Sunday, May 27, 2007


Acts 2
14Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd: "Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say. 15These men are not drunk, as you suppose. It's only nine in the morning! 16No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel:
17" 'In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your young men will see visions,
your old men will dream dreams.
18Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
and they will prophesy.
19I will show wonders in the heaven above
and signs on the earth below,
blood and fire and billows of smoke.
20The sun will be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood
before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord.
21And everyone who calls
on the name of the Lord will be saved.'

Two weeks has passed and now I’m ready to confess: I should call my mother more often. I couldn’t make this confession on Mother’s Day, because she was here, and would use the words of my confession at some later date. Part of the issue is my parent’s carefree lifestyle. She will often call me and say “we’re going away for a few days and I don’t know when we’re back.” How can I be expected to know when I can reach her? As a result of this confusion, I don’t call enough.

My mother does, however, call me. She often gets voicemail, and the message is almost always the same: “Michael, it’s your mother. We don’t know where you are or what you are doing. Why don’t you call us sometime? Bye, we love you.” There are a couple of noteworthy things to say about this message, an interesting melange of affection and guilt. First up, is the insinuation that I’m doing unknown things in some unknown place. I have to say my life just isn’t that interesting or varied. Ask anyone.

Secondly, why the self-identification? While my mother’s voice is not the most distinctive on the planet, it is my mother’s voice, and the words “it’s your mother” always give me a chuckle. I think it’s part of a vast guilt-making enterprise, and I’m sure if I didn’t call her back the next message would be something like “it’s me, the woman who gave birth to you.” It turns out that scientists have been studying this (voice recognition, not guilt-making) and have discovered some very interesting things:

[Researchers] tested 60 women in the final stage of pregnancy. All the mothers were tape-recorded as they read a poem out loud. Then the mothers were divided into two groups. Half the fetuses heard the recording of their own mother. The other half heard another mother, but not their own. In both cases, the poem caused a change in the baby's heart rate. The heart rate accelerated among those who heard their own mother's voice, and decelerated among those who heard a voice other than their mother's. Deceleration of the heart rate is "an attention mechanism." The heart-beat among fetuses who heard an unfamiliar voice slowed down, the researcher said, because they were paying close attention to a voice they did not recognize. In other words, they were trying to figure out who was talking.*

In other words, 42 years of voice recognition (make it 43 if you count the time in utero) means I know who’s calling and what she’ll say. The miracle of modern science.

Another scientist, looking at the same study, might point to a million years of human evolution and imagine that knowing your mother’s voice is an import survival skill. Thinking of our distant ancestors, from the first moment a toddler can toddle off, the ability to hear your mother’s voice and respond to it may be a life or death proposition. It makes sense that this skill would begin to develop before birth, when the audience is most attentive. From the very first, we know who we are (a child of our mother) to whom we belong.


Speaking and listening is at the very centre of Pentecost. Throughout the story, words are spoken and words are received. First appeared the gift of tongues. Words were spoken in many human languages, descriptions of “God’s deeds in power” were shared in languages that found their source throughout the known world. To those willing to listen, a transforming message was proclaimed. But others refused to hear, suggesting instead that they speakers were filled with new wine. Enter our friend Peter.

Preaching for the first time, Peter enables the next act of speaking and listening as he recounts the story of Jesus. It is a remarkable sermon. Beginning with “let this be known to you, and listen to what I say” he uses all the tools of rhetorical speech-making to engage his audience. He begins with the events of the day, and grounds them in the context of scripture. He shares (from the Greek) the prophecy of Joel. He describes Jesus the Christ and the way this prophecy has been fulfilled. As we learn at the conclusion of the lesson, three thousand were baptized and added to their number that day.


Speaking and listening, Peter and the earliest followers of Jesus are part of a dialogue as old as time:

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. And God said, "Let there be light," and there was light.

Creation begins in speaking, as the words of the Creator speak to the darkness over the surface of the deep and light is born. And the speaking continues: the world is spoken into existence and all the creatures that make the world their home. We too are spoken into being, and the same dialogue between creature and Creator appears again and again the words of scripture:

1O LORD, You have searched me and known me.
2You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
You understand my thought from afar.
3You scrutinize my path and my lying down,
And are intimately acquainted with all my ways.
4Even before there is a word on my tongue,
Behold, O LORD, You know it all.

13For You formed my inward parts;
You wove me in my mother's womb.
14I will give thanks to You, for I am fearfully
and wonderfully made (Psalm 139).

I can think of no better way to celebrate a baptism that reflecting on the words of Psalm 139 and imagine that the baptism is part of this speaking and listening that has happened from the very first day of creation. We gather as the early church gathered to seek the Spirit, to hear the Word proclaimed, and to give our lives to God through the Sacrament of Baptism. It is a powerful reminder of who we are and to whom we belong.

The church has long recognized that several things are happening at baptism: We are purified from our sins: "you were washed, you were made holy, you were made righteous in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ." (1 Cor 6.11); we participate in the death and resurrection of Jesus, “dead and buried,” as Paul says, “with Christ, by baptism,” able to live new lives with him.

Finally, we are named as Christ's own and we receive the gift of the Holy Spirit: "he has sealed us and given us his Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee" (1 Cor. 1.22). This is the Pentecostal meaning of baptism: marked as Christ’s own, dedicated to God’s Kingdom, and filled with the Spirit. The Spirit moves among us and we are commanded to follow: we cannot know where the Spirit will lead, and we may resist her direction, but follow we must.

All in all, all the speaking and all the listening, all the bidding of the Spirit is a call to relationship. God’s wants to mark us and name us, hear our inmost thoughts and the longing of our hearts. God wants to speak and listen, to move among and within us call us home.

I want to conclude with the words of Henri Nouwen, quoted from his spiritual journal entitled “The Inner Voice of Love,” written to record his own desire to live more fully with God:

God says to you, "I love you, I am with you, I want to see you come closer to me and experience the joy and peace of my presence. I want to give you a new heart and a new spirit. I want you to speak with my mouth, see with my eyes, hear with my ears, touch with my hands. All that is mine is yours. Just trust me and let me be your God." (p. 113)


Sunday, May 20, 2007

Seventh Sunday after Easter

Acts 16:16ff
One day, as we were going to the place of prayer, we met a slave girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling.
While she followed Paul and us, she would cry out, "These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation."
She kept doing this for many days. But Paul, very much annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, "I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her." And it came out that very hour.

I won’t begin this morning with the embarrassing question “who has visited a fortuneteller?”

I am happy to report, however, that if you are in the habit of visiting fortunetellers you can do so in Dickson, Tennessee without hindrance. A few years back a woman named Beth Daly set up a little shop in Dickson with all the usual elements of fortune tellers’ shop: she had the little candles and crystals, scented things and all the rest, and at the back of the store she offered Tarot readings. This is where she ran afoul of the local authorities.

It seems that Dickson has long had a statute on the books that makes it unlawful to engage in any type of activity related to fortune telling: Tarot, palm reading, divination and a long list of other practices ending in a general ban on any supernatural activity.

(I wonder if this included Superman, Spiderman, and any other superhero with the last name “man.” Do they understand what they are giving up when they outlawed the “man of steel”?)

Meanwhile the American Civil Liberties Union picked up her case and took it the State Supreme Court. After reviewing her case and taking at hard look at the stature, the court threw out the law and Beth Daly is now allowed to practice her supernatural powers unmolested. The article ended, of course, with the entirely predictable question: “Do you think she could see the whole thing coming?”


If we were looking for candidates for “world’s second” or “world’s third” oldest profession and likely candidate would be fortuneteller. It seems as long as there has been people with something to trade or pay, there has been other people offering their services as a fortuneteller. Enter Luke:

Luke recounts the story of the next leg of Paul and Silas’ missionary journey to Macedonia. As we learned last week, they have settled into the home of Lydia and are busy bringing the Good News of Jesus to the people of this area.

Then something unexpected happens: they are being followed. Day after day, Luke says, they are followed by a certain slave girl with the gift of fortune telling. She follows them everywhere they go, and as she follows she shouts, “These men are slaves of the Most High God: they proclaim to you the way of salvation.” Needless to say, they find this rather annoying. And Paul, the scripture tells us is the first to crack. He finally stops her and says to the spirit that is within her: “I order you, in the name of Jesus Christ, come out of her.” That same hour it leaves her.

No surprisingly, the owners of this certain slave girl are annoyed. They have just lost their business, and they are not impressed by the power of God displayed in the work of Paul and Silas. They immediately go to the local magistrates and complain that these two are disturbing the peace through their actions. They must also have been leading members of the local business improvement association because soon most of the town is in the streets demanding an end to the ministry of Paul and Silas.

Their complaint successful, Paul and Silas are severely beaten and taken off the local jail. The jailer is given specific instructions to keep these two secure. Like any good prison break story, the instruction to put them in the most secure cell usually means only one thing: a good story is coming as they find a way out.

Luke tells us they are secured in the innermost cell: their legs are shackled, and they begin a long night in a cell in the centre of the prison. What do they do? They pray and they sing hymns to God. The scripture tells us that the entire prison population of listening to Paul and Silas when something terrifying happens: and earthquake. An earthquake shakes the prison. As debris falls and rocks are shaken from their foundation Paul and Silas suddenly find themselves unshackled and the door of the prison open. They are delivered from bondage.

What happens next is a twist on every prison break story ever told: The jailer, unconscious from the destruction and the falling debris wakes up. In the dim light he can see that the door of the prison is wide open and he supposes (as anyone would) that the prisoners have escaped. At this very moment he imagines that he has failed in his task and unsheathes his sword as he is getting ready to take his own life. Suddenly there is a loud cry: “Wait!” Paul and Silas cry out, “we are all still here.”

Amazed, the jailer calls for lights and sure enough, Paul and Silas are still there: he falls at their feet. Trembling, he says “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” Without a moments hesitation they said: “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved, you and your entire household.” And to that household they went, where Paul and Silas shared the story of Jesus. Wounds were tended, and that same evening the jailer and his family we baptized.


What kind of story is this? First of all, it is an adventure story, found in a book of adventure stories called the Acts of the Apostles. It is one more adventure story in a book filled with men being thrown from their horses, shipwrecks and narrow escapes. There are several stories woven together, and the action proceeds from one group of apostles to another is the most engaging way.

More than adventure story though, it is a story about the in-breaking of the Spirit. The Spirit enters the world in several ways in the story and we are left to marvel at this in-breaking and try to understand it and allow it to speak to our spirits today.

The first in-breaking is the quite unexpected. It is not often that miracles are proceeded by annoyed healers, but in this case Paul seemed to tolerate the cries of the slave girl for some time until her could take it no longer. Contrast this with Jesus healing blind Bartimaeus, where it is the crowd who are annoyed and can no longer take his refrain, “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me!” Either way, the Paul heals almost out of frustration and the first in-breaking of the Spirit occurs.

The second in-breaking is equally unexpected: The earthquake that shakes the prison (it is unclear if it was felt throughout the town as well) is one of those impossible to explain and difficult to understand events that happen from time to time in the scriptures that demonstrate the power of God to alter events and reflect the divine will in human affairs. To our modern scientific minds such things seem the product of overactive imaginations or a primitive understanding of the natural world. For our purposes today, I wonder if we can suspend our disbelief for just a moment to imagine this as an in-breaking of the Spirit.

The third in-breaking is perhaps the most miraculous and they one that is the also the most implausible: Paul and Silas fail to run. I don’t know about you, but if I was beaten by and angry crowd, tossed in jail with little hope of release, and shackled in the innermost cell of the prison, I would run. I would sprint to the nearest hiding place before you could say “Acts of the Apostles” and never look back. I would be out of that town on the next Greyhound, never to return.

But Paul and Silas wait. They wait for their jailer to regain consciousness and save him from himself. They likely knew the terrible fate that would befall the jailer who failed in his task to keep them secure and they waited the darkened prison to save this man. The Spirit of God breaking into our world!


With permission from my friend and frequent running partner James I share another story of the in-breaking of the Spirit, a more contemporary example of the ways in which the Spirit of the Living God is at work in our world. James was feeling rundown in the late winter, not an unusual thing in cold and flu season, but odd for James who has a healthy lifestyle and a pretty good set of defenses.

When his vision began to change quickly, and flu-like symptoms persisted, he went to the doctor. This led to an MRI and eventually to the diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis. Looking back of similar events through the years, it is likely that he has had the disease for perhaps six years.

The in-breaking of the Spirit happened at Forest Grove, the congregation that James serves in North York. Initially they were worried at his sudden and unexplained illness, and this (of course) was followed by concern and sadness at the MS diagnosis. Then something unexpected happened: in a little over a week the congregation raised $9000 for MS research. The Spirit moved people beyond their sadness to find a way to foster hope. With his MS entering remission, James marvels at the blessing of the Spirit in their midst.


All of this begs the question: where is the in-breaking of the Spirit in our lives? Where is their evidence that the Living God has intervened in some way to bring new life? Maybe it’s not in an earthquake or some other supernatural event that until recently would contravene the law in Dickson, Tennessee. Maybe it is not in what we would expect to be a miracle in the commonly understood way. Maybe it is something simple, like failing to run away when there is a danger that the hated jailer is going to harm himself. In this case the in-breaking of the Spirit was simply staying with someone who needed support, who needed to be reminded that they are a child of the Most High God.

I encourage you, in this week leading up to Pentecost, and the time we mark the most public in-breaking of the Spirit, to look for the smaller ways the Spirit is entering you life. And may God bless you. Amen.