Monday, May 24, 2010

The Day of Pentecost [Year C] - May 23, 2010 (Acts 2:1-21 and Romans 8:14-17)

“When the Day of Pentecost had come, the apostles were all together in one place.”

That is how Luke begins his 4-verse account of the bestowal of the Holy Spirit. He does not explicitly say why they were all gathered together in one place, but we can assume it is because that is what the Jewish people did on the fiftieth day after Passover. Pentecost, which literally means “fiftieth day” in Greek, was actually the Jewish festival of Shavuot, the commemoration of Moses’ reception of the stone tablets containing the Ten Commandments on Mt. Sinai.

According to the time tables given in the Old Testament, the Israelites arrived at Mt. Sinai fifty days after having left Egypt through the Red Sea. They had persevered through the harsh landscape of the desert, escaped the brutal Egyptian army only by the grace of God, and had found themselves camped out at the base of a rather nondescript but yet imposing mountain in order to get further directions from God as to what he wanted them to do and what type of people they were going to be. That was the basic idea behind Moses’ tablets: a definition not only of what they were to do, but also who they were to be. They were but a hapless little community of brick-laying slaves, yet the law would give them clear identity and purpose. It was an instance of divine grace. The Israelites knew they had done absolutely nothing to receive these gracious laws and commands, but having them—and living them—would set them apart from the rest of the world.

As it happened, in Jesus’ day, the festival of Pentecost, or Shavuot, was one of the three main pilgrimage holidays whereby families would gather themselves together and take a trip to Jerusalem. I suppose you may think of it like Thanksgiving, except everyone who had the resources to make the trip was descending upon the same place, and things in Jerusalem could get a little rowdy. So, in a way, I guess it was like Spring Break. Thanksgiving and Spring Break, rolled into one, all on the occasion to celebrate God’s gracious outpouring of his law.

So, it is in this context—in a Jerusalem filled with pilgrims from all over the known world—that we find the disciples of Jesus gathered together in one place. Little did they know that as they would gather—as, in fact, as their risen Lord had directed them to—God would once more miraculously pour out his grace yet again, showing them what God wants them to do and what kind of people they are to be.

This time, however, God would really not hold back. The very bond of love and power that had radiated between the Father and the Son from the beginning of creation would be issued down upon the believers not like stone tablets, but like a mighty rushing wind. The very entity that had given life and shape to the Father’s relationship with the Son would be sent to dwell among human beings. Here, at Pentecost, when most of the people around the city would be remembering the day when Moses came down the mountain with his face glowing like fire because he had been in God’s presence, God would shower tongues of fire to light up the faces of all believers.

So, then, what does Pentecost for those apostles turn out to be? It turns out to be about receiving God’s grace, once more, in the form of God’s own Spirit. It is about receiving a new law, but this time one that is written upon people’s hearts and that is how they are set apart from the rest of the world. Pentecost is about the formation of a new movement, a new pilgrimage of faith that will take the message of Jesus and his resurrection not to the city of God, but in the other direction—to the ends of the earth. All types and groups of people will be drawn in to know what it means to know that Jesus is risen: Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, and all those other far off places that are difficult to pronounce. We may as well add residents of the West End and Glen Allen, and parts of Richmond technically belonging to Chesterfield County. All of these diverse, different peoples are brought into the family of the Spirit known as the Church. Just as Jesus, in his resurrection, has declared victory over sin, death, and all that separates creation from God, the Spirit, in its outpouring, has put an exclamation point on that victory by drawing people into this movement and giving them the power to share the good news.

This is what Pentecost now celebrates, for those who follow the Lord. This is what the Holy Spirit does. It gathers. It unites. It calls together. It breaks down barriers. It helps embody forgiveness and selfless love among people of all kinds. And just like the Spirit gathered an unsuspecting community of disciples that first Pentecost in Jerusalem, the Spirit is still doing that today.

I ask you this: where else will you find a gathering this multi-generational, this demographically diverse, this…well, let’s be honest…random, on a regular basis? Where else will you find such an otherwise disconnected group of people coming together, week after week, to learn and speak together a new language of love, no less? In this place, and in others like it throughout the world, we share our hopes for our children, our desires for a better world, our prayers for healing and wholeness. Look around you. The church of Christ—this peculiar movement that is 2000 years old and going strong—is the only place where this type of interaction happens, and it is the Spirit who enables it.

In his recent article entitled, “Reasons to Join: In Defense of Organized Religion,” Episcopal priest Garret Keizer remarks, “If I were asked to say in one sentence what was the chief benefit of all my years in church, I might say that it forced me to hang out with people I’d not otherwise have met" (The Christian Century, April 22, 2008, p 30). In a culture that continues to glorify personal preference and idolize the power of the individual, the Holy Spirit draw us back in to each other, forming a community that transcends time and space. In societies that are hell-bent on breaking us apart into groups and getting us to concentrate on our differences, the Holy Spirit speaks to us the word about Jesus, reminding us that in baptism we are all made children of God, “and if children,” the apostle Paul says, “then God’s own heirs.” That is the type of people we are to be—God’s own heirs. Can you imagine it?—and the types of things we are supposed to do will flow naturally from this new identity.

In fact, in this movement we are so renewed by Christ’s grace we will be empowered to go do things for and in the world that, left completely to ourselves and our own desires, we would never normally do: deeds of service and selflessness that will set us apart in their very extravagance. We are so transformed by the words and language we hear here—so free, Paul says, from our old spirit of slavery to sin—that the world will at times think we’re drunk, that we must be out of our minds.

Earlier this week I was at a conference in the Rocky Mountains, invited to be a part of a conversation with other pastors and lay leaders about the future of the church, especially when it comes to Christian education, confirmation ministry, and equipping people to live the faith in their homes. It was a stimulating discussion. We talked about the challenges and the strengths of youth and family ministry, and shared each of our congregation’s best practices. We lamented the statistics that show an appallingly low percentage of Lutheran youth—15 percent—remain active in this movement called the church as they become adults. We wondered allowed about what might be behind that statistic, what trends it might portend, and how it might be changed. We considered a future where this movement includes, for whatever reason, fewer and fewer young people sharing their gifts to be the community of God’s own heirs.

But perhaps what I remember most about the conference I attended this week was that I couldn’t catch my breath. Quite literally, I found it difficult to breathe. My east coast, near sea-level lungs didn’t know quite how to function in the thin Rocky Mountain air. And so I ended up doing all my body knew how to do: I kept feeling the urge to breathe deeply in an attempt to fill my lungs. Air rushed in—first to my lungs, then into my bloodstream, then into my individual little cells to provide the oxygen needed for survival. It was an instinctive reaction to get my body to adjust to life at a new altitude.

Confirmands, as you stand at the edge of your own adult-level participation in the church, may the breath of God rush into your own lungs. And may you never feel like you get enough. May you always find yourselves to be gasping for more of God’s Spirit—that mighty rush of wind—and let it fill you up so you may adjust to life in a new kingdom. Because more than any other aspiration you may have, more than any other career goal or educational priority, the Holy Spirit will determine what you are to do in this big world and what type of people you are to be. God’s heirs. People of a new movement.

Furthermore, this movement will need your gifts. This eclectic, multi-generational gathering will need your input, and without it, we will be deficient. Just a warning: you will never be able to convince anyone that you don’t have any of the Spirit’s gifts. We have seen far too many of them evidenced in you already.

“When the day of Pentecost had come, the apostles were all together in one place.” No, Luke does not tell us explicitly why we are all gathered in one place, but, deep down, we know. It is to breathe. To celebrate God’s grace and to breathe together the Spirit. To breathe together the Spirit and begin the adjustment to a new altitude, a new attitude, a new kingdom that is rapidly approaching and claims us all in the love of Christ.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

The Sixth Sunday of Easter [Year C] - May 9, 2010 (John 14:23-29 and Revelation 21:10, 22--22:5)

What’s the best kind of “good-bye”?

There are, of course, many schools of thought on this issue. When we had both of our daughters in day-care in Pittsburgh, the teachers of their respective classes told us the best goodbye was a quick one, no matter how much their bawling tugged at our heartstrings. “Don’t linger,” they’d instruct us sternly, “just a quick kiss, tell them you love them, and then turn around and walk out confidently. It’s better for them that way.”

Sure it is. I remember that on most days, as soon as we’d turn to leave, they’d start crying and running behind us with their arms spread open. But, inevitably, the teachers were correct. The more we dragged our goodbye out, the more insistently our daughters would plead for us not to leave, or to take them with us wherever we were going. And then it became more difficult for us to get out the door.

It could be said that, for Jesus, the best goodbye is one that is dragged out. For the better part of five chapters in John’s gospel, Jesus lingers in the presence of his disciples as he prepares for his departure. In one sense, Jesus is preparing them for his departure to the cross, the day of his death. But, in another sense, he is also preparing them for his departure to God the Father after his ascension. At the time, of course, none of this makes sense to the disciples because they could never fully know beforehand the unprecedented events of Good Friday and Easter. To them, it just sounds like Jesus is going somewhere mysterious that they can’t yet go, and instead of just getting on with it, saying “I love you,” and walking out confidently, he drags it out. In fact, it often sounds during his long goodbye that he changes his mind and that he won’t actually be leaving, or that he’ll come back very shortly. All of it is a bit confusing, and, like our childcare providers told us, this leads to more pleading and questioning from the disciples, the ones who are being left behind.

In the portion of Jesus’ goodbye speech that we have today, Jesus is responding to Judas, who asks him, “Lord, how is it that you will reveal yourself to us and not to the world?” (For those of you keeping track, this is not the Judas who betrays Jesus. This is another follower named Judas, a non-betraying Judas. I bet he was very insistent on making that distinction clear to everyone after Easter, don’t you? He probably became known as “Not That Judas.”) In any case, this Judas is wondering how Jesus is able to say that he will be able to reveal himself in his absence to his community of followers without also revealing himself in some grand way to the whole world.

From the beginning of his ministry, his disciples had expected that the Messiah, when he came, would give some type of impressive, majestic display of his glory. They were looking for some unmistakable sign of God’s glory and power, and they had been looking for that to be revealed in Jesus. Well, they’re almost to the end here and they really haven’t seen one yet. Surely—Not That Judas seems to think—the grand, magnificent display that Jesus will use to reveal himself after he is gone will be something that the whole world will acknowledge, too? Judas and the others apparently expect that Jesus will do something dazzling for them or to them that will stand out, something that will make a signal as clear as day to them and everyone else that God is present and mighty and glorious, like a fireworks display in the night sky.

Not exactly, replies Jesus. In the interim, in the time when Jesus goes to his Father and is not seen by his disciples—in the time after the crucifixion and then again after his ascension—Jesus will be revealed in the life of the community but not in ways that will always be clear to everyone else. It will not always be clear to everyone because it will involve their own life together. Jesus will reveal himself to them not through something dazzling he does on their behalf but through how they keep his word and love him. Risen, he will dwell with them as they carry out his words, as they embody for each other his selfless love as they recall the glory of his cross and seek to reflect it into the world. He will reveal himself, shall we say, not in the manner of fireworks, something to gaze at passively, but, rather, in the ember of peace glowing in their hearts, something to stoke and tend and nurture.

And it is his peace, in fact, that he leaves with them to tend and nurture. It was customary in those times to part company with the word “shalom,” a Hebrew word of both greeting and farewell that essentially meant “Peace.” Yet here Jesus declares this is no ordinary shalom that he is uttering. His peace is not resigned or complacent. His peace will be undergirded by the eternal love of the cross. His peace, when lived out, will put them at odds with the world, occasionally, calling them to witness to the power of the resurrection. The peace that Jesus gives is never an invitation to escape the world, or to fear the impact that God’s word will have on the world. It is, rather, an invitation to engage the world, to embrace it in love and forgiveness more fearlessly, more confidently, more hopefully. Jesus may be lingering in his farewell here in his final hours before the cross, but he is impressing upon his followers the need for them to carry on with his peace. In their active forms of love, in their steady desire to implement his teachings, he will somehow come to dwell with them.

A few weeks ago I came across a story about a man in England known as the pothole gardener. A 33-year-old amateur gardener by the name of Steve Wheen has taken to planting flowers in the potholes in London’s streets. As a cyclist, the man had become frustrated with the danger they presented, and had grown weary of the fact the city never seemed to patch them. So, instead of ignoring them, he took to using them as tiny flower beds, preferring to use low plants with “bright, colorful flowers in the hope that motorists will see his gardens and avoid them" (“The Man Who Plants Flowers in Potholes,” in, by Joel White, April 21, 2010).

As you can imagine, fruits of his labors don’t last long. Most fall victim to the traffic within a few hours or days. The longest any of his gardens has lasted is three weeks. But he keeps on planting, making a point, but also bringing beauty—even peace—into some of the most broken and overlooked of places. The pothole does not give as the world gives, you might say, which often selects only well-groomed yards with out-of-the-way plots for growing flowers. Those are no less needed or beautiful, of course, but there is something confidently graceful about sowing the seeds of cheer in potholes.

It would appear to be an image for Jesus’ community to emulate in the time after he leaves us, even that turns out to be only temporary. Granting forgiveness in situations that would otherwise call for a grudge. Speaking a word of hope into occasions that seem otherwise desparate. Encouraging love when the world wants to issue hate. Embodying Jesus’ peace—the peace of the cross, the peace of victory in love—when the world wants to resort to war or, perhaps just as bad, surrender and escapism. We are emboldened to do this even in situations that would appear to everyone else to be a waste of time…perhaps especially in situations that would appear to everyone else to be a waste of time.

And in case all this seems like too tall an order, Jesus gives us one last promise: we will not be alone. He will send an Advocate, a Counselor, a Master Gardener known as God’s Holy Spirit. The Spirit will empower us to keep things going in Jesus’ apparent absence. The Spirit will keep us together. He will remind us of who Christ is and what he means to us. He will bestow on us gifts for spreading and keeping Christ’s word. He will be that flame that re-ignites the ember of Christ's peace in our hearts.  In fact, the Holy Spirit will be so real, so present, that it will almost seem like Jesus himself has not really left us. Like Jesus did throughout his life, death, and resurrection, the Advocate will provide us with the words and the confidence to live out Jesus’ peace in the midst of the world.

These are perhaps the most hope-filled words in Jesus’ long farewell: that God will love us and Jesus and the Father will come to dwell with us. There is the clear message, woven throughout Jesus’ goodbye, that it is not really final. In other words, while the Holy Spirit is staying with us, urging us to tend to Jesus’ peace and keep his words, it is all a foretaste of the time Jesus and the Father will come again to us, will meet us and claim us forever.

So the best type of “goodbye,” whether dragged out or short and sweet, is the type of goodbye that actually prepares us for a grand “Hello, again.” The best goodbye is one that assures us with the reality that the bitter end has not really an end, that beyond this separation we now feel there is a promise of some time just out of reach for us, when God will fulfill his word for all his creation. It is the vision of a world renewed, where the city of God will have no need of sun or moon to shine, because the glory of God will be its light, and its lamp will be the Lamb. His servants will worship him, and his name will be on their foreheads. Nothing accursed or unclean will be there—not a pothole to be seen!—for everything will be re-paved and the streets of God will flow with the water of life.

The best goodbye, it turns out, is one that prepares us to look and to work towards that great and glorious day when Christ will rule all in all.

So, in the meantime, I suspect you find yourselves a pothole and get to planting.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

photo of flowers from