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Saturday, May 22, 2010

On All Flesh

Acts 2:1-21

Have you ever had an experience where you realized you were part of something much, much bigger than the little world you thought you knew? For many of us in this culture, it’s a sporting event – when our favorite team wins the big one, and we feel part of something enormous and wonderful. Or sometimes it’s when tragedy strikes – the terrorist attacks in 2001, or the shootings at Virginia Tech. Maybe it’s when our candidate wins the election, or when the extended family sits down at Thanksgiving.

The summer that I was 15, I participated in an event that changed my comfortable little life forever, when I went to the Boy Scout World Jamboree in Idaho. Twelve thousand scouts gathered on the high plains of Farragut State Park to celebrate a world-wide brotherhood, and to learn from each other. For ten days, I met, worked, ate, and learned with people such as I’d never seen before. Here’s a picture of some scouts from Africa just after they had given a drumming exhibition:

I had certainly seen African-American boys before, but never Africans who looked and talked and dressed – and drummed – like these guys. It was a revelation! The second day of the Jamboree, scouts are given a letter in the word spelling out the Jamboree theme. In 1967, the Theme was For Friendship. We then had to search the entire Jamboree to find other scouts with letters to make up the word, link arms, and, when finished, sit down, get each other’s names and addresses, and learn from each other:You begin to understand you are a part of something much, much bigger than you had ever understood.

Later in the Jamboree, I went with another scout and an adult scouter from my troop to eat dinner with a Japanese patrol. We spoke no Japanese, they spoke no English. But I had just gotten my first really good camera, which, of course, was Japanese. So I spent lots of time making hand signals and comparing cameras with my new Japanese friends. Then we all exchanged names and addresses, of which none of theirs I could read.

Three years later I was working at a Boy Scout Camp on the Maryland-Pennsylvania line. We had an exchange scout on our side of the camp whom we called Henry – a great guy who spoke little English but loved to give martial arts demonstrations to us. Late in the summer I met another Japanese exchange scouter who had been working on the other side of camp. He was pretty fluent in English, and we learned that we had both been at the World Jamboree. He pulled out his wallet, and unfolded a piece of paper and showed it to me. Pointing to the writing, he asked, “Do you know him?” There, in my handwriting, was my name and address. He is the scout on the left in the picture you see. We were both floored. We were part of something much, much bigger than we had ever imagined.

On the Jewish spring harvest feast of Shavuot, seven weeks after Passover, about one hundred and twenty of Jesus’ followers (Acts 1:15) have gathered. Ten days before, Jesus had ascended to heaven, promising the apostles he would sent his Holy Spirit to guide, teach, and empower them. As the disciples were gathered for Shavuot – Pentecost – suddenly there was the sound of a roaring wind, and the disciples seemed to glow. All of them – not just the eleven, but all one hundred twenty – began to speak in other languages, praising God. At this noise, a crowd gathers to find out what’s happening. Jews who had come from the whole Mediterranean basin with its rich diversity of cultures and languages, hear the praises of God not just in official Hebrew, cultural Aramaic, or political Greek, but in their native tongues. In the midst of bewildering diversity, they hear one message, of God’s glory.

Bill Mallard, who will preach here in two weeks, insists this is less a miracle of speaking than a miracle of hearing: they all hear in their own languages. It is a miracle any way you understand it. And the miracle of Pentecost reveals the first and most important work of God’s Holy Spirit in the emerging Kingdom: to unite people to the glory of God. The Spirit is poured, says Peter, quoting the prophet Joel, on all flesh – your sons and your daughters, youth, elderly, free, and slave. The gathering of all God’s children without division and separation is the glory of the God who created them red, yellow, black, white, young, old, rich, poor, differently abled.

This week Shady Grove sheltered homeless women through CARITAS. It was not an easy week – our church volunteers had several crises they had to deal with. But I want to suggest to you that we are never more the church that God lays out for us in the second chapter of Acts than during weeks like this last: when poor and rich – yes, we are rich – sleep and eat and work together under the same roof; when we who have houses obscenely bigger and more comfortable than anyone needs open our home to the homeless; when black Baptists and white United Methodists work together to serve God’s needy children. Now, I challenge you to take this Pentecostal vision for ministry to the next step: it’s safe and comfortable for us to come in two weeks a year and house homeless people in a gymnasium and then send them on their way. When are we going to deal with a lifestyle and economy that allows our neighbors to be out of work and out of hope and out of housing, while we plan our next trip to our vacation houses, or remodel our kitchens because we don’t like the cabinets, or buy our sixteen year olds their own cars so we won’t have to compromise our schedules to accommodate them? Ray Buchanan and Ken Horne, who founded the Society of St. Andrew, have been preaching for thirty years that there’s plenty of food in the world – the problem is that it’s unequally distributed. There’s plenty of money and work and housing and love in the world, too, but you’d never know it from our frenzy to buy the next thing no one needs.

The Pentecostal vision is of God’s Spirit poured out on all flesh, so all who call on the name of the Lord can be saved. God’s Spirit descends to break down all the barriers between people – to straighten the highways, level the mountains, and fill in the valleys, so all can see the glory of God. What are you willing to do, this Pentecost, to break down the walls? Do you want to be a part of something bigger than you can imagine – of a cosmic chorus that rejects the false and death-dealing priorities of a world hell-bent on consuming to the last drop? Or do you want to hide behind your walls like a Selfish Giant, protecting what was never yours to begin with?

At age fifteen, I was overwhelmed with realizing I was part of something ever so much bigger than I had imagined. But since then, I’ve come to realize God has called us to a family beyond all time and space and economy and intellect: God is pouring out the Holy Spirit on all flesh, to unite us to see visions and dream dreams of a world in which all the barriers have come tumbling down.

Now, isn’t that something worth dying – and living – for?

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Professor Holy Spirit

John 14:23-29

Imagine the scene: Jesus is giving his disciples last minute instructions before he leaves them to establish the church and supervise the Kingdom of God on earth. They’ve been in class with him for three years, but they’re only just beginning to catch on to what God expects of them. Now Jesus is about to hand them the keys to the car and tell them they’re on their own.

How many times has it happened to you – you’ve been given just enough information and instruction to make you dangerous, and then you’re put in charge. I came up with a long list of those times in my life – like the day the flight instructor got out of the plane and said, “Go ahead and take her around on your own.” Or when Vicki and I drove away from the church thirty-six years ago, looked at each other and said, “Do you feel married?” Or when the nurse put the baby in my arms and said, “Here’s your daughter, Daddy.”

Nine years ago, Bishop Pennel asked me to be one of five new District Superintendents. Every August, there’s a four-day school at Lake Junaluska, North Carolina for new Superintendents from all across the country. I arrived at Junaluska with two briefcases: one with the official district superintendent’s laptop computer with profiles, literally, of every congregation and every clergyperson in the Virginia Conference; and another briefcase with my Bible, Book of Discipline, district and Conference directories, and The Journal of the Virginia Conference. Four days later I left with two more briefcases, filled with policy and legal manuals, superintendency workbooks, books about supervision, and so forth. After the last workshop, the other four new superintendents and I met on a sidewalk outside the Terrace Hotel. We were overwhelmed with terror over the task that lay before us, supervising dozens of clergy and their families, dozens of churches, and thousands of laity. “Why didn’t they tell us what we were getting into?” one of us wailed. “Because we never would have said ‘yes’ if we’d known,” somebody else said. “But you know what’s the most important thing I’ve gotten this week?” someone offered. “I’ve got a long list of telephone numbers, web sites, and email addresses. I’m just going to call and email you all and all these other people and ask what to do, over and over and over.” And that’s what we did: the Bishop and his assistant and the other superintendents and former superintendents and the General Conference boards and agencies were all on our speed dials. We didn’t have a clue about what we were doing – but we knew who did. And the Bishop gave us his cell phone number, and told us to call him, anytime. We did.

In this morning’s lesson, Jesus, essentially, gives the disciples his cell phone number. Those who love me will keep my word – they’ll do what I have done and have told them to do – and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. . . I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send as my replacement, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. The disciples are not left to figure things out on their own, remembering as best they can what Jesus had said to them during the three years they were with him. Jesus and the Father will be present with the disciples, in the person of the Holy Spirit. The purpose of the Spirit is twofold: to teach, and to remind.

To teach you everything. Jesus is telling his disciples – including you and me -- that even if they could remember perfectly everything Jesus had ever said to them, they still wouldn’t know everything there was to know. The world was going to change constantly, and situations were going to rise that Jesus hadn’t covered. That’s what the Book of Acts is all about: the disciples have to figure out how to organize the church, how to choose an apostle to replace Judas, whether Gentiles are welcome as believers, what women’s roles are, how to manage spiritual gifts like tongues and prophecy, whether people should get married, how to handle property and money. They couldn’t say the Bible has all the answers, because not only had the New Testament not been written, the Hebrew Bible hadn’t even been standardized yet (not until the Council of Jamnia in 90 CE). They needed the Holy Spirit to teach them day by day how to live out their faith consistent with Jesus’ Lordship.

To remind you of all I have said to you. Not everything is new. My grandfather loved history, and passed that love on to me. Americans, it seems to me, are, in general, lousy at history. We live out George Santayana’s dictum that those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it. It happened again this week on Wall Street. It happens every day in our homes, schools, churches, and halls of industry and government. A friend of mine in the superintendency asked me this week what I thought about a thriving non-denominational church renting out one of our struggling campus ministry centers twice a week. I asked him, “does anyone remember Highland Park Church?” We rented out the sanctuary of Highland Park to a Church of God in Christ congregation. Today, Highland Park United Methodist Church is history, and the building on the corner of Second and Dill Avenues is Fresh Anointing Cathedral Church of God in Christ. It’s important to be reminded.

This morning we held up our new pew Bibles. We say the Bible is inspired, literally, God-breathed. The Bible, inspired by the Holy Spirit, is the primary means by which the Spirit reminds us of all that God said. But the Bible didn’t fall down out of heaven one day – it’s surrounded by thousands of years of the Holy Spirit guiding people to write it, guiding people’s translations and interpretations, and guiding the fathers and mothers of faith who decided which books belonged in it and which didn’t.

It’s essential to understand how the Holy Spirit teaches and reminds us. The Holy Spirit is not given to isolated individuals for their personal pleasure, understanding, and sanctification. Every time the Holy Spirit comes in the Bible, it is to create community. In two weeks we will celebrate the Feast of Pentecost, and we will read the story of how the Spirit descended upon the disciples in Jerusalem, binding them together and empowering them to proclaim the good news to all the world. Then the Spirit falls on the crowds gathered to hear Peter’s sermon. The result of the Spirit’s descent was not that everyone had a private ecstatic spiritual experience and went home – they were bound together in a holy community, sharing their prayers, lives, and property with each other. The Spirit reminds and teaches us as we are gathered together in the name of Jesus: that’s what Jesus meant when he said, whenever two or three of you are gathered together, there am I in the midst of you – if you agree on anything, ask, and it will be done for you by my Father. That doesn’t mean that I gather two of you and get you to agree to ask God to give me a new boat. It means that the Spirit works to connect us to each other, reminding us of who we are under Jesus’ Lordship, and leading us into greater holiness for the salvation of the world.

Yes, we are invited into a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ, but never a private relationship. No spiritual experience you or I have is disconnected from our relationship with each other, or disconnected from God’s call to us to bless the world with our lives. This winter I did a great deal of study, for the first time, of the 16th Century Spanish mystic St. John of the Cross. His Dark Night is a powerful love poem to God written from the depths of a windowless prison cell. At the heights of John’s mystic love poetry, he abandons himself to the love of God, not for John’s own sake, but so God can use him as a clear instrument for the sake of others. That’s the work of the Holy Spirit – to remind us of all Jesus taught, and to teach us further how to follow Jesus, who was led by the Holy Spirit to give up his life for the salvation of the world. That’s ultimately personal, but never was there a spirituality more absolutely public and communal.

When Bishop Pennel gave us his cell phone number and told us to call anytime, it wasn’t so we could chat about baseball. I could call Joe Pennel anytime to ask him how to better serve the people and the churches of the Ashland District. I called him when a minister’s son was accused of sexual abuse. I called him when another minister’s child had a stroke. I called him when my mother was dying and the Cabinet was meeting to make appointments. And he called me, before going to church in Nashville the first Mother’s Day after my mother died, to tell me he was thinking about me on that day. Those calls were deeply personal, but they were reminders of who we were and how we could move forward to serve God’s people. I knew I was never alone in that lonely work – I had the Bishop, I had the books, and I had the full weight of the connection.

The disciples didn’t understand what Jesus meant when he said it. They didn’t understand until Pentecost how Jesus would remind them and teach them. They understood it more when churches started arguing about spiritual gifts, more when kings and princes started massacring the faithful, more when they had to choose between life and eternity. They were anything but alone. They remembered, and they were taught. And they were left with peace, in the power of the Holy Spirit.

That same Spirit is right here, for you, and for me.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Everyone Will Know

John 21:1-19

Turn to page 34 in The United Methodist Hymnal – to the vows of baptism and membership in the church. Look at the verbs in those questions:










In the vows of baptism and confirmation, we are not asked what we believe until we are asked what we will do. Christian discipleship is not about what you think about Jesus and about others. It’s not about what you feel about Jesus and about others. It’s about following Jesus. It’s completely about what you do. Faith is not a noun – it’s a verb. This is a call to action, not a call to feel or think, as important as feeling and thinking are. Yes, we should love God and love each other with our hearts and minds and bodies, but there are a whole lot of people who think and feel all kinds of good thoughts and good feelings, but who never get out of their recliners to do anything about them.

There is a story in Isak Dinesen’s book Out of Africa about a boy named Kitau. He appeared at the author’s door one day to ask for a job as a domestic servant. She hired him but was surprised when after three months he asked her for a letter of recommendation to Sheik Ali bin Salim, a Muslim who lived in a nearby town. Dinesen offered to raise Kitau’s pay in order to keep him, but money was not his interest. Kitau had decided to become either a Christian or a Muslim, and his purpose in working for Dinesen had been to se, up close, the way a Christian lived. Now that he had worked for Dinesen and seen the ways of Christians, he would go abd observe Sheik Ali to see how Muslims behave; then he would decide. The author remembers how she wished Kitau had told her that before he came to live with her.[1]

Jesus takes 513 commandments in the Hebrew Bible and boils them down to exactly one. What does it mean to follow Jesus? It means just one thing: to love others, as Jesus loved you. Jesus didn’t just think nice thoughts about you. Jesus didn’t just feel nice feelings about you. Jesus laid aside all his heavenly riches and glory and power, was born in a stable, raised in a crummy little village in the middle of nowhere, spent his life healing the sick, feeding the hungry, befriending the despised, and comforting the lonely. And then he stood in between the powers of corporate evil and its victims, and died in their place. He did all those things we’re going to ask you to do: renounced the forces of wickedness, rejected what this world thinks is powerful, lived a life of humility and repentance, resisted evil, injustice, and oppression even though they killed him, and put his whole life in God’s hands in solidarity with God’s people. That’s how Jesus loved you. So, if you’re going to follow Jesus, that’s how you’re going to have to love others: not with nice gushy feelings or with nice correct thoughts. By the way, being nice has absolutely nothing to do with following Jesus – the word nice appears exactly zero times in the Bible. As a song by my son Drew says, be not frightened, but be frightening people. And if you follow Jesus, you’re going to scare people to death, which is why they killed him.

Today I invite you to turn the world upside down. I invite you to take the sick and dying values of this world -- which thinks that life is about being nice, or about being famous, or popular, or rich, or powerful, or comfortable, or safe – and throw them in the garbage where they belong. I invite you to become frightening people, because you live like Jesus.

The great Indian reformer and apostle of non-violence, Mahatma Gandhi, was once asked what he thought of Jesus. He answered, I like your Christ – I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ. If Christians would really live according to the teachings of Christ, as found in the Bible, then all of India would be Christian today.

The British writer G. K Chesterton, a devout Christian, said the Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.

The life you embrace today is a hard, hard life. You cannot live it by nice thoughts and nice feelings. That’s not the Jesus way to love. You can only live it the way he did – by standing in the face of the structures and powers that rule the values of this dying world, forever. This is my commandment, that you love others as I have loved you. By this the whole world will know that you are my disciples.

The whole world is watching you, hoping, and betting, that you will not live like Jesus. Prove them wrong. Be not frightened, but be frightening people.

[1] Bartlett, David, and Brown Taylor, Barbara, eds., Feasting On The Word, Year C, Vol. 2., Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, 2009, p. 472