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Saturday, June 11, 2011

Everyone Who Calls

Pentecost A, 2011

Acts 2:1-21

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’

The summer of my seventh year, my parents loaded our 1959 Buick Special with maps and clothes and themselves, my grandfather, and me, and set out to drive from our home in Baltimore to visit my half-brother, who was stationed at Point Mugu Naval Air Station in California. Every family should drive across the country once. We saw Mark Twain’s home and Tom Sawyer’s cave, rode up Pike’s Peak on the cog railway, saw Yosemite and San Francisco, went to Disneyland and to the Grand Canyon. This was before the days of interstate highways, and our car had neither radio nor air conditioning. The Mohave Desert, I can tell you, is hot.

My father, a dedicated amateur photographer, took slides of everything. For those of you who don’t know what a slide is, I brought one today: you projected it on a screen in much the same way we now project digital images. When we got home from the trip and had the slides developed, my father arranged them in chronological order so we could make a slide show for our relatives and friends.

One night we announced to our neighborhood that we were going to show slides of our trip in our backyard, so everyone could see. At the last minute, my parents decided to move the show into our living room, which severely restricted the viewing audience. The Warner family on the corner, of whom my parents had never been fond, were disinvited. I can still remember Bobby Warner standing at our front door, peering through the screen door, trying to see the pictures of our magic trip across the country. I was embarrassed – Bobby was my friend, but he was not welcome at the party.

Who was welcome at the party, and who was not, had been a subject of bitter argument among the Jews for thousands of years. The Temple had been divided into sections depending on how close one could approach the presence of God. At the farthest distance was the court of Gentiles – the uncircumcised, non-observant foreigners. Next was the court for Jewish women. Closer, but not too close. Then, closer to God was the court of the Israelites – meaning men. Then there was the court of the priests, just outside the main Temple. Deep inside the main Temple was the room where God lived, and only the high priest could get that close to God. Not everyone, you see, was invited to the party.

Were foreigners who married into Jewish families welcome? That’s an argument that continues to today, as orthodox and conservative rabbis debate who is a true Jew. A couple of weeks ago we looked at the story of the Ethiopian eunuch, who was barred from Judaism because of what had been done to him. Pharisees and Sadducees debated with Jesus about who was welcome: were Roman collaborators, or lepers, or children, or adulterers welcome at God’s table? Paul, Peter, and James argued about whether Gentiles had to become followers of Moses before they could follow Jesus.

It doesn’t stop with the Bible. A hundred and fifty years ago this very ground was soaked with the blood of people dying over whether people with black skin were welcome in church, and at the voting box, and in schools, and in white people’s homes. The state of Alabama has just passed the most restrictive immigration law in history, allowing police to detain anyone they suspect of not being in the country legally. Are people who are not like us – who don’t think, or vote, or act, or look, or believe, or speak, or smell, or behave the way we do – welcome?

On the fiftieth day after Passover, ten days after Jesus had left them and returned to his Father and out into the world, the disciples were gathered for the Jewish spring harvest festival. In Israel, there were two Thanksgivings – one in the spring for the grain harvest, and one in the fall for fruit (Succoth or Booths). Suddenly there was a sound like a tornado, and the disciples began to glow, as Jesus had on the Mount of Transfiguration when he met with Elijah and Moses. And the disciples began singing praises to God at the tops of their lungs.

My dear seminary professor Bill Mallard insists that Pentecost is not a miracle of speaking. It was not, Bill says, that the disciples suddenly began speaking in different languages. The text, he points out, says it was a miracle of hearing: the listeners, coming from every country and culture and language, ask how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Whether it is a miracle of speaking or of hearing, the point is the same – the good news of God’s love for the whole world in Jesus Christ is now made accessible to everyone, regardless of nation, culture, position, status, religion, IQ, or politics. Pentecost is the incarnation of the Ascension ten days before – Jesus has gone out, to fill the entire world. No longer is Israel the vehicle for God’s healing of the Creation – now everyone, and everything, has become a potential instrument of grace.

Peter explains this to the confused crowd, which asks what all this means. God’s Holy Spirit is now being poured out on all Creation. Look at the list: sons and daughters, old and young, slave and free – all now have access to the Spirit. And then Peter delivers the punchline: Then everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.

Note three things in that verse:

everyone. In Christ, Paul said, there are no longer any distinctions. There is no Jew or Greek, male or female, slave or free. If we are going to be the church of Jesus Christ, then we have to mean what our banner out front says: Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors. Nobody else offers that, folks. We are in a rapidly stratifying society that has sacrificed our national dream of E Pluribus Unum on a cross of gold. Television commentators and self-serving politicians have carved the nation up into true believers and heretics. It cannot be so with us, brothers and sisters. This has to be the place where rich and poor, red, yellow, black, white, and brown, genius and challenged, young and old, come-here and been-here, healthy and sick, mobile and immobile, left, right, up, down, in, and out find family in Jesus Christ. Everyone means everyone, or it means no one.

who calls. We middle of the road about everything Methodists don’t believe that God either decided before the world began who is going to heaven or hell, nor do we believe that it’s entirely up to you. We believe that from the beginning God’s Holy Spirit was blowing across chaos to sing a song of God’s love for everyone and everything. God was singing that song to us when we were in our mother’s wombs, the Bible says, and God will keep singing it long after we have turned to dust. And when we finally stop our noise long enough to listen, when we pull our fingers out of our ears so we can hear, and when we cry out to God to let us be a part of his symphony, then God sweeps us into the love that has been for us from always. God always moves first, and when we stop fighting and surrender ourselves to grace, we discover who we are, and whose we are. But we have to call.

will be saved. Not saved from sickness or dying. Not saved from our own mistakes, or our own stupidity. Not saved from everything that goes bump in the night, or from the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or from accident or disease or war or poverty. But saved from the hell of being our own gods, of living as though we were the most important things in the universe. Saved from wondering if we will ever be loved, ever be forgiven, ever wanted, ever included. Saved from hopelessness, saved from meaninglessness, saved from the aching loneliness of our preoccupation with ourselves. Saved for love, saved for grace, saved for servanthood, saved for community, saved for eternity. That saved.

Nobody has to stand on the outside, ever again, looking through the screen door at the party God is throwing. Everyone . . . who calls . . . will be saved. Even me, and even you.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Off the Clock

Ascension A, 2011

Acts 1:1-11

In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. “This,” he said, “is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”

So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

Before their better-known screen pairing in Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail, the first movie Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan made together was a little - remembered but wonderful cinematic parable entitled Joe Vs. The Volcano. Tom Hanks plays Joe Banks, a firefighter who, after nearly being killed rescuing children from a burning building, goes to work in the basement of a rectal probe manufacturer. His life and work are dull and depressing, and he goes to see a doctor who tells him he is dying from an incurable “brain cloud.” Told he only has six months to live, Joe quits his job and tells off his boss. The next day he meets a multibillionaire who knows about his disease, and offers him an unlimited credit card if he will sacrifice his life by jumping into a volcano on a South Pacific Island, to keep the island from exploding and killing all the natives. With nothing to lose, Joe accepts the offer. The story, about his voyage to find his soul, is hilarious, poignant, and surprising. I won’t give away the ending – rent the movie (or borrow it from me).

What would you do if you were told you had six months to live? Suppose Harold Camping is right this time – that the universe really is going to explode October 21st? What would you do? Would we still have the Fall Festival two weekends before? Would you quit your job? Would you go back to school in the fall? Would you tell someone you loved that you love them – or would you tell somebody else off?

As Jesus stands on a hillside forty days after the resurrection, once again telling the disciples that this time he really – no, really – is going to leave them, they ask him a question they’ve asked before: Is this the time when you’re going to restore the nation of Israel? After three years of being with Jesus, who kept telling him that he wasn’t going to be the King of Israel, overthrow the Romans, and make them territorial governors, after rising from the dead to show them that God was doing something completely different in the world, after spending forty days after Easter going over the last three years, explaining what he wanted them to go out into the world and do, the disciples are stuck in exactly the same place: Is this the time when you’re going to restore the nation of Israel? We shouldn’t be too hard on them, because many Christians – from Harold Camping and Pat Robertson and Tim LaHaye on down – are still fixated on the same mistake: that the kingdom of God means creating, or recreating, a political reality here and now. Whether it’s throwing the Muslims out of Jerusalem and rebuilding the Temple, or transforming the United States into some pristine ideal of a “Christian nation” that we never were and never will be, both the Bible and two millennia of history are clear: the Kingdom of God is not of this world. Jesus said it was in the midst of us.

So, after what I expect was a very long sigh, eyes rolled to heaven and a silent prayer to his Father asking to beam him up, now, Jesus responds to his clueless disciples, It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

It is not just that no one knows the day and the hour: it is not about the day and the hour. It is not about the day and hour because today is the day and now is the hour. Stop watching the clock and checking the calendar, because it’s now.

Instead of knowledge, Jesus says that the Holy Spirit will give his followers power. But it’s not random power, to leap tall building in a single bound, or to pass the SOLs or to heal sick loved ones. The power that will come with the Holy Spirit next Sunday, on the Day of Pentecost, is the power to witness to Jesus to the ends of the earth. That’s what Jesus had meant years earlier when he had said that the Kingdom of God was in the midst of his followers: when you and I live out the love of God, extend God’s mercy, and call out the idols of this world, then we are the incarnation of the Body of Christ and we are the Kingdom of God. The word eternal, as I have explained before, does not mean on and on and on. It means outside of time. It is a quality of life that breaks all the boundaries of the clock, just as God lives outside the clock and outside time. When you and I incarnate the love of God in this moment, we participate with Jesus and all the saints past, present, and future in eternity, just as, this morning, when we break the bread and share the cup, we do so eternally, in the same out-of-time moment with Jesus and the disciples and the saints and our great-great grandparents and everyone out in the cemetery and with our great-great grandchildren. It’s not about when, you see: it’s about being empowered by the Holy Spirit to be witnesses, today and tomorrow and forever.

And then, Luke says, Jesus was lifted up and a cloud took him from the disciples’ sight. Clouds, in the Bible, are symbols of God, like the cloud in the wilderness and on Mt. Sinai. It’s not that Jesus went way, way up in the sky, one of my teachers explained – it’s that he went out to fill the whole world. Which, again, is why we need to get off the clock in our lives and in our relationship with God: Jesus is right here, right now. The hour for receiving him, and the hour for following him, isn’t next week or month or year – it’s right now. It’s always right now. And now. And now.

So, what would you do differently if you had a brain cloud, or if the world were ending October 21st, or if you knew today were the day? Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel? It’s not about when, because it’s always now. Live the Jesus life. Now.