Apocalypse Survival Kit

A sermon based on Isaiah 64:1-12 and Mark 13:24-37 preached December 3rd, 2017

I can hear you. You’re saying to yourselves, What’s Patrick doing reading this text? Does he not know it’s Advent? If I wanted to hear a fire and brimstone sermon this morning, I would have gone to another church. What’s an apocalyptic passage like this—an assigned reading for today, no less—doing here on the first Sunday in Advent?

That’s a good question.

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We hear a lot in that one word: Apocalypse. One mention of it and our minds, very much steeped in centuries-long cultural messages, go in tons of directions. In words like these from Jesus, we hear the warnings of fanatical preachers condemning the world for its moral degradation, trying their best to tease the end times—to encourage God to speed up the process a bit.

We hear in these words prognostications from televangelists about the whens and hows and whys of a God who must be altogether angry—enraged, really—and is just around the corner, ready to scare the bejesus out of all of us. Who will bring an apocalypse where all the good people will be sucked up into the heavens and everyone else will be left behind. We, spared. They? Well, they’re in for it. There are those who take passages like this and treat them like evacuation routes or escape plans.

There’s a satirical cartoon that advertises a roof escape hatch. A worker will come out to your place and cut a hole in your roof, turning it into kind of vertical doggy door, so that when you get assumed up into the sky at the end of times, you won’t hit your head on the way up.

We’ve been taught too may wrong-headed, wrong-hearted things about this. And it’s all non-sense.

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There’s no way around the fact that Jesus has some startling news for us in these words. There is a warning in them, and we ignore the vision given to us from the voice of our Lord to our detriment, but I’m not sure Jesus shared any of this to scare the pants off of us. Yes, these words are filled with caution and injunction, but have you noticed there’s nothing in what Jesus says here that sounds like a threat.

One telltale sign of the false messiahs and teachers of that day and the false prophets in our day too, is that they were all about showing off their own self-importance. They say what they say and do what they do to impress, because they have nothing else to offer. Jesus, on the other hand, is restrained here—as is the way he delivers these words to us. There are no scared-straight tactics here. Jesus doesn’t manipulate us like that. He never has. He does nothing to impose or compel faith. Instead, Jesus declares these things in order to get us to wake up to the present, to pay attention to what’s happening right here, right now.

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The word apocalypse is from the Greek—the language of the New Testament—and it means an uncovering or a revealing. Apocalypse is a word not about the future, but about the present. It’s a word about possibilities.

Jesus is uncovering something for us in this passage. Revealing something to us. And while uncovering something that we’d just as soon keep hidden can be a frightening prospect, the point is not to scare us, but to get us to take notice of what’s happening right in front of us. To ready ourselves, to anticipate what’s already underway. To startle us alive. To shake us awake—awake to what’s really going on, awake to the possibilities of the present moment. To see and then respond to the invitation in everything.

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Biblically understood, apocalypses happen every day. Whenever the earth shakes a bit under our feet or the faultiness of our lives crack open. They happen whenever we’re thrown off our center by something that happens, and it wakes us up to something that has always been, but we simply couldn’t see until that stark moment—when all the sudden, everything is laid bare in front of us.

You know these moments. You have lived these moments. Plenty of them.  Hospital stays where life as we know it comes to a screeching halt, and we are confronted by our own frailties. When the tales we tell ourselves about self-sufficiency and longevity are suddenly exposed as the myths they are. Or, how about those moments when a parent looks at their child and it dawns on them that they’ve grown up too quickly—right in front of our eyes. And it hits them like a ton of bricks.

These are moments when things are revealed for what they actually are. They happen all the time, but most of the time we’re not ready for them. Apocalypses show us what we’re not seeing. In their small way, these tiny, everyday apocalypses are an ending of the world—not in total, but as we know it. We wake up to something happening right in front of us that changes everything just a little bit.

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Here at the end of Mark chapter 13, Jesus is wrapping up a warning—something along the lines of: “everything we know passes away in due time.” In this particular instance, Jesus is talking about the temple in Jerusalem. This is a recently completed, tremendously huge, and very impressive monument that King Herod the Great has built for the Jews to worship in—where they believed their God resided in.

At the beginning of Mark 13, Jesus declares that the Temple in Jerusalem will one day be destroyed. It too will pass away, He says. Every stone will be thrown down, not one will remain on another. Indeed it was destroyed in 68 AD. Jesus declares that He is the new Temple. Everything, including this great temple, comes to nothing, but He, Jesus, Son of God, will forever remain.The end of something also means the beginning of something more, something bigger, clearer, something closer to the truth.

Apocalypses are hardly welcome, but they do come to reveal things for what they actually are. We must catch ourselves up to them. God works inside of each one. The promise of Christ is not that we are saved from these apocalypses, but that we’re saved in them. Our task is to endure and keep watch. Our ability to get through each of one—big or small—has much more to do with God’s faithfulness than our wit and wisdom, our skill or ingenuity.

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I’ve gathered together my own Apocalypse Survival Kit. I try my best to carry it with me wherever I go, but some days I forget. I’d like to share with you what’s in it. It contains five things—if you can call them “things”. I want to go through each of them real quick.

The first one is hope. Hope is that thing we do when we put our trust in, wait for, eagerly anticipate something or someone. We only have hope when we choose to patiently endure now because we know there will be a then, and that somewhere deep down God isn’t done with us yet.

The second thing in my Apocalypse Survival Kit is Peace. Biblical peace is so much more than the absence of war. God’s peace means wholeness, completeness. It comes from a Hebrew word we know: Shalom. It does not come from us. It does not happen simply when all is calm and bright. Peace happens when God is the source of every one of our longings.

May you see where I’m going.

The third item in my Apocalypse Survival Kit is Joy. Author C.S. Lewis thought that joy must be sharply distinguished from happiness or pleasure. I think he’s right. Biblical joy is a by-product of a life with God. It’s not a feeling but a perspective we adopt that’s more constant and more enduring than adverse circumstances.

The fourth thing in my Apocalypse Survival Kit is Love. Love is the greatest of these four, only to be outdone by the fifth. Author Frederick Buechner asserts that the first stage is to believe there is only one kind of love, the middle stage is to believe that there are many kinds of love, and the last stage is to believe that there is only one kind of love. Love, if we’re going to understand it in any way close to how God does, is an act of the will. We love our neighbors by working for their well-being, even if it means sacrificing our own well-being in the process. Love is a decision we make over and over again.

And the last thing in my Apocalypse Survival Kit is Christ. The greatest of these five is Christ, because in Him we find the perfect image of the first four. In Him we find our way, our truth, and our life. He is God come near this Advent, over and over again surprising us, confronting us, comforting us, waking us up to what it means to really live this life, to what it means to be human. On the cross, He showed us what it means to live completely—to love even if it does us in, and in whose Advent, was God come down. In Him, and still because of Him, heaven keeps invading earth.

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Carry these five things close in an Apocalypse Survival Kit of your own. And this Advent, keep watch with me.

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

Alleluia! Amen.

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Birthmarks

A sermon based on 1 Peter 1:3-10 and John 20:19-29 preached on April 23rd, 2017

Sermon audio

It’s Easter evening. The disciples are huddled together in a room too small for them. They’re sweating because the air is stagnant. They’re fearful for lack of courage or purpose. Three days ago, their courage and purpose had been crucified on a cross just outside Jerusalem. His name was Jesus.

Yes, there were rumors about. Earlier that morning, the two Marys had run back to the locked room they were huddled in. Out of breath from running, but also from whatever it is that happens to us when fear mixes with joy, they told the disciples that Jesus was alive. Walking, talking, breathing. Having conversations with them. But, for those first disciples, rumors and stories, conjecture and hearsay were good for nothing. How can anyone believe that Jesus is alive without first having seen Him? That’s the deep Easter question we have, isn’t it, friends?

Sometimes faith is easy. There are moments, perhaps many of them, when believing in that which we have not seen with our own two eyes comes effortlessly. But there are also moments when our faith lacks the strength to carry us very far—out of our own locked rooms.

There they were—Jesus’ disciples, who knows how many of them—certainly more than 11—hiding behind locked doors, whispering to each other out of fear of being discovered, certain that if they made too much noise or emerged out of the cubbyhole of a room they were in, they’d end up on a cross just like their Master had.

It’s a wonder that the Jesus movement was birthed at all. For their faith to take on life, those first disciples had to emerge from the grave of that small, locked room. In a sense, they had already buried themselves inside those 4 walls. They had barred the door shut—it was locked from the inside—that door was like a tombstone they had rolled in front of their own grave. All indications would lead us to think that they were calling it quits.

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Whenever we read this passage in worship or in Sunday School class, or a bible study, the word doubt inevitably becomes a part of our conversation.

But there’s something much more sinister at play here. Doubt we can handle. We can live with doubt. In fact, it’s hard for us not to. But hope. Hope is something that none of us can survive without. If all we see wherever we look are walls, barriers, locked doors that keep us in, that hold us prisoner—especially when those doors are locked from the inside—then we’ve given up hope. And what else is there if we do not have hope?

Whenever fear takes up more space in our lives than hope, death wins. Life grows smaller. The walls around us get thicker, they move in closer. And there we are, cramped with fear. As good as dead. We all know what it’s like to be stuck in place; it feels like dying—or at least a sort of smaller death.

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It is right in the middle of this cramped space, this room filled with fear and death and hopelessness, that we hear a voice we recognize:

Peace be with you!

Jesus says. Heads turn. Mouths fall open. The women were right! Jesus is standing among them. He speaks real words from His real mouth. Looking at the disciples through His real eyes. There He is standing among them in the middle of that cubbyhole of a room. And whether it actually happened or it just felt like it, the walls of that room retreated. The space inside grew bigger, fuller. And suddenly, the disciples could breathe again. In that tiny space, life quickly replaced death.

Peace be with you!

And after saying those words, Jesus breathed on them, inflating their lungs again, reviving their hopelessness, giving new energy—God-energy to their bodies worn down and failing, bringing new birth to their dying spirits. In that moment, everything seemed to expand. Walls. Eyes. Lungs.

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Let’s dive a little deeper.

Did you ever notice how many times Jesus’ hands and side are mentioned in this passage? Three. Three times in 11 short verses. This should get our attention.

The first and last time, it’s Jesus who brings up these scars of His. The second time Jesus’ scars are mentioned, it’s Thomas who brushes aside the witness of his fellow disciples. They have told him that they had seen the Lord, and in his stubbornness, the first thing that Thomas brings up is that he needs to see those scars—the nail marks in Jesus’ hands, the lash marks in his side. That’s a curious thing! Have we ever thought about that? What’s so important about Jesus’ marks—these scars He had—that they’re the first thing Thomas says he needs to see, the first thing Jesus shows to His disciples, and the first thing that Jesus shows to Thomas a week later?

There seems to be no question about it: Jesus’ disciples were waiting to see the marks. It’s the most important detail of Jesus’ identity now—that His body now has scars. If we ever had the notion that the body of the resurrected Jesus would be blemish-free—glowing in radiance, white with light, healed by God, then we are assuming too much. In fact, we’d be assuming the opposite of what those first disciples assumed. The resurrected Jesus—the One high and lifted up—the One who is with us now in the power of the Holy Spirit—is perfect, but even in His perfection, He has scars. And these scars aren’t just something left over from His life on earth; these marks He has make Him our Lord and our God.

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Our bodies bear witness to the brutalities of this all-too-human life of ours. They’re marked up all over. Our skin tells our stories for us. Our bodies are our best diaries. Written upon them is every bit of our past. Over the landscape of our own bodies we encounter the countless moments of our lives. Our bodies are living signposts marking where we have been and what we have accomplished. They remember where we have stumbled, but they insist on getting back up onto our feet to try again—which in a way is its own tiny resurrection, or if that’s too much, it’s at least resilience, our hope becoming stronger than our fear. Our bodies are living testaments to the God-filled conviction that says: no matter what this world throws at us, we have within us completely resilient spirits. Our marks—physical, spiritual, emotional—do not make us less than human; they are the very things that show forth God’s power to bring us to new birth.

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Friends, we belong to a Wounded Healer. Jesus’ scars—the ones in His hands and sides—are not incidental. They are the story He has to tell. They are God’s story.

Jesus isn’t our Lord without those wounds. What He endured for us on the cross shall not be erased. We do not forget his crucifixion, because without Good Friday, there is no Easter. Without the marks, we would not be here. Without the holes in His hands and sides, we would not be whole. The Church was birthed by those marks on Jesus’ resurrected body. And without them, the Church would have died before it ever came to life.

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Do you know what this means, friends? It means that our faith is birthed from Jesus’ marks. So, the only way to be Church—to live our lives authentically and in witness to the crucified and resurrected Christ—is to bear our marks. To go out from this place, and into all our places, and show the wounds in our hands and sides. By so doing, we show others that Jesus’ church is far from being a group of people who celebrate their own perfection or holiness. Instead, we are people who are willing to roll up our sleeves and show others the side of ourselves that’s filled with wounds—wounds of body, heart, spirit, and soul. They will know we are Christians by our marks. Our marks make us fully alive! God-alive, Jesus-alive, Easter-alive!

And if we do that—if we are willing to be as vulnerable as Jesus was when He entered into that room appearing to his people, wounds and all, then we will bring light to darkened hearts, hope to fear-filled souls, life to people living their lives half-dead, and maybe, hopefully, lead them to recognize Jesus in much the same way that Thomas did that evening.

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Thomas’ eyes were opened when he saw Jesus. And from his mouth came the most profound statement of faith that we have in any of the gospels:

My Lord and my God!

he said.

The Church was given birth that night with those words from Thomas. It is with that declaration of faith along with the breath that Jesus breathed into those disciples—both, bringing them to life—that the Church still has its life.

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Friends, we still have limited vision and blinding doubts. We’re often crippled by the same kind of fear that those first disciples had, and that fear causes us to do the same thing it did to them: to keep all held up inside, to keep our faith hidden by these four walls, to hesitate to take the Good News of Jesus-alive out with us—to share it and wear it. To live our days, hours, minutes in witness to our resurrected Lord. It is into our anxiety—that thing that tells us over and over again that our faith is a private thing—that Jesus speaks those same words He did to those first disciples:

Peace be with you.

Jesus says it over and over again. Three times in this passage, and many more times to us. And he’ll continue speaking peace to us until we finally understand what He’s trying to tell us. Christ’s peace is a whole lot more than something that calms our fears. This is Shalom. This is a peace that empowers us and drags us into maturity, wholeness, completeness. Jesus breathes this peace into us. With His breath, Jesus gives us life—He births the Church in the same way God brought creation to life when His Spirit swept over the waters and stirred the cosmos to life.

With this Shalom, we catch our breath and are made into new beings. This is the breath that marks us for second birth. And once we catch Jesus’ breath, once we’re birthed by the Holy Spirit—given our vitality and our mission—we go out from this place and bear witness to our Lord by bearing His marks in all we say, and in all we do.

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

Alleluia! Amen.

Worship(fully)

A sermon based on Isaiah 61 and Luke 1:39-45 preached on November 27th, 2016

Advent is a conspiracy. Advent is that secret plan that no one seems to know about—that hidden part of Christmas that everyone overlooks. Advent is God’s conspiracy, a rude invasion of the Holy into our hearts and lives. But in order to see this divine scheme at work among us, we need to look underneath all the Christmas pollution out there. We need to put our ear up to a different door—listen for another sound, a much quieter one, one softer than the ringing of silver bells or cash registers.

The word con-spire means to breathe with, to sync ourselves up with another. A group of people conspiring together gather with one another and they make a plan, they go over it again and again until everyone understands everyone else, until everyone involved knows exactly what their part is and how their part syncs up with everyone else’s part—until they’re all on the same page, until they’re acting as one, until they so intimately know how they and everyone else is involved it’s almost like they’re one body, breathing together.

Advent is a conspiracy. It’s an invitation into a plan hatched by God. God will invade the world by coming into it in human form. At first, only a few will know or even care—a teenager named Mary and her cousin Elizabeth, later a few shepherds—so unimportant to the world that they don’t even have names! Advent is a con-spiracy, a way for human beings like you and I to breathe deep and make room for the Spirit of God to invade, inspire, to sync our every inhalation and exhalation—to make every one of our exaltations—with, to, and for God.

The invitation of Advent is to go through this Christmas season living and breathing in new and different patterns than the rest of the world. As others anxiously and breathlessly scurry about all around us, we the faithful have been invited this season to breathe deeply and worship fully.

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Each of the gospel writers approach the story of Jesus in a different way. If the gospel according to Matthew is like a research paper, then Mark’s is more like a blog post—much shorter and to the point. And if the gospel according to John is like one of Shakespeare’s plays, then the gospel according to Luke is like a Broadway musical. Luke’s gospel starts with 5 different musical numbers: Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, sings of the great things God will do through his son; there’s the angel’s song to the shepherds announcing the birth of God into the world; there’s Simeon’s song that he shouts at the time of Jesus’ christening; and today’s song, a duet of two pregnant women: Elizabeth and Mary, cousins who come together to rejoice in their shared fortune—God is doing something new and extravagant for the world, and for some inexplicable and wondrous reason, He has chosen to do it through the two of them!

We call Mary’s song the Magnificat because Mary sings about how her heart magnifies or glorifies the Lord. The original word that Mary sings here starts with the prefix mega-, as in megaphone. As these two women sing, they use their outdoor voices to exclaim their news. They shout over the rooftops, they exclaim their praise to the heavens, more confident than ever before that God hears their song—has heard their long-held prayers and now, finally, has an answer to all the injustice in the world. These two women breathe in deeply, and with big breath from big lungs, they use big notes to sing big songs to God!

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The Velvet Revolution of East Germany started slowly. Protesters began to gather at the foot of the Berlin Wall. Every Monday evening, they came together and lit candles—just dozen or so at first. They sang songs out of hymnals with one another. Singing became their main act of protest. Over two months, the dozen or so grew into a little more than a 1,000 people, and then into over 300,000—half the citizens of the city.

These 300,000 gathered together each Monday evening, and sang songs of protest and justice and hope, until their song was loud enough for the people inside of government halls to hear them—until their voices pierced the thick walls of all the unjust laws in place in East Germany, until the people’s songs were loud enough to send the Berlin Wall crumbling down to the ground. Later, when someone asked one of the officers of the Stasi, the East German secret police, why they did not crush this protest like they had so many others, the officer replied,

We had no contingency plan for song.

The right songs, sung loudly by enough people can change the world. Mary and Elizabeth knew that. Revolutions begin with a single note beginning a single song; and somehow that song grows loud enough to send even the strongest of walls crumbling down to the ground.

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If we pay attention to the words of Mary’s song, it won’t take us long to figure out that they haven’t come true yet. Mary’s words are full of hope. Mary knows that she’s giving birth to something new—it’s something that God is doing—but this thing that God is doing through her and through Jesus will not come true overnight. Even God’s plans take time. Mary sings of powerful people being pulled down from their thrones, never to rule again. The hungry will be fed with good things and the rich will be sent away empty-handed.

None of this has happened yet. The ways of the world haven’t changed all that much—they’re still the same as they have always been. But just like Mary, we don’t wait to sing our songs of hope. Like the protesters of the Velvet Revolution, we don’t wait until all the walls of injustice have come crumbling down to the ground before we start our song. We sing now. And the song we sing is a song of hope, and this song is called Advent. Hope is at the center of the Advent conspiracy. Hope is the very engine of the Almighty who comes to us in Jesus Christ. And this hope we have is not of the naïve and cheery sort. It’s not the watered-down sort of hope that fills Hallmark cards. It’s not the kind of hope we have when we toss our coins in fountains and send up wishes. The hope we sing of at Advent is of the determined sort. It’s gritty hope. This sort of hope has friction. Advent hope is the kind of hope that dares to stare into the face of darkness—the darkness of our lives and the darkness of the world—and dares to confront it.

The hope of Advent gives us what it takes to lift our single voice and dare to shout out into a meaningless world, to take a world completely ambivalent and impersonal and apathetic, and sing into it something real and meaningful and substantial. Mary’s Magnificat has been echoed over and over again throughout history in the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. as he sung his “I have a dream.” In the words of Maya Angelou as she tells the story about why the caged bird sings. In the still-sung and powerful words of We Shall Overcome…One Day, One Day. Advent is a conspiracy. A conspiracy of hope. A breathing-in to make room in ourselves and in our world for God to do something new and significant and vital.

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Starting this Wednesday evening, we will gather together in the Fellowship Hall for this year’s Advent bible study. Each week we will look an often overlooked and surprising truth about the story of Christmas using a book entitled Hidden Christmas by Timothy Keller. You don’t have to read the book to be a part of the bible study, but you can if you’d like.

Timothy Keller thinks that there are a few things about Christmas that we still don’t seem to get—that no matter how many times we’ve read the Christmas story or attended an Advent Bible Study, or come to church on Christmas Eve or any one of these Sundays in Advent, there’s something that God is doing at Christmas that continues to fly under our radar screens. Keller says that the most surprising and under-acknowledged thing about Christmas is the message that the world’s hope comes from outside of it. You could call that the central confession of Christmas, the conspiracy of all conspiracies: that in a world full of people who break their backs to claim self-sufficiency, inside a culture that loves to proclaim its independence and autonomy, we who call ourselves Christian confess the opposite.

Our hope comes not from self-reliance but only and fully through reliance on something or, rather Someone outside of us. Our Greatest Hope has never dwelled within of us; our Greatest Hope comes to us from the outside. And our task this Advent: to ask for this hope to fall upon us. To actively wait for it. To look beyond ourselves for it. To worship fully—to live our lives breathing in God’s Spirit deeply, knowing that, just like air, the living, breathing Hope of God is what gives us our life—and that it comes to us from outside of us.

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Friends, this Advent, be a part of the conspiracy! Breathe deeply. Make room for the Spirit of God to invade and inspire you. Sync your every inhalation and exhalation—and make every one of your exaltations—with, to, and for God. Worship fully. Practice Divine-dependence. With big breath from big lungs, use big notes to sing big songs of hope to God, just as Mary and Elizabeth did—the sort of hope that comes from outside of you, so that your life may be infused with, and invaded and inspired by, the Spirit of God!

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

Alleluia! Amen.

Finding Emmaus

A sermon based on Psalm 116 and Luke 24:13-25 preached on April 3rd, 2016.

Sermon audio

It’s easy to get lost on your way to Emmaus. It’s a hard place to find because it’s really not a place you can find on a map anymore. People have their hunches where it used to be, but there’s a problem with that, too. Depending on what Christian tradition you come from or listen to, Emmaus could be one of more than five different points on your map, and each one is pretty far from the other. Some ancient copies of Luke’s gospel say that Emmaus is 160 stadia (or 31 kilometers) from Jerusalem and some others say it’s only 60 stadia. And in what precise direction? No one knows that either. It’s somewhere between Jerusalem and Galilee. The rest is up to you to figure out.

But let’s say you were on a trip to the Holy Land and you took a stab at it. The best guidebook on the market, one written by Jerome Murphy O’Connor, whittles the most likely spots down to four. You could start with any one of them—and in no particular order you could drive down each one. On one of them, you’d drive up a hill and you’d see a blue sign that says “Crusader Church” with a really helpful arrow pointing the way, but all you’d find ahead of you is a small cinderblock school house. Nobody would be there. It’s abandoned.

So at that point, you might decide to turn around thinking you’ve missed something, and before you recognized where you even started from, you’d find yourself at a dead end. And at that point, you’d figure out that all of the road signs were wrong. None of them are of any help at all. And if you weren’t frustrated out of your mind already, you’d try to find the next Emmaus. There’s three more to go. “Which Emmaus is real? Is there even an Emmaus at all?” Those are some of the questions you might start to wonder.

We had hoped.

Those three words should stand out to us in this passage. Along with “It is finished,” and “Jesus wept,” they’re some of the saddest words in all of scripture.

Two of Jesus’ disciples, Cleopas and an unnamed one, are walking away from Jerusalem. It’s a few days after the important people hung their Master from a tree. They may have seen Jesus take his last breath. They may have seen His head fall to His chest. They may have stuck around to see Joseph of Arimathea take Jesus’ body down from the cross, put Him in a tomb, sealing its entrance with a gigantic stone. And now they’re walking away from it all. It’s over. For 3 years, they followed this man. They loved Him. They invested themselves in Him. Dropped their jobs, left their families, gave it all up. And what’s left to show for it?

We had hoped,

they said.

All that’s left are the shards of things. The broken promises. The jagged edges of memory. Their crushed expectations. They had come all this way with Him—for Him—and the signs were all wrong! So, dejected, they made their way home along the Emmaus Road.

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It’s one thing to have faith in a person—someone who you can see, someone with eyes that look at you, and a mouth that speaks to you, and hands that reach out to touch yours. It’s another thing entirely to have faith in a resurrected Savior. That first kind of faith can prove itself well in lecture-rooms and science labs. It can be measured by observers and witnessed by companions. But faith in a resurrected Savior, that’s a different thing. That kind of faith takes a new sort of vision. A whole different sort of witnessing. Faith in a person who walks with you down all your dusty roads, yet doesn’t leave the footprints to prove it. That’s another matter entirely. With eyes of faith, we see Jesus walking beside us, or at least we hope that’s what He does, but sometimes we’re unsure about that. And most times, we’d never dare share such a thing aloud, lest everyone else think we’re out of our minds. But Jesus is our travel companion. Silent most of the time, but still somehow speaking. That’s what Cleopas and his fellow travel companion found out as they walked down the Emmaus Road. At some point along their journey, a third person walks up to them. They strike up a conversation. Jesus says nothing about Himself, he just asks questions and listens.

I wonder what prevented them from noticing that it was Jesus. Did Jesus have a hood over his face, or were all three of these men looking down at the ground as they walked along—too eager to get to their destination to notice anything along the way? It wasn’t until they stopped for the evening, set up camp, and sat down for a meal together that Cleopas and this other unnamed disciple notice that this whole time, it was Jesus who walked this long road with them. Until that moment, their eyes were kept from seeing. Think the Lord’s Supper. Think the feeding of the 5,000. How many times before has it taken food broken, blessed, and shared for people to recognize Jesus? We don’t have fingers enough to count!

Then at all once, their eyes were opened. Passive tense: they didn’t open their own eyes, something outside of them opened up something new in them and suddenly they saw! And just as quickly as they saw Jesus He vanished from their sight—who knows how or what that looked like—but all at once, Jesus disappeared.

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Imagine you’re speaking with a woman who has just given birth. Having never given birth before, you ask her,

What was it like?

What would she say? She might share with you how wonderful and joyful it was. Then in the next breath she might tell you about the pain, describing it as far beyond anything she’s ever felt before. She would probably tell you she felt frightened out of her mind. Then you might say to yourself,

How could anything be frightening and joyful at the same time. That makes no sense.

She might also tell you that she feels exhausted but at the same time also full of love. You’ve never experienced those two emotions together before, so you have a hard time imagining anything close to it, but you know she’s telling you the truth because she seems sincere, and who could make up anything like that anyway? Who would ever put those two emotions together that way? Other mothers can come along and hear that and say,

I know just what you mean!

So, how do you describe the greatest event in history: the resurrection of Jesus to someone who doesn’t know? At least there are plenty of mothers out there who understand what childbirth is like. But what if you’re a witness to this one point in history, along the road? The Risen Jesus walks with you, asks you questions about Himself, shares a meal with you, and then vanishes? Who’s ever going to believe a thing like that? And what words are there to convey that experience and all of its emotions to others who weren’t there to experience it for themselves? How would you share it with anyone? What words are big enough for that? And why should you expect anyone to believe you?

We all have personal experiences where we meet Jesus. We could open up the floor and have all of us share our encounters with the Risen Lord, and if 45 spoke, we’d have 45 different stories—not a one like the other, which adds to each story’s authenticity.

Luke is the only gospel to share this story of Cleopas and this other unnamed disciple encountering the Risen Christ as they walk along the Road to Emmaus. If all the other gospel writers wrote about a Jesus-sighting along this same road, in the exact same way, with identical words, that would make me think something was rigged. That would mean that the four gospel writers were swapping notes with one another, making sure that their stories matched up. And that would make me more skeptical. But that’s not what we have. What we have are four unique stories of encounters with the risen Jesus, told so differently that they must have been much more concerned about sharing what they experienced and saw and felt for themselves, because that’s what people do when they’re sharing their hearts with others—they get to the edge of language, not fully able to convey with words what they witnessed, so what we get is their clumsy attempt to give words to an experience that is really beyond words. That’s when we start listening with our ears perked up because we know that we’re hearing a lone witness doing their best to tell their Jesus story,—trying to describe what happened along the road to Emmaus with words big enough for us to find our way there, too.

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From my own vantage point, I see that there are much more than four ways to Emmaus. We are all Cleopas’ unnamed companion, and we walk down 10,000 wandering and winding, twisted and treacherous roads. Emmaus didn’t happen just once; and it doesn’t exist in one spot on a map. Emmaus happens whenever hope and mystery, joy and disappointment, doubt and faith commingle. Emmaus exists everywhere, and at every turn! Emmaus happens when a way is made out of no way; when God takes our closed hearts and minds and pries them open to show us glimpses of Jesus—even if just momentary ones before He vanishes from our sight.

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The visionary poet, Walt Whitman concluded in his sprawling poem Song of the Open Road with these words:

Camerado, I give you my hand!

I give you my love more precious than money,

I give you myself before preaching or law;

Will you give me yourself? will you come travel with me?

Shall we stick by each other as long as we live?

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If you’re traveling across the Holy Land, you may never find Emmaus. It’s one of those things where you might drive right passed it but never realize it. But it’s not so important to find it anyway. Emmaus isn’t somewhere. It’s everywhere. And it doesn’t so much matter where you walk as much as it matters who walks with you.

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

Alleluia! Amen.

Practicing Hope

Practicing Hope | Patrick Ryan – Psalm 72:1-8, 16-19 and Isaiah 11:1-10 – 11/29/15

Sermon audio

The book of Isaiah begins with a stomach growl. It’s full of longing—hunger pangs. Isaiah looks around at his fellow Israelite people, across the landscape of his nation and he hears their cries for something wondrous and unexpected to happen.

The beginning of the book of Isaiah was formed as the Jewish people were being threatened off of their land by stronger armies. The people were shouting out for God to come to their rescue—to save them from the darkness that was mounting all around them. And Isaiah speaks up on his peoples’ behalf, and asks God to do something new and miraculous for them. Isaiah knows that the hunger pangs of his people can only be satisfied by divine intervention. It is God alone who can take the violence that is swelling up on every side, and bring peace and healing to the warring nations.

Isaiah is often called the 5th gospel. The word “gospel” means good news, and Isaiah is the first person in the bible to use the word. In Isaiah 40, Isaiah hears God speak to him. God says,

Go upon a high mountain and shout! Raise your voice, messenger! Raise it, and don’t be afraid. Say to the cities of Jerusalem, ‘Here is your God!’

And amid all the rumors of wars being waged nearby, threats mounting up all around them, getting closer and closer, the people of Israel are starving for good news, for Gospel. And so are we.

Aren’t we also world-weary right now, intimidated by the violence we see all around us? We turn on our TV sets only to find out what we need to be scared of next. We ask exasperated and hopeless questions like, “What’s this world coming to?” because all that’s brought to our attention is the bad news. We wonder if there’s any good news out there. There is, in fact, much good news out there, much more good news than bad; we just need to seek it out. Good news is never brought to us. We have to hunt it down, but it’s there.

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Once again, we enter Advent well aware of how broken our world is. We’re well-aware of its darkness, and we long to see bright spots. We long for a world that is kinder and more peaceful. We hope for a safer place for our children and their children, too. But there’s a weariness to that hope. But there’s also a challenge to that hope. It isn’t a let’s-all-hold-hands-and-sing-Kumbaya kind of hope. Isaiah’s brand of hope—scripture’s kind of hope— doesn’t sound like a beauty pageant contestant wishing for world peace some day and then smiling real big. It’s a patient hope, a hope that knows failure and heartache, disappointment and many setbacks. Advent is a season full of juxtapositions just like that: anticipation and fear, hope and disappointment, darkness and light.

Hope isn’t a wish made upon a star, it’s more like a growling in your stomach—a hunger pang that will only go away if it’s nourished morning, afternoon, and evening—day after day after day, year after year after year. Hope is something tended to. Hope is something practiced. And Advent is the season where we practice hope tenaciously, where we dare to walk forward into the darkness up ahead of us, just like those astrologers did as they set off on their journey to find Jesus. They saw a faint light up ahead, but it meant walking through many long nights of darkness first.

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The cedars of Lebanon were mighty trees. Strong and tall. They could grow up to 130 feet tall and up to 8 feet in diameter. They were used by the Phoenicians to build military-grade ships. They were used by Egyptians to mummify Pharaohs with its resin, and by the ancient Israelites to built King Solomon’s Temple and other holy structures throughout their history.

The prophet Isaiah spoke of the cedars of Lebanon as a metaphor for national pride. Their strength signified Israel’s strength among the nations. But here those mighty trees have all been cut down into stumps. They have been made into firewood for other nations to enjoy.

The stump of Jesse—all of Israel’s pride—has been leveled to the ground. There is no future left for the people. But in the middle of this devastation, Isaiah speaks up and says that out from the dead stump of all that Israel once was will grow a shoot. A sprig. Out of something that appears lifeless and hopeless, dead and spent and left-behind, a tiny little green thing will begin to grow. Something small, fragile, yet tenacious. That’s what hope is. Just a tiny little fragile thing that blows in the wind, withers in the snow, but pops back to life anyway.

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We often decide too soon where things can grow, what things will never have a chance to survive. We have a tendency to overlook and dismiss the small and fragile things that come to life all around us.

Advent is that season where we’re invited to look closer, slower, so we will notice even the tiniest expressions of hope and good news among us. They’re out there—fragile, meek, yet tenacious. The Gospel says that even the smallest things can grow into a new beginning for us. That’s how to practice hope. To slow down enough to see how, over and over and over again, God uses to tiniest bits of things and does remarkable things with them: Mustard seeds. 2 loaves and 4 fish. A Christian-hating, death-dealing Pharisee named Paul. A man named Moses who can’t string two words together without stuttering. You. And me.

Hope says that no one’s story is over. Hope knows what it is to fail and fall, but hope always gets back up on its feet and tries again and again. It’s got bumps and bruises all over, but it stumbles forward anyway. Hope knows what it doesn’t yet have, and it won’t stop until it finds it. It knows failure and longing, but it also knows that both the failures and the longings are precious and holy. Hope inevitably meets disappointment, but it walks straight through it. And the most impressive thing about hope is that it is patient. It knows about roadblocks and long lines and doing without, but it still has faith that it will one day get to where it’s going.

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Advent is full of precious longings, stumbling onward, fragile yet tenacious steps forward. All of it holy.

This Advent season, we are charged and challenged to practice hope. It’s not something you have, it’s something you find. Hope is a visible, shared yearning for new growth when everything else has been cut down.

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Isaiah’s vision seems crazy, and fantastical, and utopian. He mentions children going out to play by themselves without the danger of being bitten by snakes. Calves cuddling up with lions, bears becoming vegetarians and grazing next to cows. It’s a world without fear or terror or anxiety.

According to the magazine Atlantic Monthly, the world is actually a much safer place for our children to grow up in then it was when you and I were young. Crime is down, kidnappings are down, instances of violence are all down. The difference between today and a generation or two ago is that because of the media, we all become instantly aware of these sort of threats whenever and wherever they take place, and it freaks us out. These days, if we want good news and perspective, we have to go searching for it. We have to practice it, because no one listening to the endless voices on our TVs will ever know what hope sounds like, let alone be taught how to practice it.

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Precious longings. Steps taken forward. Noticing tiny reminders of life that grow all around us, fragile yet tenacious. That’s what Advent is made of.

Advent is not about nostalgia. It’s not about going back to simpler and better and more decent times. It isn’t about coffee cups with images of snow flakes or Santa Clauses on them, scoffing at people who say Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas. All those say more about our fondness for cultural Christmas nostalgia then they do about our faith in Christ.

Advent hope is never nostalgic. Never backwards-looking. It’s always forward-facing. Always “eyes ahead” to see that star shining far out in front of us—the Light who has come among us full of grace and truth. Advent hope is about finding light even through the vast amounts of darkness surrounding us. It’s about preparing ourselves for the newness that Isaiah declares has sprouted to life among us—this tender, fragile shoot. This infant who will be born among us, wrapped in swaddling cloth and lying in a manger.

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I mentioned the wise men last week. We will be following them this Advent as they make their journey towards the Christ-child, Emmanuel, God-With-Us. If we want to find good news, we, like those ancient astrologers, have to go searching for it. We have to go scampering and stumbling through the dark, because once we saw a dim but constant light up ahead and we want to know more, we want to see more, we want to hope more.

And on our journey we should think and meditate upon many things, but first and foremost, we should ask ourselves these questions: If God can take these old, dead, and chopped-down dreams of ours and grow something new from them, then shouldn’t we prepare ourselves to encounter something new and even better up ahead of us? Shouldn’t we too hunger for something more, long for something greater, and expect to be awed by its goodness, its wonder, its majesty? And with this little child as our King and our Prince of Peace, shouldn’t we expect a day when our hunger pangs—for righteousness and justice—are no more?

What is our world coming to? Let’s walk toward this bright star ahead of us and see for ourselves!

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

Alleluia! Amen.

The Whole Truth

A sermon based on Psalm 130 and Mark 5:21-43 preached on June 28th, 2015

The Whole Truth – audio

It was April 23rd, 1910 when Theodore Roosevelt found himself on the steps of the Sorbonne in Paris, France. It was on that day that he delivered one of the greatest speeches ever made, the famous “Man in the Arena.” In it, Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed these words:

It’s not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.

The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly, who errs, who comes up short again and again, because there’s not effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at best know in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.

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Today, we’re continuing with our series using Brené Brown’s book The Gifts of Imperfection, and we’re talking about resiliency, authenticity, and showing up—each one of those is daring practice we must undertake in order to live a wholehearted life.

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I’ve told this story to some of you in a bible study not too long ago, but it’s a good one, and it’s worth hearing more than once.

Brené Brown tells the story of her time at a TED Conference. TED Conferences are gatherings of highly sophisticated and professional people who get together and listen to speakers for 3 or 4 days. The people who come to these TED Talks are typically high-expectation kinda folks and the talks given by their peers hardly ever disappoint.

Brené Brown was asked to speak at one of these TED Conferences, and she said that as each speaker walked off stage after their talk, she slumped a little lower in her chair. She thought that she didn’t have anything to bring to the audience that was on par with the other speakers, and as she thought about how her talk might “work,” she realized that she would have to give up on the idea of doing it in the same way that all the others did theirs. Instead, she realized she would have to connect with the audience in a different way. Where all speakers so far had gotten up on stage and proudly proclaimed—maybe even bragged—about their own successes and how much they’ve accomplished in their field, and how their work was changing the world, Brené Brown realized she didn’t have a story like that. It dawned on her that when it was her time, she would have to get up their and risk something that none of the others speakers were willing to risk—she would have to stand up their on that stage and just be herself. As she describes it, she would have to be naked, vulnerable. And, like most of us, she hates naked and vulnerable.

When she finally walked on stage, she asked the stage managers to bring up the houselights so she could see her audience—she didn’t want to talk to an anonymous people, she wanted to connect with people. She stood there in a moment of silence with the lights up just making eye contact with many of those who looked right back at her. Then she asked her question:

How many of you struggle to be vulnerable because you think that vulnerability is weakness?

Hands shot up all over the place. Then she asked,

Throughout this conference, as you watched people on this stage being vulnerable, how many of you thought their vulnerability was courageous?

Again, hands shot up across the room.

We want to experience vulnerability in others, but the last thing we want to do is be vulnerable right back. Vulnerability is strength in others, but it’s weakness in me—that’s the way we all think. So, when we dare to show up like Brené Brown did in her TED Talk and go all in, taking the risk to connect to others by sharing our vulnerabilities, we open up a brand new space for everyone else around us to share in. Vulnerability isn’t weakness. Not at all. It’s the greatest dare of all. Our willingness to tell the whole truth about ourselves in front of others—or even to ourselves—is the very definition of courage.

Brené Brown has a vulnerability prayer, and it’s so short, you can memorize it. It goes like this:

Give me the courage to show up and let myself be seen.

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Jairus was a synagogue leader. He was an important and well-regarded man with a high profile job. Everyone in the area knew him, and Jairus knew that wherever he went, he had a reputation to uphold. He was a priest, and priests are leaders, especially back in that day—so it was important for him to convey strength and a certain have-it-togetherness. But here in this moment, this noble priest comes to Jesus not as a powerful dignitary but in a puddle of himself. He’s a leader made needy because it’s his daughter, she’s about to die.

Jairus seems like the kind of father who could do just about anything for his daughter, but in her sickness, he’s made powerless, so he turns to Jesus and he asks him, “Please!” This isn’t a command—the kind any temple leader would give to peasants like Jesus. This is a plea for help.

Please, come and place your hands on her so that she can be healed and live!

So Jesus followed him back to his house. And on the way to see Jairus’ daughter, Jesus is confronted by this unnamed woman who is just one more person lost in a sea of people scrounging to see Jesus. The confusion of this passage with the disciples saying to Jesus, “How can you say ‘Who touched me?!’” speaks to the chaos of these scene. But even as the crowd pressed in on him, Jesus knew of the woman’s touch—even though with her reach, she only managed to brush his clothes with her fingertips.

Over the least 12 years, this woman had been everywhere, seen every doctor there was to see, spent every dime she had, all in an attempt to be made well, and still she came up short. She must have been exasperated, exhausted, despairing after all these years of suffering. But on this day, her private and desperate search for healing had led her to Jesus. She thought,

If only, if only I’m able to reach out to Jesus, just to touch his clothing—that’s all I need.

Even after all these years, she still had that hope.

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Brené Brown says that part of living a wholehearted life is to cultivate a resilient spirit. She says that hope is learned. We have this cultural belief that everything should come fast and easy and be fun, which she says is inconsistent with hopeful thinking—thinking this way actually sets us up for hopelessness. The heart of hope includes tolerance for disappointment and a strong determination that, one day, change is possible.

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Jesus knows about the woman’s tenacity. He feels it. He seeks her out from among the crowd of people—actually, she speaks up for herself.

Think of what she could have done when Jesus asked aloud, “Who touched me?!” She could have taken that as accusation and chose to stay silent. For years and years, her hemorrhaging had made her silent, forgotten, dismissed, and invisible. She could have slinked back into the crowd and remained that way: forgotten and invisible. She could have touched and run. But she didn’t. She spoke up. Finally, after 12 years, it was time for her to walk into the light and make herself known to others, to tell the whole truth about herself right then and there—to bring it all into the open. And that she did. She did it with fear and trembling, but she did it.

Speak up. Even if you’re your voice shakes, speak up and tell the whole truth about yourself. Jesus invites us to. Jesus listens to us as we risk that—as we come to him and into his church community and share all of who we are. Jesus wants authenticity—he wants us to show up and let ourselves be seen no matter how broken or whole we feel we are, no matter if we think we have it all together or if everything about us just seems to be unraveling.

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Both Jairus and this unnamed woman fall apart in the presence of Jesus. But sometimes the greatest thing we can do for ourselves is to fall apart so that God can put us back together again.

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After Jesus healed the woman’s hemorrhaging, she would have shown herself to the local priest, and after he deemed her well, she could return to her family, her husband, her children. After 12 years of forced isolation and alienation, she would be able to have her life back—and that’s the real healing. The same thing happened for Jairus’ daughter. Jesus took her hand and said to her “Little lamb, get up.” She began to walk around, and then Jesus told her family to give her something to eat, restoring her back to her family through the sharing of food.

Restoration back to community—maybe that’s what healing really is. It’s shedding all that stuff about our lives that seeks to shame us, cut us off from others around us, making us feel small and forgettable and forgotten. The power of healing is in our renewed ability to walk out into the light and share the whole truth about ourselves—to take the chance, like Jairus and the unnamed woman, to dare greatly and show ourselves—our real selves—for those around us to see. To come to Jesus and admit our need—to admit to him that there are things we can’t do for ourselves that only he can do for us.

Sometimes, the most courageous thing we can do is show up and let ourselves been seen, to fall down before him, to reach for him—touch just a piece of him, and tell him the whole truth.

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

Alleluia! Amen.

Animate

A sermon based on Acts 2:1-21 and Ezekiel 37:1-14 preached on May 24th, 2015.

 Sermon audio

Happy Pentecost!

Today, we come together to give witness to the moment when Christ’s church was birthed into the world. Pentecost comes 50 days after the Easter resurrection and 10 days after the ascension of Jesus.

Pentecost is the festival of flame and wind—the moment when the wind of the Spirit, the same Spirit that blew over the waters at our planet’s infancy, comes to God’s people and infuses us with new vitality and brand new being. Pentecost is that moment when we, like the apostles on that very first Pentecost, stop being passive hearers, watchers, consumers, spectators of our Lord’s message—hidden away in our closets where no one can find us—and for the first time walk out into the world embodying the ministry and presence of Jesus for all around us to see.

Pentecost is the Jesus follower’s coming-out party, and therefore the birth of the Church. But we don’t walk out of our hideaways under our own power. We do so because the Holy Spirit animates our lifeless bodies, provoking us to speech and arousing us to action.

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That’s the message of this passage from Ezekiel. Ezekiel is led by God into the middle of a desert—lifeless and silent. God asks him to preach a sermon to a cemetery—not even that, really, a bone yard. Imagine vultures circling overhead. How creepy is this story?!

I visited one of my mentors and pastor friends a year ago and we toured one of the oldest cemeteries in his town of Greenville, SC. I didn’t know he was taking me there. He just said he wanted to show me the quiet neighborhood. Who preaches sermons to the lifeless?

The valley of bones Ezekiel preaches to represents the people of Israel in exile. Cut-off, dried-up, outside of the fertile land of that they flourished in for so long. Cast outside into the desert wastelands of Babylon. The dry bones in this story are Israelites experiencing social desolation—who are beyond the point where they still have hope of returning back to life as they knew it before. These bones Ezekiel sees in this vision are hopelessly lifeless. There’s no future for them.

What these exiled people needed was a resurrection for their entire community—to be lifted out of their hopelessness and have their very bones rattled awake by the Spirit of God. Stuck in a place that only dealt them death, that was their only prospect for life.

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The Holy Spirit stirs us to action. She rattles us awake and breathes life into our lifelessness. She moves these dry bones of ours until there is flesh on them again—and nurtures strength in us until we learn how to walk again. The challenge and invitation of Pentecost is to have our bones be moved until we are stirred to action, and our tongues animated until they take on speech and begin proclaiming the Good News of the Gospel to those around us.

On that first Pentecost, the Holy Spirit, she takes the disciples and she shoves them out of their complacency, and into a world and among a people who need to hear a word from Jesus.

In the 50 days between Easter and Pentecost, the disciples had been cooped up. They met for worship, they had all their committee meetings (in Acts 1, they voted on who was going to replace Judas as the new 12th disciple), they gathered around their tables to discuss their models and strategies, they made their budget, they cooked meals for one another, but still they stayed cooped up—frozen inside their own church building—too scared to take the Good News outside their walls. When the Holy Spirit comes, she turns fear into power, confusion into clarity, and silence into communication.

That first Pentecost Day, the Holy Spirit blew in and through the disciples and she stirred them awake, coaxing them out of their paralysis and into life, and giving them new tongues so they could break their silence. The disciples who before had no voice were now speaking in languages other than their own so that all could talk to others around them, and they understood those who spoke to them in their own languages. That’s what the Holy Spirit can do: She animates what was once dead and arouses it to life and gives us what we need to embody, in ourselves—in you and in me—the person of Christ, so that in our speech, in our very selves—deep within our bones—we take on the very person of Jesus Christ—until the Gospel we proclaim with our words and our lives is the same Gospel Jesus proclaimed with His words and His life.

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The question this passage from Ezekiel should have us ask is this: Will our bones be shaken awake? Will the very core of who we are—our very marrow—take on new life? That’s the question God asks Ezekiel. That’s God’s question to His people in this passage: Can these bones live?

Looking out at the wasteland in front of him, Ezekiel answers God in a smart and honest way. He stares into this bone yard that the Spirit led him into, and all he sees is dried-up nothingness. A parched and hopeless sight. The very center of the people of God, all the way down to the hollowness of their bones—their essential selves, their deepest being—is gone. Their spirits are in exile. Ezekiel answers out of that hopelessness by turning the question back to God:

God only you know, Ezekiel replies.

Can Huntington find its way out of the wilderness of heroine addiction? When we look out over the landscape of that issue, there’s no sign of life there. So, God, only you know.

How about the wasteland of gangs in inner cities across our country? The wreckage of hunger across this community? How about the silence that functions like death and falls so hard onto communities oppressed by hatred and social and spiritual separation? For communities and races and social classes all across this nation who, no matter what they do, will always be less-than in the eyes of others? Isn’t cruelty like that: a lifeless desert? Can these bones live?

The Holy Spirit moves the unmovable and stirs to life what seemed lost forever to death—bringing speech to silent situations. The answer’s Yes, these bones can live.

God’s Spirit injects hope into lifeless communities and brings vitality where there was once only lifelessness. And empowered with this same Holy Spirit, we can be participants in that reanimation of creation. God used Ezekiel to take those broken bones and piece them back together again. God can use us to do the same for all those around us who are experiencing a sort of death in their lives.

If we breathe in the holy breath offered to uξs at Pentecost, we participate in a redoing of creation itself when the wind of God first blew over the waters. What God does at Pentecost is animate an entire community—recreating us to be a part of a brand new way of creation. Pentecost happens when communities are brought back to life. That’s the business the Holy Spirit is in. It’s death in reverse. She animates what was once still and stuck in place. She reinvigorates those who for far too long lived in despair, and she revitalizes what was once a wasteland.

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At Pentecost we celebrate that, with the Holy Spirit, the animating presence of life—stirring us to action, encouraging us, and urging us on—that nothing, absolutely nothing is beyond redemption. These bones can live. Today, we are asked to embody that hope—that “ Yes!” from God.

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This story from Ezekiel makes me wonder about something: Are our expectations big enough?

Ezekiel stared out at a field of dried up bones and was one honest comment away from saying to God,

You gotta be kidding me with this! These bones can’t live! Look at them, God! Of course they can’t!!

You know he wanted to say it. That was the truth as he saw it. But led by the Spirit of God, Ezekiel took on a hope that wasn’t his—confronting an apparently dead situation, and wondering out loud if it could be restored back to life.

Maybe God knows what he’s doing, so I’ll do what God has asked me to do.

And God’s Spirit connected bone-to-bone, and placed sinews onto them, and bound those bones back together again. And then God put breath back inside of them and let them live again—giving a future to a people who thought they didn’t have one.

Jesus said with our prayers mountains can move. So, let me ask it again on this Pentecost Sunday: Are our expectations of what God can do big enough?

Pastor Mark Batterson says is this way:

Bold prayers honor God, and God honors bold prayers. God isn’t offended by your biggest dreams or boldest prayers. God is offended by anything less. If your prayers aren’t impossible to you, they are insulting to God.

Are your problems bigger than God, he asks, Or is God bigger than your problems?

Our biggest problem, he suggests, is our small view of God.

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Pentecost is when we take time to celebrate a God who brings life to dead situations, when the Holy Spirit turns a dead end into a highway. When she shakes us awake, sends us out, and empowers us to be difference-makers in and for the world. God has the power to create life where it seems only death exists. Do we know that?

May our bones be moved by the Holy Spirit just as the bones of those disciples were moved on that very first Pentecost Day. And may God animate, revitalize, and reinvigorate our bones—the very core of us—for service and witness to the Gospel of his son and our Savior.

Happy Pentecost!

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

Alleluia! Amen!