Thursday, May 31, 2012

All That Matters

Scripture for the Day of Pentecost includes Ezekiel 37:1-14, Acts 2:1-21, and John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

To say that the Day of Pentecost is the next most important festival day in the year, after Easter and Christmas, is true, but often deflated by its landing on Memorial Day weekend, a time when Americans love to get away, not so much to decorate graves as to embrace life at a spectacular time of year when we all feel drawn to the great outdoors.

In Judaism, Pentecost started out as an agricultural festival. In the Book of Leviticus, Israel is instructed to count off seven weeks from the Passover: “You shall count until the day after the seventh sabbath, fifty days; then you shall present an offering of new grain to the LORD.” Right in keeping with that is the instruction to bring fresh baked bread as a first-fruits offering to God. And then comes the bloody part: seven lambs, one young bull, two rams, and two goats are to be sacrificed. Finally, “On that same day you shall make proclamation: you shall hold a holy convocation; you shall not work at your occupations. This is a statute forever in all your settlements throughout all your generations.”

And presumably, with all that fresh meat, the holy convocation adjourned to a mighty barbecue.

So that background may suggest why the disciples were all together in one place, this day in Jerusalem. Don’t think twelve disciples (or eleven, with the loss of Judas Iscariot): Team Jesus was about 120 persons, we heard in last Sunday’s lesson from the Book of Acts.

Does this mean that they were all fired up at the thought of celebrating the wheat harvest? I doubt it. Something far more immediate, intimate, and life-changing was happening to them. With today’s portion of John’s Gospel as an audio clip of what was on their minds, they were still struggling with the meaning of their experiences across those previous fifty days: their Lord’s brutal death and momentous emergence from an empty tomb, his sporadic and astonishing appearances (usually at meal times), then his dramatic disappearance on the fortieth day.

“Sorrow has filled your hearts,” says Jesus to his followers in John’s Gospel. “Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not… the Advocate will not come to you… the Spirit of truth… (who) will guide you into all the truth.”

That gives us a taste of what those disciples are still chewing on, come the Day of Pentecost. They are still grieving, still looking in a mirror dimly, a rear-view mirror to try to figure out what the meaning of all this is.

Eugene Peterson in “The Message” tweaks the language this way: “If I don’t leave, the Friend (capital F) won’t come. But if I go, I’ll send him to you.” Or her, if you’re encouraged by some tweaking to do some more.

Now whatever meanings this day carried into this roomful of Jesus’s friends—gratitude for the earth and its bounty, sorrow and confusion over their losses—suddenly a sound filled the entire house, a sound like the rush of a violent wind. In many places today this moment in the story will bring a twinge of trauma: Joplin, Missouri… Springfield, Massachusetts, and points east… it was this time of year…

The full attention of everyone in that house was claimed, not by the meaning of past events, but by encounter with God in the immediate moment. What mattered now was not the traditions of Leviticus or the anguish of recent weeks: they were in the eye, not of a storm, but of God. Those flames of fire tell us so, as each mind and heart becomes filled with the Holy Spirit, and the mighty sound in that room is no longer wind but speech, their speech, in languages they had not studied or learned by trade or travel. And their speech is their tool to wield God’s mission given in that flow of the Spirit.

Because in Jerusalem at that time were devout Jews from every nation under heaven. And at the sound of all these languages in simultaneous fluency, an international crowd gathers. Amazed and astonished, they hear intriguing, appealing, longed-for announcement of God’s crossing the boundaries between past and present, God’s doing wonderful things not only long ago but now, God’s radical, even revolutionary, treasuring of all nations, all races, all gender, all classes. From where we stand, this is the stuff of breakthrough, the human race discovering a vision of God transcending all the tribal views of God, the human race finding itself at the threshold of unity—not under the iron fist of a Roman emperor, but at the open hand of a loving God.

Almost instantly, the nay-sayers say it can’t be so: these Jesus followers must be drunk. “Not so,” replies Peter,”it’s only nine o’clock in the morning, for heaven’s sake. What you’re hearing is fulfillment of ancient prophecy, that God would pour out his Spirit upon all flesh, not just the ordained few or the noticeably religious or the established righteous. Slaves as well as free, women as well as men, now find their voices in God.

And at this moment in time, the religion of ancient Israel is still where the action is. Notice how the Christian author of Acts (we believe it was St. Luke) gives credit to the Jews for having advanced the cause of universal partnership, even though, by the time he wrote this, the doors of the synagogues were closing to Christians and the hearts of Christians were turning against Jews.

Luke tells of the birth of the Jesus movement at a moment when it could have kept bringing its new blood, new life, to the table of orthodoxy. But it is in the nature of the orthodox to resist change, argue with the new, miss the opportunity to reach out and welcome, and instead circle the wagons. This is the fuller story Luke will tell, post-Pentecost.

By the same token, it is in the nature of movements to step on toes, impose changes, and generally set fire to the bleachers. All that is also part of the story, post-Pentecost. While we can’t expect Luke to tell that part of the story like it was, we know ourselves and our history well enough to guess that the estrangement of Christians and Jews was reciprocal.

And little would Luke have guessed that the Jesus movement itself could become just as resistant an orthodoxy as that of the Jewish temple. Luke remembers the days when it was said, “See how these Christians love one another!” Could he have time-traveled three or four centuries forward, he would have seen troubles ahead as the Church imposed uniformity in theology, worship, and politics, breaking into armed camps, excommunications, burnings of heretics, religious wars, and a never-ending splintering of the Body of Christ into tribal religions of denominationalism.

All of which is to say how critically important to us the Day of Pentecost, the story of Pentecost, the Spirit of Pentecost is.

And how dangerous to our own favorite orthodoxies. Remember the story: The sound, like a violent wind, claims the attention of all, levels all preoccupations, transcends all issues and struggles, sweeps everyone off their feet. Then comes the fire that frees and fills minds and hearts. No one emerges unchanged. No one can claim to be in charge.

All that is left is mission. And a community made ready by communion with the divine. All that matters is recognizing God, allowing inspiration, taking part in what God is doing in the world, expressing and extending the gift of being in God.

Thursday, May 24, 2012


Scripture for the 7th Sunday of Easter includes Acts 1:15-17, 21-26; I John 5:9-13; John 17:6-19

Fifty days after the resurrection of Jesus, his people will rise, renewed with power from on high. The fiftieth day of Easter, the Day of Pentecost, trains the church to look up and open up to that rushing wind of the Spirit of God, that pouring out of “amore”, the love that sweeps us off our feet and empowers us to love God in all things, receiving the love that is above all things, the passion that sends us into the world to see what we can do with such power.

But before we get to the fiftieth day of Easter (next Sunday), we arrive at the fortieth day (last Thursday), when the church is challenged to raise its sights, looking up not so ready to receive as to grieve; for on that day, the Ascension of Jesus slaps us in the face with an ultimate puzzle. Our Lord appears to be taken from us, yet all the language of the day claims that this happens so that all things may be filled with his presence. He is in all things; he is above all things.

On the Day of Pentecost, remembered as the birthday of the church, some congregations serve a great big cake. On the Day of Ascension, the conflicting themes of disappearance and omnipresence make it sound as if we get to eat our cake… and keep it, too.

These great fifty days provide the spin to the church year and make it behave like a roller coaster ride. Our faith tells us that the cross of Good Friday is actually the tree of new life (shown in the central and topmost window above our altar as a bright green cross, have you ever taken that in, while at the rail?); but bitter is the grief that rivets mother Mary and friend John to that dark hillside, and for at least a while the whole company of disciples is plunged into despair. Until Mary Magdalene explodes in joy and Team Jesus, in ones and twos and threes, experiences the fresh but familiar presence of their mentor, become convinced that death has not been able to silence him, and so become witnesses to his resurrection.

But this isn’t a fairy tale where they’ll all live happily ever after. Joyfully, yes. Powerfully, creatively, generously, bravely, yes. But it isn’t happy faces on those disciples, the fortieth day out. He is taken from them. The roller coaster lunges one more time, and their hearts sink as they face a heaven that claims the brightest and best. How will they come down from this mountain of loss and navigate a world without him?

This is part of the Gospel story that it’s tempting to rush over. But the answer for them can’t have been much different than the answer for us. We navigate our losses by passing through them head on, heart on, recognizing that it takes time to heal, takes a community of caring to heal, takes openness to the promised Spirit of God in Jesus to heal, takes reliving and retelling the story of our gains and our losses, to heal.

The story of the Ascension is the church’s story of her gains and losses. It works best as a story. Try to depict it realistically in a painting, and you have to deal with dangling feet and gaping mouths. But as a story, we get to imagine the impact, sense the mystery, and treasure the metaphors as we let it become our story.

For each of us is on a roller coaster ride that ascends in love of life, in love of God, and can come rumbling down in stomach-flipping speed in the loss of someone upon whom our life has hinged, or can take an abrupt turn we weren’t anticipating and we then face intensely the challenges of adapting to change. It is then that we dare to take him at his word and trust his promise, “I am with you always, to the close of the age.”

Come to think of it, wouldn’t it be smarter not to wait until then to practice the adaptability of faith in Jesus? To hinge our lives more intentionally on him, building familiarity and facing mystery in our praying, having an honest and open conversation with scripture, finding spiritual community with one another, seeking and serving where we are needed?

These must have been the same choices embraced by the church between Ascension and Pentecost, moving them through grief to joy, through helplessness to leadership, through dizzying change into transformation in the way of Christ. The story of this between-times is our story.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

In All and above All

Scripture portions for the sixth Sunday of Easter include Acts 10:44-48; I John 5:1-6; John 15:9-17

As a preacher, I plead guilty to treating each Sunday’s Collect of the Day as if it were eye candy. The collect is that prayer we say together just before we start hearing the Bible portions of the day; its name suggests its purpose, to collect a hundred or so minds and hearts that otherwise might at that moment be rolling around this room like marbles, focusing our attention on the major theme of the readings we’ll hear. That’s a mighty important role, and, while I’m aware that the Sunday collects in the Book of Common Prayer also are eloquent little gems, I confess that I seldom bring them into the pulpit with me.

Today’s collect can be traced back to the Gothic Missal (or altar book) of the early 8th century French church, and has ancient roots also in Celtic worship. In both its Latin form and its later English translations, its words have been changed here and there by editors (Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, for one), but the long keeping of this prayer makes it one of the Christian Church’s family jewels, and in both this keeping and that editing we recognize the same family dynamics that gave us the Bible: We keep the texts we call holy. We call them holy because they effectively communicate God. And having saved them from the fate of obscurity that landed many another text on the cutting-room floor, we’ve been unafraid to edit, tweak, and tease their words not to change their meaning but to better reveal it.

This collect announces that the whole enterprise of Christian religion is based on a human power, the power to choose, the power to choose to love God. Which is, as the collect tells us, intimately bound to loving life.

The prayer opens with a promise: that for those who make that choice, God has prepared “such good things as surpass our understanding.” It doesn’t square with best theology to hear this saying that we earn those good things: they come purely by gift and grace. And it surely doesn’t settle with good theology to think that God doesn’t care for people who do not choose to love God. In as few words as a collect is built of, what is said is that the choice to love will be rewarded, and not in ways we can anticipate or logically explain.

You would think that what comes next would be a good dose of hectoring, like, “so you all had better try, harder and harder, to love God.” Instead, God is asked to pour into our hearts such love towards God that we, loving God in all things and above all things, may obtain those promises.

This reinforces what we heard last Sunday in the First Letter of John: “In this is love, not that we loved God but that God loved us, showing this love by sending his only Son into the world so we might live through him. We love because God first loved us.”

Go back to the 8th century Latin version of our collect and you’ll find two different words for “love.” (This is the sort of thing that interests a preacher, in a forensic sort of way.)

To show you what I mean, hear again the collect’s three phrases about love.

First, “O God, you have prepared for those who love you such good things as surpass our understanding…”

Second: “Pour into our hearts such love towards you…”

Third, “…that we, loving you in all things and above all things, may obtain your promises, which exceed all that we can desire…”

First is the love we choose to invest in God. This word for love is related to the Latin verb “diligere”, the root meaning of which is “to choose.” Diligent love, choosing and choosing and choosing again to invest our hope and trust in God, choosing to build and maintain relationship, this same word appears as a result of what we ask for in the “Pour into our hearts” petition: “that we, loving you in all things and above all things, may obtain your promises…”

A different word for love appears when we describe what we want poured into our hearts: that is “amore”, love rooted in emotion, “amoris affectum”, affection and more—passion. This is the love we cannot manufacture on our own, the love that we need to have happen to us.

Aren’t these the two poles between which swings our experience of loving God? At one pole, we need from God love that sweeps us off our feet, frees us from our fretful need to control, opens us to deeper powers and hallows our weakness. At the other pole, we offer to God diligent love, caring for people, recognizing our duty to love God by loving our neighbors, seizing opportunities to love one another as Jesus loves his disciples.

At one pole, God gathers us up to breathe new life into us. This is the very motion that frees us to go and see what we can do with that power, as we swing towards the pole of diligence. To love God in all things, we must receive what God has for us above all things.

A very dear couple in our parish have a quiet personal practice of loving God.

Each of them starts the day with three or four polished stones in their left pockets. They go their separate ways, but each has the same practice: As soon as one recognizes that something good has happened, a kindness experienced, a blessing felt, he or she takes a stone from that left pocket, fingers it, feels it, and moves it to the right pocket. This is a practice of counting blessings. It makes me think of the two poles of loving God, the welcoming of the Spirit of God and the going to see what can be done with it.

What had real impact on me was the setting and the moment for their telling me about their stones. We were in a crowded hectic hallway off the lobby of a hospital. This was a place where life and death were held in precarious balance. A place where people are swept along in events beyond their own control, a place where diligent care and relentless love play their part in working wonders.

It was a perfect place to reveal the power of human choice. In their practice, the choice to recognize and welcome love whenever and wherever it happens to them, even in the valley of the shadow, the choice to recognize God setting a table before them in the presence of all that could trouble them. And the choice to remember what a full pocket is for.