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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

Pentecost, Year B, 2009

This is my final sermon in this pulpit.  How can I do these four years justice?  I could write an epic poem about how much I love this congregation.  I could write and perform a one-woman musical about how wonderful you are.  Or, I could preach from the lectionary text.  Preaching from the lectionary text is not glamorous, but it is how I have preached every Sunday and it just feels right to do that now.

Today we celebrate Pentecost-we remember that day, years ago, when a bunch of terrified disciples gathered in the upper room and suddenly felt the Holy Spirit pour upon them.

But even before that day, Jesus prepared his disciples for the coming of the Holy Spirit.  Today’s Gospel reading is a continuation of the long speech in the Gospel of John that we’ve been reading the last few weeks.  Last week, Chuck gave us the background-Jesus gave this speech because his disciples were very anxious about Jesus’ death.  They did not want him to go.  They definitely did not want him to die.

Jesus is orienting the disciples to what life is going to be like after he is gone.  Jesus tells them his Father will send the Holy Spirit to them. The Greek word that John uses here is paraclete, which can be translated as comforter or helper, but here is translated as advocate.  The Holy Spirit may be our comforter and advocate, but the text here says that the Holy Spirit’s job is to testify on Jesus‘ behalf.

Now, why does Jesus need the Holy Spirit to testify on his behalf?  Jesus needs the Holy Spirit to testify for him because human beings have extremely short memories.  Can you remember who won the second season of American Idol?  Do you remember the name of your congressman when you were 15?  Do you remember the middle name of the first person you had a crush on?  We are bad at remembering things that happen in our own lives, much less something a man named Jesus did two thousand years ago.  The Holy Spirit’s job is to remind us about Jesus and what he told us about the Father.

The Father sends the Holy Spirit to help the disciples in Jesus’ absence.  This way, the disciples do not bear the full responsibility of telling the world about Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.  The Holy Spirit helps the disciples remember the things Jesus said so that the disciples can communicate those words to the world.  In fact, the first act of the Holy Spirit is to give the disciples the gift of languages, so they can communicate the good news of Jesus to people of the many diverse cultures within Jerusalem.

The Holy Spirit is always moving, always extending the good news of Jesus.  The Holy Spirit helped those first disciples tell the people of Jerusalem about Jesus and ever since has helped Christians of every generation pass on the stories of what Jesus has said and done.

When I think of how the Holy Spirit pushed those disciples out of the upper room, into the streets of Jerusalem, and then pushed Christianity out of Jerusalem and spread Jesus’s words and deeds throughout the world, I think of how the Holy Spirit has been pushing Emmanuel.

For years, Emmanuel was a small church in a small town.  Emmanuel was very involved in the community-you can’t hear stories about Lee Marston teaching swimming classes and opening the Greenwood Community Center without realizing how community minded Emmanuel was!  But, the community Emmanuel served had a relatively small radius. When Crozet was established as a designated growth area, you had a choice to make.  You could become insular and focus only on Greenwood, or you could open your arms and welcome newcomers into this parish.  You could take the risk of letting in people who did not know your character, who did not know the Emmanuel Way, who might even risk the very identity of this wonderful church.

You experienced anxiety about the church changing-you may still be experiencing that anxiety-but instead of shutting newcomers out, you opened yourselves up to them and over the last eight years or so have invited more than 200 people to be part of your family.  You spruced up Sunday School classrooms, built a beautiful nursery, cleaned off the playground, beefed up the Christian Education program and invited strangers to coffee hour on Sunday mornings.

This may have seemed like the obvious response to you, but I have to tell you, not every church would have responded the way you have responded.  I truly believe the Holy Spirit was calling this place to open up and to be a spiritual refuge for people in Albemarle, Nelson, and Augusta counties and that you responded to that call.

When you have a chance, ask one of those 200 newcomers what Emmanuel has meant to them.  Your hospitality has opened for them spiritual connection with God, the warmth of community, and a sense of belonging to the universal church.

I cannot begin to tell you how energizing and fun it has been to be a priest in a congregation that is this alive and welcoming and engaged.  I truly believe there is something unique and special about you.  I believe that the Holy Spirit has called you to be a place where hurt people can come for healing, alienated people can be welcomed, and those on spiritual quests can meet God in new ways.

I also see the Holy Spirit calling you to reach out.  I see that call in the ministry of the Bread Fund.  I see that call in your calling to be part of the Disciples Kitchen in Waynesboro.  I see that call in the mission trip going out this summer.  I see that call in the pastoral listening group that started this year.

I think the next year will be really exciting for you.  As you welcome Peter Carey as your new assistant rector, and as you celebrate your 150th Anniversary, the Holy Spirit will call you in new ways.  I don’t know what they are, but I just have this feeling that something new and exciting is in store for you, that you will be asked to push out into the community in new ways.

And you do not need to be anxious about new things.  (Which is something I’ve been reminding myself of a lot lately!) The Holy Spirit will speak to you.  The Holy Spirit will remind you of Jesus’ words.  The Holy Spirit will remind you of who are and what it means to be a Christian.  The Holy Spirit will remind you of what it means to be part of the Emmanuel Family.

I may not be your priest when you get your next call as a congregation, but know that wherever I am, I will always be following what is happening here, praying for you and rooting for you.  I am beyond proud that you chose me as your first associate rector. You have taught me how to be a priest and I promise to take the open, warm and welcoming spirit of Emmanuel with me wherever I go.

May you be as blessed as you have blessed me.

Amen.

Pentecost, Year A, 2008

As a child, I lived in Germany.  I was never fluent in German and so I had the luxury of tuning out conversations almost everywhere I went.  Whether I was at the beauty parlor, or a restaurant or walking along the street, I almost never knew if people were discussing politics, religion, or what they were having for dinner.  I never thought much about this language barrier until we would come back to the States for summer vacation.  Suddenly, I understood everything people were saying!  Sometimes it was loud and obnoxious, sometimes it was dull, and sometimes it was fascinating.  I remember one family dinner at a restaurant in Los Angeles, when my grandfather had to reprimand both my mother and me because we were both leaning back in our chairs, completely absorbed in the conversation happening at the table next to us.

Humans have been divided by language for as far as memory can reach.  Whether we were divided after the Tower of Babel or whether we just each developed our own set of words independently, the difference in understanding has had far reaching consequences.  Our lack of understanding each other’s language causes mistrust, suspicion, and even violence.

Our language is what we use to form images, then sentences, then ideas, then treatises, then Constitutions and Bibles and Korans. . .Language expresses the core of our identity as individuals and as people.  Misunderstandings between two languages can be humorous or serious.  We’ve all heard stories of American travelers abroad introducing their family member as “My noodle” rather than “my aunt” while speaking an unfamiliar language.  However, we as Americans have also seen the consequences of not speaking the language or understanding the culture as we get mired deeper and deeper in Iraq and Afghanistan, with very few Americans being trained in Farsi or Arabic.  Not being able to communicate can have deadly consequences.  Just take a look at the current regime in Myanmar.  Their unwillingness to be open, to invite those of other languages and backgrounds to enter their country has extended even to refusing many aid agencies from coming and distributing needed resources to the tens of thousands of Burmese suffering from the recent cyclone.

How wonderful then, that the first act of the Holy Spirit after it descended upon the disciples was to give them the gift of languages.  We think of the gift of speaking in tongues as incomprehensible babbling, but in this instance, when the flames of the Holy Spirit descend upon them, the disciples are given the gift of being able to communicate using all the languages of the many people living in Jerusalem.  The Holy Spirit’s first act is to bypass differences of nationalities and language and to ensure that everyone within earshot hears about what God has done.

Rather than descending on the Disciples and telling them how special they are and how this new religion is just for the few, for the chosen, for God’s favorites, the Holy Spirit invites everyone to the party.

And how do the people who receive the invitation to the party respond?

They assume the disciples are drunk!  Yes, once again, characters in the Bible respond exactly the way normal people would respond.  They don’t have epiphanies, at least not yet.  Nope, they look up from whatever they are doing and say, “What’s going on with THOSE guys?  They’ve got to be wasted, right?”  They have no idea that they are observing the beginning of an entire new religion.  They have no idea that these excited, goofy, babbling people will go on to be great leaders in a church that will reach nearly every country in the world.  They have no idea that people of all languages, of all backgrounds, of all cultures will encounter the risen Christ, that people of all backgrounds will experience the Holy Spirit.

With Christ’s resurrection and the coming of the Holy Spirit, our allegiances have changed.  Suddenly our identity rests not in language or nation, but in Christ.  Our loyalty is to the One who created all of us, and small differences in the way we speak become meaningless.

I spent the summer between my junior year and senior year of college in India.  Once, in the middle of a long conversation with a Christian single woman from Bho Pal, she stated, “I don’t think I’ll get married.  Indian Men are such MCPs.”  “MCPs?” I asked, excited to learn some native term, to go deeper into her experience of India.  “Yes, she replied, MCPs, Male Chauvinist Pigs.”  It is in small moments like these, when we interact with those of another culture that we realize we have far more in common than we might think.  All people long for security and love and meaning, whatever their background.

Our bishop co-adjustor, Shannon Johnston, has just returned from a very sobering visit to the Sudan.  He traveled to the Sudan in order to attend the consecration of the Episcopal Church of the Sudan’s new Arch-Bishop Daniel Deng Bul.  The clergy in this region met with Bishop Johnston just a few days after his return to Virginia, and he told us stories that made every hair on our bodies stand at attention.  As you no doubt have heard, the Sudan has undergone years of extreme violence.  There is conflict between the Muslim north and the Christian south and there is a separate set of tribal wars going on in the Darfur region.  The population and infrastructure of the Sudan has been decimated.  Children are starving, people live under whatever surface they can find, and militias prowl the streets, torturing and murdering at will.

Bishop Johnston explained to us that in the middle of this utter chaos and violence, The Episcopal Church of the Sudan, the second largest NGO in the country, has been a place of sanity as the church lives out principles of the Kingdom of God.  In the church, Sudanese can find love and friendship, and sometimes even safety.

Bishop Johnston told the story of meeting one Sudanese Bishop with scars all over his face and body.  He was told that this bishop had heard that seven people were being held prisoner in a home and tortured for absolutely no reason.  He went to the house and offered to buy the seven prisoners in exchange for himself.  He substituted his own body and was terribly tortured, all for the love of seven people he did not even know.

The Episcopal Church of the Sudan is the Sudan’s one real hope.  In the midst of awful conditions, the church has kept its humanity, kept its connection to God.  Unfortunately, the church is very low on resources, as is everyone in the Sudan.  They have no way to communicate with each other or to travel.  Bishop Johnston came back from his trip absolutely convicted that his first role as our Bishop was to create a relationship between our Diocese and the Archdiocese of the Sudan.  He sent them a check for computers and cell phones immediately upon his return and is now brainstorming other ways we can partner with the Sudan to help this ravaged country heal from its wounds.

We cannot fully understand what the Sudanese are going through.  They cannot understand the way we live our lives. If we were put in a room together, we might not be able to pick out a single common word.  But, none of that matters.  We are bound together by the same Jesus that sent the Holy Spirit to the waiting disciples.  We are bound by the same Holy Spirit that gave the Disciples the gift of languages-the gift of communication and connection.  We are bound to the Sudanese Church as tightly as we are bound to each other.

We are not the only Diocese helping the Sudan.  In fact, some of the Dioceses helping the Sudan are led by Bishops that want to break ties with the United States altogether, like the Bishops of Kenya and Uganda.  Bishop Johnston hopes that as we all respond to the Holy Spirit, and help the Church of the Sudan, that the Holy Spirit might also heal the wounds of the Anglican Communion and knit us all back together.

We are thousands of years removed from the day the Holy Spirit first fell on the disciples in Jerusalem, but we are part of the same journey.  We continue the ministry of Peter and James and John as we become entwined with the Church in all of its multi-lingual glory.  For our mission is the same:  to love our God as best we can and to invite others through the wide gates to do the same.

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?

Pentecost, Year B, 2007

Once upon a time, many years ago, all the people of the world lived in one place and spoke one language.  There were not very many of them-a few hundred at the most-and they wandered all over the face of the earth until one day they found a little spot of land perfect for a city.  The earth was red and dense-perfect for making bricks.  So, they packed the mud together, made and fired bricks, and started piling them together.  Soon they had made several houses and even a town hall.  While this was the grandest city any of them had ever seen-it was the first city, after all-they decided these buildings were not quite spectacular enough.  What they needed was a tower-a tower that reached the highest heavens. 

As soon as they had made enough bricks, they began the tower.  After the first week, it was as high as the tallest man’s head.  After the second week, it was taller than the tallest building.  By the end of the first month, you had to crane your neck waaaay up to see the top of the tower.  It was a magnificent sight.

God was keeping an eye on this city, and particularly on this tower.  He saw how well the people were working together, how powerful they became.  While he loved them, the way they were grasping for power, grasping to conquer the heavens concerned him.  The tower was all anyone talked about.  People were skipping meals, neglecting their children, forgetting to say I love you when they left their homes in the morning.  All the people thought about was reaching the top of the heavens.

God knew this kind of behavior would only end in disappointment for the city dwellers, so he made a difficult decision.  Rather than everyone on earth being the same, God would give them differences.  They would speak in different languages, live in different countries, have different colored skin.  That way the human race would never grow too powerful.  When people saw the remains of the tall tower, they called it the Babel Tower, because they remember that it marked the beginning of all the languages of the earth.

For many years, people were separated from each other.   And those separations caused huge problems.  First, all the different language groups retreated to their own corners.  They spent so much time with just themselves, they forgot other groups existed.  When they did come across the other groups, they would fight for power and land.  Many people died because these different groups could not resolve their differences with words.  One group even got special treatment:  God chose them, and only them to be his people.  He blessed them with his presence and even gave them permission to invade other groups’ land! 

One day, however, everything changed.  A man named Jesus had come to earth.  The people who knew him got very excited about him.  They were all shocked when he died at the age of 33.  That shock didn’t even compare to the surprise they felt when he was resurrected!  They practically danced in the street!  However, Jesus gave them other instructions.  He told them to stay put, to meet together in an upper room.  Jesus explained that he had to leave, but that he would send someone to take his place-someone to be an Advocate and a Comforter to his people.

One day, fifty days after the day of Jesus’ resurrection, the people in the upper room had the strangest experience.  This spiritual presence rushed into the room-it felt like. . .like wind, or fire. . .something that rushed over them, but also into them.  And when it rushed into them, something changed.  They began to understand what all the strangers outside their door were saying, and suddenly, they were speaking their language!  A language they didn’t even recognize before that day.  And as they found themselves speaking, they felt a little delirious, but just kept telling these strangers about the wild experiences they had had with Jesus and how he came back from the dead. 

This weird energy did not leave them, either.  The energy felt less intense after awhile, but it remained with them and gave them strength and courage and helped them to understand the mysterious things they heard Jesus say.  This Advocate, this comforter, also helped them to reach out.  Suddenly it did not matter if someone spoke Greek or Aramaic or Coptic or some language you had never heard of.  They understood that God loved the whole world, not just their language group.  They understood that the days of division between languages, cultures and race were over.

(Long pause)

I wonder how these early, Spirit filled Christians would feel if the saw the state of our world today.  Even with our global economy, we as humans seem unable to get over our differences, unable to give up fighting for power, land or ideals.  Do you know what the name of the town where Babel tower was built is now?  Baghdad.  The irony that the center of our current conflict is in the very place where we were first experienced differences in language haunts me.  The tower of unity has collapsed indeed.

For goodness sake, even our churches have become battle grounds for ideologies and moral codes.  The words some Christians use to attack other Christians are just as sharp edged and ugly as words used to attack another culture or country. 

Where has the life and language giving Spirit gone?  Are we doomed to repeat this cycle of violence and misunderstanding?  Are we doomed to live without the Spirit?

I was at a conference at Virginia Seminary this week.  The keynote speaker was a man named Graham Standish, who has written a book called, “Becoming the Blessed Church.”  His hypothesis is more or less that Mainline Churches:  Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Lutherans and Methodists, have gained a reputation for being Spiritless, functional churches.  They may be nice, warm places, but they have lost that visionary drive to follow Christ, so in response, people have fled to non denominational, charismatic churches.

He argues that this reputation is not necessarily true.  Though on a denominational level, all four denominations have had internal fights worthy of newscoverage, on an individual level many parishes are thriving and are filled with God’s life giving Spirit.

I know I have felt the Holy Spirit in this place.  I have felt it most in the St. George’s chapel, during my own prayers and healing prayers.  I have felt it in the movement of your lives and in Chuck’s words.  The trick for us is to pay attention.  God’s Spirit is here among us, just as it was that first day of Pentecost. 

As Episcopalians, we’re a little uncomfortable with the Holy Spirit.  After all, we see what happens in those charismatic churches.  Heaven forbid one of us start speaking in tongues or prophesying!  However, not being a charismatic church does not give us permission to resist or ignore the Holy Spirit. 

The Holy Spirit is the force that connects us to God and helps us to discern what God’s will is for us as individuals and as a church.  The Holy Spirit is the force that, like on Pentecost, gives us the power to reach out to neighbors and strangers and welcome them with the Good news of God’s love for them.  The Holy Spirit is the force that guides us on the path to our true calling and helps us resist temptations along the way. 

So, how do we interact with the Holy Spirit?  There’s no mystery here.  To open ourselves to the Holy Spirit, we need to pray.  We need to pray and we need to create a few moments of silence in our lives. 

And it is critical that we engage in prayer for this church and for each other, as Emmanuel continues to discern its role in this community.

I was hired, and began this job a year ago, because this part of Albemarle County is experiencing incredible growth.  While this is exciting, any change, in any community, is also a little unnerving.  Emmanuel has a very distinct character and I have heard some anxiety that Emmanuel’s uniqueness might be lost if the church grows.  That kind of anxiety leads to much speculation. 

Here are some of the rumors I have heard. 

First, that the diocese will start a mission church in Crozet.  As far as I know, this is not true.  Emmanuel is the church that serves this part of the world, and it is our responsibility and our delight to welcome those that move here. 

Second, that we are going to build a larger church.  This is also not true.  This building is precious to us, and before we change anything structural, we would add more services on Sunday.  Even this change is not happening any time soon. 

My favorite rumor is that we are going to pave the grassy area in front of the church so that people can park.  The vestry is researching options for parking, but I can assure you none of them involve the view of the church from the road. 

Keep in mind that change comes very slowly to churches.  Any change will be discussed and deliberated with the parish.  There are no secrets here.  And this is why we all need to pray for the Spirit’s guidance.  We need to listen for God’s will for us as a team, together.  God is so clearly working in this place, let us make it easy for God to continue that work by prayerfully listening for what his will is for this place. 

We can choose to be Tower of Babel people-striving on our own strength to create change that is on our terms, or we can be Pentecost people-open to the Spirit, open to change in God’s time, and in God’s ways.