Sunday, June 08, 2014


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?

Forget Berlitz and don’t buy Rosetta Stone—everything you need to learn a foreign language can be found in pop songs:

In Spain they say "Que será, será."
In Italy they say "That's Amore."
In Kenya they say "Hakuna matata."
In France they say "C'est la vie."
In Japan they say "Domo arigato."
In Germany they say "Danke schoen."

Now that I’ve implanted six earworms, you will no doubt spend the rest of the day humming Wayne Newton or Doris Day. Unless, of course, you come to the picnic, then the barking and the laughter of small children will defeat the earworms and save you from thinking of more: “Michelle, ma belle, sont des mots qui vont tres bien ensemble.”

Clearly, the various languages spoken at Pentecost continue to amaze. All were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues; and a crowd come together in bewilderment, as each one heard their own language being spoken. And then the heart of the passage, shared in two pressing questions:

“Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language?

Now, because my children were once teenagers, I can hear a question like “aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans” and put it though my dripping sarcasm filter (“aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans”) and realize that this was not a positive question or sentiment. A bunch of fishermen speak in strange tongues didn’t bring a sense of awe to the occasion, but bewilderment.

So what was God up to?

Before we delve too far into this question, I should confess that I have cheated you of 32 verses of Pentecost—to the great relief of Barbara—and included only the opening verses of a rather long day. It’s a great read, and I commend it to you, but I’ll give you a summary instead of that long list of place names that trip-up even the most accomplished public readers.

A list of nations hear the message in their own tongue, and some conclude the Galileans have had too much wine. Peter disagrees, and shares Joel’s prophecy that God’s Spirit will some day pour out on all people. One sign of this, Peter argues, was Jesus of Nazareth, put to death by wicked men, but now alive once more. Peter quotes the Psalms, to testify that the same Jesus the crowd crucified is now the Lord of all. And hearing their grief and anxiety, he says: “Repent and be baptized, 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.”

So today, as then, it is a story about a promise fulfilled. 3,000 were baptized that first day, and the Spirit continues to move down to now. Regret was expressed, forgiveness extended, and the Spirit of the Living God filled the place with a message of new life for all people.


But I can’t stop thinking about those pop songs. And it’s mostly the early ones, from Deano and Doris Day and Wayne Newton that fascinate me, because they are so outward-looking, so optimistic, and so European. You’re starting to wonder if I’ve finally lost it, at the very end of the church year, but stay with me.

First, think of the remarkable rediscovery of Europe that was happening in the 50’s and early 60’s. Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck in Roman Holiday. Gene Kelly in An American in Paris. Hollywood was making war movies at the same moment—telling stories that needed to be told—but there were also light-hearted stories, love stories, set in Paris and Rome.

At the same time, people were traveling to Europe once more, and not just the wealthy few, but an emerging middle-class traveller. In effect, the narrative had changed. From a collection of warring nations and the rubble that followed, to a place to learn and explore once more.

And with a song like “Danke Schoen” at the top of the charts, just a handful of years after the end of the war, you get the sense that something extraordinary was happening. The spirit of the age, or zeitgeist if you need a little more German, seemed profoundly open to new beginnings and and a new age.

Of course, you could argue it was not to last. From the various shocks of the 70’s to the renewed cold war of the 80’s, this spirit of openness and optimism seemed to disappear in the very dream-like way it appeared. And any student of history will tell you that this is always the way: the ebb and flow of despair and hope, the dance between potential and pitfall, reality and possibility.

And we see the same movement in the story of Pentecost. This is not just pollyanna descent of wind and flame: though some will spend today trying to reframe the story is just such a way. Pentecost is the place where regret and hope meet, where recent events and eternal truths come together, and some hearts are transformed.

And nowhere is this ebb and flow more evident than the centre of the passage:

“Fellow Israelites, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. This man was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him.” (22-24)

God in Jesus did remarkable things in your midst, you nailed him to a tree, but God raised him from the dead. For fifty days the spirit of this truth has been silent to but a few, but now the Spirit is alive and moving among us. If you have ears to hear you will repent, and forgiveness in Jesus will be yours, and out of the uncertainty of this wind and flame you will receive the Holy Spirit.

Life, death, silence, Spirit, repentance, forgiveness, uncertainty, and the gift of the Spirit. And it will continue: these baptized believers will take the message of cross and redemption to the ends of the earth, and what follows is the same back-in-forth. The church will unite in service, and divide on who may belong. The church will thrive in spreading the Gospel, and suffer for this success at the hands Nero and others. The church will define and refine what it means to be a believer and fragment in the face of heresy and strife.

In the days preceding Pentecost and everyday that follows the church has living in the tension between the hope of heaven and life on earth. Between the better angels of our nature and mistakes we never cease to make. Between the winds of God that will lift our sails and the timid ones who refuse to leave the dock.

We ask this day, we pray, for optimism to see a world renewed, for courage in the face of doubt and despair, and openness, to the movement of the Spirit, and the new directions the winds may take us. Amen.

Sunday, June 01, 2014

Seventh Sunday of Easter (Ascension)

Acts 1
6 Then they gathered around him and asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” 7 He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
9 After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight. 10 They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. 11 “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.” 12 Then the apostles returned to Jerusalem from the hill called the Mount of Olives, a Sabbath day’s walk[a] from the city. 13 When they arrived, they went upstairs to the room where they were staying. Those present were Peter, John, James and Andrew; Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew; James son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. 14 They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers.

One of the value-added services we offer here at the church is a willingness to answer all questions of a religious nature.

Not long ago someone stopped me in the hallway to ask the difference between a disciple and an apostle. Rarely does an Advent go by without someone calling to ask the names of the three wise men. And just last night by brother called up to ask ‘what’s the deal with Ascension Day?’

As obscure religious questions go, he may be going after some sort of prize. Or maybe not. It turns out he was on his way to France to see his boss, and was having some trouble reaching everyone over there enjoying an Ascension Day holiday weekend.

“C’est un bon pays,” I said in my cereal-box French, and explained that truly civilized countries like France enjoy all the obscure religious days. Name another country that enjoys Good Friday, Easter Monday, Ascension Day, Whit Monday, Assumption Day, All Saints’ Day and the Feast of Stephen. Add in a day to celebrate storming the Bastille, and you may be close to heaven on earth.

Now I’m not saying we might be better off if General Wolfe had lost that day on the Plains of Abraham, but by accident of birth or careless migration, we seem to have lost the statutory holiday lottery. So I may say ‘happy belated Ascension Day’ to you, but without the long weekend to go with it, it just sounds cruel.

Poor Andrew’s question remains unanswered, and perhaps you too are wondering ‘what’s the deal with Ascension Day?‘ Let’s take a look.

“Soon,” Jesus said, “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and beyond, to the ends of the earth.” After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.

And that’s about it. Forty days after Easter is Ascension, fifty days after Easter is Pentecost (the French take the next day as a holiday) and then it’s barely a month to Bastille Day. Immigration forms can be found online.

And St. Luke, who is writing the Acts of the Apostles, must achieve a number of things in this first chapter of his sequel, since next Sunday it is on to Acts 2 and the wind and fire of Pentecost. Acts 1 opens with a segue from Luke to Acts, some last words, the Ascension, a brief and bloody description of what happened to Judas, and a special meeting to replace him. The lot fell to Matthias, and the eleven were twelve once more.

There are a few things to note in this important summary chapter, this bridge from the Gospels to the rest of the Christian story, and the first is a seemingly innocuous little verse that appears just in advance of the passage Kathy read this morning. There, as Luke sets the scene he says ‘After his suffering, he presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God.’

At first glance, this may seem unsurprising. While still with the twelve, Jesus spoke mostly in parables, and parables—as we learned in parables class—are always about the Kingdom of God. So if we track Jesus—in life, in death, in life beyond death—the topic is the same. Jesus only wants to talk about the Kingdom of God.

Surprisingly, this insight was more-or-less lost to the church for several centuries. Only in the nineteenth century did scholars and preachers rediscover this single-minded focus on the Kingdom of God, having been waylaid by questions of belief, practice, personal piety and national politics. Only in the period aptly named ‘the quest for the historical Jesus‘ did this emphasis on the Kingdom come.

The second noteworthy thing in this short passage is the appearance of angels, visitors who offer some much-needed advice. Their appearance is short and subtle—and almost easy to miss—but an important part of the story.

Just then he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight. They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky?”

It’s a good question. But it’s the next thing they say that really gets their attention. Just as they return their gaze to the earth and these strange men in white, they receive an important message. ‘You know he’s coming back,’ the angels say, ‘the same way he left.‘

Now this might have come as a bit of a shock to the group, only recently accustomed to the fact that Jesus was not dead, only recently accustomed to the fact that he would ascend to God, and now learning (perhaps again) that he will be back.

I say ‘perhaps again’ because Jesus did mention that he would return on the clouds, with power and glory, but we don’t know if they understood (Matthew 24). Even in the midst of comforting his disciples, in that tender passage in John (14) he says ‘and if I go to prepare a place for you, I will come again and take you to myself, so that where I am you may be also.‘ Could they hear this, in the midst of the passion? Perhaps not.

And this was the second great discovery of those nineteenth-century theologians, or perhaps we should say re-discovery: that the promise of return was a central theme of the early church, and a central theme for Jesus—a theme that seemed to be overtaken events. Some would argue that the promise of return was so immediate (Mark 13) that when it failed to happen it was quickly discounted. This may be the case, but for the early church at least, the promise of return was a real as looking up at the clouds passing overhead.

Now, not long ago I gave you one of those five dollar words that comes in handy at a moment like this, a moment that we’re looking in our Bibles and trying to connect the dots. The word is intertextuality, the practice where we allow one passage or idea suggest another passage or idea, in scripture or maybe beyond the scriptures too.

In this case, talking about the Kingdom of God, and talking about Jesus return in glory, we might be reminded of some other famous words that suddenly get more context: “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

Jesus has them (and us) reciting a prayer with his entire program embedded in a single line. ‘Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth’ is both the persistent Kingdom message of the parables and the abiding hope of imminent return. A single line that will guide the early church as they hold things in common, care for widow and orphan, preach the good news, and wait with one eye on the sky.

So now summer’s here, and summer is the time that many of us spend looking up at the sky. Is that rain coming? Isn’t that a lovely sunset? Look at that sun—I better put more sunscreen on. And now, courtesy of a couple of unexpected angels, maybe you’ll think about something else when you look up on a long summer afternoon or evening: ‘What are you looking up for? You know he’s coming back, the same way he left.’

The Kingdom will come, and Kingdom’s work will be done, and we will look up longingly at the same time we remember all the important work we have to do here. We live in that in-between place, that liminal space between future hope and the important work God has set before us. May we attend to both, with God’s help, Amen.