Wednesday, July 27, 2011

July 24, 2011

Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
31  He put before them another parable: "The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field;   32  it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches."   33  He told them another parable: "The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened."

One of my favorite memories of my now second to oldest niece, Ellianna, was watching her go do for naps or for a goodnight’s rest when she was a toddler.  Now, Ellianna has always been a pretty strong-willed person, and she, not unlike other toddlers, was not exactly crazy about going to sleep.  It was just too much fun to be awake, I suppose.  As a result, there were very few people who could actually get her down, and I was certainly not one of them, not so great with the discipline, this one.  My father, on the other hand, was more than game for this little battle of wills.  In spite of her young protests to the contrary, her flailing about and her crying, my father would simply out last Ellianna.  Once she was placed in his arms, there was no way that she would not up end asleep, in spite of herself.  That old question, what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object, was answered in their battle.  Which ever one of those is named “grandpa” wins.  The irony being, of course, that after a time at this process, once she was told that it was in fact time to go to sleep, she would actually call for my father, knowing that sleep-time had to begin with grandpa.
What my niece ran into is, in some small sense, a similar reality that we confront today in our readings; a will so forceful, a power so benevolent, that we can try all we to stop it, but ultimately those efforts will only delay the inevitable.   And what is so wonderful, so ironic is that, like a child who does not recognize the necessity of sleep, the fact that we fail to recognize the value of this gift will not keep it from working on us.  For the gift comes to us in ways we could never expect or anticipate, but it does indeed come, even cloaked in smallness and insignificance. Look if you will, at the parables which Jesus puts in front of us.  The kingdom of heaven is a like a mustard seed, like some yeast.   When we hear “yeast,” it is easy enough to think in terms of something we would buy from the supermarket, but there were no Kings Soopers or Safeways in first century Palestine.  No, what Jesus is talking about is literally tearing some mold off of old bread to work into the flower. In other places in Scripture, yeast is used as a negative illustration, like when Jesus warns against the “yeast of the Pharisees.”  Similarly, the mustard seed would quite literally be the smallest object that an eye could comprehend.  To say that this small seed, which produces a shrub, will be the place in which all birds come to find rest, well that is to suggest that something totally outrageous is going on here.  It would be like ascribing to one of those shrubs out on the portico the same grandeur with which we speak of an ancient and dignified redwood tree.  Yes, the kingdom of heaven, then, is like mold that, once mixed with flower, will help to create enough bread for all to eat. Or the kingdom of God is like that annoying bush that just keeps growing until it is big enough to host all the birds of the air.
And if this shocks our piety a little bit, if this upsets our conventions of how God should appear in the world, if this all seems a bit too disrespectful a way for Jesus to talk about the Kingdom of God, well, that is understandable, and it is also instructive as to what it means to be a human created in the image of a God that we were born resisting.  For, it seems to me that part of our rejection of this vision of the kingdom is that we would like to protect God from the mundane realities of our lives, thinking that they could not possibly be significant enough for the Creator of the Cosmos to be concerned with. This is not just a self-esteem issue or something of the like.  Instead, I think it runs a bit deeper.  What we have here is the primordial fear that God simply cannot be this good, this caring, this loving.  Yes, this fear that once God catches a glimpse of us as we actually are, any chance we might have had of being loved by this God is over and done with. We shrink away from the fear of God observing us in our smallness, in our weakness, in our sin.  How could God possibly love me when I am riddled with anxiety and doubt, when I cannot even find the words to acknowledge Him, much less praise Him?  But if it is the case that God’s will to make us his own is indeed as determined as mold amongst flower, then we might just have to repent of our fear and our belief that we must do something super-human to get God’s attention, to in fact earn this God’s love.  I mean, really, a God whose kingdom comes in the smallness of a mustard seed, or in the earthy stink of rotting bread?  We cannot possibly imagine that God would be like this, for the god we project is one whom we meet outside of the smallness of our everyday activities.
The realization, however, only brings us deeper into this love of God in Christ that pervades the even the smallest and most mundane details of our lives.  For this is yet another truth by which we are apprehended.  Not only does God’s love show up in the smallness of a mustard seed, indeed the everyday realities of yeast, in the fear and the doubt, in the worry and the rush, but this love is more relentless, more determined than even a willful grandfather putting to sleep his stubborn grandchild.  For this is love is found not in some distant and detached world that has no connection to our daily lives, but rather this love, this kingdom, will be found on the cross, right in the midst of human striving and fear.  Oh, we can do our best to outlast and out-will this love, to fight it so that we remain in some illusory state of control over our destinies, to shout all our arguments about why it must not be so, but in the end those efforts are indeed hopeless.  For as determined as yeast is to make bread rise, as determined as a mustard seed is to grow and grow and grow, indeed, so determined is Christ to get to you.  Determined enough, in fact, to go before you through the darkened hallways of death, pain and God-forsakenness, so that the eternal joy of His love might shine even there.  Yes, for as dear St. Paul writes, there is nothing, no force in heaven or on earth that will keep this love from you.  Not fear, not doubt, not poverty, not poor health, not even our own need to be correct about where this God will show up in the world or our frustration at how deeply this God loves us and the world, for there is nothing more relentless than divine love, a reality well captured by the Gerhard Frost poem, “Love Cheats,” shared with me by my friend and colleague, John Pederson.  Frost writes:
“ I remember my mouthy  days,
my dazzling debates
with mom and dad. 

Like a winner,
confidently I’d argue,
condescendingly I’d instruct,
tolerantly I’d repeat,
patiently I’d wait,
until, without a moment’s warning,
one of them would say, ‘You know, we love you!’ 

‘Foul!’ I’d yearn to cry,
and I’d want out.  They’d struck so hard-
and below the belt. 

Love cheats. 
It always does;
there’s no defense.”

So, then, like a child in your grandfather’s arms, go ahead and rest in this God, for there really is no defense against His love.  In Jesus’ name, amen.  

July 17, 2011

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

24  He put before them another parable: "The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field;   25  but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away.   26  So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well.   27  And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, "Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?'   28  He answered, "An enemy has done this.' The slaves said to him, "Then do you want us to go and gather them?'   29  But he replied, "No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them.   30  Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.' "

36  Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples approached him, saying, "Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field."   37  He answered, "The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man;   38  the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one,   39  and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels.   40  Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age.   41  The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers,   42  and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.   43  Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways” declares God in the book of Isaiah, and that well-marked difference could not be more clear than it is in the parable which Jesus has just told.  This difference, the multiple ways in which God is utterly other from humanity, this no doubt includes attributes like God’s holiness, his eternal nature, his infinite splendor, unfathomable might and the like. Especially in a culture that is obsessed with human wit and intelligence, a culture that often worships our powers to manipulate our world and to progress unimpeded towards a greater tomorrow, a little dose of humility is never a bad thing when we think about our relationship to the creator of the universe.  However, what is so baffling about this little story about the wheat and the weeds is the way in which it marks out divine otherness in a completely different manner.  Indeed, the difference between God and humanity here has more to do with patience, with mercy and with an unyielding commitment to humanity.  This, simply put, is a God whose love and fidelity is baffling. For what we have before us is nothing less than the utter judgment of our own urge to judge, to make pure, to constantly be in the right; and there is simply nothing more human, more deeply entrenched in our DNA than that.  This urge to be in the right at the expense of others, this might actually be a decent definition for what it means to be human.  We see it as our lawmakers argue relentlessly about the national budget, as we argue about the best course of action to take at our places of work or in those minor and major spats that make up family life.  Having just returned from a stint with my nieces, I can absolutely assure you that this need to be right is not learned behavior, but is hardwired into us, even though raising the debt ceiling and debating whose turn it is on the trampoline are not exactly the same sort of arguments.  Regardless though, this need to be right, to rid ourselves and our communities of that which is impure, this is something we do as naturally as we eat or sleep.
“My ways are not your ways” says God.    What we see in this parable is a God who is so determined to save and redeem his creation that He is willing, for the sake of the world that He loves, to let grow what you and I would just as soon attempt to cut down, from ourselves, from one another.  Look again, if you will, at the way that the sower responds to the very real complaints that are weeds amongst his wheat, threatening the health of his crop.  Indeed, if you and I were to encounter such an issue, the obvious answer would be to get rid of the weeds by any means necessary, so that the wheat, that is which is of some worth and value, may be able to grow without competition. The sower, however, responds in a very different and entirely surprising way: let the weeds grow until the harvest.  What?  What sense does this make?  Why would one let grow that is which unpleasing, impure, incorrect?  It is not as though a little weeding presents such a difficult solution.  Rather, getting rid of the weeds is actually a pretty straight-forward affair.  So what reason does the sower give for this rather bizarre strategy? 
Well, that question might just get us to the heart of the matter.  For what the sower says is this: in uprooting the weeds, the wheat would also be destroyed.  Now, I will leave it to those of you with more farming experience than myself to determine whether or not that is an agricultural truth, but the theological and spiritual point could not be more clear.  For if God were to rid the world of all that opposes Him, of all that which works some sort of destruction, of that which wishes to stand its ground for its own sake and not because it belongs to the sower, who amongst us would be able to stand?  Perhaps, then, one of the central insights of this parable is that we, in spite of the attitudes that we hold, in spite of our unwavering commitment to our own correctness, are a bit more of a mixed bag than we would typically care to admit.  Maybe, just maybe, the parts of us that are weeds, the parts of us that do not trust God, those unsavory things about us that we rather admit to anyone and only occasionally to ourselves, maybe just maybe it is much more difficult to separate those parts of ourselves from our goodness, from our trust of God and love of neighbor, than we think.  If we are honest with ourselves, this is a truth that we cannot avoid.  We can get so caught up in our own agendas and motives that our attempts to rid ourselves, to rid our communities of that which we deem impure might just cost us the very goodness that we seek to protect. In the language of the text, our attempts at weeding out problems inevitably ends up costing us some wheat.   It is, after all, a very confusing world in which we live and which lives in us.  In this preacher’s humble opinion, this is why harsh judgment and condemnation of others invariably ends up costing us something.  We simply do not have the perspective necessary to make God-like judgment on ourselves or our neighbors.    Now, to be clear, this does not mean that we do not make judgments and seek out the best course of action in all we do.  This is a necessary and God-given part of living, but we deceive ourselves if we think these judgments ultimate, and our sense of right and wrong untainted to the point where we can decisively distribute God’s justice.  For us, there is no way to do so that does not end up costing us a great deal, even the very good we try to protect.  We do not, as it were, own the field in which we have been sown.
So, if this is true, if the wheat and the weeds in our lives, in ourselves, are so bound together that in getting rid of one we just might accidentally rid ourselves of the other, what do we do?  How do we move forward?  This all seems a bit paralyzing, does it not? 
Well, that answers lies not in us, but rather in the one who sows the seed.  Yes, the answer lies in the Christ who has sown into our hearts not a spirit of fear that is attached to judgment, but a spirit of boldness, of courage and of joy that comes from the Christ’s persistent work in bringing us deeper and deeper still into the love of God.  For, as St. Paul writes, you did not receive a spirit of fear, but a spirit of adoption. Yes, the Holy Spirit which has been poured over you in your baptisms and which now resides inside of your hearts is a spirit of hope.   It for hope that you were saved by the Christ who endures humanity’s need to separate wheat from weed in his body.  It is for hope that you were saved, it is for hope that you were brought into the community of God so that you might go extend this community into the world which God loves enough to bear patiently with, as weed and wheat grow up together.  It is the hope to greet neighbors and strangers alike, no matter however different they may be, yes to greet those whom we meet not as weeds to be cut down, but as fellow beloved children of God.  It is the spirit that recognizes God’s love and patience with us and with the world, and it is the spirit that hopes with certainty for that day when all that sin and darkness inside of us will be thrown away so that we may stand in delight of God and shine in light perpetual.  For sown into you is the very spirit of peace and grace which can turn even weed into wheat.  In Jesus’ name, amen.  

June 26, 2011

Matthew 10:40-42

40  "Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.  41  Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet's reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous;  42  and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward."

Great Expectations quipped Charles Dickens, summarizing the hopes and anticipations of a young man whose head was filled with the dreams of the upwardly mobile.  The rock band The Gaslight Anthem picked up on this theme, using this same phrase, Great Expectations, to title a song whose theme seems to be waiting on that certain something that will finally rouse one to action, even as one holds tenuously to the present and all it offers.  And it is impossible not to get wrapped up in these sorts of expectations, expectations for our world, our children, and intricately woven into all of these, expectations for ourselves.  Yes, regardless of the level of awareness, we hold great expectations for ourselves; and demand that we improve and grow, that we fulfill the never fully-realized potential that exists in all of us, if only we access the right tools, programs or insights that will allow us to grow as we deem we must.  And commenting on the relative merit of these pursuits is a bit like trying to comment on whether or not it is a good thing that the leaves on trees are green, for this sense of expectation, this hope for a tomorrow in which we are somehow better people than we are today, well this sort of thing is written into the very fabric of who we are as people.  To strive in this way, towards whatever goal we are after, that’s just the way that we, as humans, relate to the world and to ourselves. 
And it is not as though this striving is without meaning, without purpose.  What would life be without another goal to accomplish, another experience to enjoy, a wider panorama from which to view the world?  Yes, there is a definite purpose to all of this; it is why we get up in the morning.  What is interesting, though, is whatever we imagine at the end of these pursuits, be it a thinner waistline, a less troubled mind, a more stable 401(k) or a plumper bank account, all of these expectations are self-generated.  This does not mean that having them is wrong, but it does mean that, whatever the rewards for our hard work and striving remain deeply entrenched in our own sense of what it means to live a good and meaningful life.  And that, that right there, that might just be the problem, especially when we consider what it means to hold great expectations for God.  For often it is the case that God is encountered not as the end of our striving, not as the reward for our piety, but rather God is encountered as an interruption, as the holy one who erupts in the midst of our striving and forces upon us a conversion in which these categories of right and wrong, meaningful and without merit are entirely reconfigured. 
Now, this might seem an odd way to enter into the Gospel text for the day, with what appears to be its straight forward language of reward.  Indeed, it all seems so easy, does it not? This text could very easily be read as a straight-forward prescription on Christian hospitality.  However, as with anything that the Christ tells us, there is always more than meets the eye.  This section concludes a chapter of instruction to the disciples whom are being sent out for mission, a situation which Jesus describes as being sent out as “lambs amongst the wolves.”  And lest the metaphor be misinterpreted, Jesus unsentimentally outlines the “rewards” that will accompany their work of preaching, healing and exorcism.  These disciples can expect to be thrown into jail, to be dragged before the authorities to plead their case, disowned by their families and ultimately hated by the world.  In short, the disciples are told that it is the cross and the cross alone that will constitute the beginning of their discipleship, that it is only in abandoning themselves, indeed abandoning their expectations, whether great or small, that this whole thing will begin to make any sense at all.  It is, then, no wonder that Jesus must assure his disciples that even the hairs of their heads are numbered by the Father who loves them, for what he has just described sounds a lot like a protracted death sentence.  So much for rewards, so much for great expectations.
And if the rejection that the disciples are ensured of facing complicates the notion of reward, of what they can expect as Jesus’ ambassadors to a hostile world, we can surely ask why anyone would want to take up the cross, to follow Jesus, in the first place.  If one can expect the sort of rejection and humiliation that makes receiving a cup of water feel like the kindest and most thoughtful gesture in the world, does it not make more sense to run in the other direction from this sort of thing?  What manner of person walks willingly into this sort of hostility?  What on earth would possibly compel the disciples to continue following this Jesus, given what he has told them they will face?  Talk about a redefining of their expectations. And if the disciples must undergo a conversion of their expectations, if their expectations for discipleship must submit to the cross, we can be certain that the same will be true of us.  But this does not answer the question, it only heightens the tension, perhaps even to an unbearable point. Why, indeed, would one follow a God who asks this sort of thing? 
How the beginnings of answer appear is perhaps the deepest mystery of the Christian faith.  For what Christ say is in fact so true that it must be experienced to be believed: in following this God, in undergoing the death of our expectations for what this God does in the world and what we can expect as those who bear his name, in the encounter with this God’s strangeness, there is a life, a peace, a joy that we could never anticipate or expect, for unlike the greatness we project for ourselves, this life comes not from us, but from the Christ and his sublime strangeness.  Yes, the cross is the way into resurrection, a resurrection that explodes death with the sweet song of the one whose love is finally that is real. And it is this life that beckons the disciples, that beckons you, onward.  It is Christ’s own life, made present through the Holy Spirit, that allows for this crazy sort of inversion in which blessing can flow from persecution, joy from rejection, and yes finally even life from death.  It is the life of Christ which breaks in on us, which interrupts our expectations for what this God will do and how this God will do it, and shows the more excellent way: the way in sin is graciously forgiven and God is revealed as a love that is more freeing, more beautiful than anything we could begin to expect or anticipate. Yes,  the way in which even our expectations, be they blessedly fulfilled or yet unattained,  can become again the occasion for the gracious love of Christ to enter our lives.  The way in which  the love of Christ, gathering us together, sends us out into the world to proclaim and enact the goodness of God, no matter if we encounter hospitality or hostility to this Christ and his mercy.  For as St. Paul writes, the free gift has already been given.  Christ has taken you from death to life, from fear to boldness, from anxiety to acceptance.   You, then, you have been welcomed by the Father with a mercy unending. Go, then, and extend this welcome to others.   In Jesus’ name, amen.   

June 19, 2011

Matthew 28:16-20

16  Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them.  17  When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.  18  And Jesus came and said to them, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  19  Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,  20  and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age."


To many of us, being in church on a Sunday morning is the result of  long held and long cherished habit, and believe me, this is as much a compliment as it is a neutral observation of the facts.  Indeed, for many, myself included, participation in the life of the church stems from years of routine in which coming to worship on Sunday morning is as deeply ingrained in us as eating dinner at 6:00 pm.  Now, the reason I bring this is up is not to dole out merit badges for faithful attendance, nor is it to shame anyone who is struggling to understand why it is more preferable to be in church on Sunday morning than it is to be in bed, at the Egg and I or up in the mountains.  Indeed, no matter if this the first time you have stepped into a church this week, this month or this decade, you are welcome here.    Indeed, the reason that I mention that collective discipline that brings us together in this place is for this reason: it is a terribly easy thing for habit, be it the habit of faithful church attendance or the habit of staying away from the church entirely, to dull our sense what goes on in this place, and this is no one’s fault, it simply is the way that things progress.  Like any relationship in which we begin to take something or someone for granted, we can lose sight of the joy and liveliness that that person or that thing brings to us.  This is true of spouses and children, siblings and dear friends.  And it is also true of what we call the church.  We can, and I am afraid do, lose sight of what actually occurs in this place, whether we consider church a non-negotiable part of our weekly rhythm or if we are here for the first time.  Often, I cannot help but wonder if this is the primary reason for the general decline of the church; not that people do not want to get up early on Sunday morning or because they do not like the music, the preaching, the people, the whatever of any given church they attend.  Late Jewish theologian Abraham Heschel put the issue this way: “religion declined not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid,” and believe me, those are not easy words for a religious professional to hear, let alone to repeat, given how much of that responsibility falls squarely on the shoulders of my ilk.  
The question, I suppose, becomes again just what we think we are up to in this place every Sunday, and that strangely enough, is the question that allows us to jump right into our text for the day.  Now, before you begin to wonder whether or not I have prepared a sermon for the correct Sunday, please bear with me a moment.  Today, you see is Holy Trinity Sunday; the one Sunday out of the entire year that we devote to a specific doctrine of the church.  And while it might strike you as a bit strange that, of all the doctrines of the church, the Trinity is the one that receives its own church Sunday, it is my sense that this is done precisely because, in the end, intellectual honesty demands that we acknowledge the particularity of the doctrine.  Simply put, it is the proclamation of the Trinity, that God exists in three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and that each of these persons is equal in divinity to the other, and that each person of the Trinity shares in the divinity of the other member, yes, these and many other explications of the Trinity stand at the very center of Christian particularity.  These assertions might just help us answer the previous questions as to why we gather here, as to what might be happening right in our midst, yes as to what may keep the faith from becoming irrelevant, dull or oppressive. 
The beginnings of an answer to these questions emerge from the meeting between Jesus and disciples at the mountain in Galilee.  To gain a little context here, we should step back in the story.  In Matthew’s Gospel, this is the first post-resurrection meeting between Jesus and the disciples.  At this point, only Mary Magdalene and the other Mary have met the risen Christ, and they have been instructed to arrange this meeting between Jesus and the disciples.  So this, in many ways, is a scene brimming over with anticipation; which helps to explain the dual and in no way mutually exclusive responses of the disciples.  Some are so overcome by the resurrected Christ in their midst that they worship, literally fall down in prostration at the risen Christ’s feet.  Others, equally overwhelmed to be sure, simply cannot fit the resurrection of the dead into their existing categories for how this old world operates, and thus they respond with doubt, but this is not a faithless doubt, it is something nearer to uncertainty,  not unlike asking if this can really be happening when something wonderful has occurred.  Consequently, both responses signify the depth of this event, and please note that uncertainty regarding God’s activity does not somehow eliminate one from being a disciple. 
However interesting as the human responses are, it is the Word of Christ that again moves the story forward: into this dual reaction of worship and uncertainty, of holy ecstasy and staggering marvel Christ says the following: “all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.”  This question of authority has plagued Jesus and his disciples throughout the entire Gospel of Matthew.  It is the charge that the Pharisees bring against Jesus, that he does not, in fact, have the authority to forgive sin, to heal on the Sabbath, so on and so forth. But in the resurrection Jesus really is, really was, God’s will in the flesh.  The love and mercy that he extended, that he continues to extend, this genuinely is what God is like.   He is indeed an icon of the invisible God, the way that the Father expresses his unfathomable love to the creation that he fashions and names as good; this is why the Trinity is of such incredible importance to our lives Christians.  For it means that the God whom Jesus embodies, the God who forgives the trembling sinner, the God who works mercy from the cross, the God who suffer death on our behalf, this is what God is actually like.  And by the power of the Holy Spirit, who makes that God present in our midst, we are gathered together, swept right up into the very life of this God for the sake of the world.  This is what is done to us here in this place; we are given the faith and the strength that God alone can give, we too, are brought into the expansive love that exists between Father, Son, Holy Spirit.  And the way that we are brought into this love is through Christ’s cross and resurrection, which means that our whole selves, our fears and our doubts, our sins and our failings, as well as our strength and our faith, all of that, yes, all of who we are has been reconciled to God and redeemed in Christ.  For the cross and resurrection of Christ means that God has reconciled himself to a world and to those parts of us that we dare not show God or each other, but fear not dear people, for Christ has take your sin as his own and has offered not punishment and retribution, but forgiveness, mercy and the life abundant.  So, yes bring your whole self to this God: bring your fear and failing, bring your anxiety and your worry, bring your joy and your triumph.  Bring it all.   For God, in Christ, is already there in those dark places that taunt and accuse you.  He is there with the whole authority to forgive and heal you of that which you fear keeps you from God. There is, in short, no question, no fear that will keep him from you, and that is not a religion of oppression or irrelevance, but one of great freedom and comfort. For this is a God who has not left us, but promises his abiding presence until the end of the age.  In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, amen. 

June 12, 2011

John 20:19-23

19  When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you."  20  After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.  21  Jesus said to them again, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you."  22  When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit.  23  If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained."

Like a lot of new pastors you will meet, I spent one summer during my college years working at a Lutheran Bible camp.  Those places are like the minor leagues for the ELCA.  Now, while the camp at which I worked was Lutheran by name, the camp directors themselves leaned in a more charismatic direction.  Having drifted away from the church in my first two years of college, this summer was intended as a time in which I could renew and rediscover the faith in the context of a caring group of people.  I was, then, ill-prepared for some of what I encountered that summer.  I had not one whit of an idea how to answer some of the questions that were put to me by these folks: questions like whether or not I had had a baptism in the spirit, or whether or not I had ever spoken in tongues or dreamed ecstatic dreams.  It was then that I was told my own tradition, good ol’ confessional Lutheranism was “lacking in the spirit.” Now, in the catechisms, Luther bids us to put the best construction on our neighbor’s actions, and surely some of the people that I met that summer were in fact wonderful people who were possessed by a genuine faith.  I am still friends with the camp directors, though we clearly have our theological differences.  However well-intentioned they were, it was that summer that I learned to associate the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit’s activity, with a perceived deficit in my own spiritual life.  In a sense, then, one could say that it was that summer when I learned to fear the Holy Spirit.
            Now, it is my guess that I am not the only one who has had this experience.  Any contact with more charismatic or even emotive strands of Christianity can lead to this insecurity about our own faith lives, whether or not we “have the spirit.”  Which could be a question about just about everything:  liturgical worship, the rigor of our theological thinking, our insistence on seminary before ordination, or any number of other things.   I am not, mind you, intending to turn this into some sort of apologetic for the Holy Spirit’s work in the mainline church.  So rather than taking up arms against would-be accusers, or believing that we are somehow less than in our faith, it would, I think, be helpful to actually engage the Spirit, see what the Holy Spirit does, how the Holy Spirit works. 
            In order to do this, we must meet the first disciples when they are at their most fearful.  In the Gospel reading, you see, the disciples sit in a locked room for fear of the religious authorities, and this was an understandable fear indeed.  Their leader, Jesus, had just been put to death, been hung upon that cross, and there was good reason to believe that they might be next. If the authorities had executed Jesus, what would keep them from doing the same to the disciples, and finishing off this movement once for all? In addition to those external threats, there were some internal questions that required some answers: why had they denied and abandoned Jesus?  Why had they left him to face his trial and death on his own? Also, what was next for the disciples?  If they could make it out of Jerusalem alive, were they just to return to their lives, as though nothing had happened?  Would they be embraced by the communities that they rejected and left behind to follow this traveling rabbi?  Yes, to be sure, there were questions to be answered.   No wonder they locked the doors. 
            And Jesus, you will note, does not politely knock on the door or ask the disciples to let him in.  Instead, he stands among them, unannounced, he stands among his deniers and abandoners and offers not vengeance but peace.   To this stilted and insecure band of followers, Jesus shows them his wounds, shows them that God has entered and conquered death, and then tells them again that divine peace is theirs, for that is what the wounds accomplished.  Yes, those wounds, those marks of human stubbornness and rejection of God, those wounds are now the places from which divine peace will flow.  And in order for that peace to continue, Christ must be present in the preaching and fellowship of the disciples, and so he gives them yet another unexpected, unrequested gift: his Holy Spirit which will be present even as Jesus returns to the Father.  The spirit, then, will be the way that he remains present.   And please head the intimacy of this scene, for it is central to our understanding of who the Holy Spirit is, what the Holy Spirit accomplishes.  Yes, Jesus breathes on them, and this is how the gift is given.  It is not given because of anything the disciples have done, nor is it some fervor that they are able to build for themselves.  No, it is a completely gracious, and in some ways, unexpected gift, a gift as unexpected as Christ’s wounded and loving presence in the middle of the disciples fear.  Yes, this Holy Spirit, this breathe of the divine, this emanates from no one other than Christ himself; for it is by his authority that the gift is given. 
            And what the Spirit works, in some ways, is prefigured by the way that the Spirit is given.  For just as the spirit is given in this extraordinarily intimate way, this act of Jesus breathing on his disciples, so too this intimacy with the divine is what the Spirit works.  For as St. Paul writes, it is only by the power of the Holy Spirit that we may confess that Christ is Lord, and this confession is so much more than assuming some sort of intellectual belief.  Instead, this confession is an act of being brought into profound intimacy with God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It is to rise daily into the forgiveness that was poured over us in baptism and to return as long as we have breathe in our lungs to those merciful waters.  To confess Christ as Lord is to be overwhelmed by the divine and holy peace that He alone can bring.  Like that first community gathered on Pentacost, to be gathered in by the Holy Spirit is to find ourselves in the strange company of the saints of all time and in all places.  It is to know that we have been gathered up into God along with not just Medes and Parthinians, but Presbyterians, Roman Catholics, Methodists, and Pentacostals. Yes, to be gathered in by the Holy Spirit, to make the good confession of Christ as Lord is to know that we are still united with our dead and the angels dwell in our midst, bringing us into deeper love for Christ and for one another.   Yes, to make this confession, this is to find Christ not in some sort of emotional experience that we are finally responsible for conjuring up, but its is to be apprehended by the God who breaks into our midst with nothing but peace on his breathe.  To be sure, this Holy Spirit remains a mystery, dwelling where He will and defying our boundaries and expectations.  But fear not, dear people, for while we may not have authority over this Spirit, the very fact that we are gathered here today is evidence of his work.  The peace and comfort that the sacraments bring in our midst, the love that is shown to us when we are in mourning, the presence that urges us into deeper service of the poor and the lonely, that  nagging voice in your head that urges you to forgive someone who has done you wrong, that is the work of the Spirit, this is all the work of the Holy Spirit.  For whenever and wherever Christ appears and grants you peace, that is the work of the Holy Spirit.  In Jesus’ name, amen.