Monday, May 31, 2010

Mindful of Us?

Sermon for Trinity Sunday (5.30.10)
Psalm 8; Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31; Romans 5:1-5; John 16:12-15

Please pray with me: Dearest God, come and nurture in us the spiritual gifts on which life in all Your fullness relies. We pray to You through your Son and in the renewing power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

From this morning’s New Testament Lesson: “And hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

Years ago, as the Red Army was marching into the Ukraine, a father prepared to say goodbye to his son, an officer in the White Army. The intensity of feeling, the love and pride, were understood by each. It was also understood that these were dangerous times and that they would probably not see one another again. There was little need for words, but the father gave his son a small coin minted in the year of the young man’s birth. The young man, who eventually became my father, entrusted the coin to me and it is one of my treasures.

The feelings generated by this story help me understand what Jesus and his disciples might have been feeling in our Gospel passage this morning. There was to be a parting and it would be very hard, too painful to put into words. But the love is so powerful that there will always be a connection. My grandfather gave my dad a coin, a token of enduring love that he could hold when everything else was gone, something he managed to keep through an escape that eventually led to New York. Jesus promised a gift to his frightened disciples. It is the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth, who will guide and protect and speak in the name of Jesus and of the Father Almighty.

This Holy Spirit is an enduring lifeline from our Lord. And so for two centuries, Christians typically pray to the Father, through the Son, and in the Spirit. We call Father, Son, and Holy Spirit the Trinity, and on this Sunday, the Sunday after the excitement of Pentecost, we are invited to consider what thinking of our God as three-in-one might mean.

There are the historical events. Jesus was born as a human being, spoke of his heavenly Father, and promised a Comforter, an Advocate, who would remain with us after he ascended back to his Father. That Comforter announced itself with passionate urgency and inclusiveness on the Day of Pentecost. We are wonderfully prepared for the Comforter by the description of Lady Wisdom in the Book of Proverbs: “To you, O people, I call, and my cry is to all that live.” And so we can think of the identity of these three: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. You may also have noticed that because I love to think of their function, I address them as Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. But churches have fought bitterly over the complicated relationship among the persons of the Trinity. Different answers are one reason for the schism between the Churches of the West and of the East. Arguments over the divinity and humanity of Christ are only one example, but such arguments caused blood to be shed. There are churches in the South today that are “Jesus only” churches. All of this means, of course, that students in seminary are tortured by having to write papers about the finer points of these controversies.

Far more important is for us to realize how blessed we are that our God is complex and rich in identity. Other religions attempt to capture this by having a pantheon, a whole collection of gods. We express God’s personhood as three-in-one, diverse and with differences, yet working together, in a harmony that is often a wonderful counterpoint of independent melodies joined into one. Our poor brains need to have something like a Trinity to hang onto since the fullness of God, the awesomeness of God is far beyond anything we can comprehend. It’s like the old story of the blind men and the elephant: to the one touching the leg, the elephant is like a tree; the tail feels like a rope; and the trunk seems like a snake. Both elephant and God are vaster.

Part of that vastness is the incredible generosity of God’s creation, a generosity that is also mindful of us, that sent Jesus to be one of us. This is also called love, the love—the letter to Romans tells us—that God poured into our hearts through Jesus and that Jesus pours into our hearts in the Holy Spirit, that he has given to us and wishes us to give to others.

For Proverbs, the incredible generosity of the Spirit of Truth is called Wisdom, a figure who is a continuing presence in our lives. For Proverbs and the great collection of Wisdom literature, she is a woman, Lady Wisdom. The description here is poetic and powerful. Proverbs describes Wisdom/personifies her as calling to us publicly, from the crossroads. The point is that she is strong and assertive, with a fresh perspective that she is not afraid to express. Because she stands in the crossroads, she speaks to everyone. She was not just added at the time of Jesus, but was there from the beginning, helping God. She is still here, helping God and us. She is “mindful of us,” not as a chore but with gladness, “rejoicing in [God’s] inhabited world and delighting in the human race.” She is our Sustainer, connecting us to past, present, and future. What companionship do we look for with her? What companionship do we have with her as part of God? How are we willing to witness to her as an aspect of our God?

What appeals to me most about the Trinity is its reciprocity. This reciprocity is basic to our lives as Christians: God giving to Jesus, Jesus giving to the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit beside God, “like a master worker,” God’s daily delight. The suggestion of attraction is appropriate here. For the Trinity is a circle of holy love. The Eastern Church—the church that is struggling now so desperately because of the wars in the Middle East—has always described the Trinity as perichoresis (peri + a Greek chorus), literally a group of dancers moving all around. Beautiful dancing always involves a give and take and the dance of the Trinity is no exception. Or here’s another metaphor of intimate involvement: Imagine “the Trinity as a plant, with the Father as a deep root, the Son as the shoot that breaks forth into the world, the Spirit as that which spreads beauty and fragrance” (Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace, 291).

Clearly this group of persons called the Trinity is not static, each person in its own little box with a fixed identity or function. Such a bureaucratic God wouldn’t be very helpful. Think of all the spiritual paperwork. It’s fine to turn in prayer to the sympathy of the Son or to the power of the Parent. But the compassion is united to the power. They are connected, united in the Trinity. Our God is whole. God is not fractured, broken, or partial, as we are. We can turn to God’s wholeness and be gathered into it.

Our Godhead/our Trinity is organic, either growing or dancing or both! It’s “a community that holds together by containing diversity within itself” (Norris, 289). It’s a community that’s diverse and yet works in harmony. It’s a community that not only needs the totality of itself and totally loves itself, but that draws us into itself as well. God is not a maker or owner. It is as One who suffers and who self-gives that God can claim “creation and all creatures as creator and redeemer” (M. Douglas Meeks in God’s Life in Trinity, 17). This is crucial: God as first person may be seen as a mighty honcho, if looked at in one way, but God as Trinitarian community owns and receives by giving and by the giving of self.

In this way the Trinity is mindful of us, draws us in, by overwhelming gift, example and precept. God’s community-with-us invites us into community with God and with one another. It fully shares our suffering and our joys. It connects us in full openness and receptivity to those families who are about to join our church. It invites us to recognize the fullness, the richness and the life-giving power of a community shaped and guided by such an awesome God.

Please pray: Dearest Triune God, joyful and faithful and strong, gather us into your fullness. Nurture us, teach us, and build within us a fuller understanding of you and of your ever-responsive and dynamic love for us. Teach us to hope despite the sorrows of this life. Keep us open to fresh encounters with you in all that you have been and are and will be. Through your love for us and in the way that you know best, set us free to become your children. Amen.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Stay Right Here with Us

Sermon for Pentecost (5.23.10)
Psalm 104:24-34; Acts 2:1-15; Romans 8:14-17; John 14:15-17, 25-27

Please pray with me: “May our meditation be pleasing to God, for in God we rejoice.” Amen. (from Psalm 104)

From today’s Gospel: “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you and he will be in you”

We all seem to like excitement, especially when it involved drama or danger. How many times on a Saturday night, when I’m sitting in my office, have I heard the fire sirens go off. And then how many times on Sunday morning are those sirens the first topic of conversation. “Did you hear them? What was going on?”

Something of the sort happened on the Pentecost after Jesus’ Ascension. This holy day, still called Shavuot by observant Jews, was one of the three great festivals of Judaism. Held on the “fiftieth day” after Passover—Pente-cost, it was a time when the first fruits of the harvest were given to God and it was a celebration of the giving of the first five books of the Old Testament, called the Torah, and, within the Torah, the Ten Commandments. Let’s not miss an exciting connection here. In both cases, it’s a question of something new: the excitement of the first crops of the season juxtaposed to the memory of early covenants with God, a Promised Land, and new rules—the Ten Commandments—for governing the community of faithful and oneself. And so this was considered a time to honor once again the covenants of God with God’s people and to renew covenants.

Jerusalem must have been crowded, not only with pilgrims to the Holy City for this festival, but with immigrants—“devout Jews from every nation”—who were living there. This immigrant group is important to the story. Chances are that they were at least bilingual. They probably spoke Greek, the language of the Roman military and the language of business for that period. But they also probably spoke their native language, and that often only at home or with those from their home country. And here, let’s not miss the contrast: there is the language of Empire spoken by those subject to Empire and there is the language of childhood and safety and comfort.

There is a third group in this story, the group that we begin with: “They were all together in one place.” The “they” and “all” seem to refer to the entire community of Christians, some 120 according to the previous chapter of Acts: women and men, the Disciples, and all those others whose names have been forgotten. The space must have been large, probably the courtyard of the temple, and it is this group that the fire engines can be imagined rushing to.

It’s not just a question of son et lumiere, a sound and light show. Suddenly there is what might to be called chaos. Out of nowhere and into the space where they are sitting comes the sound of a roaring wind, and then there are flames dancing, with a tongue of flame, “as of fire,” on the ready, above each head. We grownups know that in the Bible this kind of energy can only come from God: think Moses (Exodus 19), think Elijah (I Kings 19). But it’s really wonderful to give Sunday School students paint—lots of it, mural paper, and time to express this event, to really go for it. For what Luke is trying to capture here is something so mind-blowing that only images such as “as of fire,” can approach it—images, and then the crowd that quickly gathers.

Their curiosity and their group identity are soon transformed as each hears about “God’s deeds of power” in his or her own native language. This is no propaganda spoken in the language of Rome. The speakers seem to be Galileans, but their words, provided by the tongues of flame, burn into the hearts of the crowd. Acts records that 3,000 that day were baptized

I wanted us to hear Scripture read by youth this morning because I wanted to capture some of the freshness of what happened on that first Pentecost. These youth will shortly enter a Confirmation class and that means new beginnings and new commitments, both of which were there on that first Pentecost. I also wanted a surprise and some sense of overlapping realities as we heard the languages of the various prayers all at the same time: Italian, French, German, Spanish, and English.

I’ll bet that a literal translation of those first “deeds of power” would not have been identical. So for today, I asked people to think of a prayer; I didn’t tell them what. I hoped each person would concentrate on their particular text or message as they spoke. Obviously it’s not a question of out shouting one another. On that first day, the words were intended for specific ears and apparently reached them, despite the din.

It was interesting to call people this week to find who might be able to speak in another tongue. Those you heard this morning seemed really willing to take on the challenge and to think about how to pray in a language that they do not use every day. As a result, I began thinking about how differently we each pray all the time, even when we are given the same words, and about how right it is that we can do this. I began thinking too about praying and then acting upon those prayers in a way that transcends differences of cultures, backgrounds, circumstances. Such praying, speaking, and acting transcend the world’s expectations.

The first Pentecost promises us an Advocate, a Holy Spirit sent by Jesus Christ that abides with us, even though the world with its conventional wisdom cannot understand or accept such power. For me, this morning, this story of the first Pentecost is about the miracle of speaking so that the people who need to hear us can do so, whether they be family members, colleagues, or strangers, and it’s about hearing what God wants us to hear. We can wish to do this all we like, but the actual doing comes as we invite and allow the grace of the Holy Spirit to breathe deeply into our lives and actions. After all, every day the Holy Spirit invites us to use a new language, to find a new way of doing things.

And so is today the birthday of the church, as it is often called? In terms of the number of believers who are added and the way of life that they begin to follow, one might say so. But it seems to me that today is far more the arrival, and hence the birthday, of the Holy Spirit, sent by Jesus, to quite literally enlighten the disciples and those that happened to be around them that day. That same Holy Spirit animates our churches and each one of us. Through it, God’s word is still active, still brooding over the waters, still creating: now serenely, now restlessly. God’s covenants with us never grow old. The Spirit of God is something that church can help us experience. It is also something that each of us can bring to church and that can transform that institution into the sacred body of Christ, thus bringing a little closer the day of the Lord.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, help us to obey the Spirit’s call, both through speaking and listening to the languages you want us to hear. Remembering the light of our Christ candle and the living presence of Pentecost, let us show forth the glory that you are shining on us today. Remembering our Christ and the living presence of Pentecost, let us proclaim God’s deeds of power and God’s love, even when the world thinks otherwise. Remembering our Christ and the living presence of Pentecost, let us be the active peace of Christ to all whom we meet and to this earth that God has entrusted to us to share. We trust your sweet Holy Spirit to stay right here with us. We pray in Christ’s name. Amen.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Lively Faith

Sermon for 5.16.2010, Ascension Sunday (Observed)
Psalm 47; Acts 1:1-11; Ephesians 1:15-23; Luke 24:44-53

Please pray with me: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each of our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

From today’s New Testament lesson: “Why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

I have a friend, an African-Cuban, who likes to tell me about her old-fashioned, devout mother. When, as a teen, Estella would droop around the house, disappointed with school, or a boyfriend, or whatever, her mother would say emphatically, “Daughter, look UP!” She wasn’t talking about posture or manners. She was talking faith: Raise your eyes, daughter. The King of Glory is in charge!

Estelle’s mother knew the passage we heard today, knew that when the time came for Jesus to end his time with his disciples on earth, he blessed them and as he was blessing them, he was “carried up into heaven.” Acts tells us that “a cloud took him out of their sight.” In the Bible, a cloud often indicates the presence and power of God. Remember “the pillar of cloud by day” that guides the Children of Israel. Certainly Jesus disappeared in a way that made them understand that he had moved beyond ordinary human sight and had joined God. The notion of the Trinity had not yet been developed and so the first Christians speak of “being seated at God’s right hand—the favored side—in heavenly places.” They certainly understand that the one who had been so disgraced by the crucifixion is now exalted beyond our comprehension.

Although the disciples may not have been able to put the experience into words, they knew how to act upon it. For the first time, they worship him. They finally understand that this man whom they have loved as a friend and teacher, and with whom they have broken bread, is also greater and more powerful than they could have imagined. Like one’s response to God, adoration and reverence and praise are what are now appropriate for Jesus. And so, when they return to Jerusalem, the joy of this realization is so great that they continually seek the holiness of the temple as the most fitting place to bless God for what has happened.

We often talk to God like a friend, a relative, an authority figure who needs to listen more fully, maybe even needs to be whipped into shape. But haven’t there also been times when the awesome nature of our God assails us? There is a healing, a new diagnosis, a change of heart, a job, a gift that can only be God-sent. One winter when I was in an elementary school in inner-city New Haven, I was assigned a group of non-readers who had to reach a certain level to be promoted. As you can imagine, there was real pressure from the District, and so I got to work in small groups or one-on-one, my favorite way to teach. Many of the students were able to make the grade and the consequences for them were powerful. But I remember one in particular. At the end of the year, I made an appointment with his mother. “Javon has passed,” I told her. Her immediate reaction was “Thank you, Lord Jesus!” These words were neither casual nor perfunctory. They were a cry of adoration to the One from whom all blessings flow. For several moments, the power of Jesus filled the room. Finally she was ready to turn to me for our conference. Her faith moved me one step closer to seminary.

So this is what Luke records for us and urges us never to forget: There was a birth, a ministry, a terrible death, a resurrection, and many appearances after that resurrection. And then there was also the Ascension, one of the principle days of celebration for the Universal Church. We have to have Ascension to mark the end of the earthly life of our Lord and to give it closure. Ascending completes his life by incorporating it into the life of God from which he came. After that everything is touched by something greater, something bigger, something awesome and often hard for us to wrap our hearts around. When our lives need something far bigger, far greater than we can imagine for ourselves, I urge us all to remember the Ascension.

And yet, as always, there is something more. At the end of Luke’s Gospel, we’ve just seen that Luke records that the disciples worship Jesus and commit themselves to praising God for what they have experienced. Well they might. Well we might. But Acts was written by the same author as Luke, and in Acts, there is a slightly different take. As the disciples are staring up into heaven—sometimes I think they’re gawking, sometimes I think of them in a holy trance—two men appear to challenge them and get them moving: “Why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus…will come in the same way as you saw him go.” Come how? Come when? That is not explained. But if Jesus is now right next to God and if he’s capable of returning, our worship and praise fill us with power that we can exercise in any number of ways as witnesses for Jesus Christ.

It’s appropriate that these two men/angels/heavenly messengers appear in Acts since Acts is a book of works, of witnessing. The witnessing of the first apostles, largely of evangelism, may not be our witnessing, but there is certainly the expectation that, like them, as our spiritual experience deepens, our faith and our witness of our faith will deepen as well. How can we not? I’m not only talking about food pantries, or community gardens, or suppers, or Apple Festivals, although you know how much I love them. This witness can also be personal, for us to work out in deep prayer with God and with one another.

I included the passage from Ephesians because of its suggestions for the way this witness is nurtured. Ephesians speaks of the “wisdom and revelation” that develop as we “come to know” Jesus. Gradually we can better understand the “hope to which he has called [us],” “the riches of his glorious inheritance.” The power that pulled Jesus from the tomb and transformed his disciples with a new faith is the same power that seats Christ Jesus next to God and makes him the fullness of God in all things. Our Lord Jesus Christ fills all things, is filling and will fill all things in ways we cannot imagine.

This new Jesus is the light we see by. As the theologian Rowan Williams has said, “We see the world in a new way because we see it through him, see it with his eyes” (Rowan Williams, A Ray of Darkness, p. 69). As we do this, we become committed to the world and its creatures—including ourselves—in a new way. This is a lively faith—a faith that is alive and a life that is holy because it is transformed by love for God and neighbor and with gratitude and humility for ourselves and our own private weaknesses and struggles.

In our opening prayer this morning, we prayed to Christ as higher than high and yet with footprints that are still warm on earth. That is the paradox of Ascension and that is its blessing: Because Jesus’ life after Ascension is so clearly bound up with God’s, heaven and earth are also bound together, and earth does not have the last word. Isn’t this really what the Incarnation—the coming into flesh of Christ—has prepared us for? What we think of as the powers and realities of this life—its evils, and illness, and death—are not the ultimate power.

The gravity of this world has been undone. We are free to look up. We are commanded to look up. God has put all things under Christ’s feet, “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion.” This day completes Easter. Now both heaven and earth are filled with Christ’s presence and with a totally new kind of power. We are commanded to look up—and then to look around and about where we are placed. There is a new era, a new vocation for us to be engaged in and committed to.

Let us pray: Dearest Christ, keep us lifted up with you so that we may grow in faith and the fruit of that faith. Lead us in our journey with you and enlighten our hearts so that we may know the hope to which you are calling us. Give us the grace to trust in you as the continuing source of power and strength and to imagine your ever unfolding lordship over the whole of creation. Amen.