Joining In

A sermon based on Genesis 11:1-9 and Acts 2:1-21 preached on June 4th, 2017

Sermon audio

Today we celebrate the many ways that God gives us new being. How we are forever and constantly invited into a life that is not ours but something given to us.

Pentecost is when we the Church realize that our life, our vitality, our meaning and purpose aren’t something that comes from within us. It all comes from somewhere else. Beyond us. We are not who we are on our own.

On the morning of that first Pentecost, the disciples were held up in a tiny room. Their minds, hearts, lives—their very purpose was gone, shrunk down and withered away. Frozen in fear. They thought they were alone. Abandoned. Orphaned. Left to themselves to make life work from here on out. Then they heard a rumble that came from the heavens.

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It is through Holy Spirit that we are given live, purpose, vitality. Holy Spirit represented by tongues of fire, tongues of speech, wind, and water.

Pentecost fire is not the sort that burns. It’s the sort that refines. Cleanses. Helps something made hard and rigid melt down into something pliable, shapeable, able to be remolded again.

Tongues of speech. Not the strange jibber-jabber heard in Holiness churches, but a new language that’s given to us so that we may understand one another and be understood by one another. We read the story in Genesis of the Tower of Babel where God confuses the languages of the people until they can no longer understand one another. What happens in Acts 2, on Pentecost, is the undoing of Babel.

Now, on this day, with the presence of the Holy Spirit with us, we have the ability to understand one another again. We borrow language that isn’t ours, and with it, we speak. We speak in the varied languages of our lives. We understand and are understood. And that’s a tremendous gift: to be understood. It’s a gift of the Holy Spirit who speaks among us and between us.

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Holy Spirit comes upon us as wind, reminding us that we are born from borrowed breath. It is God’s breath that inflated Adam’s empty lungs and gave him life. The same is true of us. Until God breathes Holy Spirit into us, we have no life.

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And water. The waters of baptism are poured out upon us as a sign of this gift, the Holy Spirit. Water is another reminder that we are not our own. Without water, we wither away. It’s another life-giving gift. Something that we do not and cannot give ourselves; water is given to us. With the waters of baptism, we say that with God and with the people of God, we find ourselves. That being human is to belong. That to belong is to be human.

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Each one of these—tongues of fire, tongues of speech, wind, and water. They are all things that invite us into bigger life. Holy Spirit life.

Andrew, Brennan, Leela, nothing magical has happened today. But you did do something wondrous just now: In a world that prizes individualism—do it yourself-ism—you have just proclaimed with your presence and your voice that you will no longer live your life alone. You have in a few different ways, declared that doing life together, joining in, is the only way for you to find your purpose, your life, your shape, your language, your breath, yourself.

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The same is true for all of us. We all need to be reminded of the together-way. Life not only lived but formed and given meaning in and through the practice of Holy Spirit-community. And just like the disciples on that first Pentecost, this is just the beginning of our journey together.

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen.

How to Start a Fire

A sermon based on Exodus 13:17-22 and Acts 2:1-21 preached on May 15th, 2016

Sermon audio

If you believe author Elizabeth Gilbert, ideas are living beings. That is, she says, they exist outside of us and they survive in spite of us. Here’s what she means by that. Years ago, Elizabeth had an idea for a novel—a very specific idea: It was a story set in the 1960’s about a middle-aged spinster from Minnesota who’s secretly been in love with her boss for years. He gets involved in a harebrained business scheme down in the Amazon jungle. A bunch of money goes missing, and the main character gets sent down there to solve the problem.

Her editor liked the plot and told Elizabeth to write her novel, but she got sidetracked by the stuff of life, and after years of sitting on the idea, she conceded that the novel would never be written, and the idea slowly floated away.

Fast forward a few years later, Elizabeth Gilbert sees a good writer friend of hers named Anna who happened to be in town, and they meet up for lunch. They hadn’t talked to one another for a decade or maybe more. And over lunch, they ask each other what sort of writing projects each are working on, and Elizabeth shares the plot of her novel that would never be. And after Elizabeth was finished sharing, Ana looks her in the eyes and says,

You’ve got to be kidding me! I just finished a novel that set in the 1960’s, and it’s about a spinster from Minnesota who’s been quietly in love with her boss and when her boss goes down to the Amazon jungle, he gets caught up in a wild pharmaceutical scheme, and she has to go down there to solve things.

Now, there are lots of books out there that built out of all the same stuff—millions of murder mysteries or a vampire romances, for instance, but this was something entirely different! Nobody writes a novel about the Amazon jungle at all, and here are two authors with eerily similar book ideas—all the way down to the small details.

Elizabeth Gilbert reflects upon this happenstance in her book Big Magic, except she doesn’t believe it was happenstance at all. She believes that ideas are alive—that they move from one person to the next, trying to find a human collaborator. She thinks that ideas have a conscious, that they move from one soul to another, until they find someone who’s ready to take that yet-to-be manifested idea and turn it into something! And if an idea finds a person who’s unwilling to bring it into being, the idea will move on and find a different host. And an idea, she believes, will do that over and over again until it finds someone with the bravery and the drive to make something real out of it!

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Now this sounds like a far-out idea—something conjured up by someone with too much time on their hands, but Elizabeth Gilbert knows how ideas spark inside of her, how they come and how they go. And, I wonder if her idea about ideas has something to teach us on this Pentecost Sunday—this day when we remember the moment when the first Apostles catch wind of a brand new thing that happens upon them, something they can only describe as Holy Spirit.

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That first Pentecost day was not unlike the day before it or the one before that, but sometime in the morning a presence happened upon them, and they just didn’t know how to describe it. Whatever or whoever this was came like wind and like fire. And even though they were surprised and overcome by its arrival, the Holy Spirit did something to them that they just could not ignore—something real and new and undeniable struck them that morning, and they let whatever or whoever this was happen to them—they said Yes to it and they allowed it to take them over.

But this Holy Spirit, this isn’t a mere idea or some notion that fell upon them, it’s not an idea at all, it’s not even an “it.” The Holy Spirit is a being. Not an idea or a mindset or a notion, but the personal presence of God in Christ that storms into our presence like wind and fire storm through a house!

I think the phrase Holy Spirit is a terrible name for the 3rd person of the Trinity. Holy Ghost isn’t any better either. The word used in the New Testament is paraclete, which means Advocate or Helper. The Holy Spirit is not the leftover idea of Jesus’ presence, she’s not some spiritual feeling that we have once in a while that falls upon us and then leaves. The Holy Spirit is an everywhere presence who speaks to us and for us, who like an Advocate, emboldens and empowers us to live as Christ would have us live.

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This is how you start a fire: you gather heat, along with oxygen and an ignition source. This is how the Church was birthed, when a person-like presence came to them like wind and flame, and began sparking! If all we do is keep our faith to ourselves, all of us held inside a cold, dark room somewhere, anywhere, Jesus stays a mere idea, a lifeless “it” of our devotion, a mere relic or notion instead of a “who”—a real being who lives and breathes and calls us outward, who wants us to be agents of real change for His sake and for the sake of God’s world.

God’s Holy Spirit is the presence who comes in and resides among us, and She sets holy fires in Her people so that the whole world will one day be set ablaze with the Good News of the Gospel.

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Saint Catherine of Sienna was a 14th Century pyromaniac. In a time when women weren’t allowed to challenge men, it was Catherine who sent a letter to Pope Gregory XI, confronting him about, and eventually convincing him, to move the papacy from France back to Rome.

In all her dealings, Catherine of Sienna was forthright but never rude. She cared not a bit about the restraints her culture and time placed on her as a woman. She told the hard truth, but she always did it with love. And she never paid attention to those around her who told her to keep her mouth shut. Indeed, it was because she refused to keep her mouth shut that we remember her to this day as someone who set the world on fire. St. Catherine kept journals, many of which you can read to this day. They’re filled with Spirit-filled prayers that still speak life into their readers.

In one of her journal entries she gave a piece of advice that still echoes through the centuries. She wrote,

Be who God created you to be, and you will set the world on fire!

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We’ve been moving back and forth through the Book of Acts for the last few Sundays, and you’ve been invited to read through Acts on your own this month. The Book of Acts in general is a story filled with fire starters. From Peter, who speaks up in today’s passage to declare that the words of Joel the prophet have finally come to pass—that our sons and daughters would prophecy, that our young would see visions and our old will dream dreams—that the Holy Spirit is here for everyone, no matter who they are or where they’re from.

It was at that first Pentecost that heaven would begin crumbling down into earth, and from ever onward, the two would never be the same. But in order to recognize what God is doing, we’ll have to see with different eyes and hear with different ears, for it is only by the Holy Spirit that we will see how earth is being infused with heaven.

There were people there that day who saw the wind and flame blow among the people, who saw them acting up, speaking in languages that were not theirs to speak, and out of their shortsightedness and their lack of holy imagination, and in their distrust of what God was up to, they assumed that the people had too much to drink. In their minds, that was the only feasible thing that could make anyone behave that way. Their assumption was not only wrong, it was unfaithful, and unimaginative. They were unwilling to believe what God could do. They were unwilling to see in a different way, and with their narrow eyesight, they looked upon the people filled with the Holy Spirit and could only see a bunch of drunkards.

We too live in a world that severely lacks in imagination—especially holy imagination. Ours is a world void of wonder, but those of us who call ourselves Christians are called and challenged by the Holy Spirit to see everything differently, to pay close attention to the presence and mystery of God, but not only that, to join in on what God is doing in and among His world and in and among His people. We are called to be God’s storytellers and God’s fire starters! We are called to take flint and tinder, and with the breath of our own words, and the fuel of our holy imagination, set fire in the hearts of others!

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Garrison Keillor, the host of A Prairie Home Companion on American Public Radio, was once asked to choose what he considered to be the 5 most important books of all time. Keillor is a very well-read man and an author of many books of his own, so any list of books he’d make would be held in high regard by many. So, readers were probably surprised to find that he ranked the Book of Acts at the very top of his list. When asked to describe the Book of Acts, Keillor said in his trademark concise but image-rich way:

The flames lit on their little heads, and bravely and dangerously went they onward.

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Pentecost is that ever-repeating moment when all of us who call ourselves disciples stop sitting around tables inside our tightly enclosed upper rooms, and begin trusting not in our own power or ideas, not in our own imagination or initiative, but give ourselves over to a greater power, to be swept up and outward by a higher calling, and adopt a holy imagination. But, it’s only when and if we bravely and dangerously go onward with the Holy Spirit that God can do amazing things with us and through us!

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This and every Pentecost, God wants us to take that tongue of flame and bravely and dangerously start holy fires with it so that others may see by their light who our God is. And if we do that, we too will give birth to the Church.

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen.

Conversations By Firelight

A sermon based on Psalm 30 and John 21:1-25 preached on April 10th, 2016

Sermon audio

There was a light in the distance, on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Peter and the rest of the disciples had spent the pre-dawn hours just 100 yards from the shoreline. That’s when the fish are biting—very early morning—with dark still cast above the surface of the water. Their nets had been dragging beside the boat for a few hours now and to their surprise, they were catching nothing. Not one thing. At least nothing worth keeping.

It was still Easter. The disciples had seen the resurrected Jesus appear to them over and over again. The first time was in the upper room, all bolted up and shut tight around them. The second time, Jesus came again to the empty room, this time to quell Thomas’ doubt. But the questions still remained: What do you do when you’ve lost your leader? How do you start something all on your own when all you’ve done for the last three years is follow? Well, what you do is you return to something familiar, and for the disciples, what was familiar was fishing. But for some reason, not even that was working out all that well. By this time in the morning, they’re usually dragging in loads and loads of fish, but that morning, all they had to show for it were empty nets. Something wasn’t right. Even the most familiar things didn’t feel the same anymore.

Peter was the deck captain. It was his job to make sure that before they set off from the shore the nets were mended, that they had enough bait, and the boat was in working order. But Peter’s mind wasn’t in the game. He seemed distant, almost like he was caught in some kind of net himself—unable to find his way out of it. It was near the end of this terrible, no good morning when they saw a flickering light against the shoreline—a small campfire, maybe. There was a man standing next to it, some dark figure moving along the beach. Then a voice:

Children, have you caught anything yet?

No,

they replied to this mysterious figure.

The man standing along the shore yelled back,

Try the other side of the boat!

Whoever he was, he must know his stuff, because his fishing tip worked out. Once the disciples hauled their net to the other side, they were glad they took the time to mend their net before setting off. It was so full, there was no way for them to bring it back up into the boat. They had to drag it to shore. And as they got closer, it was the unnamed, beloved disciple who recognizes that this mysterious man along the shoreline is Jesus. He says so to Peter, and at once, Peter leaps out of the boat and into the water (Peter, it seems, is prone to jumping off the sides of boats!), and he swims toward Jesus.

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The last time Peter had seen a charcoal fire was on the night Jesus was arrested. Peter gathered around it for warmth, bundled up, hoping that no one would recognize him or figure out his accent. Peter’s shame for what he did that night had been an anchor around his neck ever since. That night, Peter denied Jesus three times. Jesus even knew he would before it ever happened. For days and days, Peter’s shame was unbearable, and seeing the flicker and spark of another charcoal fire sent shivers up his spine, the smell of it deepened his shame.

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In his gospel, John refers to every appearance of the resurrected Jesus as a sign. Signs point the way. When we’re lost, they can help us find out where we are in relation to things. They grab our attention, turn our heads, help us get unlost, point us in the right direction. But lots of times, we don’t have eyes to see them.

Throughout his ministry, Jesus was a sign-maker. He created signs for all to see. He existed to show us the way to God. He pointed all who met him in the right direction, but most who encountered Jesus couldn’t decipher His signs. They couldn’t recognize them.

This time, though, the resurrected Jesus shows up along the shoreline to help Peter find his way again—to lead him out of his haze, out of his lostness and despair—to give him new purpose and direction.

A fish breakfast sizzled over the charcoal fire along the beach that morning. Peter was soaked from diving off the boat, so he huddled around the fire for warmth, sitting next to Jesus. Another fire. Another cold shiver. Another conversation by firelight…

Peter, do you love me?

Jesus asked.

The question must have caught Peter by surprise, but that Jesus asked it of Peter three times must have offended him.

‘Peter do you love me?’ ‘Peter, do you love me?’ ‘Peter, do you love me?’

Yes, Yes, Yes,

Peter answers.

It wouldn’t be ‘til later, that Peter would recognize what Jesus was doing. With each question, Jesus was giving Peter a chance to redeem himself, to undo each of his three denials. Jesus visited Peter in the early dawn of the morning to turn those old No No No’s into new Yes Yes Yes’. Jesus has returned to take that anchor off from around his neck. To free him from his guilt and shame. To rehabilitate Peter. To make him whole again. That morning, during a conversation by firelight in the dim dawn of that early morning, Peter was lifted out of his fog. But not only that! See, when the risen Jesus appears, He not only forgives and unbinds us, He calls us to something—gives us purpose and direction! This isn’t just another Easter resurrection Jesus sighting; this is a call story for both Peter and those of us with ears to hear and eyes to see. After each time we tell Jesus we love Him, He says prove it.

‘Jesus, I love you!’ ‘Then feed my lambs.’

‘Jesus, I love you!’ ‘Then take care of my sheep.”’

‘Since you love me, feed my sheep!’

That is love’s fruit. If we love Jesus, then we will feed his people, because love isn’t just something we feel. Love needs purpose. And if the love we love with doesn’t compel us to action and call us to feed and care for others around us, then we’re not being faithful to Jesus, and the call and voice we hear is not the call and voice of the Gospel but some lesser call. This is Jesus saying to Peter and each and every one of us,

Don’t just sit here with your love for me! I need you out there! Enact your love for me! Don’t do this ‘follow me’ thing with lips only. Do it with your lives!

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When my Aunt Peggy was a teenager, my grandfather took her fishing out on Kueka Lake in upstate New York. My grandfather had some property there that he retreated to often, and he thought Peggy was old enough and experienced enough to fish with him without being too much of a bother. So, they cast out onto the lake with their fishing rods, bait, and candy bars for snacks, and sunk their hooks underneath the surface.

My aunt Peggy was in the front of the boat; my grandfather in the back. And at some point that morning, Peggy threw her rod around her shoulder to cast her line out, and she hooked my grandfather clear through the nose, and before she realized she had done that, she pulled on it. Now, Jordan noses are pretty big, but my Aunt Peggy couldn’t have done what she did twice!

The line didn’t yank my grandfather out of the boat, but I bet a fishing hook through the nose rattled him for a time. I’m sure it took my grandfather a few minutes to get the thing out of his nose, but once they got it out, he just kept on fishing. I’m not sure if my aunt Peggy reeled in anything other than my grandfather’s nose that day, but they did catch some fish.

To add insult to injury, that night they made their own shoreline campfire, and as he cooked the fish they caught, my grandfather spilled boiling water on his bare feet. But he kept on cooking!

I wonder what the conversation around the firelight was like that night!

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Seeing Jesus upon the shore, yanked Peter out of the boat. It dragged him to the shoreline, and together they sat as the fish popped and crackled over a charcoal fire.

The firelight warmed their faces as they shared in conversation with each other. In a sense, it was a signal fire. The smoke from it was an offering that rose into the sky above them, as Jesus, with His words, gave Peter a new sign, a new purpose and calling, signaling a new vocation for Him, not as a deck captain to a ragtag bunch of fishermen, but as lead disciple, and the Rock upon which Christ’s church was to be built. It served as a signal that even our worse words and actions can’t yank us out of relationship with Jesus.

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The Good News for us, friends, is that this world is full of shore-side charcoal fires! There’s signal fires and burning bushes everywhere we turn. We just have to have Easter eyes to see their spark and flame, and ears to hear their crackle and snap. But the message of the Gospel is that we have to want to see those signs! See, most us completely overlook God-sightings. We don’t recognize them as we should. We suffer from a lack of attentiveness. Mexican novelist, Carlos Fuentes, defines love as paying attention to the other person and opening oneself to attention. And discipleship means jumping out of the boat to be closer to Jesus. To risk something of ourselves to follow Him, to take up the vocation to love Jesus by feeding and caring for His sheep. Pastor Mike Foster says that we who are Christ’s church need to risk more of ourselves. He writes,

Our guardian angels are bored. We’re not taking chances with our faith.

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As we know, Peter would grow into his calling and purpose. He would indeed become a rock—a strong presence for an emerging church. He and his fellow disciples would eventually become unafraid and bold in their proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. But it would take them growing braver and walking into the world with it. The Way of Jesus is not a point of view. It’s not a religious opinion. It’s not a political or moral position. It’s not a stance we take. It’s a walk. What pastor and author Leonard Sweet calls “a world walk.” And it all started with a conversation around firelight.

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Do you love me?

That’s the question Jesus asked of Peter—of all of his disciples. It’s the question Jesus asks of each one of us.

If you love me, then follow and feed.

Jesus has the same words of purpose and vocation and challenge for us:

Forget about fishing on water. Start looking in different places. Start fishing in different ways. Risk more. Cast your faith out into deeper waters! We’ve got some hungry people to feed and some lost people to care for. Walk the Gospel Way…and follow me!

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen.