This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Kenneth Tanner about the readings for the 7th Sunday of Easter [B] (Acts 1.15-17, 21-26, Psalm 1, 1 John 5.9-13, John 17.6-19). Ken is the pastor of Holy Redeemer in Rochester Hills, Michigan. Our conversation covers a range of topics including a trinity of books, the agency of Emmaus, ecclesial discernment, theological education, the confounding nature of the Spirit, reading in community, a full life, and the sectarian temptation. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Internalizing The Eternal
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Todd Littleton about the readings for the 6th Sunday of Easter [B] (Acts 10.44-48, Psalm 98, 1 John 5.1-6, John 15.9-17). Todd is the pastor of Snow Hill Baptist Church in Tuttle, Oklahoma. Our conversation covers a range of topics including pastoral pandemic pandering, vacation, disco and disc golf, the serendipity of the Spirit, songs meant for singing, virtuous obedience, conquered faith, unadulterated joy, and divine apprehension. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Overwhelmed By Joy
Isaiah 61.1-4, 8-11
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion – to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the plant of the Lord, to display his glory. They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations. For I the Lord love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing; I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them. Their descendants shall be known among the nations, and their offspring among the peoples; all who see them shall acknowledge that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed. I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with garland, and as a bride adorns herself with jewels. For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.
Two weeks ago, on the first Sunday of Advent, my family and I loaded ourselves into the car to drive around and check out the early Christmas Lights. We figured that there would either be only a handful of houses with any indication of the Holiday spirit, or because this has been the craziest year in recent memory that we would luck out with some incredible displays.
So we drove and we drove, and we saw all the staples: The LED projection of green snowflakes frantically circling around on the siding of a house, the dangling and frenetically flashing bulbs adorning the lowest limbs of trees, and we even saw a giant inflatable rainbow unicorn.
But the best house, the Clark Griswold house, was only a block away. I passed it on a run earlier in the week and knew we had to see it in all its electric, and eclectic glory. For, unlike houses with similar color schemes or even thematic connections throughout the lawn, this house had a little bit of everything.
None of the light strands matched any of the others.
There were six different Santa Clauses of every shape, size, and variety.
An inflatable Snoopy was, apparently, keeping watch over the pre-lit reindeer.
And, to cap it all off, there was a blimp floating in mid-air with penguins parachuting to the ground like they were in the middle of a holiday invasion.
And yet, even with all its glory, I couldn’t help but wonder what Isaiah, or Luke, or even John the Baptist would make of all our holiday pageantry. Because, chances are they would be horrified to see the ways we’ve trivialized the turning of the cosmos.
I don’t mean to sound too harsh, I too have lights up on the house, with a Christmas tree standing in the front window with far too many presents already wrapped and under the tree.
But we need to know, all of us, that these things, with all of their safe and sanitized renderings, may actually prevent us from seeing, hearing, knowing, and believing what the Lord has come to do.
The audience for this Advent text from Isaiah are those forced to the margins of life, the last, least, lost, little, and dead. They are, strangely enough, words of hope for people who feel no hope. They are words meant to comfort a people who feel no comfort in the world.
Even all these centuries later, this proclamation is aimed toward the afflicted, the brokenhearted, the captives, the mourners.
From those locked up in physical prisons, to those who feel imprisoned by their situations, Isaiah speaks to those who know not what tomorrow will bring.
It might feel or even seem bizarre, but this passage is also meant for people like us, those who are willing to wake up and live-stream a worship service on their phones, iPads, and computers on a Sunday morning.
Most of us move through life without giving too much thought to whatever it is we are wading through. Worship, blessedly, offers us opportunities to reflect on the here and the now, and we are challenged to imagine the not yet, the more of God’s design.
And we do this because who among us is truly content with our current circumstances?
Right now we are seeing more and more people kicked out of their homes and apartments because they simply can’t put together the money necessary because the bottom third of our economy is crumbling.
Right now parents are preparing to wake up with their children on Christmas morning without a single present under the non-existent tree.
Right now we are being warned that gatherings of more than ten people will most likely result in the most devastating of Januarys in which we will be burying more people than any of us are used to – 5 of the top 10 most deadly days in American history have all happened within the last week.
And, in the midst of all of this, most of us flock to the sentimentalities that hopefully distract us from the truth.
But when has that ever worked?
Whether we like it or not, our lives are bombarded with calls of such frightening frequency to make the best with what we’ve got that we no longer know what it is to hope.
And thus speaks Isaiah: The spirit of God is with me and I’ve been commanded to bring good news to a people drowning in bad news, to announce freedom to those who are trapped, and to break down the walls of prisons, it’s time for jubilee. We shall comfort those who mourn and give them garlands instead of ashes. They will be like tall trees for the Lord, steadfast and glorious. All the ruins shall be remade and the devastations of previous generations will be rectified. For I the Lord love justice!
God, through Isaiah, speaks to those who live in the world wondering if it has anything more to offer. It is received by those in worship who don’t know whether or not to hope for more. And, it is also spoken to those (though we know not how they will hear) who stopped coming to church long ago because they’ve given up hoping for anything else.
Listen – God has arrived; God shows up. God has taken action in the world to bring about a reality that we could scarcely come up with in our wildest dreams. And God’s work in the world is downright political – prisoners are getting released, reparations are being made to those who have been wronged, justice is for all.
It’s the time for jubilee in which debts are forgiven, punishments are lifted, and rectification reigns supreme.
God has, and is, turning the world upside down such that all of the empty streets of our too-comfortable neighborhoods are being transfigured into festivals of joy.
We were slaves in Egypt but God showed up and intervened – delivered us from bondage into the Promised land. Sure, we were content with what we had back there, at least in slavery we got three meals a day and clean water to drink and it only cost us our first born children! But God said there was more for us than Egypt-land.
We were slaves to sin and death but God showed up and intervened – delivered us from our miserable estate into salvation. Sure, we were fine with the way things were, so much so that when Jesus started talking about the first being last and the last being first we nailed him to the cross. But God said there was more for us than all of this.
God is in the business of intervention – an intrusion that will bring forth new life and halt our relentless march toward dust.
There have been many divine interventions – Exodus, Calvary, The Upper Room, The Empty Tomb.
And without those interventions of the Lord there is no hope and there is no “more.”
But God is the God of impossible possibility, who makes a way where there is no way, who delights in bringing something out of nothing.
God says through the prophet Isaiah, “Even in circumstances of the worst imaginings, captivity and imprisonment and mourning, this is not the end; there will always be more.”
Do we deserve it?
Can we earn it?
In the end, the gospel isn’t about being good – it’s about being rescued. It’s not about being safe – it’s about being saved.
For, there is nothing safe about the Lord. Isaiah speaks a word beyond the present, beyond the status quo, where there is actual Good News, where there is true liberty, where we wear garlands instead of ashes.
And it’s downright dangerous.
Consider the vision the Isaiah proclaims: It truly is an inversion of the ways things are for the way things should be. A world without prisons or borders or hunger or suffering.
To many that sounds more like chaos than paradise.
But, in the church we call this apocalyptic – Bible talk about the more beyond the now.
Isaiah’s apocalyptic proclamation is what taught Mary, the mother of God, how to sing:
“He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy.”
When we come to church (even online) and are exposed to the words of Isaiah and Mary and so many others we are beckoned out beyond the world of predictability and into another world, a world of more, or risk, of gift.
In short, we’re given hope for things not yet seen.
And that hope, as noted, is a dangerous one, for good reason – just look at what happened to Jesus. Advent is the time between time in which we wait not only for the baby born in the manger, but also for the return of that baby-born-King who is the great I AM.
God is not done with this world and God is not done with us.
After all, these words of eschatological rendering don’t just describe the world – they re-create the world. It is a world made open in which the old foundations are destroyed in order for something new and something more to take their place.
Imagine – the lowliest of the low raised to the highest heights, the brokenhearted bound up in love, the captives set free, the prisoners released, no more debts, no more pain, no more suffering, no more death.
This is what God desires for us and for the world.
And, make no mistake, this is God’s work – the history of humanity has shown over and over again that we are incapable of rescuing ourselves from the forces that weigh us down. The great Good News of Isaiah’s declaration is that God will set everything right once and for all. God will end war forever.
God will bring down the mighty and raise up the last, least, lost, little, and dead.
God will overthrow the pride of the smug and the arrogant.
God will engulf the cosmos in a blaze of righteousness that will consume everything in us that needs to be burned away.
God has more in store for us than all of this.
And yet, we go forth from church (or from our couches as the case may be) and there are the same arguments around the dinner table, the same anxieties about our ever-shrinking bank accounts, the same blue Mondays will break in the morning.
We are not the world of God’s more.
At least, not yet.
For we all still sit in the shadow of sin, of our choices that result in the world looking more like our kingdom and less like God’s kingdom. We are so captivated by the ways things have been that we can scarcely imagine what they could be. We assume the world runs by debt and punishment all while God exists to show grace and mercy.
In spite of the condition of our condition, Isaiah has given us the possibility to be aware of a new world with new hope and new possibilities and new dreams and new hunger for something else, something more.
The church gives us the vision to see how watered down our versions of the Kingdom have been and it gives us the thirst for the new wine that intoxicates us with grace.
The church opens us up to the strange new world of the Bible where God exists not only with us but for us.
The church envelops us into the body of Christ where we are bound to and with one another for the sake of the already but not yet.
In short: The church gives us the Gospel, the Good News.
The very best worship services are those from which we go forth not to more of the same, but to more of the name that is above all names: Jesus the Christ. For, in him, we begin to see that the Good News really is good
A number of years ago, a rather famous theologian was in the middle of a lecture about the early church when a bright eyed and bushy tailed student raised his hand and said, “Professor, I don’t understand. If the early Christians were suffering daily, why did they stay committed to the cause?”
The professor did not hesitate before answering, “They kept the faith because the Gospel is an adventure; the Gospel is fun.”
Advent is actually an adventure – it reminds us that we are caught up in God’s great story and we have the good fortune of being characters in the epic-tale. It is an adventure because it is still unfolding, it is not over, greater things are just on the horizon.
In the Kingdom of God that is the adventure without end, there is always more to come. Amen.
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.
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.
Just like the Spirit.
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.
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.
1 Corinthians 12.12-13
For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free – and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.
Two years ago I stood before you, Mike, and a whole bunch of family members and I brought you two together in, what we call in the church, holy marriage.
What makes it holy has nothing to do with those getting married and everything to do with the Lord who makes your marriage intelligible.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
I can very distinctly remember the phone call I received way back when Mike asked for your hand. I can also remember that as soon as we hung up, I prayed and gave thanks to God.
I did the same thing the day you got married.
I gave thanks to God because your marriage to one another makes no sense outside of the God who delights in our coming together to become something new.
In the church we call that grace.
Today I give thanks again not because you’ve rejoiced with your partner for the last two years, or that we had such an awesome time at your wedding; I give thanks to God because your marriage is a sign, and a reminder, of the Spirit’s presence with us.
It forces people to confront the truth that your joining together points toward the unity in community that is the Trinity.
On the day of your wedding, I did my best (read: failed) to hold back tears when I watched you walk down the aisle. I grabbed your hands and placed them on Mike’s and asked you to make promises with each other about the future, a future that you could not possibly predict. I even made a joke (Jason Micheli did as well) that as Stanley Hauerwas teaches, “we always marry the wrong person.” We marry the wrong person because none of us knows what we’re doing when we get married. That we stay married to strangers who we never fully understand is yet another reminder of God’s grace.
On the other side of Jesus’ resurrection, after receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit, the first Christians bickered among one another about whatever it meant to follow Jesus. They refused to share communion with each other, they argued about who was really part of the new covenant, and they very quickly reverted back to the ways of life prior to Jesus interrupting their lives.
All which prompted Paul’s letter to the church regarding the “body with many members” discourse.
Today, preachers like me, use 1 Corinthians 12 to talk about how the people of a church just need to get along. After all, we all have different gifts we bring to the table.
But the longer I’ve been a pastor, the more I’ve thought those same words being meant for those who are married.
Two years ago, I told you and Mike that you were becoming one flesh, I talked about how the body of Christ would be made visible through your marriage to one another, and I even hinted at the fact that the promise you made was a reminder of God’s promise to remain faithful to us.
No matter what.
God has been with both of you in every moment of your marriage and was there long before you even met each other. God, in God’s weird way, brought you two together to remind the rest of us what grace, love, and mercy really look like. Because if a marriage isn’t filled to the brim with love, grace, and mercy, it will never work.
What I’m trying to say is this: the covenant of your marriage is a reminder of the power and the necessity of the church. The church (for all her warts and bruises) makes intelligible the promise you made to each other. The church, itself, is a covenant and promise from God to us. The church is the bride to Christ as the bridegroom. We, who call ourselves Christians, make promises with the Lord to live in this life in a way that is in accordance with the grace made manifest in the manger and brought to fruition in the empty tomb.
In your marriage you two have experienced what Christians experience every Sunday in worship: through hands clasped in prayer, the breaking of bread, the baptism by water, in the singing of hymns, and even in the preaching of a sermon.
Your marriage is a reminder of God’s marriage with us. And for that I give thanks.
Your Big Brother
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 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.
The Spirit fell upon the disciples like flames of fire.
They were given the gift to speak in many languages, tumbled out into the streets, and started spitting off the Good News.
Crowds of people assumed they were drunk, even very early in the morning.
But Peter, ever eager Peter, stood and preached to the people and told them exactly what God was up to.
And that day, 3,000 were added to the early church.
That should be the end of the story and we should be able to move on to the next relevant narrative. After all, it’s the Acts of the Apostles so it would nice to find out what happens next. Maybe jump to the early details of Saul soon to be Paul. Or maybe give us an update on what the women who went to the tomb were now up to. Maybe we could catch a glimpse of the powers and principalities plotting against this budding group that just won’t shut up.
But that’s not what happens in Acts.
Luke just keeps going. The story continues by showing, rather immediately, how the Holy Spirit is embodied by those who are now part of The Way.
They devote themselves to the apostles’ teaching.
They gather together in fellowship.
They break bread and feast with one another.
And, finally, they share their prayers.
But it’s more than that.
We, those of us for claim to follow Jesus, we can point to any of those descriptions as being part of our faith lives even today.
On a weekly basis many of us commit ourselves to the apostles’ teaching, we gather (even on the internet) to share in fellowship with the revealed Word, we offer signs of peace to each other with the breaking of bread, and, at the very least, we pray.
But wait, there’s more!
And the more is something that, we confess, we’d like to overlook at times.
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.
I mean, God, it’s all good and fine if you want us to put some money in the offering plate or donate online every once in a while. We’re even on board with serving meals to the homeless so long as it eases our guilty consciences.
But selling off our possessions and distributing the proceeds to other people?
That sounds awful.
Luke choses this moment, having learned that the Good News is spreading like wild fire, to show what the early gathering of faith looks like. And it looks like a bunch of lazy pinko commies who want everything done for them.
Or, that’s at least how some would have us imagine it.
However, the commonality of goods is set up as a concrete testimony of how empowering the Holy Spirit really is. It forces us to confront, with wonder, that something unsettling, specific, and substantial has happened to these bewildered and bewildering people.
And maybe, just maybe, we should call the first Christians communists.
That, of course, sounds ridiculous and downright rude to some of our ears. Communism, politically speaking, doesn’t really come close to the bartering and redistribution of the small and early group of the faithful, but it is notable that we find those two things to be so incompatible with one another.
Particular when, frankly, Christianity has far less in common with something like capitalism than communism.
This is somewhat of a scandal to those of us in the West, and in particular those from the good ol’ US of A. Today, with our (and by “our” I mean American) bizarre piety for, and idolatry of, free enterprise and private wealth, it’s almost unimaginable that we would ever call something like this country a Christian nation.
Or, to put it simply, if the rich keep getting richer and the poor keep getting poorer, then it’s not the kingdom of God.
Certainly no one in the Acts church, not even Peter, was advocating for, or attempting to institute, some new political rule over and against the powers and principalities. The disciples were not holding informational meetings with agendas about how to get the right people elected to office. Nor were they standing on the street corners of Jerusalem handing out hats emblazoned with “Make Israel Communist Again.” They weren’t even setting up their own political action committees to consolidate tremendous amounts of money.
But the church was (and always will be) its own politics.
Our form of life as the gathering body of Christ is predicated on the sharing of goods as seen here at the beginning of Acts. And it’s not just because we think we should be doing nice things for other people.
It’s simply the embodiment of what we really believe.
God has made all things new and turned the world upside down.
However, most us would like to tip it back over every once in a while.
It’s amazing to read this little description of the early church and see how far we’ve moved away from it. But, for a long time in the early centuries of the church, the redistribution of all things was fairly normative. So much so that even by the 4th century, Ambrose of Milan refused to grant that even a rich man could make gifts to the poor. Instead, he could, at most, only restore what already belonged to them,
Say that in a place like the US today and you’re liable to get kicked out.
Again, many would consider that behavior and idealism downright awful.
But how could it ever be possible unless people were filled with awe?
They devoted themselves to this wildly different way of living, instilling a sense of value and worth in all people, and then they broke bread together with glad and generous hearts.
Which, in many senses, means they liked to have a good time with each other.
And, this makes a lot of sense. When you take away the things that tend to divide us from one another the most (namely economics and possessions), when those walls are torn down forever, there’s no better way to respond than by throwing a party.
This really is at the heart of what it means to be a gathering people, to be the church.
Go through the Gospels sometimes and note how many times Jesus “was at table with them.” And the them in that sentence contains a whole bunch of people who never would’ve eaten together otherwise.
Jesus goes to a wedding, and when the host runs out of wine he makes manifest the first miracle so that the party won’t stop.
Jesus comes upon a tiny little tax collector, a man who has made life miserable for so many, and what does he do? He invites himself over for lunch.
Jesus meets the deserting and denying disciples on the shore of the sea with some grilled fish and a nice loaf of artisanal bread.
Of all the criticisms lobbed at Jesus by the governing and religious authorities, the fact that he ate with sinners is one of the things that comes up the most. They couldn’t stand the company he kept at table. Receiving the outcasts, eating with the marginalized, instilling worth and value in people who felt worthless and valueless was Jesus cup of tea.
And it drove people crazy.
It would be quite easy, therefore, to take this text and preach it at people like all of you in such a way that you would feel guilty for not inviting more of the riffraff over for dinner. It’s not all that difficult to raise up the redistribution of goods here in Acts and drop that like a bombshell on the dozing church and triumphantly declare that you all need to get your acts together!
And, that’s all fine. Perhaps we should feel guilty for the company we keep and maybe we should feel guilty about how we keep holding onto all our earthly possessions while people around us starve.
Jesus failed to make distinctions between people and we can’t get enough of it of those distinction that people squarely in their places.
But, haven’t we heard all of that before?
We need longer tables, and more open churches, and bigger feeding programs.
Preacher types like me remind people on a somewhat regular basis that Jesus has given us work to do. That we must rid ourselves of our addictions to the old systems of prioritized self-interest that result in the first being first-er and the last being last-er.
But has that kind of exhortation ever worked?
Notice: when Jesus went to the wee-little man’s house for a mid-afternoon snack, he doesn’t tell him to go and repay everyone he wronged.
The tax collector comes up with that all on his own.
Notice: The Holy Spirit doesn’t command the early church to set up programs for food delivery and economic redistribution.
They just start living differently.
Being filled with awe, really filled with awe, is a crazy thing and can make us do crazy things.
And what could fill us with more awe than knowing that Christ chooses us?
Or, let me put it another way: What if what we’re supposed to focus on isn’t so much our need to have bigger visions of the kingdom, but that Jesus’ vision of the kingdom was big enough to include us?
Or how about this: What if instead of thinking about what we would have to do to get criticized for the people we hang out with, we thought about how Jesus would be criticized for hanging out with the likes of us?
Because, let’s admit it, we don’t have a lot going in our favor.
We do things we know we shouldn’t.
We avoid doing things we know we should.
We care more about ourselves than other people.
Giving up our possessions so that those who have nothing can have something doesn’t sound like a good deal.
And knowing this, knowing that we bristle at the ideas and images of a radical way of life, knowing that our addiction to self-interest isn’t something we can kick, Christ comes to us and for us anyway.
It’s like we’ve been brought before the throne of God and every single one of our mistakes is paraded out in front of us. With every instance we cower closer and closer to the floor. And at the end, Christ looks at us, really looks at us, and says, “It’s okay. I forgive you.”
That is radical.
Perhaps even more radical than inviting a few extra people over and giving away a few things to make someone else’s life a little better.
Once we even come close to realizing how ridiculous it is that Jesus has invited us to his table, how bewildering it is that in him all things are held together, how perplexing it is that through him the first have become last and the last have become first, then we can begin to see what it means to be filled with awe.
It could change everything.
It already has.
The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.” So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude. Then he said to me, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act,” says the Lord.
In this strange new time I keep referring to as Coronatide, we have been physically separated by orders of law and state, but we are still bound to one another through the Lord. And yet, it has become apparent with every Facebook post calling on people to answer questions in order to learn more about one another that we really don’t know much about each other at all.
Well, knowing that we don’t know what we don’t know, I’m going to share something that you do know about me, no matter who you are, and something I know about you, no matter who you are.
We’re all going to die.
What a way to start a sermon!
Or, as it is written in one of my favorite books, “In the world according to Garp, we’re all terminal cases.”
That’s what we were affirming on Ash Wednesday, which now feels like an eternity ago, and it’s what Lent reminds us at every turn: In the midst of life we are in death. And, frankly, we didn’t need the Coronavirus to remind us. We didn’t need the empty supermarkets, and the abandoned jungle gyms, and the vacant school parking lots to remind us that no one makes it out of this life alive.
Though plenty of us love believing the contrary. We are suckers for the advertisements of products that promise youthful glows, and smoothed wrinkles, and tighter waistlines. We use tomorrow’s money to finance today’s void. We even check the updates on how fast the virus is spreading in certain places and think, “Well surely, it won’t happen like that to me.”
But then it does.
Or, to put it another way, a few weeks ago, before everything really ramped up, I took my 3 year old son out for lunch at a local Chic-fil-a. We ate our waffle fries in beatific silence, smiling as the ketchup smudged our cheeks, and then my boy gave me a look that said, “Dad. Bathroom time.” We quickly cleaned off our messy hands and faces, and bee-lined for the restrooms. After business was taken care of, a man walked in, used the stall next to us, and walked out. To which my son shouted, “Uh, Dad, that guy didn’t wash his hands.”
And I, being the great parent I am, said, “Elijah, say it louder next time.”
In ways both simple and profound, we like to pretend like the one universal truth is actually a lie.
But it’s not.
Ezekiel, contrary to our dispositions, knew the truth of our finitude. Should you have any extra time on your hands while social distancing, go read through the book of Ezekiel, there’s some wild stuff inside. But for today, we get to see, through Zeke’s eyes, the valley of the dry bones.
It must’ve been a particularly striking and relevant image for the bizarre prophet considering his own life situation. Prior to this text, we learn that Ezekiel has been on somewhat of a rampage against God’s people, indicting them for all the had done and left undone. The people God chose to change the world, the people with whom God had covenanted, the people God loved with reckless abandon had abandoned the Lord – they had given themselves over to idolatry.
Idolatry, for the people in the back, is believing and acting as if anything or anyone can give us what only God can give.
Idolatry is believing wealth says more about who a person is than the fact they were made in the image of God.
Idolatry is looking out for our own interests at the expense of the marginalized.
Idolatry is assuming that we can save ourselves.
The people of God worshiped whatever they wanted whenever they wanted, the ignored the plight of the needy, and they believed they were entirely in control of their destines.
And the Lord spoke into their midst and said, “You want idolatry? I’ll give you idolatry!”
They were dragged off as captives to become strangers in a strange land: Babylon. A foreign place where the land was dominated by colossal statues and overwhelming debauchery. In short: a place totally at odds with what the worship and love of God is supposed to look like.
And it’s from this place of exile, maybe something a few of us can identify with right now, that Ezekiel speaks of his vision.
The Lord drags Ezekiel out to a graveyard, that stretches as far as the eye can see, and all his eyes can see are bones piled upon bones, and they’re all dry. And the Lord says, “Can these bones live?” Ezekiel replies, “Lord, only you know.” And the Lord says, “Tell this to the bones: O dry bones the Lord will give you life! The Lord will breathe upon you and the sinews and the flesh will string together and you will live because God is God!”
Ezekiel does what the Lord commanded, and the earth trembles beneath his feet, and like a scene befitting a horror film, Ezekiel watches as bones come together, and tendons and muscles are stretched and skin forms until a vast multitude stands on their feet and they are alive.
“Look” says the Lord, “these bones are the whole of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ But look what I did for them! I will bring you back and you shall know that I am the Lord!”
This is strange stuff, even for the Bible.
The Lord promises to reconstitute the very people who had given up on the Lord.
God breathes life into the bones of those who destroyed life time and time again.
God makes a way where there was no way.
And the bones live.
Contrary to how so many of us speak about church or hear about church, this confounding moment in the valley of the dry bones has not one thing to do with us and whatever it is we think we bring to the table.
Notice: The people of God have done less than nothing to restore God’s faith in them. They died and were buried in their sins and in the trespasses and God says, “Ok, time to make something new.”
They didn’t deserve it and they certainly didn’t earn it.
Notice: God doesn’t tell Ezekiel to go out and give the bones a ten-step process on how to get their lives sorted out. God doesn’t tell the people to pray three times a day in order to earn their salvation. God doesn’t wait for the people to memorize their favorite book of the Bible before the bones starting coming back together.
God raises the bones to life because that’s what God does!
I hope you hear that as a hopeful word. Because even at our best, we’re not very good.
When we hear about the valley of the dry bones, if we hear about it at all, we are often so caught up with the striking physical details that we don’t take a moment to really think about it. We have the benefit, if you want to think about it that way, of knowing whose bones we’re walking on whenever we go through a cemetery. But Ezekiel could only see bones upon bones.
But who did they belong to?
Scripture answer the question for us, of course. The Lord says to Ezekiel, “These bones are the whole house of Israel?” But even a statement like that warrants further reflection. Because if the bones are the whole house of Israel, that means that some of those bones belong to Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, Saul and David, the elect and the reject. It means that buried among that pile of bones are the good and the bad, the sinners and the saints, the first and the last.
I don’t know what you all have been up to these last few weeks, but I’ve seen and heard countless stories about people going above and beyond to help people in need. Distilleries shutting down production of their whiskey in order to reformat their facilities to produce hand sanitizer. Businesses donating medical masks to hospitals in need. Neighbors picking up groceries for the most vulnerable. Basically, stories of saints.
But for every positive story there’s plenty of stories that demonstrate the opposite.
Individuals hoarding up precious supplies and equipment only to price gouge individuals and business who really need them. Corporations calling on furloughed workers to start GoFundMe campaigns for medical expenses rather than offering financial assistance. And countless politicians using our present crisis as an opportunity to shore up votes for the next election cycle.
And that’s not to mention the great number of pastors who have, foolishly, assured their respective congregations that they can keep worshipping together or going out in public because the Lord will protect them in all of their comings and goings.
Basically, stories of sinners.
In the end, we’re all just a bunch of dry bones sitting in the bottom of a valley. Even the best of us cannot prevent the bell that tolls for us with our perfect spirituality or magnificent morality. Even the worst of us cannot so take advantage of others to stop the inevitability of our own demise.
Remember, in the time of Jesus, it was all of the so-called “good” institutions, both the religious and the secular, following all of the proper protocols, and calling for a vote, people like you and me joined together to crucify Jesus of Nazareth. In all of our goodness and our badness we nailed that man to a cross and hung him up for the world to see.
Stories end in graveyards. I’ve been in enough of them with the dirt in my hands laying it over the bodies of the dead to know it is true. I’ve seen enough tears spilt upon the tombstones of the familiar and the stranger to know that the one thing we all truly share is our death. I’ve listened to enough conversations and met with enough people to know that is our deaths that frighten us the most even if we do everything in our power to convince ourselves otherwise.
The disciples knew it too. That’s why they abandoned the Lord the closer he got to death, it’s why they avoided him on the cross, and it’s why they only trudged up to his grave three days later.
And yet, one of the greatest messages of scripture, a message as plain as day in the story of Ezekiel and the dry bones, is that in the end it’s not up to us to save ourselves. We will be buried among saints and sinners, our bones will dry and scatter, and only God, Father of the Incarnate Word, is the one who raises the dead.
If you find yourself thinking, “My life is all dried up, I’m stuck in the confines of my home unsure of what tomorrow will bring, I have nothing to hope for, I feel completely cut off” then you are in good company. God can work with that. Amen.
Ascribe to the Lord, O heavenly beings, ascribe to the Lord glory and strength. Ascribe to the Lord the glory of his name; worship the Lord in holy splendor. The voice of the Lord is over the waters; the God of glory thunders, the Lord, over mighty waters. The voice of the Lord is powerful; the voice of the Lord is full of majesty. The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars; the Lord breaks the cedars of Lebanon. He makes Lebanon skip like a calf, and Sirion like a young wild ox. The voice of the Lord flashes forth flames of fire. The voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness; the Lord shakes the wilderness of Kadesh. The voice of the Lord causes the oaks to whirl, and strips the forest bare; and in his temple all say, “Glory!” The Lord sits enthroned over the flood; the Lord sits enthroned as king forever. May the Lord give strength to his people! May the Lord bless his people with peace!
Imagine, if you can, that I was a middle student and I came to your office one day and asked you to explain the Trinity. What would you say?
I was sitting at a table surrounded by pastors and lay people from the Virginia Conference of the United Methodist Church and they were evaluating whether or not I had been effective in my first three years of ministry. This was one of the last requirements to be fully ordained, and get to wear a stole like this one.
So I was sitting there at the table having already fielded an hour’s worth of theological questions when I was asked to explain the nature of the Trinity to a hypothetical middle schooler.
What would you say?
The three most popular analogies for the Trinity are as follows:
The Trinity is like an egg. At one moment it is three distinct things – a shell, a yolk, and an egg white. Without all three it ceases to be an egg. However this fails to justice to the Trinity because it cannot be divided into parts, but the egg can.
Another analogy is that the Trinity is like water. Water, depending on external temperature, can be a gas, a liquid, or a solid. And regardless of what state it is in, the chemical composition remains the same. However, this too fails to do justice to the Trinity because water can change into gas, or vice versa, but the Father does not become the Son or the Spirit.
Finally, there’s the analogy of the shamrock. St. Patrick was once said to have picked up a shamrock and say, just as there are three leaves, but there is one plant – so it is with the Trinity. However, this falls apart with the fact that the shamrocks have different parts and that is not true for the Trinity.
Pretend I’m a middle schooler and I wanted to know about the Trinity. What would you say?
Today is Trinity Sunday. It always falls on the Sunday immediately following Pentecost and it is a time for us to confront our three-in-one God. It continues us throughout the period we call Ordinary Time until Advent. Many churches use this day as a teaching moment to help illuminate church doctrine about what it means to be Trinitarian. They might break out some water, or eggs, or shamrocks and do what they can to help all in attendance to understand what we believe just a little bit better.
But here’s the thing – For as much as our God is a present and revealing God, our God is also incomprehensibly and uncontainably complex.
Ascribe to the Lord, O heavenly beings! The voice of the Lord thunders, it breaks the cedars, the Lord shakes the wilderness, the Lord flashes forth like flames of fire!
The psalmist conveys to us images of the divine that have far more to do with destruction and devastation than with eggs, water, and shamrocks. Here we discover a God who causes the oaks to whirl, and strips the forest bare, such that all the people in God’s temple say, “Glory!”
Most of us have come of age in a world where the God of scripture has been conveyed to us through analogy after analogy, where professional Christians like me have endeavored to bring people like you closer to the divine, when the truth of the matter is that we cannot describe God, and God is the One who encounters us.
Our God cannot be contained by metaphors and analogies for middle school students – our God is as overwhelming as a windstorm leaving a forest bare, as frightening as a voice that can shake the wilderness, and as bewildering as flames of fire flashing forth.
The church, the Bible, the Trinity, they are all confusing, and we can blame it on God. God reveals God’s self in ways we cannot imagine or rationalize, and choose to be God for us as Father, Son, and Spirit in such a way that it is beyond our ability to comprehend or describe.
And so, with all this confounding confusion, what can we say about our God?
Perhaps, we can say that God is whoever raised Jesus from the dead having first raised Israel out of Egypt. We can say this because God chose to reveal God’s self to us in the person and incarnation of Jesus of Nazareth. And Jesus, like God, is anything but simple.
In Jesus, God got physical, explicit, and peculiar. God came close to us, too close for comfort for many. Jesus is God in action. Jesus is God refusing to remain an abstract idea removed to a far off place. Jesus is God breaking forth from the shackles of God’s own divinity.
But, lest we fall into a day-dream version of God in Jesus through the lens of sentimentality… God is still the God of the psalm flashing forth flames of fire.
I once heard that God is at least as nice as Jesus, but the same holds true that Jesus is at least as frightening as God.
And then we’re left with another question: Who is God’s peace for?
After describing the destructive power of the Lord, the psalm ends with a call for God to give strength to God’s people and for them to be blessed with peace. What about those who are not part of God’s people? What does this peace actually look like? Does God take sides?
The answers to those questions are as confusing an as ambiguous as the Trinity itself.
The Lord blesses the sons and daughters of Abraham but they live in a time of famine.
They are rescued by Joseph only to become slave in Egypt.
Led by Moses they escape bondage to wander in the wilderness for forty years.
Joshua delivers them to the Promised Land but they are never really at peace.
There are wars after wars and the so-called “chosen people” lose just as often as they win. They are taken into exile, or forced to wait for loved ones to return home. And when they are reconciled, if ever, peace is the last thing on their minds.
We can read these stories over and over again in the Old Testament, we can encounter those elected and rejected by God, but we don’t have to look far to know that it is true – we war among ourselves all the time; father against son, mother against daughter, brother against brother, sister against sister. And then we still ask, “Are we going to encounter the God of earthquakes, flames of fire, and whirling winds – Is God on our side?” Or, perhaps better put, “When will the Lord finally bless us with peace?”
Psalm 29, the doctrine of the Trinity, they both raise more questions than they provide answers. People like you and me have been struggling with these words and ideas for centuries, we’ve been tugged between the tension and ambiguity of God’s nature in the world and in our very lives.
We worship a God who blesses, but we live in a world where bad things happen to good people nonetheless. There is no easy and satisfying answer to the question of whether or not God takes sides, just as there is no easy and simple analogy for the Trinity.
We may never be able to avoid the confusing nature of faith completely. So much of what we do is based on a premise of mystery – we just happen to live in a world hell-bent on having an answer for everything.
If all this talk of trinitarianism and God’s frightening power seems a bit overwhelming, you are not alone. There are plenty of churches and communities that make this easier on the brain with simple analogies and ignorant assumptions. But there is no way for us to do justice to the marvelous complexity, the community in unity of the divine, without believing in the three-in-one God. We cannot worship God in faith without struggling and wrestling with the question of God’s preferences.
John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement struggled with his knowledge of God. He read all the right books and went to the right school, and even became a priest in the Church of England without believing in the faith he preached. He struggled and struggled to the point that when he asked one of his mentors what to do about leading a church without faith his mentor said, “preach until you get it.”
And it was 280 years ago this week that John Wesley wrote something rather remarkable in his diary: “In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society on Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God work in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”
Wesley had spent most of his life looking for God, when in the end God was the one who found him and warmed his heart. That moment changed everything, that society meeting on Aldersgate is largely responsible for the existence of the United Methodist Church today.
God comes to us, all of us, at any time and at any place, as Father-Son-Spirit. For some God flashes forth like flames of fire, and for others God’s flame is found in the warmth of our hearts. God finds us and, contrary to what we might want, God doesn’t answer all of our questions. Yet when God encounters we discover an assurance that this God is with us.
When the far-off One who has been brought near is us, when the wall that has been destroyed is the wall we build in a vain attempt to keep God out of our lives and off our backs, that’s when we start to know the Trinity.
Faith, however, will always remain a mystery. We will find ourselves confused by the God who finds us. Because, in the end, it may simply be too frightening to think about God’s peace, whatever that is. It might be too overwhelming to think that God is not on our side, or worse: God might be on their side.
So on this Trinity Sunday, as we leave scratching our heads, we do so with the hope that God will bless us with true peace – not as we know peace or wish to know peace; a peace that is always defined on our terms. No, this Trinity Sunday, we pray for the peace, the perfect peace, that is known and shared within the Trinity – Father, Son, and Spirit.
And, we may be so bold so pray, that God might warm our hearts in the process. Amen.
While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word.
Far too much of the church is calibrated for a world that no longer exists, and hasn’t for some time. Whether it’s the ways we worship, or the types of books we use in Sunday school, or even the debates that happen in the parking lot; sometimes the church feels like it’s stuck in 1982.
When I drive through town and see church marquees that read: “Church – The Way It Used To Be” I cringe. I cringe because no one even really knows what that means, and just because it used to be a certain way doesn’t mean that it needs to be that way today. The church is (supposed to be) alive! It is not some memorial to days long ago.
As God’s church we are called to two realities: We pass the tradition from one generation to another AND we open our eyes and ears to the winds of the Holy Spirit by which the tradition comes alive for each generation. That doesn’t necessarily mean that adding something like projectors and screens in worship will make everything better, but it does mean that the Spirit loves to interrupt our lifelessness with new life.
In Acts we read about how Peter was in the middle of preaching when the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. Notice: the verse does not say that the Spirit fell on Peter to give him the words to say, but that while he was speaking the Spirit landed on all who heard what he was saying.
The Spirit loves flipping upside down our expectations and priorities. The Spirit shows up when we least expect it and it lands in ways we can scarcely imagine. The Spirit interrupts our ways of understanding the church as if to say: “Behold! I am doing a new thing!”
However, sometimes the Holy Spirit has a hard time getting through our stubborn desire to stay where we are. We can read all the right books, and pray all the right prayers, but it takes a willingness to know and believe that the Spirit moves to respond to that Spirit with new understandings of reality.
Time and time again, from Acts until today, the Spirit loves interrupting our sensibilities with new ways of moving forward. The Spirit is the one who has a story to tell, but the way we tell the story is changing.
We might think we know how the world works, and what the church is supposed to look like, but that’s usually when the Spirit shows up in the middle of our conversations to grab us by the collar and says, “Follow me!”
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.
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.
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.
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.