Sunday, June 23, 2019

Second Sunday after Pentecost

Isaiah 65
8 This is what the Lord says:
“As when juice is still found in a cluster of grapes
and people say, ‘Don’t destroy it,
there is still a blessing in it,’
so will I do in behalf of my servants;
I will not destroy them all.
9 I will bring forth descendants from Jacob,
and from Judah those who will possess my mountains;
my chosen people will inherit them,
and there will my servants live.

Summer is upon is, and the books are starting to stack up.

We often discuss summer reading at some point in the season—what are you reading or what do you plan to read—but maybe it’s time to write something instead. So find your typewriter, grab some paper, and let’s get started!

In order to help this effort to write the next great Canadian novel, we should begin, then, with a review of structure—the basic outline of what you’re about to share with the world. Everything should start with a plan, and may as well follow convention, since finding ideas is hard enough without reinventing the wheel.

Act one is your set-up, like the girl who runs away with her little dog Toto, only to be carried off by a twister to the Land of Oz. It will help the story if you inadvertently drop a house on some wicked witch, since the first act is all about conflict, or setting the scene for conflict. There is a way to get back to Kansas, but first you have to follow the Yellow Brick Road to the Emerald City.

Act two is where the real action happens. If act one is conflict, then act two is ‘complication,’ with twists, turns, and usually some flying monkeys. You and your companions may be given a task, and in the course of completing this task you may find some inner resources you didn’t know you had.

Act three, sometimes called ‘resolution,’ will solve or end the matter (nothing like a bucket of water to resolve your witch problem) and culminate in a moment called denouement, a French word that means denouement. Maybe you’ll get some random items to symbolize that you already had everything you needed to succeed. And maybe you’ll get some instruction on how to operate your ruby slippers, advice that would have been handy around the time of the flying monkeys.*

Conflict, complication, and resolution: three moves that give your narrative structure and might make you the next J.K. Rowling. So get to it, but don’t forget to share some of your millions with the church, and don’t forget that the same narrative structure that will carry you forward begins in the Bible.

Examples? God says don’t eat the fruit of that tree, they do it anyway, and they get hard work and pain in childbirth. (note: not every story has a happy ending). God frees the Israelites, they wander in the desert for forty years, and they finally enter the promised land. Jesus “lived briefly, died violently, and rose unexpectedly,” (Willimon), three acts that still give life.

So the movement of conflict, complication, and resolution can be found throughout scripture, but what about our passage today? Or what about the Book of Isaiah as a whole, how does it fit our narrative structure? First, and rather conveniently, most scholars agree that Isaiah is really three books, with three or more authors, and so we already have the beginning of a pattern.

First Isaiah, the first 39 chapters, is catalog of God’s anger at Israel, and the various ways God intends to punish her disobedience. In other words, conflict. Second Isaiah, chapters 40 to 55, “anticipates the restoration of Israel,” and the creative way this will happen.** Third Isaiah, the rest of the book (including our passage today), resolves the story by describing the New Jerusalem. Conflict, complication, and resolution.

Or is it? A careful eye will look at second Isaiah and question how the restoration of Israel could be described as a complication. And I wondered that too, until I realized that I was reading the book from Israel’s perspective instead of God’s perspective. The complication is God’s change of heart, or God’s willingness to “comfort ye my people” just a few verses after threatening destruction. Another complication is using King Cyrus of Persia to redeem the people from exile, the “creative way” I mentioned a moment ago.

So that’s the overview, what about our passage itself? It’s part of third Isaiah, but it mirrors the movement of the whole book. So here’s some conflict, the indifference that God cannot abide:

To a nation that did not call on my name,
I said, ‘Here am I, here am I.’
2 All day long I have held out my hands
to an obstinate people,
who walk in ways not good,
pursuing their own imaginations—
3 a people who continually provoke me
to my very face.

God gets more specific, even attacking the new-age people who invent their own religions (“Keep away” they say, “don’t come near me, for I’m too sacred for you!”). But then something happens, and this complicated God relents:

“As when juice is still found in a cluster of grapes
and people say, ‘Don’t destroy it,
there is still a blessing in it,’
so will I do in behalf of my servants;
I will not destroy them all.

And finally the denouement, the resolution that only God can give:

9 I will bring forth descendants from Jacob,
and from Judah those who will possess my mountains;
my chosen people will inherit them,
and there will my servants live.

Disobedience leads to planned destruction, God relents, and the promise of eternity resumes. So what changed? Or rather, what changed God’s mind, from destruction to redemption in just a few verses? As always, the clue is in the text, but first another complex three-part narrative:

When God saw a golden calf, carefully crafted in the time Moses was away, God burned with anger. ‘Look at what your people have done,’ God said, ‘so step aside while I destroy them, and make you, Moses, a great nation instead.’ But Moses decided to complicate matters. ‘These are your people,’ Moses said, ‘and imagine the shame if the Egyptians see that you liberated your people only to kill them out here in the desert. Perhaps, God, you should remember your promises instead.’

When Belden Lane recounts this story he points to that awkward moment when your child wins their first argument against you, and the mixed feelings you feel. A bit of sadness maybe, having passed from the “I’m the parent and I’m right” stage into something else. A bit of frustration, maybe, having been bested by something you created. And pride, mostly pride (I hope), having made a person who can sometimes surpass you in wisdom and insight. And that’s what happened at the foot of the mountain, steps from the golden calf. So back to our passage:

“As when juice is still found in a cluster of grapes
and people say, ‘Don’t destroy it,
there is still a blessing in it,’
so will I do in behalf of my servants;
I will not destroy them all.

The complication is a God willingness to turn away from anger, hear words of life from the creature God created, and respond with mercy. A very brave Moses will challenge God and win, even if it means he will never see the promised land himself. A very human Jesus is dying on the cross and says “forgive them, Father, they know not what they do.” And God forgives. The pattern is the same: conflict, complication and resolution, and the promise of eternity resumes.

The novel you write is your life, with twists and turns, conflict and complication, and your co-author is the Most High. Sometimes it’s an uneasy writing relationship, with doubt and recrimination, and more than a few pages in the trash bin. But other times the pages take flight, animated by gratitude and deep joy, and resolved with redemption and forgiveness. It’s a creative partnership, and the story you tell together will bring life to others, now and always, Amen.

**Bruggemann, 2003, p. 171

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Trinity Sunday

John 16
12 “I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. 13 But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. 14 He will glorify me because it is from me that he will receive what he will make known to you. 15 All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will receive from me what he will make known to you.”

I suppose a summer sermon is as good a time as any to reveal the secrets of preaching school.

Everything, it seems, began with an E. First was elocution, literally teaching us how to speak. And that was only after learning how to breathe, among the more valuable things I learned at school.

Then there was exegesis, learning to read the Bible seriously but not literally. Exegetes—those who practice exegesis—learn how to explain without explaining away, an important skill when you’re handling words of life.

And then there was equivalence, specifically dynamic equivalence, retelling the passage in a language that makes the passage more comprehensible to a modern audience. Fans of The Message, a modern language version of the Bible written by the late Eugene Peterson, already know how dynamic equivalence works—substituting words and phrases that we might use today in order to make the meaning plain.

So, as an example, here is the first verse from our passage: “I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear.” The first thing that comes to mind is “You want the truth? You can’t handle the truth,” but that might be a bit much. Anyway, I think you can see how it works, so let’s try an updated version of our passage:

I could tell you, but I don’t think you could handle it. But the Spirit of truth is coming, and all will be revealed. He won’t speak for himself: instead, he’ll pass on what he hears and what he’s told is coming. The Spirit will be my spokesperson, and honour me through the words spoken. God and I are sympatico—and what I say to the Spirit will be passed on to you.

It’s actually something you can do at home. If you are struggling to make sense of a reading, simply imagine a way to update the language or say it in another way. And it’s particularly helpful for reading John’s Gospel or the letters of St. Paul. So, not exactly earth-shattering as preaching secrets go, but it does help us unlock those words of life.

So what is this information that they couldn’t handle, maybe above their pay grade, to be shared on a strict need-to-know basis? The verses that immediately follow our passage reveal the secret, and don’t seem to require translation, since the emotion is so raw:

16 Jesus went on to say, “In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me.”
17 At this, some of his disciples said to one another, “What does he mean by saying, ‘In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me,’ and ‘Because I am going to the Father’?” 18 They kept asking, “What does he mean by ‘a little while’? We don’t understand what he is saying.”

In his response, Jesus repeats “you will see me no more” again, to a total of four times in the passage, a sure signal that we’re at the heart of the matter. Jesus has been trying to prepare them for his death for a number of chapters, and also trying to signal something else: “then after a little while you will see me.”

In other words, you can spare them a bit of sympathy, with the Master pressing them to comprehend the incomprehensible. ‘You will see me no more and then you will see me’ is just another way of saying Easter for us, but to the disciples it clearly made no sense.

So it becomes a secret to be revealed. And the secret will require the Spirit of Truth for revealing, speaking on Jesus behalf, sharing words from God—and generally making comprehensible the incomprehensible. In other words, Pentecost. So, in effect, Jesus is describing Easter, Pentecost and the future of the church of God under the direction of the Spirit, all without saying those exact words.

Jesus is describing the church of God under the direction of the Spirit. If you are just now thinking what I’m thinking, you might be thinking that this sounds a lot like the Trinity—Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Said another way, Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. Whatever language you choose, it seems that the other secret Jesus was revealing to his disciples was the relationship between the Sacred Three.

So listen again to our passage, but this time listen with your Trinity hat on, and ponder the way these Three interact:

The Spirit of truth is coming, and all will be revealed. He won’t speak for himself: instead, he’ll pass on what he hears and what he’s told is coming. The Spirit will be my spokesperson, and honour me through the words spoken. God and I are sympatico—and what I say to the Spirit will be passed on to you.

God in Jesus formulates the message and the Spirit speaks. The Spirit will share the words we need to hear, revealing the truth and the truth to come. Jesus will be honoured through the Spirit, and you will get a glimpse of heaven through the words shared. Three persons, each with a role, are each an expression of the same divinity, blessed Trinity.

Speaking of the Trinity, my friend and colleague, the Rev. Connie den Bok, shared a helpful insight some years ago, with a built-in challenge to the church. She said that each major expression of the Christian church—Catholic, Protestant and Pentecostal—tends to gravitate to particular Person of the Trinity. In this way it becomes definitional, expressing who we are and how we meet the world.

So, for Roman Catholics, it’s Jesus, particularly his passion, and his place at the table, the centre of their life together. Even the structure of the church highlights the second person of the Trinity: a succession of apostles beginning with Peter, selected by Jesus as the rock on which he builds the church.

For Pentecostals the emphasis is on the Spirit, specifically being baptised by the Holy Spirit of Pentecost. The tradition’s emphasis is in the name: receiving the Spirit, personal conversion, and speaking in tongues. The story of this tradition requires more time, but it’s worth noting that something that started on Azuza Street in Los Angeles in April of 1906 now has over 500 million adherents worldwide.

And what about us, the mainline Protestants of the Methodist and Presbyterian variety? We tend to focus on God, in our prayers and liturgy, in the hymns we sing and the words we share. In the United Church, our Book of Worship is called “Celebrate God’s Presence,” which pretty much sums up the focus of the mainline Protestant church.

I share all this on Trinity Sunday to highlight the need for balance. This was the point Connie’s analysis—that we are not well-served by staying in our lane. We need to “lift high the cross” like our Catholic friends, and celebrate that the cross is the means by which we are redeemed. We need to live under the guidance of the Spirit, the “wind who makes all winds that blow”—the spirit of Pentecost constantly pushing us toward the next expression of church. And we need to celebrate God’s presence, all the while remembering that ‘God in Jesus formulates the message and the Spirit speaks.’

The Spirit of truth is coming, and all will be revealed. We live in the hope that God will renew the church, through the reconciling love of Jesus and in the spirit of Pentecost: breathing new life into all of us, Amen.

Sunday, June 09, 2019


Acts 2
When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. 2 Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. 3 They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues[a] as the Spirit enabled them.
5 Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. 6 When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. 7 Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language?

How can I help people overcome their fear of the Bible?

Perhaps I should be more specific: how can I help people overcome their fear of reading difficult place names in the Bible? I’m not naming names, but someone with a name that suggests long ears and love for carrots was very quick to ask if there were any difficult words in the assigned reading. Hmmm.

So, I was given two choices: play fast and loose with the truth or change the reading. So I changed the reading. So here is the next section of Acts 2, largely dreaded by even the most seasoned scripture reader:

9 Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia,[b] 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome 11 (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” 12 Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?”

Akin to mind-reading, the text anticipates our question, saying, “what does it mean?” A violent wind filling the whole house, something appearing as tongues of flame, and languages, so many languages, speaking to those with ears to hear. The Spirit speaks in the native tongue of those present, familiar and disconcerting all at once, adding to the general confusion of the day—until Peter speaks:

22 “Listen to these words, fellow Israelites! Jesus of Nazareth was a man whose divine authority was clearly proven to you by all the miracles and wonders which God performed through him. You yourselves know this, for it happened here among you. 23 In accordance with his own plan God had already decided that Jesus would be handed over to you; and you killed him by letting sinful men crucify him. 24 But God raised him from death, setting him free from its power, because it was impossible that death should hold him prisoner.”

Naturally, this message fell harder on some than others. The ones staring at their feet were likely members of another crowd, shouting “crucify him” just a few weeks ago. They were “cut to the heart” it says, and they asked Peter what they must do to make it right:

“Repent and be baptized,” Peter said, “every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.”

St. Luke tells us that some three thousand were added to their number, baptized and joined to a fellowship that extends down to today. They dedicated themselves to teaching and prayer, the breaking of bread—and sharing all they had. They praised God, enjoyed the esteem of others, and “the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”

In other words, a happy ending. But the thing about happy endings is they tend to overshadow the circuitous path required to get there. The awkward drama of Pentecost, the risky sermon that turned out okay in the end, even the bountiful harvest of new believers—all point to the unpredictable God we serve. Who knew these on-again-off-again friends of Jesus would be the foundation of a faith? Who knew lives could be interrupted with wind and flame and never be the same? Who knew that the crucified one would reign as Lord of All?

God knew. And no doubt, the days that followed were filled with far more questions than answers, as three thousand came to terms with being transformed, along with all the changes that come following an encounter with the Living God. It put me in mind of a wonderful quote from Bishop Will Willimon, who seems to capture the mood of Pentecost and some of our questions:

A God whom we couldn't have thought up on our own has turned to us, reached to us, is revealed to be someone quite other than the God we would have if God were merely a figment of our imagination—God is a Jew from Nazareth who lived briefly, died violently, and rose unexpectedly. And it scared us to death but also thrilled us to life.

This is the printed version of his quote, a quote that he occasionally weaves into his latest talk or topic. When I heard him last month, the topic was ministry: the kinds of people God chooses to enact God’s mission to the world. Dr. Willimon was obviously in a mood, because the quote morphed into this: “God is a Jew from Nazareth who lived briefly, died violently, and rose unexpectedly, then returned to the same losers that betrayed him.” The only thing better than a good quote is an adaptable quote.

In other words, God did the hard work of redemption (“lived briefly, died violently, and rose unexpectedly”) and then looked around and settled on ordinary women and men to pick up the work. We who are “scared to death but also thrilled to life” have been entrusted with this fragile vessel called the church, baptized in the name of Christ, and filled with the gift of the Spirit. Somehow, we need to make it go.

It should not surprize you that three weeks into the racing season, the leading metaphor I share is “the church as a fragile vessel”—and that somehow, we need to make go. Last Wednesday it was increasing wind, and the adjustments needed as the nature of the race changed. The week before, it was no wind at all—just rain, three layers including my trusty foulies, and my ever-stylish sailing touque. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how good you look on board, because without wind, you’re not sailing. Styling, but not sailing.

And that put me in mind of something else Dr. Willimon shared: the ever-present danger of moralism. Moralism means encouraging better human behaviour without mentioning that we are always dependent on God’s grace. “Privileged people,” Willimon said, “love to be told that they are the solution.” And they love to believe that everything they need to “be the change” already exists inside of them. But the problem with this “stone soup” style of theology is that it’s not theology at all—it’s humanism.

In other words, you may be sitting on a boat, imagining you know everything that needs to be known about how to make the boat go, but without wind, your just sitting on a boat. Maybe styling, but not sailing. At one time, we thought we were God’s church with a mission in the world, but now we see that God’s mission has a church in the world—and that’s us. A fragile vessel seeking wind, the wind of the Spirit that blows through our weary world to make all things new.

The message of Pentecost is receive the Holy Spirit—the wind that makes the church go. Accept the promise of new life in Christ—for you, and your children, and for the generations that follow—everyone whom God calls. And trust in God: to give you the words and the wisdom required to reach others, drawing them into our fellowship.

Speak to them in a language they can understand: people of Weston and Mount Dennis, residents of Emery and Thistletown, Pelmo Park and Silverthorn, Humber Heights and Rexdale, visitors from Humberlea and Kipling Heights, the Junction, and even Baby Point—declare to them the glory of God and the wonders of life in the Spirit, in Jesus’ name. Amen.


Sunday, June 02, 2019

Seventh Sunday of Easter

Acts 16
16 Once when we were going to the place of prayer, we were met by a female slave who had a spirit by which she predicted the future. She earned a great deal of money for her owners by fortune-telling. 17 She followed Paul and the rest of us, shouting, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who are telling you the way to be saved.” 18 She kept this up for many days. Finally Paul became so annoyed that he turned around and said to the spirit, “In the name of Jesus Christ I command you to come out of her!” At that moment the spirit left her.
19 When her owners realized that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace to face the authorities. 20 They brought them before the magistrates and said, “These men are Jews, and are throwing our city into an uproar 21 by advocating customs unlawful for us Romans to accept or practice.”
22 The crowd joined in the attack against Paul and Silas, and the magistrates ordered them to be stripped and beaten with rods. 23 After they had been severely flogged, they were thrown into prison, and the jailer was commanded to guard them carefully.

The ninth grade was a confusing time.

I’m not talking about puberty, that’s another sermon altogether. Imagine a seemingly short bus ride from Mount Albert to Newmarket, leaving the comfort and certainty of my home town, to be confronted by big city ideas like Greek and Roman mythology.

Who were these pagan teachers, or teachers of pagan ideas? Flying too close to the sun with waxen wings? Even a boy from Mount Albert could see how that was going to end. Stealing fire from the gods? Pushing the same rock up a hill day after day? Is it Poseidon or Neptune? Athena or Minerva? And Delphi, why is everyone always talking about Delphi?

Well, it seems I finally have the answer, some forty years later. Delphi makes an indirect appearance in our passage today, read with verve by Joan, and leading to longer sequence of events that I have hinted at over the last two weeks. Recall we are in the midst of an accidental sermon series, three Sundays on the Book of Acts, four if you count the festival of Pentecost just one week from today.

So before we look at Delphi, a brief recap. In week one, we met Dr. Skinner of Luther Seminary, who gave us the overall theme for these sermons, namely, “what becomes possible in a post-Easter world.” Part of what’s possible was summarized this way: “strangers become friends, outsiders become members of the household of God, and anyone who calls on the name of the Lord can be saved.” That was week one. In week two, we met Lydia: first convert on European soil, leader in her church and community, dedicated follower of Jesus Christ. Her household in Philippi is the first to accept baptism, beginning a movement that stretches down to today.

There was a hint in last week’s reading—St. Luke describing Philippi as ‘a Roman colony and a leading city in that district’—and it is to that reference we now turn. The city was founded by Greeks, conquered and renamed by Alexander’s father Philip II, and eventually colonized by the Romans, populated by retired soldiers and their families. These first colonists served the Emperor Augustus, and were rewarded with land and homes near a town with its own gold mine. So Philippi was wealthy, loyal to the emperor and his successors, and dedicated to the peace and stability of Rome. And into this mix stumbles Paul and Silas.

But before we get to that, there is one other detail worth noting. The town was proud of their connection to Augustus, and mirrored Augustus’ dedication to the god Apollo—and all that that dedication entailed. So in addition to all the usual things associated with Apollo—light, poetry, music—there is also Apollo’s role as the patron of Delphi, the famous oracle. Dr. Skinner argues that the spirit of Pythia (an old name for Delphi) was important to the people of Philippi, as important as the connection to Augustus and Apollo. So who has a Pythian spirit, the ability to see hidden things? Well, let’s meet her, she’s speaking just now:

“These men are slaves of the Most High God, who are telling you the way to be saved.” Sorry, what was that?
“These men are servants of the Most High God, who are telling you the way to be saved.”

And so it went, for many days, following Paul and Silas and the others, this young woman with the Pythian gift of seeing hidden things. She was right, of course, and an effective seer, and made her owners a great deal of money. Until she annoyed the wrong slave of the Most High.

“In the name of Jesus Christ,” Paul said to the offending spirit, “I command you to come out of her!” And at once, the spirit was gone. Remember how money is the root of all evil? Well, the owners of the-slave-who-could-no-longer-foretell-the-future were more than unhappy that their revenue stream had dried up. They turned Paul and Silas over to the magistrate, charged them (ironically) with disturbing the peace, who in turn had them flogged and thrown into prison. And that’s where the real story begins.

25 About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them. 26 Suddenly there was such a violent earthquake that the foundations of the prison were shaken. At once all the prison doors flew open, and everyone’s chains came loose. 27 The jailer woke up, and when he saw the prison doors open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself because he thought the prisoners had escaped. 28 But Paul shouted, “Don’t harm yourself! We are all here!” 29 The jailer called for lights, rushed in and fell trembling before Paul and Silas. 30 He then brought them out and asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”

What follows is among the first and most compelling creeds of the Christian faith: “Believe in the Lord Jesus,” they said, “and you will be saved—you and your household.” That hour the jailer washed them and dressed their wounds, accepted baptism along with the rest of his household, and led them home for a meal and fellowship, under the blessing of the Most High God.

And this might be the end of the story, except for the Pythian spirit of truth that visited that town. By daybreak, the magistrates and officers of the town realized that the words of the former seer were right: these men were indeed slaves of the Most High God. But rather than experience faith, these leaders felt fear, and were offended by the silencing of this Pythian voice. They promptly invited Paul and Silas to go in peace, and to leave Philippi. And leave they did, but not before seeing Lydia one final time—and then it was off to the next place the Spirit would lead them.

But I’m still stuck at Delphi, and the ability to see hidden things. And it’s not just Delphi, it’s a whole world of spirits, demons, and the like that seem to see things clearly when others cannot.

In the first chapter of Mark, Jesus is minding his own business in the synagogue when a man with an unclean spirit appears and says, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?” Two chapters later, the crowds grow larger, pressing in on Jesus, many possessed. And whenever the impure spirits saw him, they fell down before him and cried out, “You are the Son of God.” Two chapters more, and we meet the demon-possessed man living in the tombs, a demon so powerful even chains could not restrain him.

When the man saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and fell on his knees in front of him. 7 He shouted at the top of his voice, “What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? In God’s name don’t torture me!”

Do you see what’s happening here? The demons of Galilee can see it. The Pythian spirit of Philippi can see it. The centurion, the merchant and the jailer can see it. But the world cannot see it. We are surrounded by street after street of people with a hunger for meaning, but they struggle to see it. So what’s the block, and what can we do to help?

There is a very human tendency to take something simple and make it complicated. It happens in relationships and systems and most obviously in answers to life’s big questions. And part of the appeal of the Book of Acts is the return to basics, the ask and answer of this amazing chronicle. What did she say?

“These men are slaves of the Most High God, who are telling you the way to be saved.” And did he ask? “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” And what did Paul and Silas say? “Believe in the Lord Jesus,” they said, “and you will be saved—you and your household.”

Remember from last week, this is not the formulaic ‘say some words’ and be saved. This is embracing a world where salvation is held out for soldiers and slaves, jailers and widows, the least likely converts in the world’s eyes. This is taking up the challenge to love your neighbour, and continually extend your definition of neighbour to include everyone and even the earth itself. And this is a commitment to love the Lord your God, with all your heart and soul and mind.

Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved, and your household, and the neighbours in your street, and everyone who leans in to learn about this remarkable God of love and mercy. I shouldn’t be complicated, because even the demons get it: “What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High?” Love, just love, that’s all. Amen.

Sunday, May 26, 2019

Sixth Sunday of Easter

Acts 16
9 During the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” 10 After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.
11 From Troas we put out to sea and sailed straight for Samothrace, and the next day we went on to Neapolis. 12 From there we traveled to Philippi, a Roman colony and the leading city of that district[a] of Macedonia. And we stayed there several days.
13 On the Sabbath we went outside the city gate to the river, where we expected to find a place of prayer. We sat down and began to speak to the women who had gathered there. 14 One of those listening was a woman from the city of Thyatira named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth. She was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message. 15 When she and the members of her household were baptized, she invited us to her home. “If you consider me a believer in the Lord,” she said, “come and stay at my house.” And she persuaded us.

I’ve never done a sermon series, but if I did…

Seven Sundays on the seven deadly sins? Unless the first Sunday is sloth, then the whole thing falls apart.
Four Sundays on the four cardinal virtues? How would I approach temperance?
Twelve Sundays on the twelve disciples? Imagine 12 minutes of golden silence on the Sunday dedicated to St. James the Less, of whom we know absolutely nothing.
Forty Sundays on temptation, rain, and desert wandering? Imagine Manna Sunday, Quail Sunday, or The Lord Sends Poisonous Snakes on those who Complain Sunday.

This is week two of our look at the Book of Acts, with week three just around the corner. You will recall that Dr. Skinner of Luther Seminary gave us the overall theme for these sermons, namely, “what becomes possible in a post-Easter world.” I ended last week with “strangers become friends, outsiders become members of the household of God, and anyone who calls on the name of the Lord can be saved.”

So we continue to explore this post-Easter world, a world described by St. Luke, who wrote the Acts of the Apostles. Think of it as our foundational document: part history, part theology, and part biography, if the subject of the biography is the Holy Spirit. It describes the movement toward a universal church, and the early characteristics of that nascent church. Finally, it gives context to the letters of Paul, describing the kinds of people and situations that Paul seeks to address.

It’s a lot to take in. And so, we adopt an approach that’s found in the name itself, looking at the book one act at a time. Today’s act, the journey to Macedonia, is much more than a travelogue filled with vexing Greek place names, ably read by Sylvia. It’s a bit of a sign of what’s to come: movement into Europe, movement into Gentile territory, and movement closer to the heart of the Roman empire. You hear it in a note that Luke shares—”we travelled to Philippi, a Roman colony and the leading city of that district”—a detail that will be even more important next week.

For today, it’s one step at a time. Another vision, another voice urging action, and a journey to follow. Paul and Silas put out to sea, and follow the Spirit’s bidding to Phillipi. Like the old spiritual, they head down to the river to pray, and they spoke with some of the women who gathered there. Among them was Lydia, a dealer in fine cloth, and a woman of faith. She responded to Paul’s message of new life in Christ, accepted baptism, opening her home to Paul and Silas.

It’s a simple story, and like all simple stories, we need to look again to find meaning. On one level, the action is in the verbs: begging Paul, putting out to sea, finding a place of prayer, Lydia listening, the Lord opening her heart, she and the members of her household baptized, and inviting the apostles to her home. The Spirit moves, the Spirit is all about movement, and the movement is always toward new life.

But what about the understory, the smaller details that can reveal some of what the Spirit is doing? So to begin, it has been suggested that Philippi had no synagogue, so a spot near the river became the gathering place for the Jewish people of the town.* Paul is recognized as a visiting rabbi, and given the opportunity to speak. The Word falls first on the women of the community, led by Lydia, described with some intriguing clues.

First of all, her name is a place name, Lydia being a nearby province, which may suggest that she is a former slave. She has a trade, or business as a successful trader (the text is unclear) and she is the head of a household. She has control over her home (based on her ability to invite these men to stay with her) and doesn’t need anyone’s permission to do so. She may be a widow, but the text is silent on this. We can say with certainty that she is a leader in her community and the head of a household.

This might be the moment to unpack this idea of the household, and the extent to which it defines life in this time and place. For this, I’m leaning on the work of Richard Ascough, who teaches at a good school. (I can’t actually name the school, because I would then be obligated to sing to you in Gaelic and move about. There is no time for this.) Dr. Ascough wants us to see and understand Lydia as a collectivist rather than an individualist, and the bearing this has on the moment described.

So what’s the difference? Maybe I’ll start with the individualist column, which we already know, since we live it every day. You know, then, that you’re part of an individualist society when:

You look out for yourself first, and your family
You are defined by your personal attributes and your choices
You have numerous friends, and different styles of friendship
You teach your children to be independent and think for themselves.
You assume you are equal to others

Now we can turn to a collectivist society, the society of Lydia, and Paul, and his companions:

You are loyal to an extended group: clan, village, or other source of identity
You are defined by group attributes, and conformity to group norms is paramount
You have fewer friends, but the few you have are longer lasting and include more obligations.
You teach your children to adhere to the group, learning "communal sensitivity and cooperation."
You know where you rank in the group, and you value the stability of hierarchy

As you digest all this, we can summarize by saying that without knowing a lot about Lydia, we can know a lot about Lydia. She is a loyal member of her community: synagogue, guild, and household. She adheres to the norms of her group, but she has a role in setting these norms, as a leader. She is part of a tight knit group, co-religionists, fellow merchants, those who live and work in her household. Her role would be to foster cooperation and remind others of their obligation to the success of the group. She is a high-ranking member of her particular hierarchy, again, in the synagogue, guild and household.

It is hardly surprizing, then, that Paul finds Lydia. This is not a chance encounter on the beach: this is an itinerant rabbi finding an important member of the community, the person God has decided Paul will engage. The narrative is shy on details—Lydia was a worshiper of God and the Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message—but it opens a small world of meaning where a leading woman becomes the first to accept the Good News of Jesus.

I’m going to pause here for a moment to highlight a related issue that is a much longer sermon. Dr. Ascough is quick to note that if you said to Lydia “hey, I’m so happy you have accepted Jesus as your personal Lord and saviour,” she would stare at you and be dumbfounded. In collectivist societies, there is no such thing as a personal Lord and Saviour. There is salvation in the group finding new life in Christ, later described as “the church,” but there is nothing personal about faith—it is always collective. Loving your neighbour, reaching out to others to draw them into fellowship with Christ and his church, tending to the faith of our children—these are collectivist endeavors in the individualist society where we find ourselves.

Permit me to rant for a moment, because the events unfolding at the top of Mount Everest right now symbolize the tragedy of individualism. People are literally stepping over the dead bodies of fellow climbers to reach the top. And there is a traffic jam, leading to more deaths, but people persist—because of this meaningless and highly individualist pursuit. It is the perfect storm of wealth, achievement and personal fulfilment, and people are giving their lives for it. It is an extremely far cry from what we’re trying to do: Loving our neighbour, reaching out to others to draw them into fellowship with Christ and his church, tending to the faith of our children. These climbers need help, not to reach the top, but to see that they are beloved children of God and their lives have meaning far away from the summit.

Back to St. Lydia, first convert on European soil, leader in her church and community, dedicated follower of Jesus Christ. When she and the members of her household were baptized, she invited her new friends into her home. “If you consider me a believer in the Lord,” she said, “come and stay at my house.” And Paul needed no convincing. Her household expands to include these travelers because her heart and home were open to a message of new life: that Jesus lived and died for them and lives again in the lives of the faithful.

So I guess we’re in the middle of a three-part series on the Book of Acts. Next week we will see Paul and Silas land in jail, and learn about all the trouble that follows. And we will meet Lydia one last time, welcoming a couple of former jailbirds back into her home, because that’s the kind of thing she does. Amen.

*Texts for Preaching

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Fifth Sunday of Easter

Acts 11
11 “Right then three men who had been sent to me from Caesarea stopped at the house where I was staying. 12 The Spirit told me to have no hesitation about going with them. These six brothers also went with me, and we entered the man’s house. 13 He told us how he had seen an angel appear in his house and say, ‘Send to Joppa for Simon who is called Peter. 14 He will bring you a message through which you and all your household will be saved.’
15 “As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit came on them as he had come on us at the beginning. 16 Then I remembered what the Lord had said: ‘John baptized with[a] water, but you will be baptized with[b] the Holy Spirit.’ 17 So if God gave them the same gift he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could stand in God’s way?”
18 When they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God, saying, “So then, even to Gentiles God has granted repentance that leads to life.”

From the “you know you’re old when” file, I asked my son about House.

Not the dwelling, not the show, but the musical genre. My satellite radio is constantly trying to lure me away from TV-news-on-the-radio to various music channels—like House. I can’t recall Isaac’s exact definition, something like ‘mellow electronic dance music’ or some something like that, and popularized by artists such as Deadmau5—that’s mouse spelled in German with a 5 instead of an “S.” Oddly, Deadmau5 lives near Lang, so maybe Lang would be a better person to ask about electronic dance music. Our picnic is sounding more interesting all the time.

Intrigued, I wanted to know more. So there is Techno, with the same four-on-the-floor beat as House (not sure what that means) but with more “atonal samples and dystopian atmospheres.”* Or Dubstep, with a two-step beat and a sound that has been compared to “demon growls” or “a blender full of pennies.” I don’t think they’re selling it very well.

Finally, there is Trance. If House and Techno had a baby, in Germany, in the 90s, it would be called Trance. The name more-or-less describes the genre, with repeating phrases that can put you into, well, a trance. It’s obviously not for driving. I share all this because the passage Bob read includes a famous example of a trance, and because I presume you are planning the rest of your weekend, and it may include a little clubbing.

So what about Peter’s trance? The words we heard this morning—the trance and the blanket covered in creatures—is an exact retelling from the previous chapter, events that happened in the home of Simon the Tanner, and involve a certain centurion named Cornelius.

Chapter 10 begins with a vision: Cornelius is a God-fearing member of the Italian Regiment, attentive in prayer and generous to the poor. God speaks to Cornelius and says “send for a man named Peter, who just now is in Joppa, staying in the home of Simon the Tanner.

Meanwhile, in Joppa, Peter is hungry, and waiting for the noon meal to be served. He retreats to the roof of Simon’s house to pray, and he falls into a trance. The heavens open and down comes a blanket, held by four-corners and covered in “four-footed animals of the earth, wild beasts, reptiles and birds.” Then a voice saying, “Get up, Peter, kill and eat.”

“Surely not, Lord!” Peter said. “Nothing impure or unclean has ever entered my mouth.”
The voice spoke from heaven a second time and said to Peter, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”

Pondering his vision, doubtless still hungry, the Spirit speaks a third time and says ‘Peter, there are three men downstairs waiting for you, so go with them, for I have sent them to collect you.’ Greetings are exchanged, the words of the Spirit are shared, and the next day they set off. It’s 33 miles from Joppa to Caesarea where Cornelius is posted, so after a couple of days on the road the group arrives.

Peter enters a full house. Cornelius has gathered family and trusted friends, and Peter addresses them all: ‘You are well-aware,’ he begins, ‘that it is against our laws for me to visit the home of a Gentile. But God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean. For this reason, I came without objection. May I then ask you, then, why you have invited me?’

Cornelius explains his vision—the Spirit who commended his devotion to prayer and the poor—and the command to summon Peter. “So I sent for you immediately,” Cornelius said, “and it was good of you to come. Now we are all here in the presence of God to listen to everything the Lord has commanded you to tell us.”

Peter shares the words we heard in Easter Sunday: God loves those who fear God and do what is right, from every nation. God sent Jesus, anointed with truth and power, but the people could not receive him. He died on a cross, but God raised him on the third day, becoming life to those who believe. As Peter spoke, the Spirit descended on the household, members and guests, and all believed. “No one,” Peter said, “can stand in the way of their baptism. They have received the same Spirit we have.” He then baptised them in the name of Jesus Christ.

The Spirit made is seem so easy. A word here, a vision there, and trance thrown in for good measure. And it turns out that this, indeed, was the simple part, because our lesson this morning comes with the sub-title “uh-oh.” Word of the whole episode has reached Peter’s colleagues at Church House (in Jerusalem) and they object: “You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them?”

Peter’s response is simple: tell the story, emphasize the places where God (in the Spirit) has acted, and defeat them with one question—”So if God gave them the same gift he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could stand in God’s way?”

Who was I to think that I could stand in God’s way?

This past week, I had the opportunity to hear Dr. Matt Skinner, who teaches at Luther Seminary in Minneapolis, MN. Professor Skinner spoke on Acts 16, the time Paul and Silas land themselves in jail, and the parallels between that story and this story are striking. They are both stories about “hospitality in the homes of the newly baptized,” stories where “strangers become friends,” and stories where God saves surprizing people—jailers and centurions—as we look on in wonder.**

Reading through the Book of Acts—according to Dr. Skinner—we can see “what becomes possible in a post-Easter world." A member of the occupying army is welcomed into the household of God. A jailer witnessed the power of God as chains are loosed and the prison door is thrown open, and then the jailed asks, “what can I do to be saved? Even the Ethiopian eunuch—perhaps the best modern equivalent would be a member of the trans community—is embraced by St. Philip. Remember the end of the story?

As they traveled along the road, they came to some water and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water. What can stand in the way of my being baptized?” And nothing can stand in the way, as Philip baptized him immediately.

It is the questions—Who was I to think that I could stand in God’s way? What can I do to be saved? What can stand in the way of my being baptized?—it is the questions that define what becomes possible in the post-Easter world. And the answer is anything—with God all things are possible. Strangers become friends, outsiders become members of the household of God, and anyone who calls on the name of the Lord can be saved.

I’m still thinking about Peter’s trance, and the extent to which he entered that altered state to see a vision of a new world. In a world without sirens and horns, blaring televisions or electronic dance music, maybe you needed a trance to move from a relatively quiet world to a place where the Spirit could speak. For us it might be simpler, maybe just some silent prayer to open ourselves to the Spirit. And what would we hope to hear, what vision might we see?

Like Acts—the other time the church was confronted by so much confusion and indifference—it may be a glimpse of what God is already doing around us. Strangers become friends, outsiders become members of the household of God, and anyone who calls on the name of the Lord can be saved. Amen.

**Festival of Homiletics, 2019, Minneapolis.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Fourth Sunday of Easter

John 10
22 Then came the Festival of Dedication[a] at Jerusalem. It was winter, 23 and Jesus was in the temple courts walking in Solomon’s Colonnade. 24 The Jews who were there gathered around him, saying, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”
25 Jesus answered, “I did tell you, but you do not believe. The works I do in my Father’s name testify about me, 26 but you do not believe because you are not my sheep. 27 My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. 28 I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand. 29 My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all[b]; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. 30 I and the Father are one.”

I decided to get a jump on my summer reading, so I bought a copy of the Mueller Report.

The first problem is page after page of redactions, entire pages made up of a large blocks of black ink where the words are supposed to go. On one hand, I got more ink, so that’s good, but on the other hand, fewer words, that’s bad. And I have already spent too much time trying to guess what’s under all that ink—to no avail. And of course, after Carmen handed me my new book, I couldn’t resist saying, “hey, what did you do to my new book?” Who know redactions could be so much fun?

(Just as an aside, my friend and colleague is a pastor in Iowa, and he experienced some illness last year. He’s a funny guy, so he’s in the hospital and he says to his wife “I really hope that your next husband is healthier than me.” Without skipping a beat she says, “I’m not sure what Robert’s health is like.”
“Robert! Who’s Robert?” he says.
“Robert Mueller, of course.”)

I think of it as a 448 page trip down memory lane. That time Comey went to the White House and felt compelled to make contemporaneous notes. The meeting the Oval with Kislyak and Lavrov. Or the time Flynn lied to Pence about his conversations with Kislyak. Is it collusion or obstruction, or both?

(Just now you’re thinking that this is the strangest Mother’s Day sermon is human history, and you struggle to see how any preacher could possibly make a link from Mueller to Mother’s Day. But I think I know, so let’s look.)

First of all, consider Mike Pence. He’s the conservative governor who was selected to join the ticket in an effort to solidify support from the religious right. And he succeeded, partly by convincing his co-religionists to keep their eye on the prize—conservative judges—and partly by making a Bible-based argument for supporting the ticket.

The argument is to point to Cyrus the Great, king of Persia, conqueror of Babylon, the very king who allowed the Israelites to return to Jerusalem. For Pence and for others, the parallels seem too clear to ignore: Cyrus was pagan, normally someone you ignore or revile, but he became an instrument of God’s desire to return the people to the Promised Land. Isaiah even calls Cyrus a messiah, an anointed one, sent to save the people.

So in a remarkable misuse of the Bible, conservative Christian voters were told that even though their candidate seemed to represent everything a good Christian should avoid—pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath and sloth—they should set this aside because he might be a modern-day King Cyrus. And if you think all this might be a bit of a stretch, remember that the Prime Minister of Israel made the same point about Cyrus the Great, in the Oval Office, after the election.

Clearly, this is a moment to review this idea of messiah. In our passage, Jesus’ religious critics want to know if he’s messiah. In Isaiah 45 we read about Cyrus as messiah, and for our Jewish sisters and brothers, they continue to wait. So how do we sort through all this? Just now, some of our Lenten study friends are remembering that just such a question came up, so they can go to their happy place for a moment while we look at this idea of messiah.

To begin, messiah simply means “the anointed one,” associated with kingship of the human and historical variety. David is considered the greatest king, anointed and given the promise of an enduring line. The Babylonians had other ideas, of course, so the idea of an Israelite king become a future hope, and eventually a messianic hope—in the sense that God will anoint another king to rule over them.

At the same time, the Bible begins to give the anointed king divine qualities, using language like Son of God (Psalm 2) as an honourific. So we have the idea of a messiah, a divinely anointed king, and he have the name “Son of God,” an important marker of divine authorization. Add this to the language of the Son of Man: beginning in Daniel and expressing a future hope someone more powerful than an angel (and in human form) would come on the clouds to liberate Israel.

So by the time Jesus arrives, the hope of salvation is described in a number of ways: Messiah, Son of God, Son of Man, righteous branch (of the Jesse tree) and so on. And it follows that Jesus fits the part. When Jesus says to the twelve “but who do you say that I am?” we get Peter’s response: “You are the Messiah, the son of the living God.”

Which brings us back to our passage. When asked if he is the messiah, he says “I told you that, but you didn’t believe me”—
and then he does two things. First, he reminds them that everything he has been doing should be proof enough that he comes from God, and second, he talks about sheep. I’m going to talk about sheep in a moment, but I want to underline here that the language of messiah is less important to Jesus than it might seem. Titles have a role to play in the story, but Jesus wants to people to see God at work through him and he wants to discuss sheep.

First, one final word on messiah. You may have noticed that within the mainline church we tend to use the word ‘messiah’ less than in other traditions. And the reason is simple: for our Jewish brothers and sisters, Messiah has yet to come. In many ways, it is a conflict that troubles the heart of both religions. Either we are mistake or they are mistaken. And this is so deeply dissatisfying that liberal Christians (and reform Jews) tend to say we’re both mistaken: we say that Jesus was not the Jewish messiah after all, and Reform Jews focus on a messianic age rather than an individual figure.* As compromises go, it’s a good one.

So we’ve looked at the messiah question, so what about sheep? Listen again to part of our passage, and I think we’re hearing the language of relationship: “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow one will snatch them out of my hand...nor can anyone can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. I am one with the Father.”

This is the Good Shepherd, tirelessly searching for the lost sheep, speaking that we might recognize his voice, and related to the Most High because Jesus and the Father are one. In other words, a relationship. The religious critics were busy trying to trip Jesus up with questions of messiahship and such, but Jesus just wanted to talk about the things God was doing, and the relationship God-in-Jesus wants to have with each and every one of us.

So we’re still trying to get from Mueller to Mother’s Day, and of course we have to talk about Confirmation too, since Olivia and Jenna are equally confused about how all this fits together. Truth is, we already have the answer: Jesus wants to talk about the things that God is already doing, like moving young hearts to join the church, and he wants to talk about relationship, like the lifelong relationship with the Christian church that begins (and continues) today.

Olivia and Jenna, you have made a profession of faith and helped us remember our own promises, but the real action today is relationship—joined to this fellowship and the Good Shepherd who makes us one. We hear his voice speaking through others, we know him through the good work of others, and we follow—together—never walking alone.

So one final piece in this puzzle: Mother’s Day. But before I share perhaps my favourite scholarly quote, I want to caution you on the misuse of scripture. It is a grave error to suggest that God would lift up a reprehensible person to further a narrow and intolerant agenda. And our role as believers is to vehemently make the counter-argument: that we serve a God of love and mercy, who lifts up the vulnerable, and seeks a just sharing of all the world’s resources. God works from below, through relationship, and by placing us in the midst of human need.

So here is the quote from Rosemary Radford Ruether, let’s call it a Mother’s Day card from the Bible:

In the story of the Exodus we find that the first acts of rebellion against Pharaoh are those of women. The mother of Moses refuses to obey the decree to kill her newborn son and hides him in the bulrushes. The sister of Moses seizes the opportunity to save him by presenting him to the daughter of Pharaoh who comes to the river to bathe. Pharaoh’s daughter also disobeys by accepting the Hebrew child and bringing him up as her own. Thus a conspiracy of women takes place across class and ethnic lines to save the child who will be the liberator of Israel. (Women-Church, p. 43-44)

May the things that God is doing in our midst be never more plain than today, and may you remain bound, one to another, in sacred relationship, now and always, Amen.