Pentecost, Year C, 2016

Happy birthday! Was I the only person to bring a birthday hat today? Well, today is Pentecost, the church’s birthday! So happy birthday to us!

A few weeks ago, our Middle School Sunday School class had an amazing conversation about the Pentecost story. One of our students has always been troubled by this story. She said, roughly, that the disciples had been incredibly close for three years, and then suddenly they all started speaking different languages. She was afraid they could not longer speak to each other. I reassured her that the disciples retained their ability to speak their common language, but I can’t stop thinking about her concern for their disciples. She wasn’t entirely wrong.

The disciples are about to be sent out.

For three years they have followed Jesus around, enjoying an incredibly close community together. They have been through the trauma of Jesus’ death and the unsettling joy of his resurrection. Before Jesus ascends, he tells the disciples to hang tight in Jerusalem and wait for the Holy Spirit.

They may not realize it, but those days in the Upper Room are a kind of final goodbye. They have been incubating, marinating in Jesus’ presence and teachings, but God has big plans for them.

The first gift the Holy Spirit gives the disciples is the gift of languages. God wants every person and every nation to know about the good news of Jesus’ resurrection. When the disciples all start speaking in different languages, the diverse people of Jerusalem perk up! Suddenly they are hearing God’s good news in a way that feels personal. God is for them, specifically!

This multilingual encounter is just the beginning. While at first the disciples may think they will spend the rest of their lives in Jerusalem, the Holy Spirit has other plans. Before too long, authorities will be coming after the disciples, and the Holy Spirit will push them out of Jerusalem, to the very corners of the world as they knew it.

According to history and legend disciples ended up in Syria, Rome, Persia, Ethiopia and India. The disciples went further than they could have imagined through the power of the Holy Spirit.

We may celebrate Pentecost as the birthday of the church, but God has always gathered and God has always sent out. God gathered Abraham and his family, and them sent them to Egypt. God gathered Moses and the Israelites, and then sent them to the Promised Land. Through David, God gathered his people in Jerusalem, but then sent them out in the Diaspora. The rhythm of life with God is this gathering and then sending out.

This is the rhythm of our life of our faith, too.

We gather here every Sunday to hear God’s story, to break bread together, to be strengthened. In this space we are reminded that whatever is happening in our lives, that we are loved and we are part of a larger story. We get a chance to apologize for the ways we have fallen short, and get re-oriented to who God is and who we are. We are beloved children of God. We are the bearer’s of Christ’s light. We are the reconcilers and healers.

We can’t stay here. About noon, we start shutting the lights off. God doesn’t call us to stay in this space. We have amazing, incredible news to share with our community. We get to go back to school, to work, to our friends and live our faith. We get to tell people that they are not their worst day, that God has a new story for them, a story of grace and forgiveness and new life. We get to practice what we preach by offering forgiveness to others and to ourselves.

We also get to listen. Stephanie Spellers, canon for evangelism and reconciliation to our national church, believes that a lot of our work as Christians is to listen. When asked how to reach out to millennials, which is a question the church wrings its hands about quite a bit, she says,

Here’s the secret: talk to them! Let them tell you what they long for in a community. Let them tell you what authentic prayer sounds like. Let them tell you what they wish church were up to. And then ask if there’s anything you could do together for God. Start a partnership. Offer your wisdom and honor theirs. Be genuinely curious about what God is up to in their world and in their lives, and share what God is up to in your life.

Sharing our faith can seem really intimidating, but it’s really just about listening to someone’s story and then sharing our own story.

I confess that I am the type of person on an airplane who puts my earphones in immediately. I love being a pastor but I am uninterested in being a pastor to random people on United Airlines. Frankly, I find talking with strangers a little scary! However, a few weeks ago Elizabeth Butler, Audi Barlow and I went to a conference in Texas about welcoming people to church. During the conference many pastors talked a bout their experiences talking to strangers in their communities. I immediately felt insecure, because that is just not my gift. I am good with people I know but super shy with strangers.

On the flight back my seat mate and I were trying to figure out how to use the new United App that allows you to watch in flight movies on your phone. That led to a conversation about Beyonce’s Lemonade, which led to a three hour conversation that was just incredible. He was a DC patent lawyer born and raised in Detroit. We talked about race relations and raising small children. We talked about marriage and work place culture. And eventually, about two hours in, we talked about God. Nothing was forced, and even though we were from two totally different backgrounds in two totally different professions, we found that we had much more in common than we had differences. As we left the plane, he said, “Be sure to preach about this conversation!” And so, I am.

God sent me out, and it wasn’t terrible! It wasn’t even scary. In fact, it was one of the most rewarding conversations of my life. If this chicken can do it, so you can you!

Being sent out by God is a little scary, but guess what. Once a week, he gathers us back in. We go out, we do the hard work of living our faith in the world, and then we scurry back here to the community that loves us, to hear the Word and receive the sacrament.

At the end of the service we always send you out into the world. Often we say, “Go in peace, to love and serve the Lord.” You can go in peace, because God has given what you need through the Sunday service to do the work he is calling you to do this week. God sends you, but when you come to church, he sends you prepared.

If life ever gets so hard that you just can’t wait until next Sunday, call Eric or me any time. Think of us as your cheerleaders. I’ll even let you wear the birthday hat. We are so impressed by all the good work you do out there! All the loving, and healing, and care taking. All the teaching and writing and leading. All the beautiful art and music you put into the world. God’s blessing on you as God sends you out this week. And we’ll see you soon.

Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pentecost, Year A, 2014

You are phenomenal.

Did you know that?

The Holy Spirit thinks so.

We think of Pentecost as an event that happened thousands of years ago. We remember vaguely that after the ascension, Jesus’ followers locked themselves in a room and waited. They prayed and prayed and finally the Holy Spirit came down from heaven like fire and changed those people forever. But Pentecost isn’t only a historical event.

Pentecost happens every day. The gift of the Holy Spirit continues to blow through the Church, continues to guide ordinary followers of Jesus like us, continues to animate our life together. So, what does the Holy Spirit do?

In our Gospel of John reading, we see Jesus breathing the Holy Spirit onto his followers, just as the Creator God breathed life into Adam. The world around us constantly tries to deflate us. The breath of God animates and fills us, so we can participate in creating the Kingdom of God.

A couple of weeks ago, I found myself walking around, shoulders slumped, as I processed all the #YesAllWomen tweets on Twitter. I don’t know if you followed that movement, but after the Isla Vista shooting, it turned out that part of the cocktail of mental illness and gun violence that motivated the shooter was a deep loathing for women. He saw women as objects to conquer and deeply resented that no women showed interest in being conquered by him.

A day later, one million tweets with the hashtag YesAllWomen flooded twitter. Each tweet recounted a woman’s incident of feeling afraid or dismissed because of her gender. Women recounted instances of being followed, being assaulted, being threatened. The point was no matter whether a woman has been assaulted or not, nearly every woman in this country lives with the reality that she could experience violence. We lock our cars as soon as we get in them. We avoid walking alone at night. We run in the street instead of the woods. We tell people who come on to us that we are married, even if we aren’t, because we know rejection may cause violence. None of this was a surprise to me. The security cameras are one of my favorite features of my gym. I was really grateful when we added flood lighting to the outside of the parish house. I live with the same anxieties other women do every day and don’t think about them much. But something about the veil coming off, seeing the breadth of the problem communicated by hundreds of thousands of women deflated me. Does the world care so little about half the human population that we allow this sort of thing to continue?

But here is the hope of Pentecost. Where the world deflates and demeans us, whether we are men or women, the Holy Spirit fills us up with the breath of God. After all, the remarkable part of the story of Pentecost is that the Holy Spirit descended on everyone in that upper room in the book of Acts—men and women, young and old. And then the first act of the Holy Spirit was to give these followers of Jesus the ability to tell the good news of Jesus’ resurrection to people of every language. Jerusalem was an international city and Jews from many countries were there. Suddenly, people were hearing the good news in their native tongues! They were important. The Holy Spirit wanted to reach out to them where they were. The Holy Spirit didn’t ask them to conform to one way of being, the Holy Spirit connected to these people as their full individual selves. These international Jews didn’t have to become someone else, speak Hebrew or Greek, to be enveloped in God’s love. God loved them right there.

At its inception, the Christian church was an incredibly egalitarian community. This changed over history, but the Holy Spirit’s first concept for us was for all of us to be filled with the breath of God as we worship and serve God together as peers. All of us matter. All of us have work to do for the kingdom. God loves and can use each of us, no matter our age, gender, or ethnicity. All of this is still true, whether the world believes it or not.

Coincidentally, right as all this #YesAllWomen writing was happening on Twitter, Maya Angelou died. No one could accuse Dr. Angelou of being a deflated person. After all, she wrote the lines:

Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.

I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size

But when I start to tell them,

They think I’m telling lies.

I say, It’s in the reach of my arms,

The span of my hips,

The stride of my step,

The curl of my lips.

I’m a woman

Phenomenally.

Phenomenal woman, That’s me.

That seems like a woman deeply confident in herself, doesn’t it? Well, did you know that Maya Angelou did not speak from the age of eight until she turned thirteen? When she was eight years old she was assaulted by her stepfather. She told her brother, who told the rest of the family and a few days later her stepfather was murdered, probably by one of her uncles. She became convinced that her words had killed him and so she remained silent for five years. The love of God and of a good teacher helped her regain her courage and her ability to speak as she and her teacher immersed themselves in literature.

Maya Angelou’s faith and deep connections with other human beings sustained her the rest of her days. Listen to what she says about her relationship with God:

“I believed that there was a God because I was told it by my grandmother and later by other adults. But when I found that I knew not only that there was God but that I was a child of God, when I understood that, when I comprehended that, more than that, when I internalized that, ingested that, I became courageous.”

The Holy Spirit, and a whole lot of love of the faithful adults around her, transformed a frightened little girl into an incredibly courageous adult woman whose writing changed the world and gave many other little girls and women hope that they too, could be courageous. Dr. Angelou became a teacher and cultivated deep relationships with hundreds of students, giving back into the world the love she was given. The Holy Spirit has a lot of loving for us to do in the world. But before we go out to the love the world, the Holy Spirit’s job is to remind us that we are loved. The Holy Spirit picks us up, reminds us that God cares about us, and heals the wounds we have been given by a world that chips away at our souls. The world is not going to change all at once, but if each of us who professes to be a Christian, in Angelou’s words “internalize, ingest” that we are children of God, how God could use us to change the world!

We have huge, societal problems—and we won’t be able to break them down all at once, but with the Holy Spirit’s help, we can make a world a little more like God’s kingdom. This week I got a phone call from a woman named Anna. Anna is a Friends with Flowers volunteer. One of the recipients of the flowers was not able to receive them this week, since they were in the middle of moving to a new home. Anna called me to let me know that she took the flowers to the Cedars, a nursing home. She took them there, because every day on her commute, she passed a cheerful old man who waved at her from his beautiful flower garden. One day Anna noticed he wasn’t there any more. Unlike most of us, who would have kept driving, and forgot he existed within a week or two, she pulled over and asked a neighbor where he was. The neighbor shared that the man with the flowers was a 101 year old WWII vet and former minister, and he was too frail to live alone any more, so had moved to the Cedars. And so, when Anna found herself with these flowers she went to the Cedars and asked for his man, whom she had never met, told him how much his flowers and daily cheer meant to her, and delivered him some flowers from our church.

This seems to me like the work of the Holy Spirit. Do you see how this story lifts up the humanity of everyone involved? Do you see how the bonds of love are strengthened? Do you see how this veteran and this SPIVY member could see the light of Christ in each other’s eyes? So much separates us and dehumanizes us in the world, but if we let it, the Holy Spirit will work within us to chip away at those dehumanizing forces in the world with the light of the Gospel—that all are loved, all are redeemed, all are held in the embrace of God’s love and light. We are all phenomenal—whether we are men or women—because we are loved by a phenomenal God. Amen.

 

If you are experiencing domestic violence and live in the Charlottesville area, please contact the Shelter for Help in Emergency.

Easter 7, Year C, 2013

We all know the story.  Brave Paul gets thrown in prison—again—and after hours of prayer and singing an earthquake flings the prison doors open.  Being a responsible sort of person, Paul doesn’t run away.  He sticks around and ushers an astonished guard into the Christian household.

It’s a lovely story, a story about the power of God who unbinds us and sets us free.

There’s only one problem, one small rub.

The girl.

After all, she’s the reason Paul went to prison in the first place.  This young girl, a slave, has a spirit of divination.  She can tell the future, see into people’s souls.  This is not a gift that is natural, some evil spirit has come upon her.  She is doubly bound—both by this evil spirit and because she is a slave.  She does not use her divination skills of her own volition.  She is paraded around by men who profit from her condition.

We read her story, expecting good news.  After all, we have seen Jesus heal so many people: blind men, lepers, the possessed.  He sees them in all their personhood and restores them to themselves.  But Paul isn’t Jesus.  He is a Christian, not Christ.  Paul is on a mission and this girl is bugging him.  She is following him around chanting about how he is a slave to God.  For days she repeats this line over and over again and finally Paul has had it.  He flings around and commands the demon to leave her.  And the demon does.

Paul never interacts with her again.  While she is healed in one sense, this healing has made her worthless to her owners and their discontent is what lands Paul in jail.

We never hear what becomes of the girl.  We don’t know if her owners find other work for her to do, whether they discard her, whether she finds her freedom.  She is healed, but she is not free.  Her circumstances constrict her.

While it may seem that we, with all of our status and wealth and democracy, are the epitome of what it means to be free, in my experience most people are bound by something.  I have a friend who is normally very energetic and positive, but every once in awhile his shoulders would slump, and he would walk around with an extremely grim expression on his mouth.  Eventually  I began to put together a pattern.  His slump always came a day or so before his mother came for a visit.

Mothers are complicated. On this mother’s day, we celebrate the gift of motherhood and the loving sacrifices so many mothers make.  But it is also important to remember that not all mothers have the gift of selfless love.  Many mothers are manipulative, unkind, withholding—all behaviors that can really bind a child.  And some women, who would be delightful, giving mothers are unable to be mothers for a variety of reasons.  Mother’s Day is wonderful, but it can remind us of the ways we are bound.

And of course this isn’t just about mothers.  Men and women both struggle with being truly free.  Mothers and fathers who are unable or choose not to love are often bound up in their own family history or mental illness.  Cycles of dysfunction can go on and on.

And like the slave girl with the spirit of divination, these are circumstances we cannot change.  Our parents are our parents.  No matter how much we plead, we cannot change them.  But, like the slave girl, we can be healed.

I like to think that after Paul so carelessly healed the slave girl, she had an experience of the holy.  I like to think that the Holy Spirit made up for Paul’s lack of interpersonal skills and gave the girl some insight into how loved she is.

I hope that even if she remained a slave, she experienced the internal freedom of belonging to God.

Whatever binds us—whether it is issues stemming from our childhood, or being stuck in a lousy job, or being financially strapped, or being overwhelmed by the commitments of family life—we have choices to make.

We can dull the pain that these constraints give us by drinking, watching tv, shopping, working out, eating. Brene Brown calls this being a “taking the edge off-aholic”.  But these are just temporary pleasures, giving a lift to our endorphins and helping us get through another long evening.

The alternative is painful.  The alternative is to face what binds us, to acknowledge our feelings, to lean in to the pain rather than trying to dull it.  The alternative is to turn to God and ask for God’s healing.  God’s healing, of course, is love.  We can be suspicious of God’s love, especially if we had parents who were not able to show us love in a healthy way.  We can think of God’s love as conditional, as based on our behavior.

We can think of God’s love like Paul’s healing of the slave girl—an afterthought, carelessly administered out of obligation or even irritation.

But that’s not what Jesus showed us, was it?  Jesus loved all sorts of people.  People that were respectable and people who weren’t.  Men, women, old people, young people.  Jesus felt enormous compassion for human beings.  He feels enormous compassion for you.

Dallas Willard, author of the wonderful The Divine Conspiracy died this week.  His whole life mission was to get people to get deeper and deeper with God.  He writes,

We must understand that God does not ‘love’ us without liking us – through gritted teeth – as ‘Christian’ love is sometimes thought to do. Rather, out of the eternal freshness of his perpetually self-renewed being, the heavenly Father cherishes the earth and each human being upon it. The fondness, the endearment, the unstintingly affectionate regard of God toward all his creatures is the natural outflow of what he is to the core – which we vainly try to capture with our tired but indispensable old word ‘love’.

This healing love can come from a direct experience with God, but it can also come through God’s church.  We belong to each other.  We are each other’s family.  We are each other’s mothers and brothers, sisters and fathers.  My mother, who was a very loving mother, died of atrial fibrillation suddenly twelve years ago.  While no one can replace her, since then I have received so much mother love from small group leaders, priests, friends, parish administrators, my sister, my father, my husband, my in-laws.  The church stepped in, and loved me.  God loved me, through the church.  As Jesus says in our reading from the Gospel of John today:

Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.

This is one of those sloppy sentences in the Gospel of John you have to read three or four times before you get, but maybe sloppy sentences are the best way to describe the love of God and the love of the Church.

The church is more like Paul than Jesus.  We don’t have it all together.  We love really well some days and some days we act out all our pain and frustration on one another.  Love is messy and complicated.  Love involves forgiveness and repentance more often than we’d like to admit.  But Jesus gives us this gift and this charge: to love one another.

And this is my prayer for you—that whatever binds you, you might experience the radical, encompassing love of our God, who created you, redeems you, and loves you more than the very best of mothers.  May you be given the gift, even if only for a moment, of knowing in your soul how deeply you are loved.

Amen.

Easter 5, Year C, 2010

Listen to the sermon here.

Yes, the Peter we read about today in our passage from Acts, is the same impetuous disciple who denied Jesus three times after his death.  In The Acts of the Apostles, we get to see Peter—and the other Apostles—grow up.  Peter begins functioning as the head of the church.

At this time, the church consisted primarily of disciples who found Jesus through the Jewish tradition. In fact, later in the 11th chapter of Acts, the author states the group was not referred to as Christians until a year after the events we read about today.

So, part of being an early follower of Jesus, was living a holy Jewish life.  That meant living faithfully to the Jewish law, including its dietary restrictions and becoming circumcised in order to become part of the community.

Peter has a vision that flies in the face of Peter’s understanding of holiness.  The vision is so shocking that we hear it twice in Acts—the first time when Peter is actually experiencing the vision and then this time when he is recounting his vision to the crowd in Judea.

To us, the vision is not that shocking.  Four footed animals, beast of prey, reptiles, birds—what’s so horrible about a day at the zoo?  But the animals Peter saw were all animals Jewish people were forbidden to eat.  We don’t have those kind of cultural restrictions on food or much else, really, so it can be hard to relate to Peter’s deep feelings of disgust.  But God is telling him in this vision to take up all these horrible, forbidden foods and eat them.  When Peter protests and says “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.”  God says to him, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”

Peter is receiving a life changing, world changing message, but he does not understand its full meaning quite yet.

When Peter wakes up from his vision, he gets a visitor, a Gentile named Cornelius.  Cornelius was an Italian Centurion who was a very godly person.  He gave money to charity regularly, he prayed every day, but he was still a Gentile.  Cornelius was instructed in a dream to go meet Peter.  When Cornelius showed up at his door, Peter suddenly fully understood his dream.

While God might be changing some dietary rules, what God really intends to communicate to Peter is that he is changing the rules about who is welcomed into God’s family.  No longer does someone have to be Jewish or become Jewish.  God’s chosen people are no longer members of one particular family, but the whole of humanity.

This is wonderful news, of course, but not to everyone.  The text helpfully points out that the circumcised believers in Judea criticized Jesus and questioned him about why he was spending time with uncircumcised people.  Their complaints echo the Pharisees complaints about Jesus, don’t they?  (If I were a man and had to get circumcised to join a religious tradition, I might be a little irritated with God’s new policy, too!)  When Peter explains God’s new vision for humanity, the circumcised Judeans are stunned into silence.  Even they cannot deny the weight of this good news.

God has been true to his vision—and God’s people now span over every continent, every race, and thousands of different languages.

And in the United States, which has embraced this same kind of pluralism, opening the doors to the stranger has been part of our religious tradition.  We have not always done this well.  Many a church still has the balcony where slaves sat when they were not allowed to sit next to their white masters.  Some churches still resist outsiders, especially if they are of other ethnicities.  But over all, Christians in this country, whether liberal or conservative, tend to believe that Jesus came for all people and that anyone who loves Jesus can become part of the family.

And this core belief is now putting religious leaders in Arizona in a moral bind.  In the immigration law recently passed in Arizona, there are two clauses that have the potential to affect churches.  The first is making it illegal to knowingly transport an illegal immigrant in a car.  The second is making it illegal to knowingly harbor an illegal immigrant.  Neither of these laws is directed at churches, specifically, but religious leaders are wondering if Christians could be prosecuted for driving a youth group that contained an illegal immigrant or whether feeding an illegal immigrant in a soup kitchen violates the law.

In the Unites States we are not often asked to choose between our faith and our country, because we are blessed to live in a country where laws generally support the principles of our faith.

However, when it comes to illegal immigration, Christians are forced to make a choice.  The United States has the right to make and enforce laws about who can and cannot come into this country.  Christians, however, come from a long tradition in which we are obligated to welcome and love the stranger, even if this comes in conflict with the law.

Catholic and Episcopal bishops in Arizona have made it clear that they will continue with soup kitchens and homeless shelters and youth group trips, without checking anyone’s papers.  They are making a choice to follow the Gospel, even if their government is not or cannot.

And we may think we are safely removed from the situation in Arizona, but did you know there are holding pens for detained immigrants right here in New Jersey?  My sister lives in New York and she is part of a ministry based out of Riverside Church that travels to Elizabeth, New Jersey on Saturday mornings to visit with non-criminal immigrants who have come to the United States seeking asylum from various countries.  Individuals are held in warehouses converted into detention centers with no access to the outdoors for months and occasionally years at a time until their cases are heard and decided.  And the warehouse in Elizabeth is only one of many throughout the United States.

Occasionally, my sister receives a jubilant phone call from someone who has been given permission to live in the United States, but more often people disappear and she does not know whether they have been deported or transferred to another facility.

These immigrants are not the ones that make the news.  These are immigrants from Somalia, Tibet, Columbia, Guinea, Senegal, India, Uzbekistan, Guatemala, Sri Lanka.  They are fleeing danger and oppression and seeking freedom in our country.  Instead they are caged.  The people of the Riverside Church have made a commitment to live out the full meaning of Peter’s vision—of seeking out the other, of offering love and humanity to people who have been denied both.

We may think of illegal immigrants as the lowest of the low in this country, but in God’s eyes they are his beloved children.  And if they are his children, that makes them our brothers and sisters.  And I know that to the good people of Trinity Church, I am preaching to the choir.  One of your greatest strengths as a church is the way you welcome the other.  But any of us, especially me, can be lulled into thinking that these kinds of laws and practices don’t have anything to do with our lives.

But God offers us the same challenge he offered Peter and asks us whether we can call profane a people he has made clean.  He asks us if we can accept a reality in which the church includes even those our culture sees as unclean.  He asks us to love our neighbor.

Amen.

Proper 8, Year C, 2007

What a year of transitions!

Perhaps over time I will learn that every year is full of change, that we don’t really stand on solid ground, but on sediment that is constantly shifting.  However, this year has seemed particularly full of transition.  We elected, and then greeted, a new bishop.  The presidential race is in full swing, with dozens of men and at least one woman gunning for the most powerful office in America. 

And personally, for us at Emmanuel, we have lost many of the Saints that led this church for the last fifty years:  Kate LaRue, Peggy Flannagan, Ned Morris, Mildred Lapsley, Zan McGuire, Kitty Shirley, David Smith, Louise Ellinger, and Theo Earp.  I have listened to one interview conducted by the Heritage committee for their oral history project, and I was so moved to hear stories of the men and women who served this place twenty to thirty years ago on the vestry, through altar guild, singing in the choir, teaching.  Their service was a continuation of the service of those before them, and we carry their work on now. 

The work of the church is never ending, and though we don’t often take time to reflect on it, the work we do is always a direct result of someone else’s hard work.  Our Sunday School and nursery would not be functional if not for the years of service of the Christian Education committee before I came.  Chuck would not be here if Mr. Marston and Mr. LaRue had not poured their hearts into this place. 

In the Christian story, generations are always passing the torch, one to another.  Sometimes that goes smoothly. . . and sometimes there are some bumps in the road!

Today, we’ll look at three such stories-the transition of leadership from King Saul to King David, the transition of leadership from Elijah to Elisha, and finally the transition of leadership from Jesus to the Church.

The transition of leadership from Saul to David is a worst-case scenario.  If you’ll remember from reading the 1st and 2nd books of Samuel, Saul was the first king of Israel.  God did not want the people of Israel to have a king, but they whined because they wanted to be like all the other countries around them.  The whining finally got to God, and he granted them a king.  Saul was a great king.  He was tall and handsome, very smart and had innate leadership skills.  The problem was, he was such a good king, he forgot to rely on God.  He ignored the prophet Nathan’s instructions once and that was IT.  God wanted him out.  For God’s second try as king, he chose David.  David was not anyone’s first choice for king.  He was scrawny, a shepherd, and. . .a musician.  But God knew that David loved God with all his heart. God wanted him as king..

But you know, it’s hard to let go of power.  History books tell us it took years for Nixon to fully understand that he was no longer president.  For a long time, he would sit in his office at home and command his staff as if he were still the leader of the free world.  While some find it easy to retire, others, especially if forced out, have a really difficult time letting someone else take over.  Saul was one of these guys.  He knew David was next in line to be king, but he was not going to go down without a fight.  He fought the transition so hard, it ended up killing him-he died on the battlefield.  Saul did not need to die that way.  He and David did not start out as enemies-in fact, Saul’s son Jonathan, was David’s best friend.  Saul could have resigned his post and then acted as an advisor to David, or taken up gardening, or some form of ancient golf.  Instead, he gripped on to his power, his authority, and it ruined him.

Do we ever cling to power?  Letting go of a position of authority can be very painful.  My father retired two summers ago after being principal of a particular school for five years.  Watching his successor undo much of the good foundation he had laid at the school, was terribly frustrating to my dad.  He had to consciously let go and distance himself so he wouldn’t go crazy worrying about the students and teachers under this new administration.  We cling to power, not just for power’s sake, but because we think we can do a good job, a better job than the next guy, but sometimes God is calling us to let go and to move forward in our own lives. 

The transition of power from Elijah to Elisha is a very different story.  If the story of Saul and David is on the very human and very sad end of the spectrum, the story of Elijah and Elisha is over here on the over the top, almost ridiculously spiritual side of the spectrum.  Elijah was a stormy old prophet.  He ushered in a drought to punish the nation for idolatry.  And he was constantly shouting prophecies of dooooooom.  Nevertheless, Elisha thought Elijah was the bees knees.  In our story today, he is following Elijah around like Elijah’s biggest fan.  Even when Elijah tells him to get lost, that he’s going to be taken up into heaven, Elisha won’t leave.  He admires Elijah so much, that he wants to inherit a doubleshare of his spirit-he wants to be able to carry on Elijah’s prophetic ministry with the same energy and vigor as his mentor.  When Elijah is finally taken up into heaven, Elisha tore his clothes into two pieces and placed Elijah’s fallen mantle on himself-symbolizing the transition of leadership.

Taking over leadership from a successful leader is scary stuff.  It can be tempting to hero worship our predecessor and lose ourselves in their style. And while we can certainly learn from other leaders, it is important to retain a sense of our own identity.  While Elisha did inherit Elijah’s spirit, Elisha was a very different kind of prophet.  Instead of heralding doom, Elisha showed people God’s power by being a wonder worker.  He worked miracles for his nation and for individuals.  (He also killed two kids who made fun of him for being bald-but that is a whole other story.)   Elisha was able to inherit Elijah’s spirit, while remaining true to himself and the gifts God had given him.

Finally, the transition of leadership between Jesus and the church is most like what we experience today in the Church.  Jesus had spent three years leading and teaching his disciples.  He knew his death was going to come, and come soon.  He had changed Simon’s name from Simon to Peter because Jesus knew that Peter-which means rock-would become the rock of the new church.  You and I know how that transition went.  Before Peter could become Peter of the book of Acts, in which he is a wise leader and administrator, he first had to be Peter the impetuous screw up.  Before he could become the Peter who would guide the church, he had to be Peter who would betray Jesus three times.

Peter, James, Paul and the other leaders of the early church had to deal with all sorts of problems as people figured out what it meant to follow Jesus, and they did not handle every situation perfectly.  Like us, sometimes they fought, or hurt each others feelings, or spoke without thinking.  Also like us, they knew they could solve these problems by remembering how Jesus handled situations and by asking the Holy Spirit for guidance. 

I know it is hard to believe, but I have made some SPECTACULARLY stupid decisions as I have ministered here.  You are not so lucky as to get to hear these stories in this sermon, but it is sufficient to say I can relate to Peter’s moment of “Ooooh.  I’ve really screwed up.”  Like Peter, I have had to take a deep breath, ask for forgiveness, and then move on, hoping I have learned something!  I’m sure none of you can relate! 

When we are baptized, we each become a leader in the church.  We each become a minister.  We all will face times in our life when we have to let go of our power to let someone else step up.  We will also face times when we realize that WE are who God wants to step up, no matter how underqualified we think we are!  We will also all make mistakes as we attempt to lead and need to be forgiven.

The good news, is that God will also bless our leadership.  Through the power of the Holy Spirit we will be able to accomplish more than we ever would on our own steam.  The trick is to remember Saul and not be tempted to do everything on our own!

Our great leaders at Emmanuel whom we have lost this year had their leadership blessed by God and all of here in this room enjoy the benefits of their hard work.  As we take over their responsibilities, their areas of leadership, may be also be blessed.

Amen.

Easter 6, Year C, 2007

Don’t you love receiving a gift?

Someone hands you a package and first you notice its shape and feel how heavy it is. You admire the gift’s packaging and if you’re polite, you read the card, which expresses the giver’s intent and affection.  Finally, after an appropriate period of time has passed, you begin untying bows, and tearing through paper to discover the mysterious object you can now call your own.  When you’re done admiring the gift, you thank the giver, completing the exchange. 

Gifts are a symbol of relationship, affection, love, or obligation.  We give gifts to welcome, to celebrate, to honor and occasionally to assuage guilt.  We also give gifts to mark thresholds in people’s lives.  Matt and I get married in roughly. . .27 days and many people have been honoring this transition through gifts.  This tradition is so formalized now, our society even codifies it through registries where the engaged couple goes to a store and tells the store what they want people to buy for them! 

Thankfully, even though the disciples are entering a new threshold of their lives, they do not get to register for which gift they’d like to receive.  Our Gospel reading today is John’s record of Jesus’ farewell discourse.  Jesus makes a long speech at the last supper, trying to prepare his disciples for his death.  In the section we read today, Jesus is reassuring his followers that they will still be in relationship with him after he leaves.  He says they will receive two gifts:  Jesus will give them his peace, and the Father will send them an Advocate-the Holy Spirit.

We don’t always know what gifts are good for us.  Matt and I recently went through our registries, taking out some of the excessive stuff that we registered for during a greedy binge.  For instance, we realized that just because we thought a Kitchen Aid mixer was cool didn’t mean we would ever use it or even have the space for it in a kitchen.  Sometimes the gifts you think you want, are not the wisest choices.  If the disciples got to choose their gift, they would choose to have Jesus stay with them, in bodily form, forever.  Like most of us, the idea of change makes them a little nervous and the idea of losing a dear friend makes them incredibly sad. 

But Jesus has better things in store.  Jesus knows that his death is not the end of a story, but the beginning of a new relationship between his Father and humanity. Jesus knows that the gifts he and the Father are giving will nourish God’s followers for the next two thousand years.

The first gift Jesus tells his listeners about is the gift of the Holy Spirit, whom he describes as our Advocate.  We’ll celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost at the end of May.  But before the Holy Spirit came rushing down upon those disciples waiting in the upper room, Jesus told his disciples about the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit is God, and a gift from the Father.  The Holy Spirit’s role in our lives is twofold:  to teach us and to help us remember what Jesus has already told us. 

The word Advocate can also mean helper.  The Holy Spirit is sent to help us, specifically in terms of our relationship with the Father.  Jesus told us about the Father, and lived a life in complete union with the Father and through his death and resurrection united us with the Father. 

Remembering these things about Jesus is not easy, especially once Jesus ascends and no longer present to remind us.  God knows we humans need daily reminders.  Moses had only ascended to the mountain a few days before the Israelites started worshiping Golden calves!  We do not have a good track record with keeping God in our mind. 

So, to help us remember Jesus and follow Jesus, the Father sends the Holy Spirit to be our helper.  Not our nagger, not our judger, but our helper.  We can pray to the Holy Spirit to help us understand scripture.  We can pray to the Holy Spirit to help us know how to follow Jesus in our lives.  We can pray to the Holy Spirit for guidance when the church tries to sort out what Scripture means in relation to our modern society.  The Holy Spirit is a living, moving part of God that interacts with us directly

Today, [at the 11:00 o’clock service] we, with Greer’s parents and godparents will reaffirm our baptismal vows.  We make vows that are very profound and very difficult.  By saying our baptismal vows together, we remind ourselves that we have promised to turn away from Satan, evil, and our own sin and turn towards Jesus.  These promises are profoundly difficult to keep!  You should see the way Matt and I lick our chops as we check out the status of our registries online.  You can almost see the greed pouring out our ears.  As we turn away from Jesus and towards material things or other temptations, it is the Holy Spirit that can help us get back on the right track. 

Whatever temptations Greer may face, she can know that the Holy Spirit is her Advocate.  The Holy Spirit is for her and with her and will help her to follow Jesus.

The second gift is one Jesus leaves us.  Jesus gives us the gift of  his peace.  Worshiping a God for whom we have very little tangible experience is an anxiety producing experience at times!  Remember the golden calf.  Thankfully, we have access to Jesus’ peace, so we don’t need to create any golden calves.  Remember that Jesus was in complete union with his Father, so his peace is a peace beyond anything we can imagine.  His peace is the peace of God. 

I have a friend of mine who is job hunting at the moment and she tells me she is waiting to feel God’s peace to know she has found the right job.  The peace of God can be an indicator of a right path, but it can also be a spiritual soothing in a time of unrest.  One of the reasons we do healing prayer once a month here is to invite the peace of God to rest on people who are in some way in pain.  The peace of God is mysterious and can be elusive, but Jesus has given this peace to us as gift. 

Just like Matt and I can take back unwanted gifts to the store, we can refuse God’s gifts to us.  We can decide that we have enough of our own resources and we don’t really need the Holy Spirit or Jesus’s peace.  We can decide that we know absolutely what the Bible says and don’t need the Holy Spirit to gude us.  We can decide we need to be anxious and uptight and driven in order to succeed rather than inviting Jesus’ peace to rule our lives.  It is possible to reject the Father and Jesus’ gifts.

But why would we?  Why would we want to reject these wonderful gifts of relationship and connection.  Why would we not want to learn more about God, or feel a touch of the peace God feels when he looks upon us.  In these confusing and anxious times, why would we refuse these gifts?

God’s gifts for us are good gifts.  They may not be gifts we would register for or dream up for ourselves, but ultimately we don’t have really great taste.  The gifts we would register for are misguided.  Like the disciples, we want concrete answers.  We want to pin God down.  We want to pin our own lives down.  We want to know what will happen to us.  We want to know whether we’ll always be healthy or whether our children will do well for themselves.  We would register for the gifts of certainty, of uneventful lives.

But God’s gifts-the Holy Spirit and Jesus’ peace-are exactly the gifts we need to navigate the choppy waters of our lives.  They comfort us in times of trouble and give us deep joy when times are good.  They connect us when we are feeling lonely, and enter our relationships when we are surrounded by loved ones.

Jesus and the Father are handing us to fantastic packages, that contain gifts beyond our wildest imagination.  Are we going to open them?

Easter 4, Year C, 2007

A few years ago, my favorite show on television was Alias.  The premise of the show was this:  a young woman graduate student gets recruited by what she thinks is the CIA, only to learn it is actually a nefarious organization.  She then goes to the actual CIA and works as a double agent, to bring the bad organization down.  While I loved the show for its tough, yet sensitive main character-Sydney Bristow-one of the campy, fun things about the show is that no one ever, ever, ever stayed dead.

When the show begins, Sydney believes her mother drowned in a car years ago.  At the end of the first season she discovers that, in fact, her mother used the air from the tires to breathe and survived the drowning!  It also turns out her mother was a KGB spy, but that is an entirely different story.  In fact, this same character, Sydney’s mother, “died” at least two other times during the course of the series.  I think the third time finally stuck, but we’ll never know, since the series ended.

Sydney “died”, as well, or at least everyone thought she had.  In fact, she was kidnapped, became an assassin with an assumed name, and then lost her memory.  When she “came back to life” all her friends were shocked, particularly her boyfriend, who had since remarried.  (The new wife was an evil double agent, of course.)  And of course, that boyfriend “died” for awhile, too.

Sydney’s best friend, Francie, died, too.  But, Francie came back to life as an evil clone.  Her boss’s wife, Emily, died of cancer, but was actually holed up on an island, waiting for her husband.  The list goes on and on.  No one on Alias ever stayed dead!

Alias was not the most realistic television series ever, but somewhere in its soap opera twists and turns, it captured humanity’s deep desire for life, especially the power of life over death.

This power of life over death is a fundamental tenet of the Christian faith. 

God’s power over death was shown in Jesus’ ability to rise Lazarus from the dead, and then, of course, God the Father’s ability to raise Jesus from the dead.  Our reading from Acts today, when the apostle Peter is able to raise Tabitha from the dead is the next link in the biblical chain.  The book of Acts tells the story of the very early church.  Acts is the sequel to the Gospel of Luke, and begins with the disciples gathering in the upper room, waiting for the Holy Spirit, per the risen Jesus’s instructions.  The Holy Spirit does, indeed come, and the fledgling Christian church is born.  Can you imagine being on the first vestry?  These new Christians had to make tons of decisions every day-do we let in Jews and Gentiles?  Do you have to be circumcised to be a Christian?  Who is going to take care of the poor?  Who is going to take care of widows? 

The new believers had to have faith in their new leaders-men like Peter and James who had been with Jesus as his disciples.

Part of the coming of the Holy Spirit was imbuing these leaders with some of the same powers Jesus had-so that their followers would know they had God’s stamp of approval.  So, when Peter is able to raise Tabitha from the dead, God is showing the early believers that Peter is a chosen leader of the church, but also, that the theme of life triumphing over death will be a hallmark of the Christian faith.

We celebrate this triumph every Easter, at every Christian burial, and every time we consume the Eucharist.

But maybe, this is not enough.

Life is precious.  Life is the very breath of God.  From a baby’s first yelp to a dying person’s last jagged breath, the air we breathe reminds us we are also full of God’s breath, God’s spirit.  We are made in God’s image.  But are we behaving as if we believe in the deep value of life?

The church tends to focus on the quality of life issues either at the beginning or the very end of life-with abortion and the death penalty the most public issues.  What would it be like, if we expanded our energies to focus on the years in-between birth and death?

I grow increasingly concerned that we as a culture are losing touch with the preciousness of life.  I perceive it happening in two ways.  First, the obvious-the increase in acceptability of violence as entertainment.  Recently the New Yorker published an article about the television show 24.  (Now, before I continue let me make it clear that until recently I watched and enjoyed 24.  And I didn’t stop because of the violence, I stopped because it got boring.) 24 is the first television program to show Americans government agents using torture that is outside the bounds of American law and being rewarded for it.  In the past, television shows or movies showed the enemy using torture as a way to demonstrate the inhumanity of the enemy. 

This normalization of torture began having an affect on the real world American military. U.S. Army Brigadier General Patrick Finnegan, the dean of the United States Military Academy at West Point, actually traveled to Los Angeles to meet with the producers of 24 because the show has such a problematic impact on U.S. soldiers.  These young soldiers have spent their teenage years watching 24 and coming to believe the kind of torture its hero, Jack Bauer practices is acceptable, even though it is, in fact, illegal.   These young soldiers are having to be reigned in again and again as they cross the boundaries of acceptable treatment of prisoners. 

The culture of violence pervades many of my favorite shows and movies, and certainly some of the video games Matt plays.  But at what point do we cross the line as a culture?  Where is the line between acknowledging violence as an unfortunate, but interesting, part of life and glorifying it as a glamorous way to conduct one’s life?  Once again, I have no answers for you, but I think these are important questions to think and pray about as we go about making our daily choices.

The second way of disrespecting life that I’ve observed lately is the way we treat one another verbally.  For some reason, this seems to be the year where out of control stars seem to think it is okay to insult Jewish people, black people, gay people, heck, even their own children. 

In March of this year, a blogger, Kathy Sierra, who blogs about the one-would-think uncontroversial topic of computing technology began receiving more and more threatening anonymous comments towards her on her and others’ blogs, culminating in a death threat.  This began a conversation in the blogging community about the problem of increasingly sexist, sexual, and violent language being used against women in the commentary section of even mainstream websites like Salon.com and Slate.com.  Measures are being taken to filter out such comments, but even that they were made in the first place is deeply disturbing.

The hip-hop community has responded to Don Imus’s comments about the Rutger’s women’s basketball team by beginning a conversation within the hip-hop communitiy about what words are and are not appropriate to promote in albums and videos.

While they may not kill, words can contain incredible violence.  Words can undermine someone’s entire sense of identity, even humanity.  The language we use to speak to one another reflects how we see the other person.  Do we see them as a threat?  As less than ourselves?

Part of respecting life is respecting those made in God’s image.  Everyone on this planet has been made in God’s image.  Everyone has a soul.  One of the first jobs human beings were given was the job of naming-Adam was asked to name all the animals and then his wife, Eve.  This power of naming is the power of giving life and identity. 

My neighbor just had a baby and already we’re calling her names.  Sometimes they are meaningless names like Pepper Pot or Anna Banana, but just as often we’re calling her precious, lovely, smart, perfect-we are identifying the precious humanity in her and calling it out. 

There is no reason to stop this kind of naming once babies become children or children become adults.  Part of our job as Christians is to remind each other who we are-We are beloved, precious in the sight of God, favored, part of a human family.

Celebrating and respecting life is not just about deciding when human life begins or debating end of life issues, but valuing our own life and the lives of those around us.  When Peter raised Tabitha from the dead, he was not just doing a magic trick, he was affirming the goodness of life, of Tabitha’s life.  The writer of Acts tell us that she was a woman who did many good works.  Tabitha was a whole person with a story and relationships-her resurrection was not just to impress the new Christians, but to bring life where there was death, wholeness where there had been grief.

Her resurrection was a reminder that no matter how much evil or violence or death may lap at our heels, ultimately we belong to a God who pours such abundant life upon us, we cannot help but give that life to others.