a very popular tradition in the 1800s that was a way to say goodbye to someone. Not just a “see you later” kind of goodbye, but a real goodbye – a “this is probably the last time we’ll ever see each other” kind of goodbye. The tradition took place in many groups – extended families, church congregations, whatever – that the women of the group would get together and make a Friendship Quilt, where each of them would make a portion of the quilt, and they’d all sign it and give it to the person who was leaving. It was a way for that person to remember those they’d left behind, and to stay, in a very real way, in their loving embrace whenever they’d wrap up in the quilt. It was a beautiful tradition, an excellent way to “say goodbye well,” as we might say today. It’s the same sort of thing that Erika Castro was talking about last Sunday – that on the last day of the service teams’ weeklong stay at Montaña de Luz, the kids would all sign their T shirts, or draw little pictures, or maybe put their handprint on the shirt with paint. It’s a way of allowing a little bit of them, and their love, to go with them when they left.

The portion of John’s gospel that’s been part of the Lectionary texts for the past few weeks has been telling the story of Jesus’ saying the same kind of goodbye to his followers. During his time with them, there have been good times and bad. When you read through some of the stories, especially in Mark’s gospel, you can sense the frustration in Jesus’ dealing with them at times. You can almost feel him sinking into a deep facepalm over their cluelessness. But on the night of this story, that’s all behind them. This is the night of the Last Supper, the night Jesus is going to be arrested, and he’s in the middle of a long farewell to them all. He’s trying to say goodbye well. He’s trying to give them some final words to help explain what this has all been about, and how to go forward from here.

As part of this, he tells them that in fact, they hadn’t chosen to follow him, but he chose them – that since before the beginning of time, God had chosen them.

This idea of having been chosen by God, instead of us having chosen to follow God, has always been a very big theological thing to us Presbyterians. It’s why you’ll never see a so-called “altar call,” asking people to “make a decision for Christ,” in a Presbyterian church. It’s why sometimes, making fun of our generally reserved nature, people will jokingly call us “The Frozen Chosen.” Thinking about this idea of having been chosen by God led John Calvin to refocus on the long-standing Christian doctrine of predestination, an idea that went at least back to Saint Augustine in the early 400s. And taking that idea to its logical conclusion led Calvin to a thought that even he himself admitted seemed repugnant: that if we say that people have been chosen by God before the beginning of time – that they had been “predestined” to be God’s people, long before they’d even been born – then it seemed to logically follow that there were also people who God *didn’t* choose; people who had been predestined to be condemned, without their having any recourse or anything to say about the matter.

It’s a pretty unsettling thought all the way around. On the one hand, how do you really know whether you’re among the chosen or the condemned? If you’re one of the condemned and there’s nothing you can do about it, that hardly seems fair, or any way that a loving, merciful, just God would act. And even if you are one of the chosen, it’s still a pretty grim thought – your whole life is apparently predetermined, all the ups and downs scripted out without any input from you, and no matter what you may try to do about them.

Are we just a bunch of involuntary players on a stage, performing in a play written and directed by God? Are we all just marionettes, with God pulling all the strings?

Well… what if Calvin and Augustine and all the other adherents of predestination got it wrong? What if Jesus meant something very different when he talked about having chosen people? What if he meant that God hadn’t chosen only the specific people sitting around him that night, but rather, that God had chosen human beings, period? What if the whole outrageous act of choosing to create human beings was God’s act of choosing us? When God created us and called us Tov Meod – “Very Good” – was that our having been chosen? What if Jesus was explaining to them that God’s choosing to enter into this world by being present in him, a human being, that this was evidence of God’s showing solidarity with us, of God’s having chosen the human race? There’s a funny T shirt that says in bold print, “JESUS LOVES YOU” – and then in small print, it says “But then again, he loves everybody.” What if that T shirt was more profound than it intended? How might it change the way we understand God and ourselves, and what it means to be a follower of Christ, if all of our T shirts said “I’M ONE OF GOD’S CHOSEN” – “But then again, he chose everybody”?

In this gospel story, Jesus explains to the disciples what it means to be chosen – and what they’ve been chosen for, and those are important questions that a lot of people don’t think to ask; they just gloss over those points when they think about this whole chosen business. As he talks with his followers, Jesus explains what all this convoluted talk about vines and branches was all about: we’ve been chosen to be the agents, the conduits of God’s love in the world. We’ve been chosen to show what God’s love, and what God’s dwelling within us, looks like in concrete reality, in daily living. We’ve been chosen to show that both right belief and right practice of the faith are important, but when it comes right down to it, right practice – that is, extending love to the world, wrapping others in love – always trumps the details of right belief.

We’re given the strength and the boldness to live this way – to live as God’s chosen – by keeping ourselves connected to Christ, the vine, the very presence and definition of the divine in flesh and blood, the source of all life and love.

Those Friendship Quilts I was talking about earlier were made by the people who were staying put, and were given to the people who were leaving. In this story, it was the other way around. It was Jesus who was leaving, and when he does, he’ll give them two gifts. The first one is in this text. He tells his followers he won’t call them his servants any more, but now, they’re his friends. That’s a powerful thing. Most of us can remember some greatly respected mentor, maybe a teacher or a professor; and after we’ve graduated, these people we respect so much go from being, say, Mr. Burns, or Professor Langknecht, to just Stan, and Hank. There’s a very real difference in the interpersonal dynamic when that shift happens, and it happens with the disciples right here. The other thing Jesus is going to do is to leave those followers – his friends – with the gift of a Friendship Quilt of sorts of his own – the gift of God’s Spirit. He leaves it for them, and for us, too. Sometimes, often in the most intense moments of our lives, we’ll experience that Spirit. Maybe it will come directly, in the form of some special unexpected answer, in some intense personal and private moment of prayer. Maybe it will come more indirectly, in the form of a card or a letter; a kind word, or smile. Or a casserole after the funeral. Or maybe just a hug. However it comes, friends, recognize that it’s all the same thing. It’s Jesus’ Friendship Quilt, the very Spirit of God, encircling and wrapping around us, warming us, and always reminding us that we’re loved – that we’re chosen.

Thanks be to God.