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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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Can One Have Faith without Justice? (October 16, 2016)

justiceLuke 18:1-8

Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. 2 He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. 3 In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, “Grant me justice against my opponent.’ 4 For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, “Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, 5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’ ” 6 And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7 And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? 8 I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

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.

I was talking to a teacher at an elementary school in Jeffco School District last week. She told me that the air conditioning and the heat don’t work in her classroom. The room got up to about 90 degrees early in the school year, and although the temperature in the room is OK right now, soon the children in her room will be freezing. Some have no coats.

She has spoken to the school administrators, who have been in contact with the Jeffco School Board, but as of now there is no money to have the heating system fixed.

At the same time, she told me about another elementary school in the district whose A/C went out earlier in the year. That administration also called the School Board and by the end of the day it was fixed.

One school’s student population is brown, speaks a lot of Spanish, and comes from poor families. The other school’s population is mostly white and comes from upper middle class families. Guess which is which?

This is an example of injustice in our culture, which includes our schools, businesses, government, and more. Injustice is when those who have more power use it to their advantage even as it harms those with less power.

And injustice is one of those things that the Bible speaks out against. A lot. Injustice is something that those who’ve been followers of God have always stood in opposition to. Always. Injustice is one of the things Jesus gets most angry about. Continually. Injustice is one aspect of this world that the followers of Jesus have consistently recognized as evil. Consistently.

And that’s what this parable is about.

A widow seeks justice in the courts of her day. Widows were those who were lowest on the social ladder. They had no power, no voice, no resources, and if they had no other family, no support. She has been wronged somehow and goes to a judge in order to attain justice. Her judge, however, is a man who readily admits he has no respect for God or other people. Yet this woman continues to seek justice from him.

Eventually, even this corrupt judge in a corrupt system grants her justice. If he does this just to keep a persistent woman from bothering him, imagine, Jesus says, how willing God is to grant justice to those who persistently seek it.

We are in a long line of God-people who have been called to stand up in the face of injustice. It is at the very heart of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. It’s the DNA of our baptism. We stand with the victims of injustice and use whatever voice, power, resources, support we have to bring justice. The people who seek God always end up dealing with injustice because it is so opposite of God, God’s will, and God’s kingdom.

And sometimes it’s hard. Sometimes it is frightening. Sometimes it really makes us uncomfortable. We stand in a long line of people who were frightened and uncomfortable when called upon to stand with those who are victims of injustice.

That’s why we are listening to those who are part of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. And that’s why we need this partnership with Zion Baptist Church. They are the voices of our Black sisters and brothers who are victims of injustice. We need to listen. We need to understand. We need to persistently seek justice with them.

That’s why we are listening to the LGBT community. And why we will soon be considering how we can have a congregational conversation about becoming a “Reconciling in Christ” congregation—one that openly welcomes and supports our sisters and brothers who are Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender. We need to listen. We need to understand. We need to persistently seek justice with them.

That’s why our council is proposing we use some of our resources in 2017 to find more effective ways to stand with our children and grow them as disciples of Jesus. Not only do our children need us as advocates now, but the world needs them as fellow followers of Jesus who will also stand against injustice into the future. We need to show them. We need to be an example for them. We need to persistently seek justice on their behalf.

That’s why we give away 11% of our congregational income, most of which goes to the work of our own Rocky Mountain Synod. When all 163 congregations of this synod pool our resources, we are much louder in our voice for justice. We are much stronger advocates for those who are victims of injustice. We need to persistently seek justice together on their behalf.

“And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them.”

Then comes the question we answer with a resounding “YES!” When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

YES! Lord! YES. We stand in this time and in this place as part of the great cloud of witnesses who persist in seeking justice to your people. Forgive us where we are complicit in injustice. Encourage us where we seek justice. Empower us where we stand for justice. Amen.

 
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Posted by on October 16, 2016 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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Wherever We Draw Dividing Lines, God Has Already Erased Them (Eph 2:11-22)

I was having a conversation a while back with someone. As sometimes happens when we allow it, the conversation turned to things spiritual. In the course of the conversation I asked this person why they didn’t take part in a church. They said, “God and I are OK, so I don’t really need a church.”

I wasn’t quite sure what to say, and, of course, couldn’t think of anything at the moment. So I went deep and offered the profound, wise response of, “Oh . . . OK.”

But that comment has stuck with me. If, as Ephesians says in chapter one (last week), God’s work of saving all creation and all people is now in place, then what do we need a church for? If all obstacles between humanity and God have been removed, then “God and me” are OK. So what’s the point of the church?

These verses in Ephesians give us a glimpse of an answer. The author starts by stating that in the cross, Jesus has “[created] in himself one new humanity . . . thus making peace.”

“One new humanity.” Jesus has created peace by creating one new humanity. Out of divided people, both Jews and Gentiles claiming the way of righteousness, each claiming to be better, each blaming the other for their woes, each focusing on the differences between them, Jesus has created something new in himself. One new humanity, reconciled to God and to each other through the cross. In Jesus the whole household of God is joined together, built together, reconciled together, with Jesus as the cornerstone of the whole structure. If there’s any disunity, it’s our doing, not God’s. We are the ones who put up divisions. And then we have the audacity to use God’s name to maintain these divisions.

The God who is reconciling all creation has also created a church with a particular purpose: to reveal God–which means God’s reconciliation–to the world. We can’t expect the world to get along if we can’t. How can we expect the peace of God in the world when the church isn’t boldly loving our enemies and praying for those who persecute us? God’s church keeps separating, dividing, splitting and splintering over issues of doctrine or being “more right” than someone else, and then somehow we think the world is going to see God through our actions?

I caught part of the ESPY Awards on Wednesday night included betowing the Arthur Ashe Courage Award to Caitlyn Jenner–formerly Bruce Jenner. Regardless of any controversy around how she got the award, I find it sad that it’s the people who claim reconciliation in Christ who are often the most critical of her as a transgendered woman. Either we are reconciled in Christ or we are not. Either we trust God’s work on the cross or we don’t. We can’t have it both ways. If we are reconciled to God in Christ, then we are reconciled to one another in Christ too. It’s the same reconciling work. The cross has made us all one in Jesus.

Yes, each one of us is OK with God, but that means that we have to be OK with each other. The divisions we create–no matter where–are denials of Christ’s work on the cross.

Draw divisions wherever you want: male/female, young/old, long-timer/newcomer, 8:00/10:30, heretical /orthodox, active/inactive, progressive/conservative, gay/straight, Christian/Muslim, natural-born/immigrant. It doesn’t matter. Because God has already made peace between whatever groups we’re talking about. There is now just one new humanity with Jesus as the cornerstone of it. The dividing line has been erased. We are one instead of two, reconciled through the cross. The hostility between any of us has been put to death. In Jesus the whole thing is joined together. To deny another person–no matter who they are–is to deny Jesus.

When we pray today, let’s be sure to pray for our enemies, those we disagree with, those who’ve hurt us, those we are convinced God shouldn’t love. Whether we can love them or not, God already does. Whether we include them or not, God already has. Whether we are reconciled with them or not, they are already OK with God.

There is now one new humanity. We just have to admit it.

 
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Posted by on July 20, 2015 in Sermon

 

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