All!

Acts 2.1-13

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs – in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

Think and Let Think · All!

They were all together in one place.

A little more than a week had passed since they watched their Lord ascend to the right hand of the father. And whatever joy they had been feeling in the moment, the proverbial kick in the rear end from the angels asking about their eyes in the sky, apparently dried up. One would hope that the first disciples, having been commissioned by Jesus would actually be out there in the world doing the work they had been entrusted to do.

But instead they were all together in one place.

A violent wind came whipping through the room without warning, knocking over tables and cutlery, such that it filled the entire place where they were staying.

Divided tongues, like fire, appeared among them and they were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages.

The early disciples tumbled out of the house, into the streets from which they were previously hiding and they made good on the new gift and started speaking to the people in their own native tongues.

They told them the Good News.

The crowds, meanwhile, were amazed and astonished by the miracle in their midst and all of wondered what it could possibly mean.

And yet others sneered and said, “They’re just drunk.”

The rest of the story goes that Peter takes that as his cue to preach, stands in the midst of the street, delivers the Word, and 3,000 were added to their number that day.

I’ve got to tell you, I’ve preached from Acts 2 every Pentecost since I became a pastor, and even the best of my sermons haven’t come close to delivering thousands of new people to the church. 

For a while I wondered if it was because I wasn’t as good of a preacher as Peter. 

But, go read his sermon some time. 

It’s terrible. It’s boring. There’s no illustration. It doesn’t even end with an application.

So then I thought it was because the church wasn’t doing its job holding up the Acts 2 vision.

But, go look at what the church does.

Nothing. The only thing the people called church do is act like they’re drunk early in the morning.

The story of the arrival of the Spirit in Acts 2 is counter to just about everything we think about and do in the church today. It is disruptive, it is confounding, and it is for all.

Really.

If you tune out in the next few minutes, no worries. Just pick up a Bible and notice how many time the word “all” appears in this text.

It’s ridiculous.

Just like the Spirit.

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I can give you plenty of reasons why the church shouldn’t exist. It’s filled with a bunch of sinners who are struggling with our inability to be good. We put up signs like, open hearts, minds, and doors when we actually close off our hearts, minds, and doors to anything we might deem “other.”

And, to be real, the church is a place where people get together week after week to sing songs, sit in silence, listen to someone preach, and then eat the body and blood of Jesus.

It’s shouldn’t exist. 

But people keep showing up. People keep streaming worship on their phones and computers. 

None of this can be explained without Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. None of what happens here is intelligible unless the Spirit was poured out on ALL flesh.

And when the Spirit hits, it knocks us out of alignment from everything we think we’re supposed to do, say, and believe.

I’ve heard it said, in this church no less, “God is good all the time – all the time God is good.”

Which is fine. 

But, if that’s true, then why have we been worshipping at home for so long? Why do black men keep getting killed in this country for no reason other than the color of their skin? Why can’t we have God when we really need God? What good is the goodness if it’s not there when we need it?

It took me a long time to come to grips with this stark reality. And the Pentecost story is the one that helped me. You see, by the time the Holy Spirit showed up, the Israelites had been waiting centuries for a gift and Word from the Lord like they received on Pentecost. 

Earlier, Moses was told to save God’s people, to deliver them to the Promised Land, and he does, but he dies before he can get there himself.

Later, the prophet Isaiah spends three years wandering around naked as a sign and wonder against the Egyptians.

Even Lazarus was dead for three days before Jesus showed up and called him out of the tomb.

Which is all to say: God’s time is not our time. God’s ways are not our ways.

Long before the wind swept through the house and tongues of fire landed on the disciples, the people of God were long trained in being out of control and out of time. And even though they were trained in this practice of patience, it still drove them crazy. 

It still drives us crazy.

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Its why, rather than having difficult conversations this week about yet another black man’s murder, people like me are quick to post poetic reflections on the problems of racism.

Its why, rather than engaging in the long process of upending the inequality of this country, we offer our lament and move quickly on to whatever the next story might be.

It why, rather than calling into question the powers and principalities that so dominate and control our attention, we talk about the looting of stores rather than the destruction of bodies.

We want to be in control of all things, and make sure things happen according to our timetable, and that it all happens while requiring the least of us.

And yet, to follow Jesus is ongoing training for learning to live a life out of control. 

Faith, belief, trust, those are merely words for letting go of our presumption that fixing the world is up to us. Everything has already been done that needs doing. The end has already come to us in the person of Jesus through cross and resurrection. The powers and principalities have been vanquished forever. 

We just don’t act like it.

Or to put it another way, we’ve somehow convinced ourselves that we can do the work of the church whether or not Jesus was raised from the dead.

What difference does it make if he wasn’t raised? Jesus is a good ethical teacher, he wants us to be kind to one another, spread a little more love in the world.

But that’s ridiculous!

Christianity has nothing to do with getting along with one another.

Christianity is a violent Spirit blowing wherever it wants, knocking us down or back in order to get done what the Spirit wants getting done.

We want God to be for us, which means, of course, that we want God to be against them, whoever the them might be.

But the Spirit doesn’t show up for us, or for them, the Spirit is poured out on ALL flesh.

Contrary to all of our best intentions, and all our well meaning programs and practices, we continue to sin against the Spirit poured out on Pentecost because we continue to do whatever we can to explain away the disruption that is God.

And we all know why we do this – we’re afraid. 

We’re afraid of the Spirit that goes wherever it wants.

We’re afraid, though we think we have it all together, that we’re going to be grabbed up from our comfortable couches, shaken and thrown into confusion, and have even intoxicated like behavior.

Most of us, myself included, go to worship to have confirmed what we think we already know. That we’re right, and good, and fine, and they (whoever they are) are wrong. We don’t expect to be turned upside down.

But those early Christians, the ones accused of being drunk early in the morning, they were so accused because the Good News tasted like 200-proof grace that makes the room spin around with outrageous joy.

Here’s another way to think about it: When was the last time you left a church service, whether in-person or online, so joyful, so out of control, so confused, so filled with the brim with grace that someone said of you, “Look at those Christians again, drunk as skunks on a Sunday morning.”?

Usually, when we wrap things up on a Sunday morning, onlookers are more likely to say, “Look at those Christians, they look so smug, they look so bored, they look so dead.”

The Spirit refuses to let us die in our own self-righteous indignation.

The Spirit is poured out on all flesh, the good and the bad, the tall and the small, the black and the white, the rich and the poor, all so that we might begin to see the world and ourselves differently. 

Flannery O’Connor has a short story about a woman named Ruby Turpin. In it, Mrs. Turpin is a large Southern white woman who believes she is superior to just about everyone else, but particularly black folk. She spends her days looking down on those she deems unworthy, and the story picks up with her taking her husband to the doctor’s office for an appointment.

In the waiting room, she is disgusted to find people of lower classes, lower ambitions, filling up all the seats while she has to stand. She strikes up a conversation with a nearby mother who is there with her daughter and they bond over their disdain for certain individuals. They wax lyrical about the virtues of being hardworking, clean, and having a good disposition. And the more they talk the more the young daughter glares at Mrs. Turpin with hatred in her eyes over the cover of a book.

Eventually, the conversation moves closer to home as the mother complains that her daughter isn’t grateful enough for everything she’s been given. Mrs. Turpin, of course, agrees with the woman wholeheartedly, when all of the sudden the young daughter takes her book and throws it with all of her might straight at Mrs. Turpin’s face and hits her right above the eye. The girl further lunges toward Mrs. Turpin, grabs her around the throat, and has to be subdued and given a sedative by the doctor.

Right before the girl gives way to the medicine flowing in her veins, Mrs. Turpin demands an apology from her, and instead all the girl says is, “Go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog.

Needless to say, Mrs. Turpin is greatly disturbed by the comment, and can’t help herself from wondering if maybe it was a message from God. And the more she thinks on it, the more upset she becomes.

Eventually she returns home only to scold God in her prayers, demanding to know how she, the upstanding, polite, and perfect Christians she think she is, could possibly be an old wart hog. She even angrily lifts up her fists in the sky and shouts, “Who do you think you are?”

And its at that precise moment, with rage in her veins, she sees a vision. It’s a road from the earth to the sky, and on that road she and all the “proper” white Christians are at the back of the line. In front of them, arriving in heaven first, are all the people Mrs. Turpin considers inferior and unworthy of either her or even God’s love.

Sometimes the Spirit shows up in a perfectly timed hymn, or just the right scripture reading, or even in the occasional sermon.

But most of the the time the Spirit shows up like a mighty wind, like flames of fire, or like a book being hurled across the room.

Because all of us, each and every single one of us is an old wart hog. We choose to do things we know we shouldn’t. We avoid doing things we know we should. And yet God still pours out the Spirit on all of us.

And all really means all. Amen. 

Riding The Wave Of Chaos

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Tripp Fuller about the readings for Pentecost Sunday [A] (Acts 2.1-21, Psalm 104.24-35b, 1 Corinthians 12.3b-13, John 20.19-23). Tripp is the host of Home-brewed Christianity, and is a Religion/Science Research Fellow at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. Our conversation covers a range of topics including bad reviews, favorite beers, practicing Pentecost, back to Babel, vacation the right way, the necessity of chaos, lordship, U2, the crazy canon, and wild news. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Riding The Wave Of Chaos

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The Future Present

Romans 8.22-27

We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

All of creation groans.

            How can we put those words into images?

On Monday 60 Palestinians were shot and killed and another 2,700 others were injured during protests at the border with Israel. Some of those killed were individuals from aid agencies who were providing medical care to the protestors. Some of those killed and injured were children.

On Friday morning a 17 year old walked into a high school in Texas and shot and killed nine students and one teacher.

We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves groan inwardly, while we wait for redemption.

Perhaps the best we can muster in a world like ours, in a time like ours, is a groan, a sigh, and dim hope. We live, as many have noted, in a time of perpetual amnesia – because we know so much about the world, and we know how broken it still is, we are bombarded with story after story to such a degree that we can barely remember what happened a year ago, a month ago, or even a week ago. Our televisions and newspapers and timelines are filled with such tragic stories and we just move from one to the next.

If we find ourselves moaning and groaning, sighing and crying, then we are on the right track. We hope for a better tomorrow, for a world that does not look like this one. We yearn for what has been promised in faith, but do not yet see.

            All of creation groans.

Paul is right to name and claim our salvation – but we are saved in the hope of redemption. We live in the light of God’s good promise, however, we do not live in the fulfillment of that promise.

We are still waiting.

Like pilgrims in the midst of a great journey, or a woman anticipating her baby’s due date, we are not yet at the goal.

And Paul tells us that while we wait, we do so with patience.

The great missionary of the 1st century loves to do this type of thing, which is to say Paul liked navigating the confusing contours of now and not yet. Paul danced between the present time and the time when all things would be conquered by God.

Most of us are not like Paul. Rather than enduring the days at hand with patience, we want to see change here and now. We are not the backseat Christians who willingly accept the status quo. No, when we see and feel the groans of the world we want it to stop. Now.

There are plenty of Christians in the world who rest on opposite sides of this spectrum. Some sit back and wait, without a care or concern for how things currently are, because one day (whenever that might be) God will fix everything. And for as much as that is true, they are like those who see a building on fire and instead of reaching for a bucket of water they say, “It must be God’s will.”

And then on the far other side there are those who are in denial of present sufferings and are utterly convinced that if they only prayed harder God would make them healthy and wealthy. They might receive a horrible diagnosis, or lose their employment, but they believe that God is waiting for them to pray the right prayer before God drops the perfect cure of the more lucrative career.

But us other Christians, those who find ourselves in the middle, we know that it is no comfort to deny present suffering, nor is it comforting to focus all of our energy on the hope that God will fix everything in a jiffy. We know that reflections on the future must be, at times, postponed. It is not the future that commands our attention but the present.

And here in lies the crux of it all, we focus our focus on the present, not as a denial of the future, but precisely because we know that we don’t know what the future holds.

We know, whether we like to admit it or not, that all things in this world will perish; we’ve all seen it happen too many times, but the cross of Jesus Christ stands in the midst of this lonely and broken world and it is the sign of our hope. Easter boldly proclaims that at the end of our possibilities God creates a new beginning – Pentecost shows us how we take the first steps.

Today of course is Pentecost, fifty days after Easter. The disciples spent forty days with the risen Jesus, learning about the kingdom of God, before Jesus ascended to the right hand of God. But then they had ten days of waiting.

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Imagine if you can, though we certainly can’t, what it must’ve been like to not only encounter the risen Jesus, but to lose him again, and to wait. What were those conversations like in the ten-day waiting period? What plans were made in case nothing happened? Were they patient in their hope?

Acts tells us that on the day of Pentecost, fifty days after Passover, all the disciples were in one place and suddenly from heaven there came a sound like a rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire place where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit gave them ability.

They immediately went forth from that place proclaiming the good news to all with ears to hear, and on that day the Lord added 3,000 to the growing faith, and they all devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.

Many of us, if not most of us, would like to see the Spirit manifest like those first disciples did on the day of Pentecost. We want signs of power and majesty, we want this sanctuary windswept and on fire for the Lord. But, like the readers of Romans, we may not receive the signs we so desperately desire.

Hope that is seen is a limited kind of hope, for if we can see what we want, it is certain to be limited to what we are now able to behold. Do you think those disciples were yearning for the Spirit to give them the strength to speak in other languages? Do you think they prayed night after night for the Spirit to fall upon them like a blazing fire? Do you think this is what they hoped for?

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They had no idea what they were in for! There’s no way they could’ve possibly imagined what would happen ten days after Jesus ascended into heaven. There’s no way they could’ve known the Spirit would arrive in such a dramatic way. There’s no way they could have predicted that the rest of their lives would be spent in an illegal community based on the worship of a crucified God.

Something greater was in store for all of the first disciples, greater things were yet to come – and the same holds true for us.

Paul is completely convinced, though he was not there on the day of Pentecost and did not receive the Spirit in the same way, that the Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not really know how to pray as we should and the Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.

There is something majestically powerful in being reminded that even when we cannot find the right words, the Spirit is with us in our sighs. Because how in the world could we possibly pray, in the right way, for those living in Israel and Palestine? What kind of words could we offer to parents who discovered that their children were murdered by a gunman in their school?

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            There are no words except for the deep groaning of the cosmos that can come close to what needs to be said in prayer.

And yet, we have hope. Not a blind foolish hope, but a deeply rooted hope in the one of came to live, die, and rise again. We have a hope, like the early disciples, that what we see and hear and experience now is not the end. And, at the same time, the Spirit is with us to give us the strength to not only yearn for a better world, but also actually do something about it.

That’s the thing about hope – it is meaningless unless it prompts us toward transformation. Hope that remains in the heart and mind alone is nothing more than a clanging cymbal. But our hope, a hope for a world that we cannot yet even imagine, is like a fire – it warms the soul and lights our path.

When the Holy Spirit was first poured out on all the disciples it was like a fire and it spread in wild and unpredictable ways. Those first followers of Jesus, though persecuted and often killed for their faith, are responsible for us having heard the Word at all. They were so on fire in their hope that they went beyond what they could see and hope for, knowing that with patience, the world would begin to change.

In 1969, Mister Roger’s Neighborhood had only been a national show for year. And on one fairly typical episode Mr. Rogers entered the screen as usual, but instead of putting on his infamous sweater, he mentioned something about how hot it was outside and decided to soak his feet in a tiny swimming pool. While resting and relaxing, a black policeman name Officer Clemmons walked by and Mr. Rogers invited him to share the small pool. Officer Clemmons quickly accepted, rolled up his pants, and placed his very brown feet in the same water as Mr. Roger’s very white feet.

Today, in 2018, this might seem insignificant, but in 1969 it was everything. In the late sixties public pools became the battleground of segregation to such a degree that it was illegal in some places for black bodies and white bodies to be in the water at the same time, if at all. There are horrible images of the summers in the 60s in which white pool managers would pour acid into pools when people protested by swimming with other races.

But for one episode of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood, the country was shown a glimpse of the future, a future of hope, one that few people could possibly imagine at the time.

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John Wesley, the pioneer of renewal that led to the birth of our church, once said that if you light yourself on fire, people will travel miles to watch you burn. Our hopefulness, our yearning for a new day and a new way, should be like a fire that people can’t help but watch.

Mr. Rogers had a fire that was as simple and yet profound as soaking his feet in a swimming pool, but it was exactly his hopefulness that resulted in people tuning in each and every week for decades.

We talk a lot about how we, as Christians, are citizens of a different kingdom – but sometimes we don’t take the next step to imagine what the kingdom looks like. God’s kingdom is one ruled by hope. A hope for things not yet seen, a hope for a time we cannot even imagine, a world in which the fire of Pentecost is present in everyone we encounter.

The Holy Spirit with its bravado and bombastic arrival is always pointing from death to new life, it is always praying with us and through us even when we do not know what to say, and it is always redeeming us for a new day and a new way. Amen.

Rebelling Against King Jesus

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Alex Joyner about the readings for the Day of Pentecost – Year B (Acts 2.1-21, Psalm 104.24-35b, Romans 8.22-27, John 15.26-17, 16.4b-15). Alex is the District Superintendent for the Eastern Shore in the Virginia Conference, and he regularly blogs on his website Heartlands. Our conversation covers a range of topics including bad puns, living off the map (literally), church birthdays, faithful diversity, the connections between Babel and Pentecost, the impermanence of land, giving voice to the voiceless, and the community in the Trinity. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Rebelling Against King Jesus

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The Uninvited Guest

Acts 2.1-4

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

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I only have three opportunities left to proclaim God’s Word in this place. After preaching for 4 years from the Old and New Testaments, after listening for the Spirit’s movement for more than 250 sermons, I only have 3 left.

It’s hard not to think about what my final thoughts should be. I’ve been the pastor of St. John’s for some incredible mountaintop moments, and some frighteningly deep valleys. I’ve gone on a bunch of mission trips, taught lots of bible studies, and implored us to do some pretty strange things in this sanctuary all under the auspices of “worship.”

What do I want to leave with all of you? Should I try to whittle the entirety of the gospel down to an easily digestible sentence like “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”? Should I use my last three sermons to build you up with stories of love and grace and generosity? Should I use these final sermons to break you down with talk of sin, evil, and repentance?

I’ve got to admit that over the last few weeks I’ve found myself far more concerned with what I want to say than with what God wants to say.

 

Here we are my friends, today is Pentecost, the so-called birthday of the church. I know some pastors who will spend part of this morning in worship gathering their congregations around a giant birthday cake and will encourage an off-key rendition of “Happy Birthday.” Others will spend the service talking about how it is our responsibility to offer gifts to the church for her birthday and will then not-so-subtly move to the time of tithes and offerings. And others will use the church’s birthday as an opportunity to talk about inviting others to celebrate and make the whole thing into a guilt trip about evangelism and church growth.

All of which don’t have much to do with what God is saying in the text.

But, of course, Pentecost seems like a party. There are people gathered together in one place, the house is filled with something that propels the guests to do something, and everyone leaves with a gift.

But if Pentecost is a party, how long had God planned it? Who was on the guest list? Is it the kind of party we would hope to be invited to?

Pentecost may be the birthday of the church, the beginning of the gathering of disciples to worship the living God, but it is NOT the birthday of the Spirit.

In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth… sound familiar? When nothing existed but chaos the Spirit of God swept across the waters and brought forth order. The Spirit is not new, it was there in the creation of all things, it rested on the likes of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David, Solomon, and the prophets. By the day of Pentecost in the upper room the Spirit had already overshadowed Mary’s womb, and called Jesus forth from the tomb. It was there at Jesus’ baptism, it compelled him to preach his first sermon, it fed the 5,000, it healed the sick, Jesus even breathed it on the disciples in the upper room shortly after his resurrection.

The story of Pentecost is not about the arrival of some previously unknown force that we call the Spirit; the entire bible is the story of the Spirit of God made manifest in and among God’s people.

What happened on Pentecost began long before that day, and will continue long after we’re gone.

Near the beginning, the people of God had grown restless. They wanted something more than life was offering, they wanted answers to their questions, and they began work on a giant tower. With brick and mortar, sweat and tears, they cut through the horizon in an attempt to reach God, and become like God. And God saw what we humans were doing and decided to confuse our language and scatter us across the earth. The unity and connection at the heart of our species was ripped apart and never again would we so brazenly attempt to reach and control our Lord.

Or so we thought.

Later, while Moses was on top of the mountain with God, at a place called Sinai, the people down in the valley grew restless. They wanted something more than life was offering, they wanted answers to their questions, and they began forming a golden calf to worship. With a gathering of precious gems, with kneeling and praising, they chose a new god to put their hope in. And God saw what we humans were doing and decided to wipe us from the face of the earth. But Moses pleaded with the Lord and instead only 3,000 were killed for worshipping the golden calf.

The Tower of Babel in Genesis and the Golden Calf in Exodus are stories we’d like to explain away. Not just for their strange and supernatural elements, but also because they don’t match with our anachronistic and modern sensibilities. We’d rather talk about what we think the text means than what it is actually saying.

But the stories of Babel and the Golden Calf do not end with a division of language or in a slaughter.

Pentecost is the undoing of Babel with God’s magnificent power reuniting God’s people under a common tongue: the Gospel.

            Pentecost is the undoing of the episode with the Golden Calf where, instead of 3,000 being killed, 3,000 were added to the budding church in order to redeem what happened in the valley long ago.

            The Spirit at Pentecost is the one who brings forth life out of death, hope out of despair, and a beginning out of an ending.

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We here in church like everything nice and orderly, or at least I do. I want to have a bulletin that is clear and organized, I want a theme that stretches throughout the entirety of the service, I want people like you to get exactly what you want and what you need.

But the Spirit is not one for white linens, and perfect bulletins, and calm consciences. On Pentecost the Spirit did not come with manners and a polite disposition. No, the Spirit comes with power that could knock someone to the ground, fill a room as if with fire, and even turn the world upside down.

The Spirit shows up at Pentecost like an uninvited guest.

During the height of segregation, there was a well-known church in the heart of Durham that was filled with proper looking white families every Sunday. They all made sure their children were quiet in worship, knew when to bow their heads, and stood to sing the hymns. Their clothes were always clean and coordinated, they always had plans for lunch after worship, and to them the church was perfect.

On one particular communion Sunday however, a young black man showed up at the main door and attempted to walk in. The ushers promptly blocked his path and used a few choice words to explain what they thought about his presence.

The next month he showed up with a few of his friends and there were even more ushers blocking the entrance.

Finally, in the deep heat of the summer, the young black community members decided to wait until the service started before walking in. They waited for the ushers to head inside and stand in the back and then they made their way through the doors precisely when the preacher stepped forward with the bread and with the cup and invited everyone forward.

At that cue the group pushed through the back pews and made their way down to the altar to receive the body and blood of Jesus.

I wish I could tell you in that holy moment the white people of the church were filled by the grace of God to receive their black brothers and sisters in love.

I wish I could tell you that the whole congregation stood to sing Amazing Grace and gather with their new friends at the altar.

I wish I could tell you that the whole white community of Durham came to their senses in that profound moment and began working to end segregation.

            But that’s not what happened.

The nice people sitting in the pews with their perfect families and their perfect worship service saw the young black men and women as uninvited guests, and they did what some people do when the unwanted show up, they kicked them out.

A fight broke out that Sunday in the aisles and in the pews, clothes were torn, blood was spilt, and windows were broken.

The police were called to break up the fight, which made matters even worse, and the church was evacuated before anyone even got communion.

The Spirit does not always arrive as a still small voice or a faint stirring of the heart. Sometimes the Spirit is electric, atomic, volcanic, and even violent.

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The human community divided by God at Babel, and punished at Sinai, was brought back together in the upper room on Pentecost. Instead of overwhelming confusion there was a new cooperation. At Babel and at Sinai the people of God wanted to move vertically to become like God. At Pentecost, God connected the people of God horizontally through the kingdom.

God, on Pentecost, offered us a new way, but sometimes we fall back to the Babels and the Golden Calves of the past. At that church in Durham, they believed that one’s skin pigmentation meant more than just about anything. And it took a fight between the pews to show them how far they had fallen.

For some of us we care more about what political party we’re affiliated with than anything else. We therefore ignore or even attack those who disagree with us.

For others we divide ourselves over ethnicity, race, sexual preference, age, socio-economic status, and a great slew of other factors.

But at Pentecost God did what God had to do to unite humanity back together. Like an uninvited guest God arrived as a violent wind rushing throughout the room and filled the entire house. Divided tongues like fire appeared among the disciples and a new tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit, the same Spirit that was there at the creation of existence, there in the virgin’s womb, and there in the empty tomb.

God interrupted the sensibilities and the gathering of the first disciples to offer a new way, a way filled with a frightening and powerful Spirit. God united the people under a common tongue of the gospel of His Son through the power of His Spirit and it forever altered the way we understand the world.

For at Pentecost we discover that WE are the church, and that “we” often includes people we can’t imagine; people who do not look like us, think like us, speak like us, or even worship like us.

Don’t get me wrong; I love the way we worship. I love our hymns and our prayers and even the way our sanctuary looks. I love the way we greet each other as we enter the building, I love the way we share signs of Christ’s peace, I even love how many of us are wearing red this morning in honor of Pentecost.

But the church should be a disruptive thing because that’s precisely what God’s Spirit did at Babel, at Sinai, at Pentecost, and it’s precisely what the Spirit did at that church in Durham, and frankly it’s what the Spirit is going to do to the youth of this church on our mission trip this week. The Spirit will upend our expectations and our hopes and our dreams. The Spirit is the one who will show us that WE are the church, all of us, and all of the people that we can’t imagine, they and we are the church, whether we like it or not. Amen.

On The Real Miracle Of Pentecost

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Jason Micheli and I recently sat down for a conversation about the celebration of Pentecost and what it means to preach about the Holy Spirit. Our podcast Strangely Warmed is dedicated to addressing the reading from the Revised Common Lectionary without using stained glass language and our recent episode brought forth some great topics such as the connections between Exodus and Acts, what it takes to be able to confess Jesus as Lord, and and the real miracle of Pentecost. If you want to listen to the episode (or subscribe to the podcast) you can find it here: Pentecost – Year A

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Devotional – Acts 2.1

Devotional:

Acts 2.1

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.

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When was the last time your entire family was together in one place? For some it probably occurred around a holiday like Christmas or Easter, for others it might have occurred at a funeral service or a wedding celebration, and for others the possibility of having everyone together might simply be an impossibility.

When an entire family is together in one place, magnificent things can take place. All the sudden you might overhear a distant cousin telling a story when you realize he or she sounds exactly like you, or you’ll notice that that you have the same color hair as an aunt, or you begin to see how really connected you are even without seeing the whole family very often.

However, being together with an entire family in one place can also bring about conflict. Old disagreements from the distant past can percolate to the surface, political differences can ruin an otherwise wonderful afternoon, or the swift judgments of family members about their family members can show the true colors of brokenness even within a group of people who share the same genes.

When was the last time the entire church was in one place? Across the country, at least in mainline Protestantism, most churches see the majority of their members only once a month. That is why there is such an abundance of churches with upwards of 400 members, but they see less than 100 on Sunday mornings. And, even if everyone showed up to be together in one place, you would get the good and the bad just like when an entire family gets together.

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But can you imagine what our churches would look like if we were all together in one place? And, if you can, think beyond the local church, what if The Church came together in one place? That, among many other wonderful blessings, is the miracle of Pentecost. When the Holy Spirit was poured out on the disciples in a new and transformative way, they were all together in one place even though they were not of one mind. The whole of Acts reads like a bad family reunion in that whenever they gathered together they were forever disagreeing about some tenet of theology, and it is why Paul’s letters were necessary and instructional for the Church to figure out what it meant to be the Church.

Pentecost, though we celebrate it once a year, is actually still taking place in all of our churches whenever we gather together (whether we have all our people or not). The journey and mystery of the church is a group of people striving to be together without agreeing together, it is a miracle made possible by the grace of the Spirit that binds us together particularly when we don’t want it, and it is nothing short of a miracle.

When was the last time you were together with everyone in church? This Sunday might be a great chance to encounter the story of Pentecost that is still being written whenever we gather together.

Babbling Grace – Karl Barth and Genesis 11.1-9

Professors in seminary can make all the difference. Some can call you into the strange new world of the bible through their passionate lectures and you will never be able to look at scripture the same way again. Some can refers to moments of history in the church that decisively reshape the way you understand the church today. And still yet others can turn your entire understanding of the kingdom of God upside down through just a few lines in one lecture.

Stanley Hauerwas is one of those professors.

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In 2013, I had the good fortune of participating in his last ethics class before he retired. In it, he did his best to make us Christians more Christian. By highlighting problems that the church is facing, and has faced for a long time, he helped to provide a better grammar for what it means to be a Christian in the world.

During one of his lectures on the remarkable importance of the gathering community, he briefly mentioned a sermon he once wrote on the story of the Tower of Babel from Genesis 11. At the time, the story of Babel was one that I remembered from my youth; the pictures we drew of people attempting to build a tower to God, the lesson it conveys about why there are so many languages on the earth. But I honestly hadn’t thought about it having much to do with my life as a Christian.

Dr. Hauerwas said, “The divisions at Babel are healed and reconciled at Pentecost. The language divisions were still present, but within the gathered communal identity of the church was a common Lord in Jesus Christ. Pentecost was a new day of creation, not unlike those we read about at the beginning of Genesis.”

In just a few sentences, Hauerwas jumped from Genesis 11 to Acts 2 and it blew my mind. Now it seems so obvious, that the Lord would bring together God’s people through the power of the Holy Spirit therefore redeeming what had happened at Babel. But when Hauerwas connected them in that lecture, it was like I was given a new lens by which I could read scripture.

For a time I attributed this new way of thinking and reading to Dr. Hauerwas, and it was only later that I realized he got it from Karl Barth.

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In Church Dogmatics III.4 Karl Barth uses the story of the Tower of Babel to evaluate the problem of nationhood in the modern period. For Barth, Babel contains every bit of the human desire to remain self-reliant and focused on pride, which has resulted in our divisions as a species. It is a story, not unlike Adam and Eve’s first sin, that reminds us of the brokenness in our world.

I have always seen Babel as a kind of means by which we can teach a lesson to children or young Christians about the dangers of pride. I have seen Babel as a shadow of what the church is supposed to be. But for Barth, Genesis 11 is all about grace.

Barth is quick to note that, “A Christian people is one in which heathenism and national egoism are broken, judged, and purified by the Spirit of Christ… As we are warned in Genesis 11, rebellion against God leads to the forceful disintegration rather than the organic development of national identities.”[1] Babel should frighten us, as a people, about what happens when we rebel against the Lord to such a degree, but the story is about much more than the Lord’s “punishment” at the end.

The Tower of Babel, for Barth, contains elements of both divine wrath and divine blessing. The story begins with: “Now the whole earth had one language and the same words” (Gen. 11.1). As a unified people, they settled into the land of Shinar and decided to use bricks to make themselves a city and a tower, “otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth” (Gen. 11.2-4). In response to this, the Lord goes down to examine the city and tower and eventually confuses humanity’s language to remind them of the divide between Creator and creature.

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Barth immediate questions the supposed sin within the story: What is inherently wrong with building a city or a tower? The constructions of such objects were not completed against God; attempts at civilization are never formally wrong.[2] For Barth, the thing itself, the object built, is not the fault but rather when a people want to create something for themselves in order to reach an attempted equality with God there lays the sin. The depth of humanity’s sin is the “arrogance of thinking that man himself can and must take himself as he takes the brick and mortar, and make himself the lord of his history, constituting the work of providence of his own work.”[3]

In light of humanity’s over-determined arrogance, God must respond with punishment. If God let humanity build the tower to completion, just as if God had let Adam and Eve stay in the Garden after eating of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, humanity would further perpetuate itself as a sinful people. The scattering of the nations at the end of the story is an example of God’s divine wrath, and usually where I would let the story finish, but for Barth (and Hauerwas) we cannot understand Babel without the rest of the Bible.

Barth sees grace at Babel through, of all things, Jesus’ parable of the sower: “The constant sowing of the seed of the divine Word will always find soil even if there is no true harvest in one place. Even in this passage we must not fail to see the Gospel in this sense. Even in the terrible decree of v. 7 (“Come let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.”) we must not miss His grace.”[4]

Important for Barth’s understanding of God’s grace in his exegesis is the fact that God could have easily used an earthquake or another divine miracle to achieve God’s condemnation. But rather than destroying creation, as had been done through the flood in Genesis 7, God merely divides humanity and confuses their language. Instead of raining destruction upon humanity, God limits the punishments to linguistics.

Additionally, God does not abandon humanity to their own devices even after their construction. Regardless of the self-righteousness employed by humanity, God will remain faithful even when we are not. Babel could have been the end of the relationship between the Creator and the creature, but God remained steadfast.

Morever, Barth’s final move regarding the babbling grace of Genesis 11 comes in the recognition that, as Christians, we are aware that God has more in store for his creatures than the end of the story in Genesis; we know what happens at Pentecost. What transpires at the end of the Babel narrative is not the ultimate decree on the matter but rather, “only a penultimate word, and that the curves of the separated ways are so ordered in advance that they will finally come together again.”[5] Here is where Barth shines the light of God’s glory the brightest: even though the main emphasis of the Tower of Babel in on how the separation and division of people was right (at the time), God’s original desire is for humanity to be in unity.

For Barth, we cannot read Genesis 11 outside of, or in spite of, Acts 2. These two different stories, separated by thousands of years, though different in form and content, contain the beginning and the next step of God’s action toward creation. God intended for humanity to remain in unity, and through our own self-righteousness were have rejected the divine unity for our own division. And yet, according to Barth, we are to remain grateful to God’s out-pouring of grace which simultaneously remaining discontent until there is a total reunification of God’s creation.

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Barth, time and time again throughout Church Dogmatics, refuses to read particular texts as isolated witnesses. To read the bible is to read it canonically. Narratives from different places help to inform one another and the Old Testament reads into the New just as much as the New reads into the Old. Babel and Pentecost are connected. Eden and Revelation are connected. David and Jesus are connected. Exodus and Acts are connected. And so on.

As Christians reading scripture, we have the benefit of knowing how the story “ends.” We know that in the person of Jesus Christ the previously divided nations have come together. In the Holy Spirit of Acts 2 the conclusion of Genesis 11 takes place: “The miracle of Pentecost tells the us how the decision is take to look and break out from the nations to the one people of God, how the divine disposition of Genesis 11 is rightly understood as a teleological divine purpose, and how it is recognized in the form of the corresponding orientation from the near to the distant, the narrower sphere to the wider.”[6]

Barth’s reading of scripture, and in particular his exegetical work in the excurses of Church Dogmatics has directly influenced the work of Stanley Hauerwas and a whole mosaic of theologians over the last century. To be a Christian is to read, and to read well; to look for the connections from book to book; to identify the thread that God pulls through seemingly unrelated stories; to see ourselves as characters in God’s great narrative.

And for Barth, the story of Babel is not one for us to leave for children’s Sunday School rooms and flannel-graphs. It is one that we must read with conviction knowing full and well how the story ends. Just as with the construction of Babel, humanity still consistently places brick after brick of our own presumed infallibility in direct contradiction to the One in whom we live and move and have our being. Barth’s work reminds us that we have divided ourselves against God’s original and good intentions, and to complete the end of the story we must take seriously God’s mighty acts in Jesus Christ, desiring for humanity to one day be made perfectly one.

 

[1] Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics III.4. (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2004), 306.

[2] Ibid., 314.

[3] Ibid., 314.

[4] Ibid., 316.

[5] Ibid., 317.

[6] Ibid., 323.

Devotional – Acts 2.2

Devotional:

Acts 2.2

And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like a rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.

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By the time we arrived at the hospital at 10 pm, my wife had been experiencing contractions for more than 12 hours and they encouraged her to walk around the unit in order to speed up labor. We walked in a circle around the labor and delivery unit at the hospital, taking breaks every few minutes to let a contraction pass, when it started to really sink in that we were about to have a baby. Perhaps it was the professional photographs of newborns adorned on every conceivable wall, or maybe it was the audible hum of all the medical machinery, or maybe it was the cry of babies from the nursery, but the time had definitely come for us to enter into the strange arena of parenthood.

When 7am rolled around, it was time for Lindsey to start pushing. With every breath and grimace the last nine months of preparation flew through my mind. I thought about finding out she was pregnant and the joy of sharing the news with our families. I remembered standing in front of the entire congregation and announcing that we would be adding another member to our flock. I thought about all the items we purchased for the nursery. I thought about the well-worn and earmarked edition of What To Expect When You’re Expecting sitting on the table next to our bed. I remembered all of the tips and tools we were taught in our birthing class (and promptly forgot all of them). And before I knew it, Lindsey had given birth to our son Elijah Wolf and the doctor placed him on her chest.

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The moment will forever remain etched in my memory as I watched Lindsey wrap her arms around Elijah and spoke the first words he ever heard: “We love you.” Like the disciples sitting together on the day of Pentecost, it felt like a gust of wind swept through the delivery room and filled the entire area. The sounds of the doctor and nurses disappeared, the anxiety had evaporated, and it felt like the Holy Spirit was circling our son and us. While my eyes filled with tears, Lindsey continued to nurture Elijah with her sweet voice when he opened his eyes for the first time, stared deep into his mother’s gaze, lifted out his arms, and placed his fingertips on her lips.

The Holy Spirit is with us always: In our delivery rooms and at our dinner tables, in our conversations and with our prayers, in our relationships and in our churches. I have experienced the Spirit’s presence over the last nine months in your willingness to surround Lindsey and I in your prayers. Thank you.

During the next few weeks, as Lindsey and I settle into parental rhythms with Elijah, I will continue to keep all of you in my thoughts and prayers. Until we are reunited in worship, I encourage you to look for those sacred moments when the Spirit shows up, and give thanks.

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We Are The Church – Pentecost Sermon on Acts 2.43-47

This Pentecost we celebrated the outpouring of the Holy Spirit by handing over our worship service to the youth. The following sermon was proclaimed by Clinton Fitzgerald & Danielle Hammer.

Acts 2.43-47

Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

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Clinton: Would you please pray with us?

Danielle: May the words of our mouths, and the meditations of our hearts, be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

Clinton: Honestly, preaching a sermon on Youth Sunday, on Pentecost, is really intimidating. For years, I have sat in this sanctuary and listened to countless people describe what it means to be faithful in the world, and now I am one of those people. What does it even mean to preach in the first place? Why do we gather in a place such as this week after week? We spend so much time talking about what the church should be doing, that we rarely talk about what the church is in the first place.

Danielle: Yet here we are. For one reason or another God has called us to be here in this place on this day. We have faith that regardless of what we say, the Lord will use our words in spite of ourselves to share something life-giving with everyone in worship. Which makes preaching all the more strange: Clinton and I are here to tell you what God is saying to us this day. We are both far more used to being the ones sitting in the pews, than being the ones standing in the pulpit, but we’re going to preach anyway.

Clinton: When Taylor asked us to preach, we suspected that he had something up his sleeve, but if you want to know the truth… he’s just lazy and wanted to spend this Sunday listening from the pews.

Danielle: We’re not even really sure if he’s cut-out for this whole “being a pastor thing.” We’ve heard him preach a lot of sermons and offer a lot of prayers… we keep praying for him to get better, but he kinda just does the same thing every week. The poor guy always looks so nervous while he rocks back and forth from one foot to the other while he’s preaching.

Clinton: And have you noticed that he never really knows what to do with his hands? They kind of wander all over the pulpit, and sometimes it looks like the pulpit is the only thing holding him up at all. But hopefully, with enough prayer, we can make him into a good pastor one day.

Danielle: Emphasis on “hopefully”

Clinton: Anyway, we’re not here to bash Taylor. Even if it is fun to make fun of him.

Danielle: We are here to proclaim what it means to be the church, what it means to celebrate Pentecost, and explore how we can be better disciples in the world. In preparation for this sermon, Taylor began polling certain people within the church about why they come to church.

Clinton: Many of the adults had wonderful responses to his question. They described how much they love coming to a sanctuary on Sunday mornings that has such beautiful stained glass windows. Others said that the minute they saw the exposed wood in the sanctuary they knew they would worship here for the rest of their lives.

Danielle: Some of the adults went on and on about how much they loved knowing that we sing traditional hymns in a traditional service. They described how the words of the old hymns reconnect them with the Lord and so long as the church used the hymnal, it would be the church for them. Others shared reflections about how St. John’s has always put an emphasis on prayer in worship. They attend and support this church because they believe in the importance of communing with the Lord.

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Clinton: Pretty good responses. But did you notice something missing? Taylor didn’t even notice until he started asking the youth what we love about St. John’s. The adults all described physical and worshipful aspects of our church whereas the youth focused primarily on the people. Now, don’t get us wrong, we like the way this church looks, and we like the things we do in worship. But we love this church because of you.

Danielle: In Sunday School last week, this is how some of us described our love for St. John’s: I love coming to this place because it is God’s house. Sometimes we don’t take the time to pray in our own lives, but the people here encourage me to be a better Christian during the week when we’re apart. I love the fellowship with others. When we read the bible on our own we often have questions that we can’t answer on our own, but here, in this community, I know I have people that can help me.

Clinton: I love this church because the people give me strength. I have a hard time standing up for what is right, but when I’m here I learn that God gives me all the strength I need to be faithful. All of the people here are so nice, how could I not love it? They notice me, they care about me, they ask me questions about what’s going on in my life, they make me feel important and significant. I love the people and how they care about me.

Danielle: What is the church? The church is the body of Christ for the world, which means we are the church! We could have the most beautiful building in the world, we could have the best music in the world every Sunday, but without people, this church would be nothing. Shepherds are nothing without their sheep, and churches are nothing without their people.

Clinton: Personally speaking, St. John’s has played a pivotal role in my life, from the moment I was baptized till right now. I have seen how we support each other through trials and tribulations. Our church is one that, rather than raising our voices or becoming defensive, sits back and listens in the midst of questions and challenges. We leave room for God’s light to shine through us so that we may be more compassionate Christians.

Danielle: While the world continues to spin with competing narratives and organizations vying for our attention, this church with it’s love, support, and community continues to amaze us. In Acts chapter 2, when we learn about the birth of the church, there are no descriptions about the size of sanctuaries, they don’t talk about the order of worship for Sunday mornings, they don’t list out what hymns should be used at what time. It’s all about the people, God’s people, spending time together.

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Clinton: Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. Every Sunday we confront the same kind of wonders and signs the first apostles’ witnessed. We see friends and family who have carried us through the hard moments. We see people who have left their failures of the past to discover new lives in Christ.

Danielle: All who believed were together and had all things in common. We share our life experiences at St. John’s. Whether talking in the narthex or on the front lawn or during the passing of the peace, we share what we can with one another. They would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. When we pass the plates for the offering, we are redistributing our goods so that those who are in need will receive.

Clinton: Day by day, as they spent time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts. Throughout our lives we have seen this church change with new people coming, and old friends going on to be with the Lord. When we spend our time together, when we break bread and feast during communion, we are living into the reality of what it means to be the church today.

Danielle: And day by day, the Lord added to their number those who were being saved. You might not know it, or even believe it, but each of you have contributed to our mission to be God’s church. Whether this is the first time you’ve entered our doors, or you’ve been coming here your whole life, when we are together, we are the church. Through our relationships with the people in the pews next to us, we become Christ’s body for the world.

Clinton: Danielle and I are who we are because of the tremendous witness this church has been to Christ’s love. We love this building and we love Sunday mornings, but what we really love are the people. We give God thanks for putting you in our lives, and putting us in yours.

Danielle: It is truly a blessing to be standing here before all of you proclaiming God’s Word this day. But it is an even greater privilege to know that we are the church together. We offer this to you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, One God now and forever. Amen.