Sunday, May 24, 2015

Pentecost: That one time I was theologically mugged.

Pentecost 2015
Ezekiel 37:1-14
Acts 2:1-21
John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15

If you’ve been to worship here in the last 7 weeks you might have arrived this morning and notice that our worship space looks a little different! On Easter morning, and for these 7 weeks since we have had these sweeping, dramatic pieces of fabric that have spanned the length of the sanctuary and been draped behind the cross – bold, brilliant reminders of the season of life and promise.  But they came down because today is Pentecost Sunday – did you know? Did you plan your Memorial Day weekend around the fact that today is the day often referred to as the birthday of the church?  It’s alright if you didn’t, Pentecost does not show up on a secular calendar and this day of celebration often falls on Memorial Day weekend.   Whether you were prepared for it, or not, today we hear about the gift of the Holy Spirit which Jesus promised to leave his followers after he ascended to God.  The Holy Spirit would be the glue that holds churches together, the wisdom that moves us forward in God’s mission and so today we consider how, as Christ’s church, we are supposed to carry on in our lives as Jesus people.

The coming of the Spirit is this crazy, odd story told throughout the Bible – she doesn’t just show up once with the tongues of fire and people speaking different languages!  The Spirit of God first moved across the waters of creation in Genesis, she blew through the mass grave of Ezekiel and the dry bones.  Jesus gifted the Spirit to the terrified disciples hiding in a locked room after the crucifixion and, in her most famous scene; the Spirit fell on those first Jesus people in the book of Acts.   The Spirit creates, breathes life, gives courage and empowers the people of God.

This all sounds pretty good, right? You haven’t heard anything too out of the ordinary – other than bones rising from their graves to dance and a group of people randomly blathering on in languages they have never spoken before. Maybe it’s a lot out of the ordinary.  And maybe that is why Lutherans are, generally speaking, so very neglectful of this element of the Divine! Pentecostal isn’t exactly the first adjective that springs to mind when describing the Lutheran denomination – stories of speaking in tongues and breathing life into graves – this is not about us, right? Seeing vision and dreaming dreams? It’s all a little out there! 

And so the Holy Spirit gets this one day that we hear the crazy stories and consider what it means to be moved and inspired and sustained by the Holy Spirit, but won’t be all be much more comfortable when we get back to the parables and stories that we can understand and rationalize! Lutherans are, generally speaking, notorious for squirming their way far away from all this Pentecostal bewilderment.

What is God up to?
What we are really good at, excellent at really, is asking questions.  There is one question that I have heard Lutheran ministries in all sorts of forms and places ask over and over again that tells me maybe we are willing to wonder, in logical and reasonable approaches, about this whole Holy Spirit thing.  The question I have heard over and over again and I know it is asked here at Westwood, rightfully so, is “What is God up to in this place?” “What is God up to?” I am grateful to be serving in a place that engages this question and I hope you’ve heard that question around here too or maybe you’ve looked at your family life, your personal life, your work life, you community and asked that same question,         “What is God up to here?”

And in asking that question we get to share and tell about God’s work in our lives, we believe God is up to saving us and redeem our scars, we believe God is up to healing and nourishing us – body and soul.  We believe in God’s mercy and promise so fully that we share this belief not only on Sunday mornings in worship, but also as we serve up community meals on Wednesday nights, as we rehearse music to proclaim good news, as we take time to raise our children well in the stories of the faith and gather food for hungry neighbors and in all the ways we move as a church to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ we are again and again responding to the ever intriguing question, “What is God up to in this place?”

And there are tangible events and marks and stuff to point to as we try to live entire lives that respond to that question.  Today, on this crazy day of Pentecost, let us consider a nuanced take on that question.  As mysterious and baffling and inspiring as the Holy Spirit can be, could  she also be pushing us to ask this question, “How is God up to all that God is up to here?” How is God saving and redeeming and feeding and inspiring and pushing and challenging and transforming us into God’s people? How?

This question, I fear, makes me uncomfortable – because it isn’t so tidy or tangible, the logic doesn’t quite cut it as we consider the HOW ofiit all.  Now, we have to feel it, in our hearts and our guts, could we pause on this Pentecost day and consider how all this Godly talk feels in our very being? Isn’t that the way of the Holy Spirit as she breathed over the waters of creation can you feel it like that ever refreshing breeze off a Minnesota lake? Or when the breath made those bones dance, can you remembers times of such wild celebration and elation in your life? Or when the disciples of Jesus were able to do the unthinkable, can you remember what it feels like to be brave and even out of control? Do these feelings and experiences have a place in our stories of faith? Isn’t this the Holy Spirit among us, making us dance with new life and bringing us to deeper understanding of the ways of God, far beyond logic and reason and tangible evidence?

Because, let’s name it, there is an unexplainable, irrational, crazy component to this whole faith in God thing.  We talk a lot about faith and love and hope and having a sense of call on our lives – but we cannot measure or qualify or contain any of it.  Yet, here we are.  I know I can remember, during the most poignant points of my life what faith and love and hope and purpose felt like…can you? I’m not simply talking about an emotional high, that would be a dangerous thing to pin our faith to,  but instead it is those times and experiences when a grounded-ness swells beneath you and a certainty of grace covers you.  Our faith is in things unseen, like the Holy Spirit moving among us and within us – a feeling we feel.

Could that be, in part, how God is up to what God is up to in our lives and in this place?

And this is the day we remember that the Holy Spirit is the one who breathes words of life into our otherwise cranky mouths, and it is the Holy Spirit that spurs on a very real, spiritual response to all that gospel goodness.  Maybe even Lutherans can be Pentecostal, too!

Logic vs. Feeling: Atheist guy.
A few years ago, while I was doing my pastoral internship in Oregon I had a young man, in his early 20s, walk into my office saying he wanted to learn about what we do here at the church.  I began to talk about worship, the community of faith and he interrupted me.  He plainly said, “I am with the Atheist Alliance of America and I want to know how you do what you do all day and then sleep at night.”  He went on to tell me that the all the church does is take people’s money and then cripple them so they cannot emotionally deal with their own lives.  In a very respectful way he asked me to provide him with scientific proof of creation and with historical proof for scripture and all the happenings it accounts for.  
He had a list of 52 questions he wanted to ask me, or as I saw it, 52 ways to poke at my faith in God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit.   This man, passionate and full of conviction for his viewpoint continued to talk about evidence and historical inaccuracies, he casually discounted a few bible stories based on their lack of scientific probability.

During this odd exchange, I found myself distracted by the only piece of jewelry he was wearing, a wedding ring.  At first I thought, does your wife know what you’re doing right now? But then I told him that I could no more prove to him the validity of my faith in God than he can prove to me the validity of his new marriage.

And so I began to ask for proof of his very-new bride’s faithfulness, were their documents that could measure and justify her love for him? Was the total sum of their financial assets greater or lesser than their commitment to one another?   Could he produce a 5 or 10 year plan for their relationship and future ventures based on their certainly of what gains and losses would befall them? I wasn’t all that clever in coming up with these questions, they were simple spins on the questions he had already asked me of the church.

He wanted to talk science and history and proof.  I told him the church had been given the language of relationship and love and life.  I was no smooth talkin’ pastor-lady just sitting in my office that day, by the end of our lengthy conversation I had raised my voice and was shaking for much of the day after he left.  But I took that shaking as a sign that I had a very real reaction to someone poking holes at my faith, a faith I had been given by the Holy Spirit in my baptism, a faith handed to me by a wide community of saints and a faith I had experienced as true and life-giving and lasting.  Not an emotional high, but a soul-resounding gift.

There is a holy, uncontrollable mystery to this faith life, it is the power of the Holy Spirit, given to us in the baptismal waters  -- it is how God is up to all that God is up to in our lives.

So when we hear the words from the book of Acts, that our young people will see visions and our old will dream dreams we need not squirm away or fear being too Pentecostal.  Because seeing visions and dreaming dreams isn’t just for the Pentecostals anymore, it never really was, and it’s not about predicting the future or knowing what’s on the horizon – because that is simply another attempt to control the uncontrollable.

Seeing the vision of God and dreaming the dreams of God is to be brave enough to ask the question, What is God up to in my life? And it is being brazen enough to live lives that tell others how God is up to all that God is up to in your life. 
As the temperature rises this spring and summer we will open our windows and feel the breeze as we drive or in our homes and offices, a perfect image for the Holy Spirit in our lives.  We cannot control her temperature or power, but we can open the window and be moved by this Holy presence.

You are God’s beautiful creation and the Holy Spirit hovered over you at your making.

You have been given the breath of Ezekiel to call out to mass graves and dead bones, “Come alive, come alive.”

You, children of God, have been given the power of the Holy Spirit, not to prove anything, but to announce the gift of life to the world.

What is God up to here?
How is God up to what God is up to? Through the power of the Holy Spirit moving in each and every one of us.  May we fall into this holy, uncontrollable, crazy mystery of God for the sake of the whole world.  Amen.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Forgiveness: Bulldozers and Baltimore

Sermon 5.03.15
John 20:19-23
Real Life. Risen Life!

For these weeks since Easter we’ve been hearing the stories that are told in the gospels that witness to Jesus’ post-death existence.  Each scene we’ve heard includes Jesus appearing to his followers in completely unexpected ways – because, let’s face it, no one expects a once dead person to show up for a walk on the road, or hang out in gardens, or BBQ on the beach…but Jesus does all that and then some.

And each story is filled with seemingly small details that the gospel writers take great care in laying out for us – and one detail that has been catching my attention is all the running involved in the resurrection! After the people realize who Jesus is, alive and walking alongside them, they run like mad!

Two men walk the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus and Jesus appears teaching them for hours, entering a home and sharing a meal.  And when the disciples, who have unknowingly spent much of the day with their beloved teacher realize who is sitting at the table…they take off! Running to find the other disciples, running to tell them that Jesus is actually alive!

Just last week we heard Mary’s story – how she found the empty grave and went running to get others.  And then the first people she sees also go running.  They run to find people who will listen, they run to share their news – probably looking for validation and help as they wrestle with the experience of seeing Jesus, scars and all, living among them.   These could be flights of fear, they could be complete jubilation – it’s hard to know, but there is no denying that the vision of the risen Christ gets people moving.

And then, on the evening of the resurrection we get this story.  As light as fallen, the movement has ceased.  The yelling and story sharing turn to hushed, intense whispers and running stops and turns to bent postures for the followers of Jesus are terrified. Darkness has fallen on that Easter day and the disciples cower behind locked doors.
And still, the risen Christ appears.  Just has he appeared to Thomas who was doubting, just as he appeared to the disciples walking the road and grieving, just as he appeared to Mary who stared into the empty tomb confused and hurt and betrayed.  The risen One appears through the locked doors into a room of stillness and fear.
Peace be with you, he speaks.  All that running has paid off, their minds are sharp, they recognize Jesus immediately.  Still, no one moves. 
Jesus shows them his scars, proving his identity? Fulfilling the prophecy? Or perhaps, he is displaying his body with all the violence that has befallen him, all the injustice that cut into those scars and he speaks the response that can only come from new life…Peace be with you.
Still, no one moves.

Then Jesus breathes on them and gives them the power, breathes on them the authority, and speaks these empowering, yet very difficult words…
 Receive the Holy Spirit.  If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them.  If you retain the sins of any they are retained.

The marching orders for the church of the risen Christ have been received.  Now, with our vantage point of over 2,000 years of hindsight and history – I think it is safe to say these words have been used and mangled throughout time.  Acknowledging the differing viewpoints of the entire body of Christ around the world – these words are down right scary! Followers of Christ are given the authority to forgive and retain? Doesn’t Jesus know who he is talking to? A people, then and now, who are prideful and self-seeking.  A people who love sensationalized drama and getting ahead.  The human instinct to judge and label and exclude…to these people, (these people) Jesus says if you forgive, they are forgiven.  If you retain, they are retained.  

Forgiveness sounds different depending on who is speaking it.  Forgiveness requires different modes of confession and repentance depending on what church is offering it.  There have been and still are eras of the church when forgiveness required looking a certain way, pledging allegiance to an empire.  There have been eras when the authority of the church was wielded with blood and control and oppression.   And there throughout all these eras there are churches who are quiet, fearful, stingy with their authority, slow to share freedom and forgiveness with its people.  The charge to  offer freedom in the name of Jesus, also brings the capacity of inflicting deep pain in that same name.

 So, what does a church, fully risen and forgiven by the scarred and risen Christ look like and sound like? How is this forgiveness and retention really lived in our faith community?

Every time we worship we participate in an ancient practice most recently called, the sharing of the peace.  Here at Westwood it happens differently at every worship service, at 9AM is falls just after the prayers of the people, at 10:30AM it comes at the beginning of our worship and on Wednesday evening people are invited to share God’s peace as they are leaving. It may be our most flexible, yet consistent, worship practice.  

Today it’s a friendly face and a genuine handshake.  In its earliest form however, the sharing of the peace was seen as an act of worship which responds directly to Jesus’ teaching that one cannot approach the altar of God without first having reconciled with their brother and sister.  The sharing of the people was also meant to be a sharing of grace and forgiveness. This ministry we do to each other is far greater than a sociable handshake or a ritual of friendship.   We give to each other what we are saying: Christ’s own peace, just as Jesus did in that locked room.  In worship we are called to be reconciled to one another, to get our affairs with one another in order, before God.   We move around, shaking hands, offering greeting and Christ’s peace – and sometimes reconciliation does indeed come through these small gestures. But we all know that the deep healing we all are in need of and the profound forgiveness our world is seeking often takes big efforts, sweeping humility and  mass movements. 

Being unassuming, quiet Midwesterners, forgiveness so often looks like a shrug of the shoulders, the trite mummer of “Oh, its ok.”. With these socially acceptable words and movements we confine the gift of forgiveness into a controllable exchange, nothing more than a polite handshake. However, the forgiveness of the cross comes from a darker, more prevailing and more hopeful place than a shoulder shrug.

A few years ago, I was preparing to leave a darkened corner of my world, an environment filled with anger, shame and violence.  After leaving, it took two more years before I could really discuss it and as shared with a trusted pastor how deeply I longed for reconciliation, how far away forgiveness or peace or wholeness seemed and I railed against how much pain was laid on these years.  I heard him say, “Of course it hurts, forgiveness so often does.” I was stunned by his statement and disturbed by how true it felt in my very core. Had there simply been shrugged shoulders at every offense we could have still been in that former place, leaving was a form of forgiveness.  Moving out of a ben posture of fear was a way of saying that there was something more life-giving.  It was in leaving that I finally experienced that new life God promises and extends to every person – even the angry, even the shameful.

When we simply shrug our shoulders we are saying that whatever brokenness that exists is ok, whatever hurt that has scarred us (or others) is ok and that ok-ness will stay with us. The forgiveness extended to us by God is so different from the shoulder shrug, for when God forgives us there is a swift and powerful movement away from what has been.  Forgiveness is a bull dozer that clears the way for newness of life and healthier ways of being human! 

If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven.  If you retain the sins of any, they are retained.  This is the call of the church, this is the charge from our Risen Savior: forgiveness is about being on the move, seeking out and fight for and pointing to life among us!

The world needs no more retaining – no more binding up hurts and horrors, our world is full of such spirits already.  I’m sure all of us where struck by the distressing headlines that filled the news this week.  When I read the endless blogs and articles addressing the horror that filled the streets of Baltimore this past week I was also remembering the words that have been preached from this pulpit these weeks since Easter – words that have claimed a resurrected world in the name of the Risen Christ.  And so the movement for reconciliation begins, the cry for the peace of the risen Christ must be heard from the church of Christ, from the people who share the peace and claim the resurrection here.
Where are you, risen Savior? Are you on the streets of Baltimore?
Where are you, risen Savior? Are you in the villages of India and Nepal?
…..Are you on the pillaged fields of the Bakken oil fields?
Where are you, risen Savior?
The risen Christ appears in these places of fear and locked doors.  He comes, breathing new life to the angry and shame-filled and destroyed ones.  And in his presence we know the violence that fell upon the body of Jesus was not the end of the story.  The injustice and corruption, the pride and prejudice did not have the final say! The risen Christ did indeed rise from all these powers of the earth and from the depth of the grace and spoke to his followers… “Peace be with you”
I saw the risen Christ in the feet of the clergy who marched together peacefully through the streets of Baltimore.  And I saw the risen Christ in the passionate face of a young man who put himself between a police line and restless protesters crying out, “Do not give them a reason, do not give them a reason.” 
Because forgiveness and reconciliation is a powerful, sometimes painful experience, Resurrection is not clean.  It is not devoid of emotion and outrage.  Being an Easter people does not mean living in our Easter clothes, afraid of getting them stained.  Being an Easter child means speaking life into death, breath hope into despair, it means getting in the face of division and hate and shaking up apathy and laziness.

Peace be with you, Baltimore.
Peace be with you, India and Nepal.
Peace be with you wastelands and oil fields.

We can share this peace because it has been spoken and shared with us.  Because our stories of fear and shame have been freed.  For it begins with you and your stories of forgiveness and movement and it is carried out into God’s world.

You are forgiven. You are free.
You are the church of the risen Christ on earth, may we be forgiveness, may we be freedom.

For the peace that surpasses our deepest hurts, for peace that will change the world, we say thanks be to God.  Amen.