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Pentecost: We’ve Been Doing it Backwards (Pentecost Day, May 15, 2016)

Acts 2:1-21

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2 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. 3 Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. 5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6 And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 7 Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9 Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11 Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” 12 All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13 But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.” 14 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. 15 Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 16 No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: 17 “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. 18 Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. 19 And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. 20 The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. 21 Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’

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.

At the Rocky Mountain Synod Assembly a couple of weeks ago, I went to a workshop on “Being a Neighborhood Church.” The agenda was to help congregations develop relationships in their communities.

About 20 people gathered for this workshop, and one of the presenters shared an example of a beautiful relationship they have with the school across the street from them where both church and school have benefited. The other presented how God is already active in the neighborhood. As we enter into relationships within our neighborhoods, we are actually reflecting the image of God there.

“How do we do that?” someone asked.

“By discovering what God might be doing in the neighborhood and becoming part of that.

“That sounds hard.”

“Yes, it does take time to develop those relationships in your community where you can begin to see—”

“So, do we meet with the school administration before we meet with the faculty?”

“I don’t know. First you need to see whether or not God is even calling you into a relationship with—”

“How much money do we need to budget for this school thing?”

“You really need to see what God is doing in your neighborh—”

“How many families from the school program thing will join our church?”

They couldn’t seem to get past a program. They couldn’t see God as actually active in their communities. This presenter was speaking a foreign language, he was filled with new wine. You can’t program God into your neighborhood. You can’t impose God on people. You can’t.

Well, you can. But it would be the opposite of what happens in the book of Acts, especially in this text on the day of Pentecost.

You see, on that Pentecost day in Jerusalem, the Holy Spirit just blew through in some rather obvious ways—fire, wind, languages, bold proclamations of God’s mighty deeds of power. Obvious to some, at least. Not obvious to everyone. There were those who simply thought these Galileans were drunk and just wrote off the whole event.

Here’s the order of events—and this order matters.

  • Jews gathering in Jerusalem for the Pentecost festival, like they’d been doing every year for centuries. Normal activity.
  • Then, the Holy Spirit gets active with the fire and the wind.
  • After that, the disciples responded with all the languages and Peter gives his sermon.
  • Finally, after this text today, 3000 people were baptized; some disciples were jailed, others beaten, and some killed.

Normal life, Holy Spirit, response, consequences (some good, some not so good). That’s the way the church began. Life is going on, Holy Spirit disrupts, disciples respond to that, and who-knows-what-happens as a result.

I think the church has tried to reverse that order. At least the institutional church of the last 17 centuries or so. We start at the end, with what we want the consequences to be (usually because it benefits us), and then we back up and try to figure out a way to make that happen. We back up further and ask God to bless our work. Then we package it and impose it on people’s lives.

For instance: the 3000 baptisms in one day sound really good. And there were more day by day too. So let’s start there, we say. Let’s make that happen. How can we get that result?

So we back up and make the church buildings attractive, we create magnificent programs that people want to come to, we preach entertaining sermons that people want to hear, we promise people heaven and threaten them with hell, we sing songs we’re sure they want to hear because we like them, and we put on a really good pot of coffee.

Then we back up further and assure ourselves that this is what God wants and ask God to bless it.

And we present this church with all its programming to the public, expecting the results we want. When it falls short, we bump up the programs, add more jokes to the sermons, make the bulletins slicker and add projection. And we tell people how to make their lives easier. Then we advertise this new and revised church to the public, hoping for the results we planned.

Over and over and over we do this, never noticing that we’ve actually got the whole thing backwards, which pretty much leaves God until last. But we’ve been doing it this way for so long that it seems normal, right, good, and even Godly. That’s what we’ve been telling ourselves for centuries.

All the while, the Holy Spirit continues moving, interrupting people’s lives. Sometimes we as the church are kind of busy with our own agenda so we don’t always see it. We can convince ourselves that the Holy Spirit can’t move without the church, forgetting that on that first Pentecost day, there was no church. Just a bunch of Jesus followers sitting in a room without programs, educational systems, choirs or bands, or even coffee. But the Holy Spirit came anyway. And not all, but some people noticed. And they responded. And some things happened.

With us or without us, the Holy Spirit will get all up in people’s lives. It’s our job to notice, to respond, and to take the consequences whether we like them or not.

It’s the same Holy Spirit today as in Acts 2. Where is the Holy Spirit intervening now? Look for where mercy being proclaimed, or compassion being shown. Those things that are definitely of God. It sometimes comes from unexpected people in unexpected ways. Even Galileans who appear drunk.

Have you seen the Holy Spirit moving? Have you recognized compassion being proclaimed? Have you noticed those who are normally pushed to the edges brought in and told they matter?

Here’s one instance I’ve seen this week. On Monday, US Attorney General Loretta Lynch included this statement in a speech to the legislators of her home state of North Carolina, “Let me speak to directly to the transgender community. No matter how isolated or scared you may feel today, the Department of Justice . . . wants you to know that we see you; we stand with you; and we will do everything we can to protect you moving forward.”

That is nothing but people being shown compassion. That is care and love being proclaimed to some who are pushed away in North Carolina. That’s the Holy Spirit at work. And someone responded. And who knows what the results will be.

Some of us hear this speech from Loretta Lynch and will say to one another, “What does this mean?” Others will sneer, “She is filled with new wine.” Others will say, “How is it that we hear these things coming from the government?”

No one expects to experience the Holy Spirit through the U.S. government. Just like no one expected to experience the Holy Spirit through a bunch of Galilean yokels. But it doesn’t who responds to the Spirit, it’s that the Spirit is moving.

In the midst of life, the Holy Spirit blows in and disrupts, some notice and respond, and things happen.

On this Pentecost Day, may we take time to notice the Holy Spirit’s interruptions. May we discover anew God’s compassion and grace being revealed in people’s lives. And may we respond to the Holy Spirit’s love as it blows all around us.

 
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Posted by on May 16, 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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