Faith and Politics From The West Wing

Crackers-Banner-1

A few months ago my friend Jason Micheli recorded a conversation for our podcast Crackers & Grape Juice with the former White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry about what it was (and is) like to balance faith and politics while working in the West Wing. McCurry served as the Press Secretary during the Clinton years and enrolled at Wesley Theological Seminary following his time working in the administration. The conversation offers a lens into the inner workings of the most powerful office in the land while also addressing the deep challenge of being a political Christian. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: From West Wing To Wesley 

article-2628189-1DD62C3400000578-874_638x506

Advertisements

Why Do We Give?

Matthew 22.15-22

Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.

When I was in my final year of seminary, I had a friend who asked me to fill in and preach at his church one Sunday morning. He had labored for the previous years as a full time student and a full time pastor and needed a little break. Also – he was given tickets to a Carolina Panthers football game, though I was forbidden from telling his church that where he was instead of with them on a Sunday morning for worship.

The tiny United Methodist Church was in the middle on nowhere North Carolina, and I was nervous about leading worship for a congregation that I had never met. However, I figured God is good and that God would show up even if my sermon fell flat.

The sanctuary was simple and charming with white walls and florescent lights hanging from the ceiling, there was a cross above the altar that was draped with an American flag, and it was so quiet I actually thought that maybe I had showed up at the wrong church.

However, within a couple minutes, the lay leader of the church arrived and greeted me enthusiastically as if I was a first time visitor of the church, only to later realize that I was the stand-in pastor for the day. He quickly guided me through the sanctuary, gave me the grand tour (he even showed off the recently renovated bathroom) and then informed me that he was the head usher, the liturgist, the organist, and the treasurer.

From what I can remember the service went fairly well, through most of the congregation was utterly bewildered by academic deconstruction of an apocalyptic prophecy from the book of Daniel (something I thank gave up doing that day), and there was an infant who wailed throughout the entirety of the sermon. I like to think that she liked my preaching so much that it drove her to tears.

When the service ended, I finally had a better chance to look around the sanctuary and I noticed a list on the wall behind the pulpit for the hymns of the day, the offering brought in from the week before, and the deficit regarding the annual budget. There in big numbers for everyone to see was how far away they were from keeping up with their plan, and it was a staggering amount of money.

On my way out I thanked the lay-leader/usher/organist/treasurer for the opportunity to preach and asked why the church felt the need to display the deficit for everyone to see every Sunday.

I’ll never forget how casually he shrugged his shoulders and said, “Guilt is the only way to get them to give.”

Offering

Why do we give? Taking time to talk about financial giving in the church is about as awkward and uncomfortable as it gets. Money, in general, is one of the taboo topics of normal conversations. We don’t ask how much someone makes in a year, even if we’re curious. We avoid asking for financial assistance or help because it requires too much vulnerability. But then we take the taboo subject of money, and put it together with religion (another taboo) and we get the double whammy of things we don’t like talking about.

It seems some things never change.

The Pharisees and the Herodians wanted to trap Jesus in his words. “Tell us,” they said, “should we pay our taxes to the emperor, or not?” There’s no good answer to the question. If Jesus said, “Yes, you must pay your taxes” it would cause a rift among those who suffered under the weight of dictatorial Roman rule. And if Jesus said, “No, you don’t owe the government anything,” his critics could have charged him with insurrection and he would have been executed.

And it was all about money.

Jesus however, answered in a way that has captured the hearts and minds of Christians for millennia: “Bring me a coin… whose head is this and whose title?” The people responded, “The emperor’s.” And Jesus said, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And when the crowds heard his response they were amazed and they went away.

2000 years later and taxes and money and giving still drive us crazy. It’s a hard subject to talk about. I certainly don’t enjoy it. We, and by we I really mean you and we, we would rather have a service about grace and mercy than one about sin and sacrifice. Which is strange when we consider the fact that Jesus talked about money more than just about anything else during his earthly ministry. For Jesus, money was a subject worth confronting because it had taken over the lives of his peers and it was leading them on a path of disappointment, regret, and fear.

We don’t like talking about money because what we do with our money is personal and private right?

collection-plate-money-hands

A UMNS photo illustration by Mike DuBose. Accompanies UMNS story #099. 3/20/12.

To talk about giving in the church, to address the subject of why we give, we have to get personal. It would be shameful for me to stand here each and every week calling for the gathered body to give your gifts to God if I, myself, was afraid to talk about my own giving. If we want to be a church of gifts, then we must first be a church of vulnerability and honesty.

Before I became a pastor, I rarely gave to the church. I have vivid memories of sitting in church throughout my adolescence, and feeling waves of guilt as I passed the offering plate over my lap to whomever else was in the pew. It helped that I was a kid and had no money to give in the first place but the guilt was still there.

It is a powerful thing here at Cokesbury when the children come up for their message and they place their offering in the plate. They are creating a habit of generosity that was largely absent from my childhood.

By the time I made it to college and seminary, I still attended church but rarely gave to the church. I certainly volunteered my time, led mission trips, and taught bible studies, but giving money to the church was not on my radar.

Then I was appointed to my first church. I had a steady income, and Lindsey and I started to tithe. And honestly it was really hard. We were a young married couple with seminary debt, and then we had a baby. Yet, we covenanted with God and one another to give 10%. In the first months it was harder that I thought it would be. I would find myself thinking about those thousands of dollars that I could have spent on other things, but we got into the habit and we kept giving. And after a while it became pretty easy because I just withheld the 10% from my paycheck and after time I stopped thinking about it at all.

But then we came here. We had to move and buy a house. It was easy when the money was taken out automatically, but now we needed to write a check and place it in the plate. There is a place of power and privilege that comes with being a pastor of the church, particularly when it comes to money. I get to sit up here while the offering plates make their way throughout the sanctuary. But the covenant to give is not one for pastors alone, nor is it for laypeople alone. The covenant to give is one made by all Christians, one that is challenging, but one that is ultimately what faith is all about.

My conversion toward tithing did not happen in a big shiny moment, but was a gradual transformation. The more I give, the longer the habit continues, the better it becomes, and things start to change.

            Instead of imagining what I could do with the money I’ve given to church, I’ve started tangibly witnessing what the money I give is doing for the church and for the kingdom.

Give, Donate, Charity

Giving to the church requires a conversion; it is built on a vision where we recognize how our blessings can be used to bless others. It is built on the knowledge that we give because so much has been given to us. It is built on the call to give not out of guilt, but out of generosity.

We are called to give because we have a shared vision and are invited into the mission of God through the church. Even a seemingly small act of generosity can grow into something far beyond what we could ever imagine – The creation of a community of love in this world.

Our generosity helps God build the kingdom here on earth.

But, we should not be expected to give, nor feel inclined to give without knowing why or to what we are giving. To just stand before you and say, “give give give” or to have a sign on the wall about out finances prevents us from developing strong relationships with the people and programs we serve. So, here are just three aspects of what our church does with our gifts.

At Cokesbury we believe in providing meaningful, fruitful, and life changing worship every week of the year. We plan months in advance, connect messages with the music, and look for imaginative ways to respond to God’s Word in the world. This means that we keep our sanctuary in the best shape possible for the worship of God, and use the great gifts of all involved in the church to make it happen. As a church we regularly welcome first-time visitors to discover God’s love in this place and help to develop professions of faith in Jesus Christ.

At Cokesbury, we believe in nurturing those in the midst of their faith journeys. We spend a significant amount of time and resources to help disciples grow in their faith and love of God and neighbor. We have numerous classes and opportunities to study God’s Word, whether its through Sunday School, Thursday Night Bible Studies, or Vacation Bible School. Everyone that participates in any of our groups is able to take what they learn and apply it to their daily lives whether they’re eight or eighty.

And at Cokesbury, we believe in witnessing to our faith in service beyond ourselves. We strive to serve those in need through a mosaic of opportunities in order to be Christ’s body for the world. Every year we have apportioned giving that directly impacts people in our local community and across the world. We provide support to agencies in our area like Hilda Barg and ACTS, and others. We help people with acute needs through discretionary accounts. And we have a great number of other missional activities that are all focused on helping other experiences God’s love through the work of the church.

We give from our abundance to bless others. Whether it’s the people in the pews next to us who gather for worship, kids from the community who show up for church events, or the countless people around the world who need help. We give out of generosity because so much has been given to us.

Sometimes when we read the story about Jesus’ response to the question of taxes, we liable to water it down to something like: Jesus leaves the choice up to us. Rather than falling into the trap of the Pharisees or the Herodians, rather than siding with the empire or inciting insurrection, Jesus breaks down the question and put the ball in our court.

But that leaves the passage without saying much of anything and prevents it from ringing out the stinging truth: We can put all of our trust in our money, we can use it to do all sorts of things in the world, but if we think that it all belongs to us, or has come to us simply because we deserve it, then we’ve failed to recognize the One from whom all blessings flow.

This passage about money isn’t so much about whether or not we should pay our taxes. Instead, it calls into question what we are doing with our money, and why we are doing what we are doing. It forces us to confront whether or not we believe God is the source of our being, or if we believe material objects can bring us satisfaction in this life. It begs us to reconsider what we’ve spent our money on, and if it helped the kingdom at all.

Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s. Yet, as Christians, we believe that we, and everything we hold dear, belong to God. Amen.

Devotional – Psalm 96.1

Devotional:

Psalm 96.1

O sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth.

Weekly Devotional Image

I love the so-called “good ol’ hymns.” I love them because I grew up with them, because they remind me of particular people in particular places, and because the theology behind them is remarkable. All I need are the first verses of “Amazing Grace” to draw me to all of the saints that have gone on to glory during my life, or the opening melody of “Jesus Calls Us O’er The Tumult” will bring forth memories of my grandmother humming the tune in her kitchen, or I’ll read through the words of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” and it will give me goose-bumps thinking about how Christians have used those words for over a thousand years.

The “good ol’ hymns” are called as such accordingly; they are good and they are old.

In the church today, however, there is a strong temptation to employ something new simply for the sake of being new. Rather than relying on tradition or theology, we’re inclined to pull out the shiny new songs in hopes that they will bring about some sort of change or transformation. And, though many new songs are ripe with good theology, many of them fail in that particular category. New songs can have catchy melodies, and stir up emotional responses, but if the words we proclaim are unfaithful, we have to ask ourselves: “Is this the new song God wants us to sing?”

maxresdefault (5)

Over the last few weeks I’ve been talking with the choir at Cokesbury about new and different ways to praise God through voice and song; but not necessarily with new songs. So, we prayed about it, and on Sunday morning I got out my cajon and started playing along with our pianist to the tune of “I Surrender All.” For what it’s worth: “I Surrender All” was written in 1896 and it has been a favorite of Christians for more than a century. But for us on Sunday morning, it felt new. It felt new because we did not somber along with the verses, we did not say the words devoid of meaning. Instead we passed around a microphone to members of the choir, some over 70 and some under 17, and let them sing the verses as the Spirit led them.

It was beautiful, it was powerful, and it was new.

What songs from the hymnal move you the most? What is it about those particular hymns that resonate with you? How has God used a particular song to speak a new word at a particular moment in your life?

Why Do We Worship?

Philippians 2.1-13

Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

Gather – Sermon 1

Luke 24.13-24

Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hope that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.”

407025348_640

I haven’t been here long, but I have been here long enough to hear a lot of questions about why we do what we do as Christians. Perhaps we have so many questions because so many of us having been going to church for such a long time that we know longer know, or maybe we never learned, what all of this stuff is all about. In the last three months I’ve heard some of you ponder about why the acolyte carries in the flame for worship, or why we spend time studying the bible, or what does it really mean to pray, or why in the world do we pass around an offering plate, or why do we give our time to serving others.

All of those are great questions, and they are questions we will attempt to answer together over the next month. Today we begin with “Why do we worship?”

Over the last two thousand years, disciples of Jesus Christ have been gathering to worship the living God. From the secretive upper rooms of the first century, to the ornate and opulent cathedrals of Europe, to the contemporary gymnasiums and living rooms filled with folding chairs; getting together is what we do as Christians.

I’d like each of you to take out your bulletins for a moment and scan through the service. Some will call this an Order of Worship, other will call it the liturgy. Liturgy literally means “work of the people” and it is work that we do together to worship God. You will notice that our liturgy is broken into 4 parts: Gathering – Proclaiming – Responding – Sending Forth. These four parts have connections to the ancient worship practices of the Israelites, but they can be specifically connected to the story of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus.

Throughout our service today we will have four sermons for the four parts of our worship as they connect with what happened in the Emmaus experience; Jesus gathered the two men on the road, later he proclaimed the scriptures and interpreted them, then they responded by having a meal of bread and wine, and after the disciples eyes were opened to Jesus’ presence they were sent to proclaim what they seen and heard.

The beginning of our worship takes place through the act of Gathering. But when does it actually start? Does worship begin when the choir processes into the sanctuary? Does it start when I begin to speak? Actually, worship begins before we even walk into the building. God is actively involved in gathering us together from the moment we wake up. God is with us in the thoughts we have while driving to the church, God is with us in the parking lot when we wave and signal our greetings to our fellow church people, and God is with us through the conversations we have in the narthex and while we’re sitting in the pews.

God continues to gather our focus together as the choir enters the sanctuary singing the prelude all while following the light of Christ carried by an acolyte. The light is a reminder for us of the light of Christ that shines in the darkness, a light that came into the world in order to transform the world, a light that strengthens us in our worship and in our discipleship.

The work of gathering continues through the announcements, silent reflection, and our call to worship. All of these little movements have a purpose, and they allow us to practice our faith. Worship is practice. We do it over and over to tone our spiritual muscles in order to do the work of the Lord.

After the liturgist leads us through the call to worship, we begin singing our first hymn. Picking the hymns for worship is easily one of my favorite parts of being a pastor. Spending time every week deep in the hymnal humming tunes and praying about which songs will best fit with what we will do is such a privilege. This morning our first hymn will be “Come Christians, Join to Sing.” The lyrics and tune are designed to uniquely gather us together in heart, mind, soul, and body.

When the first hymn ends and all of you return to your pews, I then invite us to join in prayer together. The prayers we offer are a sign of our devotion to the people in the pews next to us, as well as a commitment to the world around us. But above all, our prayers are another means by which God gathers us for the work of the church.

This is how God gathers us every week, just like God (in Christ) gathered the two disciples on the road to Emmaus and changed their lives forever. So, let’s get gathered…

 

Proclaim – Sermon 2

Luke 24.25-27

Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.

road_emmaus

After the disciples and Jesus were gathered on the road, after Jesus listened to them ramble on about everything they had seen in Jerusalem, he proclaimed the stories of scripture and interpreted them through his gracious work. However, they were still unable to recognize who he really was.

The second part of our liturgy is dedicated to Proclamation, speaking words about God’s Word. We do this because Jesus first did it on the road to Emmaus, but we also do it because God’s Word is alive and still speaks into our daily experiences.

We proclaim God’s Word together every week through The Children’s Moment, listening to the choir, offering a prayer for the reading of the Word, we hear scripture read to us, we sing a hymn, and then we listen to a sermon.

Our scriptures, more often than not, are picked according to a list called the Revised Common Lectionary, which compiles a great assortment of readings over a three-year cycle designed to bring congregations through the great narrative of scripture. We boldly proclaim these words from the bible with prayers and hopes that somehow or another God can and will speak through them to us about what following Jesus is all about.

The middle hymn in our liturgy is usually picked in reference to the specific text or a theme from the text. For instance: today we will sing, “Open My Eyes, That I May See” because Jesus opened the eyes of the two disciples from the Emmaus story when they broke bread together. And we’re also calling on God to open our eyes to see how the text is speaking into our lives right now.

The sermon, unlike everything else in the liturgy, is a little harder to explain. Every sermon, like every preacher, is different. Some are funny and light-hearted, others are sad and pensive. The point of preaching is to make God’s Word incarnate (again) through the ways we respond to it and live it.

This is how God proclaims God’s Word every week, just like God (in Christ) proclaimed the scriptures and interpreted them for the disciples on the road to Emmaus. So let’s hear what God has to say today…

 

Sermon

A one-sentence sermon: Whenever we gather in this place to do what we do, we join those first disciples on the road and we experience God working in us, enabling us both to will and to work for God’s good pleasure.

 

Respond – Sermon 3

Luke 24.28-32

As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the days is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, which he was opening the scriptures to us?”

communion_elements

Jesus was going to keep on walking, but the disciples invited him to stay with them. While at the table he took bread and the cup, gave thanks to God, and gave it to them. Only then did they realize who had been with them the whole time. It was only in responding to the words they heard on the road in the breaking of bread and sharing of the cup, that Christ became real for them.

The third part of our liturgy is all about responding to the proclaimed Word of God. On most Sundays we do this by affirming our faith with the Apostles’ Creed and then with the giving of our tithes and offerings. We make public confessions about whom we are and how we understand the world and we give freely from ourselves because God has given so much to us. However, the best and most faithful response to God’s Word happens when we gather at the table like those two disciples did with Jesus.

We could break down all the parts of our communion liturgy, but they really deserve their own sermon series. What we can say right now is that this holy meal is what being a Christian is all about. We are invited by God no matter who we are and no matter what we’ve done, we confess how we have failed to love God and neighbor, we are forgiven, we share signs of Christ’s peace, and then we feast.

This is how we respond to God’s glory in the church and in the world by feasting at the table just like Jesus did with the two disciples whose eyes were truly opened. So, let’s see how God’s enables us to responding to God’s Word…

 

Sending – Sermon 4

Luke 24.33-35

That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

go

I’ve always wondered what it must’ve been like to be one of those two disciples sitting at the table when Jesus was revealed. But then I remember that I do know what it was like; for every time we gather around the table, with every brilliant smile and grateful affirmation, I realize that I’m catching glimpses of Jesus.

The disciples were so moved by their experience of being gathered on the road, of hearing Jesus proclaim the truth, and responding to the truth at the table, that they ran back to Jerusalem to share all they had seen and heard. When we are confronted by God’s incredible power and glory, we can’t help ourselves from sharing what it felt like with other in our lives.

The fourth and final part of our liturgy is all about being sent forth into the world. While the notes of the final hymn are still resonating in our souls, while we are contemplating all that we have seen and heard in this place, God send us out into the world to be Christ’s hands and feet for the world.

I stand before you, the congregation, and offer a benediction tying the totality of worship together and then we all follow the acolyte and the light of Christ out of the sanctuary in order to shine God’s light in the world.

This is how we are sent forth from God’s house, just like the disciples ran to tell their friend what happened. So, let us prepare to be sent forth into the world by the living God…

Devotional – Jeremiah 15.16

Devotional:

Jeremiah 15.16

Your words were found, and I ate them, and your words became to me a joy and the delight of my heart; for I am called by your name, O Lord, God of hosts.

Weekly Devotional Image

Cokesbury Church celebrated its 58th anniversary on Sunday. For our Founder’s Day we had the choir singing and clapping, we were blessed by a sacred dancer, our children marched through the sanctuary singing happy birthday, each person in attendance was given a puzzle piece to add together in order to produce an image of the church, and we had one of our former members return to offer the sermon.

It was a strange a beautiful thing to witness a church reunion for which I am the newest part. While I am still learning about all of the traditions of the church, I had the opportunity to meet so many people on Sunday for whom Cokesbury is/was their home church for longer than I’ve been alive. Before the service started I was able to mill about and observe reunions between people who had gone far too long without seeing one another, and I overheard stories about the church from the past while also listening to hopes about the future.

21150212_10209733530326681_1060543143271111218_n (1)

All in all, it was a remarkable worship service and I count myself blessed for having played a small role in it.

When the service came to its conclusion, and I offered the benediction, I stood like I always do in the narthex and shook hands with people on their way to the social hall for our reception. The food was hot and ready by the time we finished and we could all smell the delicious feast awaiting us in the air.

While I was walking around and shaking hands a man walked up to introduce himself and I made some offhand comment about how he needed to stick around for the food otherwise I’d have to eat it all. In response he smiled, looked me right in the eye, and said, “Son, we just feasted on the Word and I don’t know if I’ve ever been more full in my whole life. But I’ll see what I can do.”

We can feast on any number of things: food, experiences, even television shows (aka binge watching). But how often do we feast on the Word? The prophet Jeremiah knew that feasting on God’s Word would bring a delight unmatched at any church potluck or dinner function. Jeremiah knew that God’s Word would fill his heart in a way that no relationship ever could. Jeremiah knew that when the Lord called his name it would sound better than any music to have ever touched his ears.

We feast on God’s Word whenever we worship, whenever we pray, and whenever we read the bible. And though we might try to alleviate our hunger with a number of empty solutions, God’s Word will always be there to offer us true satisfaction.

Devotional – Psalm 139.4

Devotional:

Psalm 139.4

Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely.

Weekly Devotional Image

I was shaking hands with people on their way out of worship when a young man, about my age, walked up. We exchanged the pleasantries due to one another in a place like church and then he asked if I would be willing to pray for him. I said something like, “Sure I’ll be happy to add you to my prayer list” and then prepared to shake the next person’s hand. But the young man kept standing there and said, “No. I need you to pray for me right now.”

He told me about the struggles in his life all while people standing in line waited patiently. He shared about his inability to find work, his complicated relationship with his father, and his general feeling of despair. And then he grabbed me by the hands, closed his eyes, and waited for me to pray. So I did.

I had casually known the young man for a couple years but I had no idea about his struggles. Week after week we were in the same church, singing the same songs, offering the same prayers, but I knew nothing about what was happening under the surface.

The psalmist proclaims, “Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely.” And this is good and right and true. The Lord knows what we need and what we want even before we can articulate what we need and what we want. But just because God knows our words before we do, that doesn’t mean that everyone else does as well.

shutterstock_153536591

In today’s world many of us are uncomfortable with the thought of asking someone to pray for us, let alone having him or her do it right in the moment of our asking. Instead we fill the time of prayer concerns with the needs of other with whom we are familiar. And even then, the expectation is usually that a general prayer will be offered for individuals and groups removed from the immediate situation so that we can move on to something else.

The Lord knows what we need, but the people closest to us (our friends, family, church members) usually don’t. Instead, they are habituated by the masks we wear. They grow comfortable with what they experience and then assume that so long as everything on the surface appears normative then everything deeper must be the same.

What would it look like for you to ask someone in your life to pray for you this week? And not the “can you pray for me sometime” casual request we are used to hearing but the “I need you to pray for me right now.” It might be uncomfortable and even frightening, but it is at the heart of what it means to be in relationship with others in a way that is true, deep, and faithful.

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.

i-will-pour-out-my-spirit-on-all-my-people-marianne-gonzales-sims

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.

perfectchurch

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.

img_mouseover3

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.