"The kind of food our minds devour will determine the kind of person we become." - John Stott, Your Mind Matters

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Sermon: The God of Shalom

Last fall I was asked to preach my third sermon, on the topic of justice. For several reasons, it was my hardest and most challenging sermon yet. I'll post separately on the process, but first, the sermon:

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The God of Shalom
Amos 5:14-15, 21-24

5:14 Seek good and not evil, that you may live; and so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you, just as you have said. 15 Hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the gate; it may be that the Lord, the God of hosts, will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph....21 I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. 22 Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. 23 Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. 24 But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (NRSV)
 

“Let justice flow like a mighty river, righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” These words, plucked from the book of Amos, are powerful, compelling words. They paint a majestic picture of justice and righteousness as powerful forces at work in our world. They inspire rich images of redemption, reconciliation, and restoration. They are the rallying cry for a World Made Right.

Unfortunately, it’s easy to overlook the fact that a rallying cry implies a battle of sorts. And fighting injustice is no small skirmish. It’s a full-on war against the powers in our world that seek to oppress, exploit and degrade. Systemic injustice runs rampant in our world. Hunger, poverty and slavery abound. Children, women and men are used and abused in the pursuit of money, material possessions and power. Even the earth itself – God’s good creation – suffers at the hands of injustice.

The great battle for justice wasn’t so hard for me to imagine as a child. There was one time when my parents took me to the Smithsonian Museum and as we were walking along the Mall in Washington DC, we came upon a group of demonstrators. They were from the middle east and I’ve long since forgotten the details of their stories. But what I remembered so vividly were the poster-sized photographs they had on display of people from their home country – pictures of men and women with the scars of torture all over their bodies – people who had been mutilated by their government.

Seized with compassion, my imagination jumped into overdrive as I began plotting a way to stop this injustice. The plan read like a spy novel. I’m pretty sure it involved me sneaking into a suitcase on a plane bound for that distant country and being somehow delivered into the company of the torturers. Perhaps I’d take a moment to show them the error of their ways before rescuing all the people that had been tortured and imprisoned.

There was another time when a man we knew had his world turned upside down when his wife chose to leave their marriage. I remember thinking, if only I could just talk to her, I could convince her to go back – and they would live happily ever after.

As a child, I was filled with imagination for what the world could be like, and with hopefulness that it could actually happen. I saw the suffering of those around me and responded with compassion and – if not real action – at least a deep desire for action that could not be satisfied by my 11 year old self.

I wonder if this resonates with any of you? Was there a time when you felt that deep sense of possibility that you could change the world?

Thirty years later, I find myself wondering what happened to that passionate optimism that I could help change the world. Reality has taken its toll. People who sneak into suitcases to confront torturers are quite likely to be tortured themselves. Justice is risky, dangerous even. And trained adults – let alone a little kid – tend to have very little success rationalizing with those who have chosen to hold their power over others. Justice is not a quick fix. As I grew up – as I am growing up still – my understanding of the world has grown increasingly complex. What was once so black and white, so clear-cut and straightforward, has now taken on the full spectrum of gray. Justice is complex, and the messyness of this world constantly overwhelms my attempts to get a handle on any given situation.

And sometimes that sense of overwhelming-ness can translate into a blind spot – we cease to look those problems in the eye anymore. It’s too overwhelming, too painful, too emotionally-draining.

In time, that withdrawal from the suffering that exists all around us can turn to ambivalence and apathy. And after that? Well, it gets ugly.

And “ugly” is where we re-enter the GodStory today, in the book of Amos.

Enter the wealthy, comfortable and contented Israelites of the 8th century BC, who lived in the northern kingdom of Israel. By all accounts they were living the good life: great prosperity, beautiful homes and lush vineyards. By all appearances, they were devout: their worship was regular, ordered and beautiful.

But God called Amos – an ordinary farmer, an outsider from the south – to be a prophet, to speak into the Israelite’s lives. God called Amos to turn appearances upside down and inside out, to reveal the truth of the matter as only Yahweh could truly do: these beautiful lives were built on a foundation of injustice.

The earlier part of Amos chapter 5 gives us a clearer picture of just what’s going on in Israel: the citizens are collectively described as those who hate justice and truth-telling. They’re burdening the poor with harsh taxes, they’re oppressing the innocent and taking bribes that award unfair advantage to their wealthy friends. Some are trying to remain neutral by keeping silent, but Amos sees no difference and lumps them in with the rest as agents of injustice.

These people, who had once felt the sting of oppression as slaves in Egypt, had now become the oppressors.

These Israelites, whom God had especially called to be a blessing to the nations, were using their wealth and privilege to take advantage of the most vulnerable from among their own people.

And worst of all, these oppressors sought to procure God’s approval by outward acts of worship. On the Sabbath, they celebrated, prayed, sacrificed and sang – all in Yahweh’s name. They read the liturgy and sang the doxology, but all their pious worship never left the temple – and their daily lives were stained with injustice. They had attempted to draw a neat line between sacred and secular, between worship and work, but it was in vain.

God, through Amos, does not mince words about just what he thinks of the Israelites’ worship. There is rage in this passage that is neither easy nor comfortable to hear, but hear it we must, because it comes from the very heart of God, who loves justice. God will not speak timidly when God’s children are being oppressed.

The problem is that in all of the Israelites’ religious posturing, they’ve lost God in the mix. The noise of their own self-righteousness and self-interest has made them deaf to the heartbeat of God, and their religion has lost its substance. They’ve lost sight of their calling to be a blessing to the nations – and how can they do that until they learn to treat each other right? They’re trying to treat God right without treating God’s people right, and Amos is there as God’s witness to declare that the two cannot be separated.

This was no small thing. Amaziah, the priest at Bethel, accused Amos of treason and tried to have him killed. The prophet’s words were a threat to the status quo – in the 8th century BC and even now, here, in this place. But any who desire to worship God well, every day of the week, need prophets who will speak into our cultures of religiosity and challenge us again and again to return to our calling to bless those around us. Eugene Peterson writes,
“The biblical prophets continue to be the most powerful and effective voices ever heard on this earth for keeping religion honest, humble and compassionate. Prophets sniff out injustice, especially injustice that is dressed up in religious garb. They sniff it out a mile away. Prophets see through hypocrisy, especially hypocrisy that assumes a religious pose.”
I wonder how Amos might be speaking to us today, calling you and I toward greater honesty, humility and compassion?

It is true that religiosity and hypocrisy are a part of each of our stories as “spectacularly flawed people.” But our hope and salvation is in finding ourselves within the GodStory, and focusing our gaze on its Hero – God himself, who is always tipping the scales toward grace. This passage too has something to tell us about God. What does this moment of anger tell us about God’s character?

This one took me a little time to process. Until finally, a friend of mine challenged me to consider God’s response here within the microcosm of my own family. So, I imagined I’d caught one of my older kids, whom I love, somehow abusing the youngest, whom I also love. The older one is using his power and status – not to help, not to serve – but to take advantage of the smallest, the weakest. I could feel the anger, followed by disappointment and grief – I raised him to be better than this!

I wouldn’t mince words about my anger or disappointment. Warnings would be issued. But, my primary concern would be to double-up on my efforts to teach them how to treat each other, so that this didn’t happen again.

And throughout it all, my love for all of my children would be unwavering.

The bad news is that I have been that older sibling. I suspect we all have, at one time or another. We are all implicated in the power games, the selfish advantage-taking.

But thanks be to God, the Good News is this: In Amos Chapter 5, God emerges as an involved parent, committed to the wellbeing as well as the righteous upbringing of his children, whom he loves. The Hero of our story is One who loves justice, rescues the oppressed, and will not rest until his own people are transformed into lovers of justice themselves.  

And so, the Israelites’ story doesn’t end with condemnation – and neither does ours – for God didn’t send Amos without a remedy for religiosity and hypocrisy. “Seek good and not evil,” Amos says, and you will re-discover God with you. “Hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the gate” and you just might re-discover his grace, too.

The heartbeat of God is for justice. Because God loves his creation, God loves justice and cares, deeply, about how we treat each other. This is a recurring theme throughout the whole of Scripture. Consider:
  • The birth of Israel as a nation chosen to be a blessing to other nations
  • The giving of the Law, which revolved around the right treatment of people (especially widows, orphans, resident aliens), the right treatment of animals, and even the land
  • The arrival of Christ, who lived out God’s justice with perfect compassion and holiness, and finally,
  • The birth of the church, called to enact God’s justice on the earth.
Are you getting a sense of just how much God cares about justice, how central it is to what God is doing in our world?

Once again: God is revealing his character as one who loves justice, rescues the oppressed, and will not rest until his own people are transformed into lovers of justice themselves.

So, how do we go from worshipping a God who loves justice, to being transformed into lovers of justice ourselves? How do we cultivate a lifestyle characterised by justice? Amos’ words are deceptively simple: seek good, hate evil. My friend Stacey Gleddiesmith suggests that a good place to start is lament. She writes,

Lament can wake the comfortable church to the reality of a suffering world, encouraging the church to align itself with Christ alongside the marginalized and those who suffer poverty, sickness, and injustice. Lament is an encouragement to action, because through it we call upon the justice and person of God, and are thus drawn into alignment with the kingdom of God..[1]

Lament requires that we repeatedly turn our gaze upon the suffering world. In doing so, we attempt to absorb the statistics:
  • 25,000 children die every day of hunger or related causes (U.N.) [2]
  • Nearly 21 million people in our world – 2 million of them children – are bought and sold for sex[3]
  • Nearly half of the world’s population — over 3 billion people — live on less than $2.50 a day. Over a billion of those live in extreme poverty (less than $1.25 a day)[4]
Closer to home,
  • We see the homeless – teen runaways, addicts, prostitutes and the mentally ill – consigned to the streets – even now as winter approaches, and we hear neighbourhood communities arguing about what to do with them – NIMBY (or, Not In My BackYard) is the prevailing attitude[5]
  • We see retired public servants in danger of losing their hard-earned pensions, as the government puts them on the chopping block to help repair a broken system[6]
  • And on an individual level, perhaps we feel more personally the injustice of a neighbour wrongfully terminated, or inwardly cringe at the racist comments of our coworker.
Big and small, we are confronted on a daily basis with the world’s suffering. And although every bone in our bodies may resist this constant self-imposed subjection to the pain of others, it is through this path of lament that we begin to realign our values with God’s values. And so, we don’t just turn off the news or look the other way, but allow ourselves to feel it, to grieve, with those who suffer. This might just be the place where God speaks, and so we turn our ears – and our hearts – to hear.

In order to align our values with God’s, we must call injustice what it is: evil. We must stop talking about ‘unfortunate injustices’ in our world and start praying, start imagining how situations and systems can be redeemed by the power of God. Lament pushes us toward action, because it draws us into the heart of God, who cannot see injustice and remain unmoved by compassion. As our heartbeats become attuned to God’s, that same compassion will begin to flow through us.

And here is where we sometimes get stuck: the compassion is there, the desire to act is present, but the reality of what it means to pursue justice can stop us in our tracks. Once again, justice is incredibly complex, it can be risky, and it’s not a quick fix.

How do we join our compassion and our desire to act with the messy reality of injustice in our world? How do we maintain optimism and hope when we begin to feel very small against the giant backdrop of  all that is wrong in our world?

“Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” This is no man-made faucet which we can turn on and off, some human invention out of which we occasionally pour a glass of cold water for the thirsty. It is a mighty river, constantly flowing and refreshing and drenching, and it’s bigger than any one of us or our deeds. Justice is God’s work, and we are called to be participants, co-redeemers. The good news here is that justice is what God is doing in the world. Establishing justice is not about you and me, striving and struggling to constantly be doing more. It’s about becoming a people who listen to the heart of God, and who respond with compassion and generosity to the things God puts on our hearts:
  • Justice is about discovering God’s heart for shalom – the all-encompassing wholeness and peace for all of God’s creation
  • It’s about recognizing how we might be hindering that shalom – by our abuse or misuse of our power, privilege, money, possessions or status
  • Justice is about considering whether a change in our lifestyles can ease the burdens of others’ lives around the world
  • Justice is about seeking reconciliation for wrongs made by ourselves or by others on our behalf – on behalf of the government, on behalf of the church.
  • Justice is about going beyond charity to challenge injustice at the core – starting with the question “WHY are things the way they are?”
  • Justice is about using our power and our privilege, our wallets and our degrees, our voices and our votes to care for those who are powerless and vulnerable, poor and marginalized, voiceless and in need.
As our heartbeats become attuned to God’s, his compassion and generosity will begin to flow through us. Rather than being browbeaten or guilt-tripped into helping others, we’ll catch a vision for just what this kingdom of God is all about. This is what frees you and me to respond in love to God’s invitation for us to join in this kingdom-making, dream-building adventure to which God calls us, saying, Come and See! Imagine with me what this world could be – and will be, when justice flows like a mighty river and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream!

Before I close with a prayer, I’d like to make room for a moment or two of silence, to allow us to listen for the heartbeat of what God is doing in our city and our world. There’s an insert in your bulletin with the six Justice Statements I just mentioned, if you’d like to take a look. Maybe there’s one that stands out, or stirs something in you.



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Prayer: For the Courage to Do Justice

O Lord,
open our eyes that we may see the needs of refugees;
open our ears that we may hear people's cries for justice;
open our hearts that we may assist sojourners near and far.

Show us where love, hope and faith are needed.
Use us as ministers of your healing.
Let us not be afraid
to protect the weak because of the anger of the strong,
or to defend the poor because of the power of the rich.

Sustain us so that in these coming days
we may be able to do some work of peace for you.
We ask these things in your blessed name. Amen[7]



[1] Stacey Gleddiesmith, in her article, “Identifying With Christ: Why We’re Called to Lament for Our Suffering World” at “http://www.reformedworship.org/article/december-2010/identifying-christ


[2] International Justice Mission


[3] International Labour Organization, ILO global estimate of forced labour: results and methodology(2012) p. 13. http://www.equalitynow.org/node/1010


[4] http://www.dosomething.org/tipsandtools/11-facts-about-global-poverty


[5] See http://www.edmontonjournal.com/news/Anglican+Diocese+nixes+controversial+Terwillegar+project/9127039/story.html


[6] http://www.benefitscanada.com/pensions/governance-law/public-sector-pension-reform-includes-retirees-45291


[7] ~ from The Uprooted Ones: Remembering Refugees (Uniting Church in Australia),  In Welcoming the Stranger, posted on the Minnesota Council of Churches website. http://www.mnchurches.org/refugeeservices/wp-content/uploads/2011/08/Refugee-Sunday-Service-Planning-Materials.pdf

Monday, June 24, 2013

Mourning With Those Who Mourn: A Prayer for the Displaced, Lost and Grieving

Since I started attending our liturgical Baptist church in the city, I've had the opportunity to try my hand at writing small bits of liturgy along the way. I've been so fascinated by the process, of looking at the first and second testament readings, pre-reading the sermon if available, and then weaving common themes into prayers of invocation and calls to worship. This past Sunday was my first time being in charge of the prayers of the people - a daunting task for me, since I have felt like a prayer-novice all my life.



I got some helpful guidance from the wise pastoral staff at church, but one that was particularly freeing was the advice to let the prayer sound like it's from me and not someone else. So, I pressed forward to combine the sermon theme ("seeking the peace and well-being of the city" - Jeremiah 29:7) with some of the themes that have been on my own heart recently.

Over the last couple of weeks, I've been doing quite a bit of mourning with those mourn and, my own version of this verse: questioning with those who question. My parents have been facing a second summer of intense wildfires that have destroyed friends' homes and threatened many others. My province has faced some of the worst floods in the history of Alberta, forcing 100,000 people to evacuate their homes, not knowing what they'll find when they return. Friends of ours have travailed through the adoption process for close to four years, only to have their beloved daughter pass away weeks before she was to come home to them from across the world. An old friend of mine chose to take his life on Father's Day, leaving a wife and four young children behind to figure out how to make sense of something so senseless.

I wrote this prayer with these things in mind.

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Heavenly Father, who looks with loving compassion on all of your creation, we lift up our prayers to you.

There are so many who have been displaced - by flood and fire, war and famine.
May they be fed and cared for, and may they find kindness on their journeys.
Lead them to a safe place, to find comfort under the shelter of your wings.
May they find their home in you.


For those who have found themselves where they did not expect to be,
Oh Lord, hear our prayer.


For those who have experienced loss – of homes, jobs, good health, and of loved ones,
May they find your love and the light of your promises to be enough for the next step.
Lead them to a place of hope, to find glimpses of joy in their journey.
Bind up their wounds – so tenderly – and fill them again with your goodness and mercy.

For those who grieve and seek a path forward toward hope,
Oh Lord, hear our prayer.


For those who have wandered far from you - who feel forsaken, forgotten, or fearful,
May they find that you are not so far off after all.
May they trust in your prodigal love,
And run into your outstretched arms with joy.

For those who are lost and in need of God’s welcome,
Oh Lord, hear our prayer.


And lastly, we pray, for those of us who are comfortable – safe, healthy and secure.
We heartily thank you for your many blessings.
May we be agents of your blessing to others as we seek the peace and prosperity of this city.
Lead us to those whom you look upon with compassion – the overworked, the underfed, the neglected and the depressed.
Fill us with your grace and mercy and love, that we may be healers in your name

For those in need of what we have to offer,
Oh Lord, hear our prayer.

Amen.

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PS - In my struggle to know what to say when there is nothing suitable to say, I found this article, entitled Stop Trying to Get God Off the Hook to be quite helpful. Maybe you will too. 

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

When Two Plus Two Equals Five: The Spirit in Community

Well, I got my second chance at a sermon, preached on May 19, 2013 at First Baptist Church in Edmonton, AB. Here it is:


Acts 2:1-4 When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.

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Today we conclude our 37-week narrative lectionary with the story of Pentecost – the long-awaited outpouring of the Holy Spirit, the holy Wind which blew new life into the people of God. Over the past few Sundays, we’ve jumped ahead to see what grew out of that first amazing wind-and-fire experience: we’ve watched the clueless disciples grow into spirit-filled leaders of the early church.

And it all started with Pentecost. I wonder what images or ideas come to mind for you with the word “Pentecost?”

Perhaps you or someone you know has had a “Pentecostal” experience – a supernatural outpouring of some kind. Perhaps it brought you joy. Or perhaps it made you uncomfortable. Maybe the word ‘Pentecost’ awakens your own discomfort with anything that feels too mystical or touchy-feely in the spirituality department. For some of us in the Baptist tradition who have trouble knowing just what to do with mystery, perhaps we’ve simply skipped over Pentecost rather quickly to the more tangible aspects of our faith. Or, maybe it’s a word you don’t even really understand.

My strongest association with the word is one of discomfort and it comes from my Bible College years, when I volunteered for a weekend with a Christian prison ministry. What I witnessed that weekend was a manufactured event that used spiritual themes to manipulate broken people. My disillusionment turned to indignation when I received a follow-up letter in the mail, declaring the event a rousing success. In fact, the letter stated: whereas only 3000 people were saved on the day of Pentecost, over 5000 were saved this weekend alone at the Weekend of Champions!!!

Unfortunately, this is what often comes to mind when I hear the word “Pentecost” – the way a Christian organization boiled down this climactic moment in history where God fulfilled his ancient promise to pour out his own Spirit on his people – to a success story about numbers.

And this is how some people think about the Spirit – that “it” is a powerful force which can be harnessed by people to manufacture results – numbers saved, miracles performed, power demonstrated – all of which are more about the product than the people. Or even worse, some have seen such demonstrations and declared the whole business to be phony, a sham.

The Gospel of the Holy Spirit
This is not the Holy Spirit as revealed in the Book of Acts, which has sometimes been referred to as the Gospel of the Holy Spirit. Whereas the traditional four gospels tell the story of Jesus as he walked this earth, this “fifth gospel,” if you will, tells the story of the adventures of the Holy Spirit – arriving on the scene to shape a ragtag band of confused followers into the New People of God. This relationship of Spirit and people would become the means by which God’s purposes in the world were, and are still, being accomplished.

In order to appreciate just how shocking such an idea must have been to the early Jewish believers, keep in mind that all they would have known of the presence of the Holy Spirit was vicarious, through the occasional and individual experiences of the prophets, judges and other leaders. And, at this point in their history, it’s been 400 years since even that happened.

And yet – they had heard the words of the prophet Joel, spoken so long ago, and which --- read earlier in the service:
“I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days.”
“I will pour out my Spirit on all people.” It must’ve been such a strange and wonderful idea. What would it be like for everyone to be filled with God’s Spirit?

The Disciples Are On Their Own
Eight hundred years after Joel wrote those words of God’s generous and inclusive gifting of his Spirit, we find the disciples at the beginning of the Book of Acts, probably wondering the very same thing. These men and women had walked with Jesus – they prayed and cried and ate with him. And Jesus taught them – about the Father and the kingdom of God, and about the Spirit that was to come. Jesus shared some pretty big dreams with them – bigger than Israel, even! – and they’re routinely left reeling and trying to make sense of it all.

There was a generosity, an expansiveness, to what Jesus was saying – he was constantly and tenderly stretching the disciples’ minds and imaginations about just how big God’s purposes of redemption really are.

And then, he was gone – ascended on the clouds to heaven. Despite the promise that Jesus would indeed come back to complete his mysterious restoration-mission – in the meantime they are left alone. Jesus, the resurrected God-man who is the driving force of this still-fragile movement, has left the planet. How brutal was that?

The disciples are on their own now, 120 men and women, with a pretty fuzzy picture of what happens next. They were inspired to dream big with Jesus, but without him – well, What now?, they wondered, and How?

This is one of the reasons that the book of Acts was written – to address the (failed) expectation of the first Christians that Jesus would return imminently – like, within weeks or months. It’s Luke’s attempt to show the early believers what it meant and what it looked like to be God’s people – to be the Church – in the meantime. And the key to that puzzle is that they were not alone for long – the Holy Spirit would love and lead them every bit as intimately as Jesus had.

And so, as the disciples ponder what they are to do next, they realise there is nothing they can do…except what Jesus told them to do: wait. Wait for the promised Spirit – this wild, untameable Wind which blows wherever it pleases. Wait, for God’s own presence cannot be summoned, contained, controlled or directed.

So these ones who love Jesus wait, and they pray – constantly, Luke tell us. It couldn’t have been easy to wait for God to act. It never is.

The Day of Pentecost
And then, the day of Pentecost comes. This ancient Jewish holiday began as a great celebration of God’s provision, when the firstfruits of the harvest were returned to him with thankfulness. It later expanded to include a commemoration of the giving of the law on Mt Sinai. It was an important day in the life of devout Jews, who gathered in Jerusalem from across the known world.

A perfect storm was gathering, out of which the Church would be birthed. The first followers of Jesus and a great multinational crowd of dispersed Jews were converging in this time and place to celebrate the generous provision of God, when something like a mighty wind swept among them. Something like fire – for metaphors are as close as Luke can get to describing the experience – came and settled upon the heads of the believers. And in the midst of the whirlwind and the tongues of flame, God’s Spirit came to rest, once and for all, upon the people – women and men, young and old, servants and masters. The same Spirit who, in the very beginning, had hovered over the void and filled the earth with divine creativity was now filling the hearts of the people gathered in this place.

And the Spirit’s first work was to create relationships where there had been none. The Spirit spoke words into the mouths of those astonished believers, familiar words in the road-weary travellers’ own languages, words that sounded like home – the language of loved ones left behind. And those familiar words told of something utterly new. They spoke of “the wonders of God” – not only what God had done and was doing, even now. God was on the move!

Despite their common heritage, the local and dispersed Jews were strangers amongst each other. Their languages and adopted cultures had divided them. What they left with was a new sense of community, a shared identity as the New People of God.

And there was more…

In the space of a few moments, Peter, who had not so very long ago denied even knowing Jesus, was now eloquently proclaiming the great God-story to an audience of thousands. He was painting the big picture of God on the move. And all this by God’s Spirit!

And so began the adventures of the Holy Spirit. I like the way Barbara Brown Taylor describes what happened. She says:
“Shy people had become bold, scared people had become gutsy, and lost people had found a sure sense of direction. Disciples who had not believed themselves capable of tying their own sandals without Jesus, discovered abilities within themselves they had not known they had…In short order, they were doing things they had never seen anyone but him do. And there was no explanation for it except that they dared to inhale on the day of Pentecost. They had sucked in God’s own breath and they had been transformed by it... The book of Acts is the story of their adventures.”
Gutsy, capable, gifted, transformed: these were the signs of the Spirit in the lives of the first believers. By the Spirit, Stephen the martyr was able to die with grace and with words of forgiveness, even as he fell at the hands of violent men.  By the Spirit, Saul the murderer became Paul the evangelist. And by the Spirit, Peter had a vision that resulted in Jews and Gentiles finding more common ground than they ever thought possible.

Recognizing the Spirit
One thing is clear about this mysterious Third Person of the trinity: The Holy Spirit is full of surprises!

Do we recognize this same Spirit, living and working in us?

My experience of the Holy Spirit seems a lot more mundane than that of the folks in Acts. It’s hazy, subtle – I don’t always know what is the Spirit and what is my own will or wishful thinking, or simple coincidence. I don’t tend to think of my experiences as epic or heroic.

Once again, Barbara Brown Taylor proved helpful to me as I struggled to recognize the presence of the Holy Spirit in my own life. Here’s what she says:
“Once you get the hang of it, the evidence is easy to find. Whenever 2+2 does not equal 4 but 5, whenever you begin to speak with eloquence you know you do not have, or find yourself offering forgiveness you had not meant to offer, whenever you find yourself taking risks you know you do not have the courage to take, or when you find yourself walking toward someone you meant to walk away from, then you can be pretty sure that you are experiencing the gospel of the Holy Spirit.”
Last week, as Anne described the spiritual practice of clothing ourselves with Christ, she mentioned putting on the “glasses of attentiveness.” What stands out when we peer through these new Spirit-lenses?
  •  Perhaps some of us have experienced our own 2+2=5 phenomenon…
  • Or shocked ourselves and others with unexpected eloquence, or unplanned forgiveness….
  • Maybe we’ve shown courage or kindness when what we really wanted was to run away….
These images offer a window into the Spirit’s work that I can identify with in my own life. They bring to mind another experience from my Bible College years, in which each student was assigned a volunteer placement for each semester. My assignment was to visit AIDS patients and other terminally ill people at a dark and dingy little four-storey nursing home in downtown Chicago. Every week, I dreaded going to this sad and depressing place. Every week, I considered taking one of my few allotted cuts.

But, I went, and sat and visited with these sick and lonely people – most of whom had long since been abandoned or forgotten by family and loved ones. And every single time I went, I was filled with the most incredible sense of joy. I knew God’s Spirit had been there with me. I continued visiting on my own for another year and a half after my assignment was completed, and it never got easier to go, but it also never ceased to bring me great joy when I did. I have since learned to recognize this unexpected and intense joy as one of the clearest signposts of the Holy Spirit’s presence in my life.

What is your signpost? How do you most clearly sense the Spirit’s presence?

Joy, fellowship, forgiveness, or risky, courageous love – what it boils down to is our relationships with each other. The Spirit is most readily seen and experienced in the context of community. It was true on that first day of Pentecost and it is true today.

A Spirit-Filled People
And this is something that we must not miss: there’s an awful lot of togetherness going on in this passage, and indeed, the entire Book of Acts. Luke repeatedly makes a point of telling us that the first believers did what they did together. Though there is most certainly an individual element as well as a communal one to this Pentecost-story, we must not forget that the Holy Spirit was poured out on a people who would not have comprehended the individualism by which we define ourselves today.

This great inaugural Spirit-filling happened in the context of community. Or more precisely, the Spirit was creating – birthing–  a people  through whom God’s purposes would be accomplished in the world. We have been preaching about the NPOG – the New People of God and about God’s great work of providence, transformation and restoration….Here’s where it all starts. On the day of Pentecost, God chose to pour out his Spirit, forever, on a whole community of people.

A Spirit-Filled First Baptist Church
So on Pentecost Sunday, let’s not limit our awareness of what the Spirit is doing to our own personal, interior experiences. Let’s take a look at the bigger picture as well. What is the Spirit doing amongst us as a people at First Baptist Church? What does it look like to experience our own Spirit-filling in relationship with others?

Let’s take a moment to think about that.

How are we enabled to be a community through whom God’s purposes are being accomplished in the world”? How do we live out of this story 2000 years later?

Just like those first believers at Pentecost, we too are empowered by the Spirit with gifts and abilities we did not know we had. By God’s Spirit, we are specially enabled to help transform our world in this time and in this place. The next question is, How?

Well, as a new member here, I can tell you that the diversity of this community is what stands out to me. We are a mixed group, and you know what? – It works. We work. We may disagree, we may argue and hurt each other once in awhile, but we also hear each other. We grow. We love. We press into God’s story and find ourselves there, together. We are empowered by the Holy Spirit to journey with each other, in all the richness of our diversity.

We are also a people who care a lot about stories – our own, others’, and most of all, God’s Great Story. Just like those first believers at Pentecost, we too have a Story to tell. We are a community that is actively learning how to live into and out of God’s story, and how to speak that Story into others’ lives. Today, we got to hear a piece of ---’s story, and to celebrate the journey she’s been on to discover her own place within God’s story.

And this, I believe, is what it means to be Jesus’ witnesses: yes, we are to heartily proclaim the risen Christ, but even more so we are to live out the reality that Christ has made for us – that God is breaking down walls, mending relationships and healing our world. By God’s Spirit, we are the gospel made flesh – loving, forgiving, restoring, and building relationships where there were none.

So, today on Pentecost Sunday, and as we enter the season that follows, let’s be attentive to what the Spirit is doing in this place, in and through this people. How is the Spirit inviting us to grow over these next 26 weeks?

Let’s take a moment now to sit with the Spirit, who lives in us, and gives life to this community. Take a deep breath and breathe in of the Spirit, who sets us aglow with peace, joy, boldness, and extravagant love (1). Let’s take a moment to put on those Glasses of Attentiveness and take a peek at just what manner of adventures the Spirit is up to in this place. And then I’ll close with a prayer (2).

***

O Holy Spirit, by whose breath
Life rises vibrant out of death;
Come to create, renew, inspire;
Come, kindle in our hearts your fire.

In you God’s energy is shown,
To us your varied gifts make known.
Teach us to speak, teach us to hear;
Yours is the tongue and yours the ear.


***

Benediction
Dearly loved people of God, may you find yourselves swept off your feet and into the adventure to which you have been called by God’s own Spirit – a great journey full of divine surprises and holy intrigue – and may you find here in this place companions for the journey, and encouragement for the path ahead.

***

(1) from a quote by Brennan Manning, which I initially included but had to cut: “The gospel is absurd and the life of Jesus is meaningless unless we believe that He lived, died, and rose again with but one purpose in mind: to make brand-new creation. Not to make people with better morals but to create a community of prophets and professional lovers, men and women who would surrender to the mystery of the fire of the Spirit that burns within, who would live in ever greater fidelity to the omnipresent Word of God, who would enter into the center of it all, the very heart and mystery of Christ, into the center of the flame that consumes, purifies, and sets everything aglow with peace, joy, boldness, and extravagant, furious love. This, my friend, is what it really means to be a Christian.” – Brennan Manning
(2) from the hymn, Oh Holy Spirit, By Whose Breath
(3) Please note that I've borrowed the title of this post ("When 2+2=5") from Barbara Brown Taylor, whom I've quoted within this sermon.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Accidental Agents and the Texture of the Kingdom

"And there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain."

So says God himself in the Book of Revelation: Here is what my redeemed, restored world will NOT look like. All of this crap will be gone – forever! It’s a comforting thought, a verse that has encouraged me in some of my darker days.

But I've only been getting half the point. These things - death, mourning, crying, pain - won't be there. What will be there in their absence? A recent rereading of this verse caught my imagination.


Not death, but...life! 

Not mourning, but...rejoicing! 

Not crying, but...laughing! 

Not pain, but...pleasure!

Not death, but life! Not only will we not die, but we will live – we will experience life in all its fullness and richness. What was broken when Adam and Eve sinned will be mended, redeemed – we will recover the full-bodied experience of life in harmony with God, each other and all of creation.

Not mourning, but rejoicing! All that once caused us to mourn will be gone: death, injustice, unkindness, un-fulfillment, greed, hunger, infertility, homelessness, disease, pollution, hypocrisy, deception, abuse, loneliness, selfishness, popularity contests. In place of all these things we’ll be able to rejoice in the shalom of God: life that is characterised by equity, kindness, fulfillment, generosity, feasting, truth, and community, to name just a few examples of what God thinks is worth rejoicing over.

Not crying, but laughing! As I tried to tease out a nuance of meaning for the opposite of crying as opposed to mourning, I came up with laughing. I’m pretty sure some kind of good belly-laughter will be going on in God’s redeemed world. I think there will be good jokes, and an ability to laugh at ourselves and with others in a way that evokes joy, not derision.

Not pain, but pleasure! And again, what is the opposite of pain – health? Yes, but I wondered if that’s aiming a bit too low – how about pleasure? Apart from pain and the brokenness that too often attaches itself to our experience of pleasure in the present, imagine the pleasure we’ll enjoy when there is only joy to be had – not guilt or condemnation or the risk of being rejected or hurt?

Life, rejoicing, laughing, pleasure: these are what life with God will look like. This is the texture of the kingdom. And this kingdom is not far off, but near. Here. We are kingdom-makers in the here and now, subversively turning the world on its head: what is broken is being mended, what is impure is being made pure, what is high is being brought low, and what is low is being lifted up.


And this leads to the question:

How are we agents of life, rejoicing, laughing and pleasure in our lives right now


And that might lead to the question:

Are we? 


Are we, who proclaim Christ, agents of life, rejoicing, laughing and pleasure, or are we accidental agents of something else, something that does not reflect God's deep love and good plan for the world?

Are we as the Church known for speaking words of life or for sucking it away 
through endless posturing and debate? 


Do our choices and actions bring life, or do they wound and injure and tear down? 


Do our imaginations make room for God’s amazing ability to redeem what is broken, 
or do they assume that large parts of this world are hopeless and doomed for destruction? 

Are we known as ones who rejoice in the knowledge that all are made in the image of God 
and loved by God, or as ones who choose instead to criticize, judge and condemn? 


Are we known for our sense of humour, as ones who find laughter and joy to be closely intertwined, 
or are we known more for our furrowed brows and disapproving glares? 


Are we known for our enjoyment of pleasure - as ones who experience God through good food, 
good art, good sex, and good work - or are we known as ones who fear pleasure 
and view it as being at odds with our spirituality? 


Most of us, I imagine, are a mixture of both - the good and the ugly, the holy and the base, the old and the new. We waffle between the reality of this world and the dream of the next, and stumble in the dissonance between the two. But God himself speaks these words to ignite the early church’s – and our – imaginations: "I am making everything new!" Here is what God is doing, and we’re a part of it! We are characters in God’s story, and we have a role to play in the unfolding of his kingdom, the realization of his dream. Start dreaming a little bigger, he says, let me stretch your imaginations to make room for all the grace and goodness I have for this world.

And so we pray: Let us be stretched! Let us make ever more room in our hearts and our minds and our world for life, rejoicing, laughing and pleasure, that the dream of God's kingdom may become reality!