Saturday, May 26, 2012

May 27, 2012 - Pentecost Groaning

With Groans too Deep for Words
Romans 8:18-27
            The work of Christ did not end with Easter -- even though Easter was one of God's greatest moments. Christ's resurrection from the dead on Easter stands as one of the great turning points in the world's history. But, Easter was not the end. Fifty days later -- after the resurrection, after Thomas' doubts were silenced, after one more breakfast beside the Sea, after the long walk on the Road to Emmaus -- fifty days later came Pentecost.
            On Pentecost, the Holy Spirit came. It did not simply arrive, nor did it knock politely at the door so that it might pay a visit. Instead, the Holy Spirit fell on the disciples gathered there in the Upper Room. It fell on them with the sound of a rushing wind, appearing as tongues of fire resting on each one. And they began to testify to the work of Christ -- not for themselves or each other. They began to testify to the work of Christ so that people from many nations who were gathered in Jerusalem could understand, each is his or her own language, about the Good News of Jesus Christ.
            Today, we mark Pentecost Day, the day we call the Birth of the Church. On this day, the power that was in Jesus Christ was given to the disciples so that they-back-then and we-today might witness with power to the Good News of Jesus.

            What if God picked you out of all the people on the planet, like the Grand Prize winner in the Lottery Mega Millions drawing -- with a check for all the riches of the Holy Spirit written just to you? Would you receive it with happy excitement and anticipation? Or would you rather not be at home that day, hoping that God would take it on to the next person on the list?
            Darryll started me thinking about this question last Sunday in his sermon; it was just a passing question he raised. But, it got me to thinking: What if the gift of the Holy Spirit with all its expectations is the gift we’d rather not receive? Thank you, anyway. Would you prefer to say, “NO”? Thus, we miss the fullness of the grace and the power God has to offer for living in this day, at this time in human history.  If we knew what God is offering, I wonder if we might re-think our reluctance and instead receive God’s gift gladly. Let me tell you what I see, then you decide.

I. We are heirs of a vast treasure and yet many live in spiritual poverty. We are offered the gifts of the Holy Spirit and its energizing power, and yet we live unaware of our birthright as followers of Christ.
            In Romans 8, Paul is now talking in the most positive terms about God’s people in Christ. He paints a picture of what Christians have to look forward to becoming. To paraphrase Paul:
All Creation will one day be set free from its slavery to decay and will share the glorious freedom of the children of God. For now, all of creation groans with pain, like the pain of childbirth. We, along with all Creation, wait for God to make us his children and set us free.

            But, what is freedom? We Americans, of all people, should know what freedom is, but much of the time, our sense of freedom is impoverished. The ads on TV suggest to us that in America freedom is another word for *CONTROL*:
--the authority to use a Gold credit card that is going to impress clerks at fancy stores;
--control to inspire and direct those who work for us;
--control enough to ride the big wave on that surfboard you’re taking to the beach this summer.
But, the authority to control other people and the world around us is not freedom. The freedom Paul describes is experienced as release – release from slavery and decay. Ernest Kurtz described release as:
+ “The chains falling away,”
+ “a light going on,”
+ “a weight lifted,” or
+ “something giving way.”
He went on to say: Release is not an experience of triumph because “I did it!” Release instead is an experience of awe and wonder: “I somehow see what I never saw before!” Thus, we do not control our freedom (as the American way), instead we receive it (as God’s way). It reveals itself as a gift of God (4).

As long we are convinced that there is nothing we need from God – no peace, no hope, no light shining in the darkness – then there is nothing God can give us. We must realize the extent to which our lives are defined and limited and controlled:
+by the lifestyles we pursue;
+by the questions that we ask;
+by the celebrities that we choose to honor;
+by the market price which determines the ultimate value of absolutely everything for us.
These could be called the “little gods” that demand our obedience. We Americans, who define our freedom as control, accept control from all of these things. But, from all of these controlling things the great God of heaven and earth would give us release and freedom.

B. Paul said in the scripture:
19 All of creation waits with eager longing for God to reveal his children.
There is hope that creation itself will one day be set free from its slavery to decay and will share the glorious freedom of the children of God (Rom 8.21).

            One Sunday long ago, I got a sharp lesson in the meaning of Paul’s words. The retired preacher in my congregation greeted me after worship; he was clearly upset. “You only prayed for us,” he said. I didn’t understand. I mumbled something about praying for the people who had gathered in church that day, still trying to figure out why he was so upset. He got to the point: “You don’t have the right to pray only for this congregation.” He went on: “This community, this world -- even though it may never enter the doors of a church – is helped because this congregation gathers on Sunday to pray. Every time we pray, we must pray for the world beyond our doors. Whether they care or not, they depend on the prayers of the church.”

 The world’s release from slavery into freedom depends on the revealing of God’s children.

III. Paul goes on to say that it is through prayer that we approach God with the help of the Holy Spirit to ask for God’s freedom.
26 In the same way the Spirit also comes to help us, weak as we are. For we do not know how we ought to pray; the Spirit himself pleads with God for us in groans that words cannot express.

Theologian Margaret Miles describes prayer as “a habit of interior attentiveness.” It is also a response to the realization, the discovery, that we are not in charge, not in control, not God. As Therese of Lisieux recognized, “Prayer arises, if at all, from our incompetence, otherwise there is no need for it” (7).
            We do not know how we ought to pray. The Spirit of God comes to do what we cannot. It prays for us when life leaves us speechless with rage or sorrow or fear. The Spirit prays for us when we do not have the words to pray.
            Again, the American desire to be control of everything – including our prayers. We believe that we can figure this prayer thing out. We can get the right words. We can stand in the right place. Our prayers will be heard. But, Paul acknowledges that often we are incompetent in praying.
+There are times when the need is too great for us to catch it in our hands.
+There are times when the truth is too painful to face completely;
+There are times when the need is too great for human words to express.
At such times, the Holy Spirit steps forward to speak the prayer that must be said.
[ILLUS: The prayer for Single Mothers, Mothers Day 2002]

            I like to find a church when I’m vacation, and I like to find a church whose worship is different from what we would call “normal.” One particular vacation, we were away at the beach on Mother’s Day.
            As the service began, we stood up to sing the opening hymn and didn’t stop singing or sit down for 30 minutes. It was one of those churches. After the pastor let us sit down, he started to recognize all the mothers in the congregation: the oldest, youngest, newest, most children, from farthest north (Montreal), from farthest south (Virgin Islands). One mother expressed disappointment that she hadn’t won any of these categories, so he added one for *mothers from a nearby town whose husband is named George*; she stood up and waved to everyone like she had won first prize. We clapped for each one as if she was a celebrity herself. If you are already hoping that I don’t get any ideas for next Mothers Day, you haven’t heard the half of it.
            Then, the pastor announced that he was particularly concerned for single mothers. He wanted to have a special prayer for single mothers, so he asked them to stand. As he waited, I wondered to myself, “Are you sure about this? It appeared that this preacher didn’t know anything about social correctness. As you know, some single mothers have wonderful stories, but others can have stories that are painful for them and for their families. Is he offering an extra blessing for single mothers or singling them out?” If a single mother had come to church hoping to blend in with the crowd, she was out of luck in that church. Sure enough, some unlikely mothers stood up:
+the mother who was way too young to be a mother,
+the young mother sitting beside her own mother who stood because her mother announced to everyone that her daughter was shy because the daddy wasn’t with her again today.

            Next, at the pastor’s urging, these single mothers came forward to stand at the front of the church. Then, he called women from the congregation to stand with these single mothers as he led them in prayer. As he prayed, a knot of women stood near me, gathered around the mother who was way too young to be a mother. As he prayed, they prayed aloud, too. And then I heard it; one of the prayers was spoken in tongues -- very softly. If I hadn’t been close I would have never heard it. All those voices lifted in prayer; all that love surrounding these mothers.
            It was a moment of Pentecost. In the words of the prayers and the strong, loving hands laid on those single mothers, the Spirit of God was poured out and rested on many gathered in that place.
            As I left the church that day, I thought to myself: “This is what the church is about: gathering up and welcoming all the kinds of mothers and all the kinds of people God leads into the house wherever you worship.


            Imagine with Paul, a world marked and healed by the presence and the work of a Pentecost Church. Imagine a world where Christians and whole churches are in prayer for the healing of the divisions that hinder us. Paul could imagine all this. And further, he invited the Church of Jesus to be that Church. The world waits with breathless impatience for us to claim the gift and the Spirit that God is providing.

2. Rondeau, Rev. Dan. "Come, Holy Spirit."
4. Kurtz, Ernest and Katherine Ketcham. The Spirituality of Imperfection, pp. 164f.
7. Therese of Lisieux, quoted by Tugwell. Ways of Imperfection, p. 229.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

May 13, 2012 - What we do with our Strength

What we do with our Strength     
Acts 10.1-48

I. The Book of Acts tells of the young church as it takes up the work and ministry of Jesus. There are two main actors in this book. First, there are the disciples and those who come to faith in Jesus through their ministry and witness. Second, there is the Holy Spirit which drives and often directs the events that lead people to faith. This is the case with our story of the Disciple Simon and the Roman Centurion Cornelius.
            The story opens by introducing us to Cornelius, a centurion, a devout god-fearer. The god-fearers in ancient times were non-Jews who nevertheless came to believe and to worship Israel’s God. Cornelius had not taken the steps of full conversion. Still, he was recognized as a believer and as a person of integrity and generosity toward Israel. While I do not know how common it was for a non-Jew to become a god-fearer, such people were viewed by the Bible as affirmation of the greatness and truth of Israel’s God.
            Cornelius is in a Roman garrison town, Caesarea. About 3:00 in the afternoon, he is praying when he has a vision in which an angel appears to him. The angel directs him to send his men to find a certain Simon who is staying in a particular house. This journey will be about 36 miles: one day on horseback; two days on foot.
            At the same time, Simon Peter is in Joppa. Apparently, he has been fasting; he is hungry. While food is being prepared, he goes up onto the roof to pray. There he also has a vision. In his vision, Simon sees a sheet being lowered from heaven containing all kinds of animals. A voice from God calls out to him, “Simon, you’re hungry. Kill and eat.” To which Simon replies, “Certainly not, Lord! I have never eaten anything ritually unclean or defiled.” The Lord then responds, “Do not consider anything unclean that God has declared clean.”
            The subject of this vision is clearly clean and unclean foods. Because he was on the edge of a Gentile area, Simon might have thought this was God’s way of telling him that it was OK to eat what others ate. But, there is more to this. In the ancient world, extending hospitality to travelers was considered very important. All cultures recognized this. To eat with someone, accepting their hospitality and sharing their table meant accepting them as equals. As a guest in someone’s home, it meant accepting them as honorable hosts. Thus, the conflict: When your religion warns you that many foods and homes are ritually unclean and to be avoided, this kind of hospitality was a real problem for Jews like Simon Peter.
            Before these two threads come together, we need to notice that the unfolding events are being driven by the Holy Spirit. The Spirit spoke to Cornelius; the Spirit spoke to Simon Peter. The Spirit is clearly preparing them for this meeting. More than this, the Spirit is leading the church to deal with one of the core issues of the Christian faith. Jesus had told the disciples at His ascension:
"Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things”(Luke 24:46-48 NRSV).

[PROBL:] The problem the Spirit is working to resolve is this: How can the disciples of Jesus go into all nations as witnesses to Christ if they believe that all other nations are unclean and to be avoided at all costs?
            Well, it is time for the Spirit to bring these two story threads together. Cornelius’ men arrive at the house where Simon is resting and they ask for him. As they arrive at the gate, the Holy Spirit tells Simon that he should go with them. When he meets them, everything they tell him about Cornelius confirms what the Spirit has been telling him.
            So, the next day, Simon goes with the men to Cornelius. As they arrive in Caesarea, they find that Cornelius has gathered his friends and his family to be present. Clearly, Cornelius considers this an important moment – one which he has been anticipating without any reservations.

            Simon was confronted with an old problem that comes to every strong community. Faith in Christ has given him strength of character and a strong community which shares a life-giving conviction about God’s presence among them. Would he use his strength as a Christian to circle the wagons, closing out the world, convinced that his life and his world did not need those outside? Or would he use this strength to open the doors so that he might share that very strength with others outside?
            This same problem is addressed to us, too. Like Simon, we have a community of faith and an experience of God that is a great source of strength for us. It has taught us how to travel through this world with grace and courage. It has given us the tools to succeed in business and in our social life.
            The temptation for us, as it was for Simon, is to use everything that makes us strong to turn inward:
·         to close the doors around ourselves and declare that we have enough.
·         to look around at the people who worship with us here and declare that only these are our people, our concern.
·         to use our strength to close ourselves off and to guard ourselves against the unclean and the unwashed outside who might dilute our strength.
Often, such boundaries serve us well; they are just part of the reality of everyday life. Unfortunately, boundaries also serve as excuses for our failure to speak the invitation to faith. The direct call of Christ is to reach across the boundaries to welcome in the name of Christ those outside.

III. [Vision]
            I believe that this church must be: A Beacon for Christ, set on this hill: Living Christ, Teaching Christ, Offering Christ.  To stand as that beacon, me must be the vibrant Body of Christ at the center of this city, in our larger community and in the world.
            This means that we are no longer about the business of dividing the world:
·         Right people from the wrong people;
·         People like us from the people who are different;
·         People who vote the way we do from people who will vote against us.
We are in the business of welcoming people at the Table of Christ
·         Too many people in this world understand the church of Jesus by what we against. It is time to show the world that we have not gathered because of what we are against. We have gathered because of the One who calls us to follow.
On the day he ascended into heaven, Jesus commissioned the disciples to be his witnesses to all the nations on earth. This now is our commission as disciples of Jesus. It was the Holy Spirit that solved the question that immediately arose: Which is more important: to keep ourselves away from people and things that might defile us OR to go wherever to witness to the love of Christ Jesus? The Holy Spirit answered that question with a resounding: “Go!” There remains no room for doubt.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

May 6, 2012 - Pruned for a Purpose

Pruned for a Purpose
John 15.1-17

I. Jesus has come to his last day upon this earth. There are some things he wants to do; there are some things he wants to say. And more importantly, Jesus knows that the end of his life is coming. He had predicted his death several times already. There is no evidence that he had predicted the exact day of his death or how it would unfold. But, clearly, he knew it was close.
            The day began with preparation for the Passover Feast – a feast which turned into the Last Supper. At the Last Supper, Jesus washed the feet of the disciples. Everything finished, Jesus began to talk with only his disciples. It was an intimate, thoughtful speech. It included the passage we read this morning. As we look at this portion of his farewell address to his disciples, remember that this came at the end of the Last Supper and just before he would be arrested and condemned to die. This was clearly important!
            Jesus began by saying:
1 "I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. 2 He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.

            A. I hear Jesus reaching back to finish the prophecy of Isaiah; the original prophecy is called the Song of the Unfruitful Vineyard; you can find it in Isaiah 5.
5:1  Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard:
            My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill.
2  He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines;
            he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it;
he expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes.
3  And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem and people of Judah,
            judge between me and my vineyard.
4  What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it?
            When I expected it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes? (Isa 5.1-4)

In that prophecy, Isaiah understands that lost, rebellious Israel is that vineyard. Then, he goes on to declare God’s punishment on that rebellious vineyard.
            B. Now, at the Last Supper, on the last night of his life, Jesus declares that he is the true vine that will produce the kind of fruit the Father wants. As Jesus talks about his role as the true vine, he speaks of the pruning that is necessary so that good fruit may come.
            I don’t know anything about pruning grapevines. We never grow any grapes except the wild muscadines that inhabit the woods below the house. I do know something about pruning azaleas, though. When we moved into our house, most of the azaleas had grown too large for their locations or they had lost their shape. I pruned them back over three years, cutting away the dead limbs and shrinking them until they were the right size. All this pruning worried my wife; she didn’t like it much; she was afraid that I was killing them rather than pruning them. I found that it was better to prune azalea when she was away from the house. After three years, with the azaleas blooming better each year as I shrank them, she decided that I might make a gardener after all. And I saw that pruning the azaleas gives us a more beautiful and valuable plant.

            I believe that the disciples would be familiar with the farmer pruning the vines. People in that time lived close to the land and farming. They would have watched farmers tend to their vineyards; they would know how pruning worked to produce more fruit. In contrast, I believe that many of us have never seen anyone prune grape vines.
            As Jesus said to the disciples that night:
            Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.
            This is hard text for me to take at face value. I believe we are called to take the Bible seriously and never discount anything in it. Still, I find passages in the Bible that are just hard for me to accept: the moral standard may be difficult; the example may be one that I would never want to keep; or on first reading, a passage seems to go against my deepest values. I hope you have passages in the Bible that make you squirm, too.
            A. On first reading, I am uncomfortable with the idea of God pruning us or those I care about.
+First, I do not imagine any of us coming passively before God; I prefer to consider the well-spoken Gospel and respond with commitment.
+Second, teaching submission to pruning by God models submission to all kinds of forced pruning by those more powerful than ourselves.
+Third, reminders of frustrations, disappointments, failures, abuses are not the most attractive parts of religion.
            I can only resolve this by recognizing that we all have suffered difficult experiences in our lives.
+Some of those difficult experiences were at the hands of another person.
+some of those are just the random events that fall on any of us as we live in the world;
+some of those are those life challenges by which we measure ourselves from time to time.
We may not be able to decide whether those challenges come to us. Still, we can determine how we will respond. We can decide whether we will respond with strength and grace and determination and maybe forgiveness OR we can decide to respond with fear and reactivity and confusion and maybe resentment. Our godly response may be compliance and acceptance; it may be objection and resistance. The way we respond may determine whether any difficult experience leads to more fruitfulness or leads to fruitless bitterness.

III. First, understand the arrest and cross as Jesus’ pruning experiences. I wonder if Jesus had in mind the pruning of the vine/himself that was about to happen with his betrayal and arrest. I wonder if Jesus saw himself being painfully pruned so that he might bear good fruit first.
            B. Second, the disciples were about to experience their own pruning in Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion. Would their pruning lead to more fruit or to their falling away? Before that terrible week would end:
            +Judas would betray Jesus and completely cut himself off.
            +Simon would deny Jesus and discover how fearful he was.
            +Thomas would doubt the resurrection.
            +and all the rest would run in fear from the arrest and then hide in the Upper Room.
Certainly, they were painful experiences for the disciples. Ultimately, those pruning experiences led to bearing more fruit for Simon and Thomas and the rest of the 11; those pruning experiences led to failure for Judas.

            [APPLIC:] Think about our hardest moments as pruning experiences. Think about the pain, about the fruit that comes from the pruning.  Could God use our worst days to prune and prepare us to become more fruitful? I hope we can count on that. Paul said in Romans 8:
28 We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.

IV. As I looked over this passage again…
B. Jesus said: “The Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit.
            The job of Christians is to be fruitful in God’s kingdom.
+Fruitful in our witness.
+Fruitful in our daily work.
+Fruitful in our family and community life.
It is our fruitfulness that glorifies God.

D. Fourth, “10 If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love.”So, this is the way we abide in Jesus love – by keeping his commandments. We know what he has taught us; his commandments are plainly written in the scriptures. This is not hard.

E. Fifth, Jesus said, “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” Jesus wants us to live in joy – not in fear, or constant duress, or backbreaking work. Jesus wants us to live in joy.

F. Sixth, Jesus said, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” OK, this is harder; he gets very specific. 13 “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends.” Jesus knows that the cross and his death lie before him, and it will not be long. He clearly asks us to lay down our lives for our friends.
+Our soldiers on the battlefields of Afghanistan know exactly what this means.
+In everyday life, I believe that laying down our lives for those dear to us means doing the right thing even if it means putting your job on the line.
+Other times, laying down our lives is the ordinary: Going to work every day for our families.
+Taking a risk to let go of the familiar in order to make a better way for our families or our communities. Every one of us can find some tired old habit that keeps us from going in a new, untested direction. Who knows? That new direction may be the best way to break out of a rut that is holding us back.

[CONCL:] Jesus calls us to be fruitful and to abide in his love. The way into that fruitfulness and love is to work with God when we are pruned. Pruning can be painful because it can cut away parts of our lives that we want to keep. But, if we will allow God to prune and to shape us, then we can become the Christ-persons we know God wants us to be. As Jesus said: “Abide in me as I abide in you. What a promise! What a challenge! What a blessing!