The Foothold of Faith

A sermon based on Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22 and Ephesians 2:1-10 preached on June 11th, 2017

Sermon audio

Hobby wind-surfer, Adam Cowles, realized he was way off-course when he spotted a cargo ship. He was windsurfing the Swansea Bay, not too far from his house, but after a few hours of delightful distraction, Adam found himself in strange territory. He had unwittingly made his way into the Bristol Channel, 140 miles away from home.

The water that day was freezing cold. If he fell in, he’d be in serious trouble. If there came a lull in the wind, Adam could have found himself stranded. Opposite the cargo ship, Adam could see land, so he surfed his way to shore and walked into a nearby bar, soaking wet.

The locals must have seen sights like him before, because even though he was still dripping wet when he walked into that pub, the patrons thought and said nothing of it. They even bought him a beer.

Adam began to tell them his story.

They told him how far away from home he was. 140 miles. He was astonished. And then he was embarrassed when he had to call his wife, asking her to make the 280-mile round trip to pick him up. She was not happy.

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Wind is so prevalent inside of scripture that one could easily call it a character. A living force rather than an object or an atmospheric phenomenon.

God shows up in the beginning of the opening act, in the very first lines of our story in Genesis 1, as wind. This is the form in which the Spirit of God makes way into creation, and then helps creation take its shape out of what was before simply chaos and nonsense. The second verse in all of scripture says it this way:

Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.

This is how God shows up. In a breeze. And that happens over and over again throughout God’s story—our story, too.

Consider the moment of the Exodus, when the Hebrew people, enslaved for two centuries in Egypt, make their way across the Red Sea and to the other side, outrunning Pharaoh and his army and into freedom. The Sea was split in two that day by a strong eastward wind.

And then there’s Jonah, the stubborn prophet, who tried his best to outrun God after God asked him to do something that made no sense to him. Throughout the Book of Jonah, he’s stopped, over and over again, to the point where it gets comedic, by wind and sea, by whale and wave.

We try our best but there’s no escaping the Spirit of God.

There’s at least two stories in each of the four Gospels, where fisherman disciples are out on a boat on the Galilee Sea. Terrified by brewing storms and rising waters, Jesus comes to calm the waves and the rain and brings them through. These are messages for us about how when we are caught in the scary seas of our own lives, when the water rises too high all around us, Jesus comes to us and subsides our fears and says to us the same thing he said to His disciples in those moments:

Peace be with you.

Last and certainly not least is the story we have in the Book of Acts where Luke gives us a glimpse of Paul’s travelogue. To get to the churches he has planted, Paul and his own team of disciples, servants, doctors, and scribes cross the Mediterranean Sea and sail up the Aegean between present-dayPaul Turkey and Greece, and north into the Sea of Marmara. Some of these voyages brought disaster. Pirates, shipwreck. Loss of cargo and loss of life. Throughout scripture, water and wind give life but they also take it away.

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dSo when Paul writes from a prison in Rome to the young believers in Ephesus—and by extension, to us—he has been wind-tossed, beat up, lost at sea, and then found again. Paul knows a thing or two about what it is to be blown about by wind. And he warns us, right at the get-go, here at the very beginning of Chapter 2,

Do not be blown about by the wind. Once you lived your entire lives wandering off-course in this perverse world….You were the offspring of the prince of the power of the air. He once owned you and controlled you.

I don’t know what kind of devil you believe in. We talk so little about evil and its personifications. Certainly, the personification of evil into some being with the proper name, Satan, is not as much a creature found in scripture as it is one that has been imagined in the tales of subsequent works of fiction: Dante’s Inferno and John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost. We need to keep our stories straight.

We’ll talk more about this when we reach Chapter 4 of Ephesians, but for now, suffice it to say, here Paul describes some sort of evil or persuasive power, but he doesn’t give it a name or a form. It’s as if Paul is describing that thing mentioned in the first two verses of Genesis 1, a sort of earthly chaos, life and creation without shape, or meaning, or form. Life without God. That is a sort of evil in and of itself.

Paul is warning us against living in a way that’s uncritical, where we get swept up by the power of the air, picked up by every breeze that comes our way. Life lived empty and persuadable, easily manipulated by anything and everything around us. We can get picked up and pushed around wherever the breeze takes us, like that empty plastic bag at the beginning of the movie American Beauty. This is the prince of the power of the air. This is an opportunistic presence that will sweep us off our feet any chance it gets.

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We live in a culture full of wind-blown people. Too often, we get caught up in the prevailing winds of our day, and before we know it we’re like that empty plastic bag that gets knocked around by forces both visible and invisible. We get taken anywhere it pushes us.

What Paul is inviting all of us to see is a new way to live and move. Paul’s words here are a sort of prelude to the important and biblical idea of living in but not of the world. We cannot be blown about. Persuadable. Pushed about. We must find our footing. We must be discerning, keen, wise, sharp, perceptive, insightful, critical. You’ve heard the phrase,

If you don’t stand for something you’ll fall for everything.

This is God’s way of saying a similar thing. Find your footing.

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Paul knew something about wind. He was a tentmaker.

These days, if a person calls him- or herself a tentmaker, there’s a good chance they’re a Pastor who specializes in creating new churches. Paul did that, but before he ever entered into the ministry he actually made tents. This is how he made a living, even while he sailed the seas, planting churches.

So, Paul knew a thing of two about wind. How to shelter oneself against it. How to build a structure that can withstand it. Build them strong, resilient, and with a big footprint so they hold up to the power of the air and the elements. Everything thrown at it.

As we mature in our faith, as we walk forward slowly in the Way of Jesus, following in His footsteps, we too become strong against the breezes that try to blow us off course.

It is with rope and ground pegs, poles and stakes that a tent becomes secure even in the most chaotic of climates. It’s the power of God’s grace that does the same thing for our minds, our hearts, our spirits. God’s grace pins us to solid ground, can keep us from being blown off course. Grace is the foothold of our faith.

I mentioned a few weeks ago when we began our look into Ephesians, that God’s grace given to us is not an end in itself. Grace is not the end of any conversation, as in, “but for the grace of God go I.” Grace is always the beginning of the conversation. Grace was in the wind that blew the disciples out of their tiny house on Pentecost, and it’s the power we have been given by God to walk out of here and do God’s work—in and for the world.

Grace is the fuel, the power source God gives us to start something—to go out from here, or wherever else we are, as agents of God’s love, as keepers of God’s Message, as sharers of God’s mercy. Grace is designed and given to us by God to take us places. It is first unmerited benefit, yes; but it’s also Divine enablement. Grace is given to us to get us going!

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Through grace, we gain a foothold in our faith, stand up tall in Christ, and then become agents of grace—taking it and using it. Paul writes,

For it is by grace you have been saved. You have received it through faith. It was not our plan or effort, it’s God’s gift. Pure and simple. You didn’t earn it.

That’s verse 8. It’s one of the most beloved in all of scripture, but I’m afraid it’s too often misunderstood. People use it to convince themselves that works—doing stuff with and because our faith—isn’t important. But what Paul says is, Take God’s gift of grace, freely given to you—yes, it’s never earned, it’s always a gift—but then do something with it. Use it. Pay it forward. Grace is never the end of the conversation; it’s always the beginning of one. God’s grace is given to us in order to be put to work through us. Grace is God’s enabling power for growth.

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If you feel like you’re trudging through life right now under your own power, if you’ve lost your footing, if you’ve exhausted yourself that way, let me re-introduce you to grace. Author Anne Lamott says,

When you’re out of good ideas, what you’re left with is God.

She describes grace as spiritual WD-40 or water wings, if that works better. And all you have to do to find grace is to say “Help,” preferably out loud. Shout it into the heavens if you have to. The heavens will hear you. “But watch out!” Anne Lamott says. The moment you say that word, “Help!”, the moment you find grace, buckle up! Because, powered by the Holy Wind of God as it always is, God’s grace will take you places you never intended to go!

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

Alleluia! Amen.

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Joining In

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

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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.

We Are Mirrors. We Are Windows.

A sermon based on Psalm 8 and 1 John 4:7-21 preached on May 22nd, 2016

Sermon audio

Today we celebrate a God, and a doctrine about God, that we can barely comprehend, but yet confess with with our whole being. It’s Trinity Sunday. We can ask many questions about the Trinity, but most of them come down to a problem with numbers. How is God both 1 and 3? The question could be asked skeptically or wondrously. I’ve certainly asked it both ways myself.

There was a scientist who asked that question of a theologian friend of his, and instead of coming back with an answer or an explanation full of 5-syllable words, the theologian answered with another quandary:

Explain black holes for me.

he said. His scientist friend replied,

I can’t really. Nobody quite understands what they are.

The theologian asked a follow-up question,

But even though you don’t understand them, you do believe they’re real, do you not?

His scientist friend understood the point. There are some mysteries out there that are too amazing for us to comprehend—big things and small things—and we are left only to step back from our telescopes or microscopes, stop trying to make sense of what or why they are, and simply stand astonished.

This is what we do on most Sundays. Astonishment is the heart of worship. But on this Trinity Sunday, rather than hurting our brains with thoughts too big for us, bending over backwards, trying to comprehend the incomprehensible Triune God, it is best and wise to simply stand back and say, God is one, but somehow also three, and let that carry us away into wonder and wow.

Today, we revel in the ancient and mysterious Christian confession that God is both one and three: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But let’s not stop there. We are also asked to take part in what our Triune God is still doing among His people. We are challenged this day to be the visible presence of our invisible God—to take this God who exists in Three Persons—all of them bound together in community with one another by love and mutual purpose, and find in the relationship of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the way we can also be the beloved community in and for our world. And that may be the toughest part of all. In a world that, rightly or wrongly, sees the Church as those who define their faith by what they are opposed to, who only speak of their faith through messages of intolerance, judgment, hatred, fear, and narrow-mindedness, our task as the people of Jesus, is to tell another story, the story of God’s love and God’s dream of having all of his people bound to one another in beloved community.

 

We live in culture dominated by fear. Everyone with a microphone, including many preachers and politicians, love to intimidate us by telling us what or who we should fear next. Many do so in the name of their Christian faith. Our entire culture is steeped in warnings about the next threat coming our way.

In my time as a hospital chaplain back in 2006, I would make visits to the Psych Ward. Thankfully, they weren’t that frequent. I had no idea how to give care to people who were so carried away by fear. Mental wards are full of terrified people. Fear undo’s us. The more we fear, the more we unravel, and the less of ourselves we become. Fear distorts our humanity. It distorts the Imago Dei, the image of God inside of us. It could be that the image of God inside of us is our humanity. Fear makes us sick. The more we fear, the farther away we get from the Imago Dei given to us at our birth, the further we get from living out God’s purpose for life, the sicker we get. Our current culture is acutely sick from fear.

There’s a story of a 3-year-old boy who gets a Jack-in-the-box for his birthday. He was tickled to find that when he turned the metal crank on the side of the box, music began to play. So, he turned the crank over and over, and to his dismay, at the end of such a delightful song, he got the surprise of his very short life: a clown came violently popping out of the top. The boy began crying, and had to be held by his mother for a time.

After he calmed down, the boy reached for the Jack-in-the-box again. Maybe he could hear the song without the scary clown popping out of the top. Or maybe, at least this time, it wouldn’t catch him completely by surprise. But at the end of the song, the clown jumped out of the box just as urgently as it did the first time, and more tears flowed. After the second bout of tears, the boy did something unexpected. He leaned down and looked into the face of the clown bobbing back and forth in that box, and he kissed it on its face. And from that moment on, the Jack-in-the-box never scared the little boy again.

See, when we take the chance to confront what we’re most afraid of, what or who we do not understand, and give it our attention, understanding, and love, when we look at it in the eyes, our fear begins to dissolve. God wants us to love until there’s nothing left to be afraid of!

Perfect love drives out fear.

Only God loves perfectly. We can try to love perfectly, but human love has limits and failures. We who follow Jesus can only work to perfect our love for God and for one another. After Jesus washed his disciples’ feet, just hours before He would be arrested and crucified, He left His disciples with only one commandment, the greatest of all commandments:

Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you must love each other.” He said. This is how everyone will know you are my disciples, when you love each other.

Christian perfection isn’t achieved through having a high moral character, it isn’t accomplished through knowing your bible backwards and forwards, it isn’t attained through praying all the right prayers or knowing all the right things to say in a Sunday School class or a Bible Study. Christian perfection is attained through loving others—no matter who they are or how different they may be from us; we are called to love. And the reason we show love to others isn’t because they’re nice, or because they deserve it. It isn’t because they’re like us, or for any other selfish reason like that. The reason we show love to others, even to those who are unlovable, is because God through Jesus Christ loved us when we were unlovable. The only litmus test of our faith is our ability to love others.

And the sort of love that Jesus commands us to give isn’t a feeling, it’s not an emotion. It’s a dare. The boy with the Jack-in-the-box kissed the face of the very thing that scared him because when it comes down to it, love is first and foremost an act of courage. Perhaps the greatest act of courage—the one that changed the course of history—was when God took the chance to take on flesh and become one of us in the person of Jesus Christ.

Think of that! The God of the cosmos, the One who created it all, who stands outside of space and time, lowered Himself and became a part of Creation, coming to us with skin on. The Creator God subjected Himself to the same limitations we live with as the created. Jesus is perfect love who came down in the form of an infant. God needed a mother to care for Him. God grew up with body that could fail Him (and one day would). What wondrous love is this!

And on Pentecost, the risen Jesus breathes upon His lost and lonely disciples and empowers them with Holy Spirit, and forever more She promises to be present with, and breathe life into, everyone who calls on the name of Jesus. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; these three are one. Perfect and whole.

Love in its perfect form may only exist within God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but we have been invited to mirror that love. We have been challenged, even commanded, to reflect the love that exists perfectly within the Triune God. We are asked to show it forth so that others might see. We will never comprehend the bond of love between the 3 persons of the Trinity, nor never we ever live up to such a wondrous love, but we can choose to reflect it. Our task is to be mirrors.

The opposite of love isn’t hate. It’s fear. Perhaps the most counter-cultural thing that the Church can do is oppose the monster of fear than has pervaded and paralyzed our culture. We are all somewhat predisposed to fear. We have been taught to distrust whatever and whoever is unlike us in any way—to dismiss whatever is different from us as evil or less than, to call whoever is different from us the “other.” But in God’s sight, there is no less than, no “other,” for there is no one who is unknown to, or unloved by, God. God’s grace reaches much farther than our willingness to include. Thanks be to God for that! But, God’s grace does teach us to overcome our culture’s predisposition toward fear by practicing love—to stand in the way of fear whenever we see it arise, to confront fear whenever its claws hold us back from being agents of God’s love and grace. And by God’s love and grace, we are challenged to recognize God’s face in the face of those who look, and love, and belief, and live differently than we do. For, it is only by loving that we will show others that being Christian isn’t synonymous with timidity and fear. And if we take that dare, if we lean over to kiss the face of the Jack-in-the-box, then fear doesn’t stand a chance! And maybe the world will start paying attention to the reason why we’ve taken that chance.

Maybe through our loving action, we can turn the Church into a community of bold lovers, people who are willing to risk their cultural reputations in pursuit of a greater reward! Then, maybe, we can be windows through which others can see that God’s true character is love—a daring and courageous love!

We are mirrors. We are windows. So, what do others see in us? In you and me? When we’re out and about, what’s the message we send? Is it love or is it fear? See, whether we like it or not, we are witnesses of the Gospel. That is to say, the world is watching intently. What will we choose? The worldly way of fear? Or the Gospel way of love?God wants us to love until there’s nothing left to be afraid of!

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.

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!

The Big Bang Theory

A sermon based on Numbers 11:23-29 and Acts 2:1-21 preached on June 8th, 2014.

Sermon Audio

I’ve experienced 2 earthquakes in my life. They both happened when I lived in Virginia. We don’t experience many on this side of the country, so whenever the earth begins to shake underneath our feet, we take notice.

I have some friends on the West Coast who tell me they hardly feel them anymore. For someone in LA, earthquakes come as a part of the package deal. But on the East Coast, they are rare and startling. They might not do much damage, but they do shake us.

After the 2nd of the two earthquakes, my fellow Richmonders shared pictures of the “extensive damage” it caused. One friend put a picture on Facebook of a single book on his shelf that now leaned gently to the right. Others around the city took pictures of plastic lawn chairs tipped over in their backyards—the extensive devastation incurred when earthquakes strike the East Coast. The caption on that picture was “we will re-build!”

I experienced my 1st earthquake back in 2004 before anyone could post such sarcastic comments on social media. My apartment began shaking and for a moment there it threw my roommate and I.

There were jolts in that earthquake—not just rumbles—and although nothing at all was damaged, it caused a surprising amount of anxiety for my roommate. Having the earth shake beneath his feet and not being able to control it—for those moments feeling out of control—was torturous to him. That earthquake shook his interior more than it shook anything around us. Right away, he started asking big questions—why would God do that? Why shake things up like that? What kind of God is this who can’t even control the earth when it quakes? For the very first time, he felt completely out of control—even if for just a few seconds. The entire world shook around him, and there he was, hopeless to do anything about it.

I was surprised by his questions—taken aback really. There at seminary—for 4 whole years, we pondered the vast power of God—we immersed ourselves in the bible and the bible full of images of chaos—stories of people in over their heads, caught in the middle of violent storms. The bible is chalk-full of people who plead with the Creator to save them over and over again from the recklessness of the natural world.

Most of the bible portrays God as an unpredictable and uncontainable presence, and the earth as a reckless and wild creation—one that often leaves humans stunned by its harshness—I wondered how after reading and studying scripture through these years my roommate could be thrown by a little earthquake. For my roommate that earthquake was a wake-up call—a rude introduction to the fact that we are a small part of a much bigger and more unruly creation than we’d ever choose for ourselves.

God’s power as well as the wildness of God’s creation is not something we can ever understand much less keep in check—and when we are reminded of that, it should surprise us and shake us awake every single time. What God creates is not ours to control.

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The people were gathered together all in one place for the Pentecost festival, an old Jewish festival to celebrate that God had given the Hebrew people the Law at Mount Sinai. Moses descended from atop that mountain and delivered the 10 Commandments to the Israelites—the encapsulation of the Law.

But that year at this ancient festival, something unexpected and uncontrollable happened—something that shook them all awake. There was a howling and fierce wind that filled the disciples’ house. Something like fire seemed to light up each one of them. And all the people gathered outside for the festival heard the sounds of this mighty wind sweeping through the disciple’s household—the upper room they were still caged inside.

Luke, the author of Acts, uses words like “surprised” and “amazed” and “bewildered” to describe all those gathered around. Here they all were, celebrating something from their memory—an old promise delivered to them thousands of years ago. There was nothing new or unpredictable about it. But all the sudden, with this rush of wind, a blast of new energy, and something like flame illuminating each one of the disciples, something wild and unexpected was taking place.

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Presbyterians are often pegged as the Frozen Chosen. Some of us, honestly, live into that label pretty well. We sing our songs stock-still and we are not ones to wave our hands in the air whenever we sing. So what happened at Pentecost makes us feel uncomfortable. There, I said it.

But as it turns out, there must have been a couple Presbyterians there that day. There were some who saw what was happening—the rambunctious noises, the chaos of it all—there were people there who thought it was all showy nonsense. For them, there was no category under which to put the disciples’ crazy and uncontrollable behavior, so they thought the only reasonable explanation was that the disciples were drunk at 9 o’clock in the morning.

As a Presbyterian—maybe not completely frozen, but admittedly not entirely thawed out—I bet if I was there, I might have had the same thought. “What’s going wrong that the disciples are behaving this way?” That’s a question I would have asked if I was there.

“What are they under the influence of?”

I would see the disciples speaking in other languages—languages they didn’t even know—and the last thing I would ever think was, “God must be up to something.”

Just like many there that day, I too would come up with a way to dismiss the power of God’s presence. I too would come up with my own thoroughly reasonable explanation for it all. The disciples with all their gibberish were indecent and out-of-order, I’d say. Clearly inebriated. We’ll all just wait for the new wine to wear off, or maybe we’ll remove them from the premises, and then everything will be back to normal again.

Those who thought the disciples were drunk, didn’t have eyes big enough to see that God was doing something new right in front of them. They didn’t have any place in their heads to categorize what was happening.

“What’s the meaning of this? How can we ever make sense of this?” This was all too wild and untamed.

“It must be new wine,” I’d say.

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One word about Pentecost. We usually get this wrong, so it’s worth pointing out.

Filled with Holy Spirit, the disciples began speaking in other languages.

Often we hear this and we assume that Holy Spirit filled them and they began speaking in tongues—the fancy word for it is glossolalia—the strange language that Pentecostals speak. But that not what’s happening here.

Parthians, Medes, Elamites, the list goes on, are all gathered for the harvest festival and they are all in one place, but each group is worshipping in its own native language—they’re not worshipping together as one body because the boundaries of language separate each from understanding the other. Holy Spirit changes this. She fills the disciples on that Pentecost morning and they begin speaking in the native languages of all the people around them.

So as Holy Spirit descends upon the crowd—as the disciples are filled with her, she gives them the ability to understand one another. And as Holy Spirit spreads out farther and wider among the crowd—like a wave rippling outward—uncontrollably blowing through the thousands gathered there like wind or flame—the news of the mighty acts of God in Jesus Christ tears through the crowd like a torrent or like fire.

Once confined to a small group of disciples holed up in a tiny locked room, now the Good News can be contained no longer. It explodes outward. Where there was once nothing, now with Holy Spirit spreading among them all, the Church suddenly takes shape.

Pentecost is the Big Bang. That first moment—that miraculous morning when Holy Spirit rushes in and unfreezes those scared disciples, when the news of Jesus Christ—what was once silent and unshared now explodes outwards and begins a new creation—the church is now born and suddenly takes its shape.

That morning, the Good News of God in Jesus Christ is finally taken off ice and shared with the thousands gathered there.

Holy Spirit is wild and untamed, uncontrollable and bigger than we can ever imagine, and all the walls we used to hide ourselves in—all the containers we have that keep God’s wild power inside of—the Holy Spirit is here to burst them open and shake the Church into what God wants it to be. That’s what the Holy Spirit does! God’s ideas for us are expansive and explosive. God wants something much bigger for us than we’ve ever planned for ourselves.

Holy Spirit isn’t a violent presence, but neither is she a gentle southern breeze that blows through our hair. What she does is not always polite. She can shake the ground beneath our feet and cause us to change our stance, she can blow the doors of our church open and put a new word in us, a new word that we need to share with those out there. Holy Spirit can unsettle us and cause us to ask questions we never thought we’d ask, to go places we never intended for ourselves to go, to step out and speak words we never before were able to speak. Some may call her a rude interruption of business as usual. And to that I say, “Amen!”

What God creates is not ours to control.

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The Big Bang of Pentecost?—it’s not a theory. It’s what God is doing—right here, right now.

Do we have space for Holy Spirit to shake up all the structures that we’ve built—to rattle the ground beneath our feet? Are we ready for that mighty wind to blow and do something brand new in, among, and around us?

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