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A Trinitarian Perspective: The Holy Spirit, Changing Us With Love (Pentecost, June 4, 2017)

Acts 2:1-21; 1Cor 12:3b-13; John 20:19-23

The Day of Pentecost is, for the church, one of the “Big Three Holidays,” right up there with Christmas and Easter. One reason it doesn’t get the publicity is that Hallmark and big retailers haven’t figured out how to make a profit off of the Holy Spirit.

Pentecost has been celebrated by Jews forever. It means “50,” and was celebrated 50 days after Passover. It’s also called in the Jewish faith the Festival of Weeks, celebrated as a harvest festival. Not a big decoration theme for the mall.

More than retailers and TV specials, Pentecost doesn’t get the press of Easter and Christmas because it is about the Holy Spirit. And we really don’t get the Holy Spirit. So we don’t make Pentecost a big deal.

But it is a big deal. It’s all about the Holy Spirit that Jesus promised, and that in John, Jesus actually breathes into us. The Holy Spirit. The left-over member of the Trinity. The one we don’t really know what to do with. The aspect of God we ignore because we can’t really define. But if we don’t know the Holy Spirit, how can we claim to know God?

We are more comfortable with God the Father, the Creator. We know who that is and what that role is. Creator. When we pray, usually this is who we envision, isn’t it? Isn’t is usually God the Father we imagine answers our prayers? But this is also a God who seems far off, remote, waiting for us to call upon him (always “him”!). And, we believe it is God the Father who comes down and intervenes in the world to answer our prayers. If we have enough faith, we are told. For some reason, we seem to be OK with a god like that.

Or Jesus, God the Son is OK too. We understand him as a historical figure who “died for our sins.” 2000 years ago, he died, rose, and ascended. We pray to the Father in Jesus’ name, which separates our prayers from people of other faiths, I guess. Jesus is a good person, a moral guide, but also often far off—at least in history. We use his name with respect, and claim to follow him. But too often following him simply means being a good person. For some reason, we seem to be OK with that.

But the Holy Spirit is different. The Holy Spirit is God present here and now, with real people in real situations. The Holy Spirit elicits the heart of Christ from within us.

When we express compassion, that’s God present: the Holy Spirit.

When we love someone, that’s God present: the Holy Spirit.

When we are generous, that’s God present: the Holy Spirit.

When we are moved by beautiful music or art, that is God present: the Holy Spirit.

When we become angry at an injustice perpetrated on someone who is weak or vulnerable, that’s God present: the Holy Spirit.

I wonder if we have more problems with the Holy Spirit because we want to put parameters around the Spirit, the same way we do with he Father and the Son. That may well be part of the issue for us—the Spirit cannot be controlled or influenced! Instead, the Spirit influences us! And that isn’t always comfortable.

If we’re OK thinking of God as a far-off entity that exists outside of us, the Holy Spirit can be unsettling. Because the Holy Spirit is God all up in our lives, doing whatever she wants, whenever she wants. If we give in to that, well, who knows what could happen?! We could, you know, change!

Yet that’s what the Holy Spirit does within us. I know a woman who all her life had maintained pretty “traditional” views on marriage and family. She used obscure Bible verses she saw on TV to feel better about her assumption of marriage being between a man and a woman. She was religious, but for her, God was “out there” somewhere, watching to make sure his people didn’t commit too many sins and went to church. Her parents and her circle of religious friends didn’t make a big deal about it, but said homosexuality was a sin. So she just held the same position her parents held without ever really thinking about it.

Then one day her daughter pulled her aside and said they needed to talk. They were close, so the woman knew something significant was up. “I’m gay,” her daughter told her. “I’ve wanted to tell you for years, but was afraid you would kick me out or quit loving me.”

The woman was shocked. She hadn’t even thought about this possibility. She did two wise things, however. She told her daughter that nothing could make her stop loving her. And she asked for a few days to process this news.

During those few days, she prayed, she cried, she shouted, she researched, and she prayed some more. But as confused as she was, the overriding position she kept coming back to was that this was her daughter and she loved her with all her heart. Nothing could change that.

Her daughter’s sexual orientation didn’t seem like such a big deal after that. It was love that mattered. And love was all that mattered. So she found that her position on homosexuality changed. God present: the Holy Spirit moved her with love to change. She didn’t ask for it or hope for it. God present: the Holy Spirit, blew in and made God’s love real—with real people in real situations.

With the Holy Spirit, God can no longer be far off in heaven answering some prayers and ignoring others. With the Holy Spirit, God is here, right now, messing with us. With the Holy Spirit, the nature—the heart—of God becomes real and connects inside us. And we are changed by the heart of God to be more like Christ. With the Holy Spirit, none of us are safe, because with the Holy Spirit, God’s love, grace, compassion, forgiveness and justice become real in our lives, with real faces on real people in real life. With the Holy Spirit, you never know what’s going to happen. Hang on. Happy Pentecost.

 
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Posted by on June 5, 2017 in Sermon

 

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“We have seen the Lord” April 3, 2016

John 20:19-31

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” 24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin ), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” 26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” 28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” 30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31 But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

The night of his resurrection, Jesus appears to the disciples, breathes the Holy Spirit into them, and sends them out to forgive sins. Thomas wasn’t there so he didn’t believe them. The other disciples kept saying to Thomas, “We have seen the Lord,” but Thomas wanted evidence. He asked to have evidence presented before his mind could be changed.

But that’s not what happened. Instead of evidence to change his mind, he saw the risen Christ, which changed his heart. As the other disciples kept saying, now Thomas, too, saw the Lord.

Many years ago, I saw the Lord.

There are not many things about my past that embarrass me, but the following is one of them: I had written a piece as to why homosexuality was a sin. I need evidence, I wrote, in order to change my mind. Show me in the Bible, quote me chapter and verse, where God ever says homosexuality is OK. I will not believe until I see with my own eyes the evidence.

The evidence had always been there, but as if often the case, evidence rarely changes minds. But that didn’t matter until I saw the Lord. I saw the risen Christ in the grace and love of a gay man who had been receiving death threats because of his sexual identity, yet who continued to boldly love anyway.

I saw the risen Christ in the kindness and gentleness of a transgender woman, who insisted on loving those who hated her.

I saw the risen Christ in the open statements of welcome I read in other congregations’ publications, “All are welcome. Black, white, Hispanic, Asian, native, or anything else; Muslim, Buddhist, agnostic, Lutheran, or anything else; straight, lesbian, gay, transgender, bisexual, or anything else. You are a child of God and you are welcomed here.” I saw the Lord.

I had asked for evidence. But instead of evidence to change my mind, I saw the risen Christ, which changed my heart.

And I’ve seen the Lord a lot.

We live in a culture that demands evidence for everything. Our default position is that we have our minds made up, we have our opinions, and it’s up to someone else to change ours mind with hard evidence. Until then, we’re staying put.

That’s true with faith—people demand evidence before they will believe in God. It’s true in politics—people demand evidence that the other candidate isn’t a lying, cheating, sniveling, puppy-killer. It’s really true with almost anything in our culture, including our own biases. Until there’s hard evidence, we rarely change our minds. Even in the face of evidence, we usually don’t.

The disciples were huddled together in a locked room for fear of the Jews, the text says. That’s what we do too. We lock ourselves behind whatever helps us keep our same views. Because from behind locked doors we can demand evidence that will change our minds. When it doesn’t, we can assume that our own views are OK as they are. So our perspective on the world, the church, our neighbors, our government, whatever is safe. We demand evidence. But we stay behind locked doors just in case.

Just like in this text, though, instead of evidence to change our minds, Jesus comes and stands among us anyway. When we see the Lord, it changes our hearts.

I see the Lord when a child, though shaking in her shoes, stands up to a bully for her friend. That changes my heart.

I see the Lord when our council struggles to make decisions that are consistent with Jesus’ call to follow, even though they know some decisions aren’t always well liked. That changes my heart

I see the Lord when the HEART Ministry goes out of their way to acknowledge and thank the quiet work of someone in this congregation. That changes my heart.

I see the Lord in the faces of the homeless on the 16th Street Mall, even when they are ignored or laughed at. That changes my heart.

I see the Lord when we, as a congregation band together to serve our neighbors at The Action Center or the Animal Shelter. That changes my heart.

I see the Lord when someone gives me a hug and says, “Don’t worry, I’ve got your back.” That changes my heart.

Being sent by Jesus really doesn’t have anything to do with changing anyone’s mind. Following Jesus doesn’t mean offering evidence for what we believe or don’t believe. What it seems to mean is showing people the risen Christ: loving them anyway, forgiving them anyway, making peace with them anyway. We show them the Lord by being the church that, when we enter into people’s lives, they can say, “We have seen the Lord,” and their hearts are changed.

People are asking for evidence, but that’s not what we offer. Instead of evidence to change their minds, we offer them Jesus, which changes their hearts.

 
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Posted by on April 4, 2016 in Sermon

 

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Thumbing Our Noses Is Different than Forgiveness. 2 Easter B

John 20:19-31

Why is Jesus appearing to people after the resurrection?

The two appearances by Jesus in this reading from John happen on two consecutive Sundays evenings: the day Jesus was resurrected and a week later on the following Sunday. We have the 2nd and the 3rd post-resurrection appearances of Jesus here.

So why is he appearing? What is he trying to accomplish?

He can’t just be convincing disciples that he is raised from the dead. If that was what he was trying to do, he’d be appearing all over the place to all kinds of people. But he’s not. He’s appearing to a select bunch. The disciples. Those he had chosen as his followers. Not just the twelve apostles, but all of his disciples—all who had been following him, learning from him, believing him. He’s not appearing as a divine “I told you so” or thumbing his nose at those who doubt or aren’t sure. He’s got a message for his disciples. And that message isn’t about convincing people he’s alive. He could do that much better than we could. All he has to do is keep appearing to people. So that, apparently, isn’t the reason he appears to his disciples.

Rather, this is all about the continuation of God’s mission in Christ. Here in John, the resurrection of Jesus is less about proving something and more about sending the disciples to continue his work.

You are sent, he says; with the power of the Holy Spirit, he says; to forgive sins, he says. If you do it, it’s done. If you don’t, it isn’t. That’s why he’s appearing to them. To empower them with the Holy Spirit; to send them out to forgive.

“Forgive” is a word we use all the time. But I’m not convinced we get it.

Forgive=has its root meaning in the idea of “moving past.” That doesn’t mean forgetting, ignoring, or pretending, but moving beyond. In this context it means moving past the offense of the other to see the image of God within them. The offense, the brokenness, the hurt doesn’t stop us from seeing God’s love, God’s light, God’s life in them. With forgiveness, we look past the offense to recognize the image of God in the other.

Retain=root meaning in “power or strength.” So here, it means that the offense, the hurt does, in fact, have the power to block the image of God. Our vision is blocked by the offense and our own hurt; and the image of God present in the other isn’t recognized.

Forgiving–the offense and brokenness is less of a barrier. You can see beyond it. Like a Dutch door. It’s there, but you can recognize what’s beyond.

Retaining–the offense and brokenness is more like a solid door that is locked. Can’t see what’s on the other side.

So Jesus comes to his disciples to fill them with the Holy Spirit and send them to look past people’s offenses and see these broken people in the world as the very people God loves. Jesus fills the disciples with the Holy Spirit – the breath of God, the essence of God – to make sure they are able to do this forgiveness thing. Because it’s at the heart of who God is, therefore it’s at the heart of his disciples. In forgiving, they reveal God.

Isn’t this what Jesus came for in the first place: to show us God’s heart? What God is like? And now he’s commissioning all his disciples to continue that same mission. To show the world what God is like. To reveal the heart of God. Which means to be about forgiveness.

And that is what happens when we recognize the image of God in broken people. When we can look past our own hurt and see God’s giftedness, God’s love, God’s handiwork as the center of who they are.

That’s who Jesus is for us, isn’t he? One who looks past our brokenness and sees us as people in the image of God’s love—who are cared about, gifted, and loved by God. Without condition, without measure. That’s how Jesus looks at us. Because that’s who we are.

Therefore, who better than Jesus’ own disciples to look beyond the brokenness, the hurt, the sin of the world and see the light of God’s love there? We, the broken people that God loves; we, the sinful people that God still is gracious to; we, the prideful people God continues to shower mercy upon; we are the ones called now to do the same in the world.

It is in this activity of forgiving in the world that the church reveals Jesus. That’s it. Not in proving the resurrection; not in discovering empirical evidence that God exists; not in debating whether Jesus looked more Norwegian or Australian. According to the gospel-writer John, forgiveness is really the purpose we are empowered by the Spirit and sent by Jesus to do. That’s our focus. That’s the Spirit at work in us. That’s why Jesus kept appearing to his disciples: to send them to continue his work of forgiveness—even today.

The Holy Spirit is guiding us and empowering us along this line anyway. As disciples of Jesus Christ, we are called to deal with the world the way God deals with us. So we follow the leading of the Spirit—we don’t need to argue with people, we just start forgiving them. We don’t need to debate with them, we just start recognizing God’s love in them. We don’t need to think we’re superior to them, we just start seeing what we can learn about God from them. They, too, are created in God’s image, loved by God, and gifted by God. We are called and empowered to recognize that.

The resurrected Jesus comes to us. Not so those who believe can thumb their noses at those who don’t, but so that we can see God’s light and life in others. Baptized into Christ, our very deepest identity now is rooted in forgiveness—moving past brokenness to the image of God recognized in those we meet. Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. Hallelujah.

 
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Posted by on April 9, 2013 in Sermon

 

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