Sunday, May 31, 2009

Feast of Pentecost

On Thursday night I watched some of the finals of the national spelling bee. I always feel like a geek when I watch that, but I am fascinated by the focus those young people have on hearing the words to spell. They were able to spell based on pronunciation, based on etymology and language, but it all came down to their ability to convert what they heard into letters in our particular English alphabet. I am most impressed when those words don’t even come from the English language.

Hearing well and listening well is so very important for us. I am always mindful of my diction and delivery when I am speaking in public. It is very important to me that my words are heard clearly, if people can clearly hear what I say, I’m most of the way there to people understanding what I say.

This Feast of Pentecost that we celebrate is the occasion at which the story tells us that the Holy Spirit came from Heaven like the rush of a violent wind and tongues like fire appeared among them. In John’s gospel we learn that Jesus has asked the father to give the Advocate to be with us forever. An advocate is one who speaks on behalf of another. The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, is the one who speaks on our behalf and speaks on God’s behalf to us, in a language we are able to understand.

Language, words and sounds crafted into ideas that may be shared between and among humans, is the way we concieve of our God, it is the way we imagine the world and the universe around us. Language is amazing; it is how we know we are human. We use the language of poetry and metaphor to try to experience reality, the language of prose to describe our reality, technical language to teach our reality to others. It is why we describe God as author; God has spoken the Word and has authored our lives and our salvation. In acknowledging the wonder of language, we must also acknowledge how woefully inadequate language is to communicate with God. We try so hard to use the proper words, we try so hard to use symbol and sign, but we fail miserably in our attempt.

It is the gift of the Holy Spirit that makes it possible for us to communicate with God and to hear one another. It is the gift of the Holy Spirit that makes it possible for us to hear one another in the language of our land, in the language of our life, in the language of our heart. It is the gift of the Holy Spirit that makes it possible for us to hear one another at all, and to hear God at all.

At the first Pentecost, when each heard the other speaking in their native language, those gathered were amazed and astonished. They were amazed and astonished by the presence of the Spirit. I am amazed and astonished by the presence of the Holy Spirit today.

How do we know the presence of the Holy Spirit? How do we experience the presence of the Holy Spirit? Why are we so frightened by that when it happens?

I believe we know the presence of the Holy Spirit and we experience the presence of the Holy Spirit when we really hear one another, when we really hear God, not just with our minds and our intellect, but when we hear with our hearts, when we hear with our spirits, and when we speak with our hearts and our spirits. I think that is frightening for many because it is so intimate, it is so real, and it is so truthful. Often, the truth is hard and scary to hear.

I experience the presence of the Holy Spirit at times if deep connection of spirit and truth in corporate prayer. Sometimes that is in the beautiful language of our prayer book sometimes that is in the spontaneous language of people gathered lifting to God all that blesses us and all that concerns us. I experience the presence of the Spirit in music and song, in rushing wind and water, in quiet contemplation, and often in good conversation.

We count on the Spirit showing up when we gather together as Church. We bid the Spirits presence especially when as a church we need to be led, when we need to make decisions together. When we elected our bishop recently, we called on the Spirit to lead our deliberations, to guide us, to give us wisdom and to help us choose. Our Church meets in General Convention this summer. General Convention is 10 days in July in Anaheim. General Convention happens every three years; it is the time when the business of the church happens. It also is very much a family reunion. We will worship together, we will pray together, eat together, play together, as well as do the business of the church. Now it seems odd to some to talk about the presence of the Spirit in this session. But I believe that it is only the presence of the Spirit that makes it possible for us to even begin to do the business of the church. When we meet together we must listen to each other, not just to the words, but also to the heart and the spirit.

We come to General Convention from many physical locations; we come from the plains, the mountains, the desert. Not unlike those who gathered at that first Pentecost. We come to the gathering from many theological locations, some orthodox, some traditional, some progressive. We come to the gathering from various liturgical customs, some high church, meaning great emphasis on ceremony and ritual, some low church, and many in the places in between. However, none of this changes our common commitment to the centrality of Jesus Christ and the lordship of God our creator in our communal lives and in our personal lives. But it does demand that we call upon the Holy Spirit to be in our midst so that we may listen to one another with our hearts as well as our ears, so that we may be in the presence of God with the Holy Spirit as our advocate, as the one who speaks on our behalf.

I remember the last time we met in General Convention, Bishop Steven Charleston, bishop and dean of the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge Mass asked a question. He asked us what will be our witness in the world, what will be the language we use to speak God’s love and reconciliation to the world. I do believe that continues to be the question we must ask ourselves in General Convention, in the Diocese of South Dakota, and right here at St. Andrew’s. What is our witness? What do we represent in the world? Do we and how do we take the reconciling love of Jesus into the world? Is our witness the unconditional love of God through the grace of Jesus Christ, is it to hope, not fear, is our witness to mission, is our witness to reconciliation? What do we show the world as we gather together and as we are sent out into the world?

So I ask you to pray. Include our General convention in your prayers as you include the Diocese of South Dakota and as you include St. Andrew’s. Pray for the very same that happened at that first Pentecost. Pray that each hears the other in their own language, that each hears the other speak their own truth, that each hear the other speak about God’s deeds of power.

The Holy Spirit is moving in this place. The Holy Spirit points the way for us. The Holy Spirit calls us to be voices for God’s abundant and amazing love, and calls us to bring that reconciling love into the world.

Alleluia. The Spirit of the Lord renews the face of the earth: Come let us adore him. Alleluia.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

7 Easter Yr B

The Gospel of John is an amazing story. It is a story whose purpose is stated in the 20th chapter, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may continue to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” This story shows us these signs so that we may have life in Jesus. The passage we have before us today is a prayer at the time when Jesus knows that he will die. It begins in the first verse of chapter seventeen and continues to the end of the chapter, we have heard just a snippet of the prayer today. Jesus prays that his followers may know his father, Jesus prays for protection for his followers, and Jesus prays that they may know the truth, and that the world may know the father through them, his disciples. It is astounding.

If we believe that in the incarnation God comes into the world as one of us, to live, love, laugh, suffer and die as one of us; and if we believe that in the resurrection God inaugurates new creation, in effect beginning creation again; which is what the gospel of John shows us; and if we believe that because of incarnation and resurrection we are joined with Jesus in the new creation, then we, you and I are in the world as agents of this same new creation. And as agents of new creation, as agents carrying the amazing, abundant, and reconciling love of God made real in Jesus, to the world, we are open to attack. Jesus prays, “I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one… Sanctify them in the truth; your word is the truth.” Jesus is praying for us, for you and me. It is astounding.

This Good News is dangerous stuff. The promise that outcasts and sinners, single women and children, have an equal place in the kingdom as the mighty and powerful is a threat. The promise that God’s love, grace, and forgiveness are available to anyone is a threat to those who want to draw lines between people who are in and people who are out. Protect them, Jesus asks, protect them, they will be rejected and ridiculed on my behalf, protect them. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.

Your word is truth. Jesus is God’s Word, and Jesus is truth. Today I quote from Velvet Elvis, by Rob Bell, a book I commend to your reading. Is the greatest truth about Adam and Eve and the fruit that it happened, or that it happens: This story, one of the first in the Bible, is true for us because it is our story. We have all taken the fruit. We have all crossed boundaries. We have all made decisions to do things our way and then looked back and said to ourselves, What was I thinking? The fruit looked so great to Adam and Eve for those brief moments, but the consequences were with them for the rest of their lives. Their story is our story. We see ourselves in them. The story is true for us because it happened and because it happens. It is an accurate description of how life is. The reason the stories in the Bible have resonated with so many people over the years is that they have seen themselves in these stories.

Another example: The Israelites leave the kingdom of Egypt where they are slaves, and God brings them out into freedom. It happens. Every day. For many of us, that is our story. We were in darkness and God brought us out. And we continue to identify areas of darkness in our lives, and God continues to bring us out. So the exodus is the Israelites’ story, but it is also our story. It happened then; it happens now. That is why the Bible is so powerful, and that is why the Bible is true. These ancient stories are our stories. They are alive and active and teaching us about our lives in our world today. We live in the metaphors. The story of David and Goliath for another example continues to speak to us because we know the David part of the story, we live it. The tomb is empty because we have met the risen Christ; we have experienced Jesus in a way that transcends space and time. And this gives us hope. We were in darkness and God brought us out into the light. The Word is living and active and it happens. Today.

The disciples were left to live in the world with this truth, and you and I live as disciples in the world today with this truth. We live in the world with the truth that we are new creations through our baptism, and as new creations we are agents of this truth. The Truth that is not black and white, the Truth that is not right or wrong, but the Truth that is living and active and happening.

The world is a messy and chaotic place. God has come and continues to come into this world to show us how to live with authenticity, with honor, with grace, God comes by our side in the midst of the messiness and the chaos not to remove us from the world but to show us how to live in it. The truth walks with us through the pain, the sadness, the suffering, and the joy and the glory. The truth shares our pain, sets us free, gives us hope. And it is this truth that we respond to creatively. We respond to the truth with joy in worship, we respond to the truth by being a blessing to everyone around us. We respond to the truth by getting busy with what God is doing in this world.

But the evil one seeps in, trying to twist us and turn us, seducing us into believing that somehow the truth is a set of words on a page, that the truth can be measured against a black and white set of standards, that the truth is contained, held close, or belongs to only a certain group of people. The evil one seeps in, trying to make us believe that what is real is what we have, or what we can acquire, or what we can own, or what we can possess. The evil one seeps in, trying to make us believe that death always wins. But we know differently, because we live the story.

Knowing differently however does not protect us. We often miss the mark. We often succumb to the seduction of certainty, where there are no questions, only clear answers. We often succumb to the seduction of rightness, where only those who agree with us can sit at our table. We often succumb to the seduction of greed, where having enough gets lost in having because I can. We often succumb to the seduction of self-importance, where it really is all about me and not about God. We often succumb to the seduction of entertainment, where mystery and quiet contemplation become boring.

Missing the mark is not irredeemable. The Truth that is living and active and happening, the truth that is God’s grace shown to us in Jesus, the truth calls us to turn around, to straighten our shoulders, to keep our eye on the target. The Truth stands by our side and says, you are wonderfully and fearfully made, you are the delight of my life. The Truth guides our arrow on the wind, and brings it swiftly and cleanly to its mark.

In the name of the Father who creates us, the son who walks by our side, and the spirit who guides our ways, Alleluia. The Lord is risen indeed: Come let us adore him. Alleluia.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

6 Easter Yr B

No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. I do not call you servants any longer, but I have called you friends.

As it becomes clear in John’s gospel that Jesus is bringing something entirely new to Jews and Gentiles, there also is a parallel movement in the gospel from servant to friend. In the foot washing story which precedes this story, Jesus says to those gathered that he has set an example, and that his followers should do as he has done. Servants are not greater than their master. We read that story on Holy Thursday each year as an example of servanthood. The story that is before us today, and that follows narratively in this text, is this story that shows us transforming love. Servanthood becomes friendship. What’s the difference? The master and slave or servant relationship was one-way. Master to servant. The main feature of Jesus’ new commandment, love one another as I have loved you, is friendship. The disciples are to be attached to Jesus and to one another as friends, no longer servants. Jesus loves his disciples as friends, and expects the same of them toward each other. Jesus describes this new friendship; no one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. And then, you are my friends if you do what I command you. The “if” in this case is not strings attached to Jesus, the “if” points us out toward each other. The “if” is the command is to love one another as we have first been loved.

So what is this friendship that Jesus commends to us? Maybe we can get a picture from outside of Christianity. The Buddha defined a friend as one who "guards you when you are off your guard and does not forsake you in trouble; (one who) restrains you from doing wrong; and enjoins you to do right..." Aristotle laid out the need for friends when he wrote: "We need friends when we are young to keep us from error; when we get old to carry out those plans which we have not the strength to execute ourselves; and in the prime of life to help us in doing noble deeds." And Jesus told his followers: "This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. There is no greater love than this, (than) to lay down ones life for ones friends."

I think our understanding of friendship pales in comparison to what Jesus does for us, and commands us to do for one another. This begs the question, who is my friend? Jesus pushes our understanding of who our friends should be. The story shows us that included in this category is the Samaritan who cares for the man left by the side of the road to die, even though they were sworn enemies. Tax collectors, outcasts, sinners, children, single women, anyone on the margins are all included in the list of who Jesus called friend.

Another way of considering the question is not about who is eligible to be my friend, but how am I a friend? The example Jesus set of being a friend, of laying down his life for his friends may seem epic, unachievable by our lowly human accomplishments. And yet being a friend is what we are called to. I’m not so sure that I can name those things that make someone a friend, but I know a friend when I encounter one. A person who considers the feelings of the other, a person who sometimes puts his owns needs and wants aside, a person who is loyal, a person who tells the truth in love, a person who stands beside the other when the other has been wronged, or overlooked.

Bob Evans, the pastor at 1st Pres downtown, is in the pastors group that meets on Wednesday mornings. Bob is a retired Navy man and chaplain. Bob was able to tell us about those he knew who literally laid down their life for their friends by taking a grenade. That is not the chance you and I have in our daily lives. But we do have the chance to be the friend that Jesus calls us to be.

This kind of friendship is what our community’s of faith should look like. Jesus says you are friends, and I will put my life in your place so that you can live with the freedom of friendship, no longer a servant to anyone, you are friends. And we must always remember Jesus’ mission was to Jews and Gentiles alike. There are no insiders and outsiders; there is no one Jesus did not lay down his life for. Jesus says, You did not choose me but I chose you. There is no way we can claim exclusivity, there is no way we can claim that our way is the right way. Jesus laid down his live for his friends; we are all counted as his friends. Just like Peter, who denied him, Judas who betrayed him, Thomas who needed proof, we are counted as friends.

The vine and the branches metaphor that we heard last week, shows us what this early community believed about God in the flesh, Jesus. God dwells in the community, God is incarnated, in the flesh, God’s new home is with creation. God inaugurated new creation in the resurrection, and God continues to make us and all creation new.

Last week we learned that the word abide can be translated “to make our home.” God has made God’s home with us in Jesus, and we are to make our home in Jesus together as friends. This kind of love, this kind of friendship is powerful. It is a transforming love. Jesus’ love for us is transforming, our love for one another is to be transforming as well. Transforming love is not some kind of feel good love, just as this kind of friendship is not just about feeling good. Transforming love is the kind of love that Jesus has for us, it is the kind of love that changes people, changes communities.

The result of this amazing and abundant love is transformed lives. And the fruit of a transformed life is mercy and justice, generosity and forbearance, forgiveness and reconciliation. The fruit of a transformed life is life before death. Greg Laurie is in town this weekend preaching about life after death. Now I don’t dispute life after death, I just don’t think it’s the most important reason to accept Jesus Christ as Lord. I think the most important reason to accept Jesus Christ as Lord is living life fully alive, and making our home in God. It is being the kind of friend Jesus trusts us to be. It is laying down our live for our friends. Jesus lived, and loved, suffered, died and was raised to new life to show us the way. God begins something entirely new in Jesus. Jesus calls us friends, Jesus chooses us. We are to live today as if all that matters. We are to live fully alive, fully engaged, we are to be merciful, and generous, charitable, and forgiving, we are to live life before death.

Alleluia. The Lord is risen indeed: Come let us adore him. Alleluia.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

5 Easter Yr B

The only planting and growing I’ve ever really done is by accident. When I can throw seeds on the ground, cover them with good dirt, and leave them go, I am a successful gardener. You should have caught that I left out the watering part, the weeding part, the pruning part, because I tend to leave those parts out. I have been successful at growing tomatoes and beans, some green peppers, but not in this soil. So far anything I’ve planted in the garden here has died, too hot, too dry, and not enough effort. Vines and branches, mustard seeds, wheat and grain, Jesus sure liked to use metaphors of planting and harvesting, illustrations that bear much more fruit than my planting escapades.

There are two major metaphors of Jesus’ relationship with us presented in the Gospel of John. Last week was the good shepherd who calls us by name. Today it is this metaphor of the vine. In the other Gospels, there are other images. It is important to understand that there is not one way to describe, or illustrate, or show, Jesus’ relationship with us, it takes many metaphors to begin to give us an idea of what that relationship is really about.

This metaphor presents us with a way to show us Jesus’ relationship with us. The vine may be Jesus, the branches may be us and all the disciples, the pruner may be God, and the fruit may be the outcome of our relationship with Jesus. The theme may be that of an enduring relationship with Jesus and the joyous outcome of that relationship. The root of the metaphor is the verb abide. Eugene Peterson translates the verb “to live in me.” Make your home in me, as I make my home in you. That is the call of this gospel passage.

Try to imagine what the vine and the branches look like. The branches twist and turn and are intertwined with themselves and with the main trunk of the vine. When they are fully in leaf, you can't tell one branch apart from another, and it's hard to even see the vine itself. All the branches run together and are intertwined with one another, even as they receive their sustenance from the main vine. No one vine is more important than another. What an amazing picture of our relationship with Jesus and with one another, especially in our society that values individualism and competition, this is about interdependence rather than independence. This is about community; it is about the body of Christ.

Essentially this metaphor is about love. Love is at the heart of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Love is the measure of faithfulness. It is about the kind of love that is anonymous rather than self-proclaimed. It is the kind of love that puts the other over the self. It is the kind of love that Jesus shows to us, it is the kind of love that we are called to show forth. We are called to make our home in Jesus, and to live in the midst of this self-giving love. It is the very nature of this relationship that bears fruit; fruit is the joyous outcome of this relationship.

The next verses in John are these, translated by Eugene Peterson, “I’ve told you these things for a purpose: that my joy might be your joy, and your joy wholly mature. This is my command: Love one another the way I loved you. This is the very best way to love. Put your life on the line for your friends.” And a few lines later, “You didn’t choose me, remember; I chose you, and put you in the world to bear fruit, fruit that won’t spoil. Remember the root command: Love one another. “This relationship that Jesus calls us into, this relationship that puts the other over the self, bears fruit, and the fruit is love. Remember too where this passage is in John’s gospel. Jesus has just washed the disciples feet, Jesus is teaching his followers how to carry on when he is gone, as well as trying to instruct them about what it is he is doing by going to the cross.

You and I are disciples too. We have been baptized into the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Our baptismal ministry is this, to live in this community of faith, to be fed by this interdependent body of Christ, to be pruned by the God who creates us, and to bear the fruit that is loving one another. What is to keep us from being like Philip in the reading from Acts today, Philip who proclaims to the Ethiopian the good news about Jesus? As they were going along the road they came to some water and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?”

What is to prevent you from being baptized? What is to prevent you from bearing fruit? What is to prevent us from loving the other? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Make your home in me, as I make my home in you. That is the call of this gospel passage. We have all we need to bear fruit. Since I am such a poor gardener, I am encouraged by this passage; it really isn’t up to me. We do have to respond to God’s grace and love and pruning, but we’re not the pruner. I am reminded once again that God is God and I am not. Our home is in God’s grace; God sees to the pruning, it is that nourishment, that growth, our connection to that vine that gives us what we need to love one another, to bear fruit.

I do believe this is what we need today. To take seriously our interdependence, To take seriously the anonymity of this gospel, to take seriously the call to be in this life together, and to bear the sweet fruit of love, rather than the sour grapes of bitterness or enmity, prejudice or hatred. Jesus shows us though that bearing fruit is costly. This is not a love that necessarily feels good or has a happy ending. It is a love that puts the other first; it is a love of respect and dignity.

The challenge of the vine and the branches is to practice what we preach. The challenge of bearing fruit is to remember that the work we need to do happens out in the world, the love we need to show forth begins here, but flourishes only when we bring it to the lost and the hurting, when we bring healing and reconciliation into the world. The love we need to show flourishes when we are the agents of resurrection in the world.

Alleluia. The Lord is risen indeed: Come let us adore him. Alleluia.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

4 Easter Yr B

Hear the sound of your name as the one you love speaks it. Hear the sound of your name as your best friend in all the world is on the other end of the phone. Remember the sound of your name when your mom called you for dinner, or maybe used your entire name when you did something you shouldn’t have done, or sang you to sleep at night. Even remember the sound of your name when used in anger, or in fear, Kathy, get out of the street! When you hear your name like this, you know the one who is speaking it knows who you are. They’ve known you forever, they knew you before you were born, they’ve expected your homecoming, they named you, they love you.

Today we hear Jesus call us by name, if we are the sheep, and Jesus is the shepherd. In the verses right before these we heard read this morning, Jesus says “the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.” And in our passage, “I know my own and my own know me…they will listen to my voice.” Hear the sound of your name as this one who loves you speaks it. You were called into being before you were born. Your name was spoken at your baptism. You are called to be the person you were created to be, the minister you were created to be. Kathy, follow me, you’ll be fed by green pastures and still waters, I will guide along right pathways, and be by your side through the valley of the shadow of death. I will feed you, and fill you. You have been anointed for the work I call you to do.

Each of us are called by name, often lovingly, sometimes urgently, like the sheep, we seek that voice that calls. Sometimes, we wander far and get caught in the brambles, we get hurt, we break our leg. The radical nature of this shepherd is come back for us. That is the good news of this shepherd. Because shepherds don’t do that. The shepherd pictured on the front of our bulletin today wouldn’t have gone back for the hurt and lost sheep. He would have aided that sheep’s demise, a hurt or lost sheep is a liability to an ordinary sheepherder.

I have mixed feelings about Shepherds. The one’s we see portrayed in artwork often look kind and caring, very pastoral. I’ve heard people say that shepherding is good for people who want to be alone; they don’t really have to talk to anyone except the sheep. Some of the commentary’s say that in Jesus’ time, shepherding was for the miscreants, the dregs, shepherding was a job that was scorned by most. A shepherd had to endure the ravages of heat and cold, the attacks by the wolf and other predators. The shepherd had to keep track of all those sheep. A shepherd’s job was not for the faint of heart.

But you and I are called by name, and this particular shepherd is not like the others. This shepherd says and does something truly radical. “I lay down my life for my sheep. I lay down my life in order to take it up again.” What shepherd does that? Jesus, this shepherd, shows us how to live our lives in the new creation. Jesus leads the way of death and resurrection. Jesus shows us that we don’t live our lives as servants because of our reward now or at the end of time, Jesus shows us that in living our lives fully as new creations, as transformed and transforming people, our daily lives spent in the muck and the mud and the mess, have meaning.

We are loved absolutely and abundantly. Jesus laid down his life; he suffered and was killed, and was resurrected from the dead. We follow the shepherd in laying down our lives and taking it up again as a response to that amazing love. And we are transformed and created new on that journey. The journey is not about the endgame, but about being the body of Christ while we journey together. It is about the love and care we have for each other and the rest of creation.

All of the great stories show us this reality. Homer’s Odyssey, Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, C.S. Lewis’ The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, Madeleine L’engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, George Lukas’ Star Wars, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter stories. The hero’s, female and male, in these stories, engage on a journey of transformation, and at one point realize that the death they need to die, is a death to something that gets in the way of their calling. They each must lay down their live in order to take it up again.

Because of our limited human imagination, we think death is an ending. Jesus, the shepherd, shows us that death is just the beginning. It is the beginning of the new creation. It is the beginning of transformation. It is the beginning of being created in God’s image. Death is painful, death is hard, but the promise is that Jesus takes up our life again; Jesus shows us how to do it.

If we are to live this life fully alive, fully aware, fully engaged; if we are to live this life called by our baptism, called by name, marked as Christ’s own forever, we must follow the shepherd to the green pasture, beside the still waters, through the valley of the shadow of death. We must follow the example of the shepherd to die to that which keeps us from ourselves, we must die to that which gets in our way of helping our brother or sister, we must tear down the walls that we build around us that prevent us from seeking and serving Christ in all persons.

And we must rise again to the promise of new life that Jesus shows us.

Alleluia. The Lord is risen indeed: Come let us adore him. Alleluia.