Sunday, July 6, 2014

The Ten Commandments Part 3: Loving the Ones We Can See, Exodus 20:12-17




Scripture can be found here...

I have a subscription to F@b.com. That means that, every single day, sometimes more than once a day, I receive an email from them highlighting their newest finds. Whatever you want, you can probably find the prettiest, shiniest, coolest, tastiest, newest version of it on this website. And, full disclosure, from them I have purchased, in no particular order: earrings, boots, a necklace, olive oil, a lamp, peanut butter, and a panda costume. I have looked at chairs for my living room, stools for my kitchen, lots and lots more jewelry than I purchased, sunglasses, steaks, and bicycles. Their slogan? “F@b is everyday design.”

But here’s the thing about this website. I have noticed something about myself, something that happens inside me when that daily email comes and I find myself poring over it to see what I might possibly need. Want. Need. And what I have noticed is not good. It’s not that I turn green and monstrous, not exactly. But I start to feel uncomfortable, unsettled. I’ve never checked it, but I bet my blood pressure rises. This website, which is brilliantly designed, turns on something in me that I don’t like. It turns on a desire to have what I do not have. It turns on a longing to acquire cool or pretty things just because they are cool and pretty. It turns on covetousness. And so, as much as I have liked the things I have purchased there, and even though I am a repeat customer and will probably buy more fabulous finds in the future, I had to do something to hide that “everyday” subscription from myself. I didn’t like feeling like that. I don’t want to feel like that.

Now, you are probably wondering. Isn’t “coveting” the last commandment? Why is she starting with that one? The answer is simple, though it’s not something I figured out on my own. The whole second table of the law, the whole part of the Ten Commandments that has to do with “loving your neighbor as you love yourself,” can be answered and solved by adherence to the last commandment. “Do not covet.” Dishonoring your parents, killing, breaking marriage vows, stealing, lying about your neighbor—there is a good argument to make that they all start with coveting.

Professor Rolf Jacobson puts it this way:

[Take] King David. He was hanging out on the roof, his eyes fell upon Uriah’s wife Bathsheba, and boom! He wanted her. So he took her. As the king, he was already married and had plenty of access to women in the palace. But he wanted Bathsheba, too. Se he took her. And then, when she turned up pregnant, he arranged for Uriah—and the entire military company he was leading into war!—to be abandoned in the midst of the battle. They all were killed. And it all started with a little coveting (See 2 Samuel 11-12).[i]

Here’s the big thing: God loves us. God wants us to be happy. God created us in the Divine Image, to be in a covenant with Godself, but also to live in God’s creation in peace and harmony. To covet is to predispose ourselves to anxiety, and fear. To covet is to lose our peace. To lose our peace is to lose our connection with God. To read the last six commandments is to encounter a vision of a world that is either steeped in anxiety and fear, or steeped in love—it just depends on how you look at it. Let’s take them one at a time.

The commandment to love our parents is not directed towards children, but towards adults. It’s directed at those of us whose parents are elderly, who need our help, who need us to look at them, not as problems to be solved, but as fragile and beautiful images of God, just like we are. Will we let our anxiety rule us, or our love?

Most of us learned the sixth commandment as “You shall not kill,” but there are multiple Hebrew words for killing, and the one used here indicates, almost always, premeditated murder. The God of the living values life. We are to value the lives and safety of others as highly as we value our own. We are in the midst of an incredibly polarized conversation on guns and gun regulations in this country. I think both sides in the conversation are filled with fear and anxiety, one about the loss of rights and the other about the loss of life. Nothing will be accomplished until we are able to talk to one another from a place of peace, from a place of genuine concern for one another.

The commandment against adultery asks us to hold disruptive desires in tension with the happiness of others. This is the very nature of marriage vows: we choose to place the needs and desires of another person on a par with our own. We promise to love one particular other as we love ourselves—and to not admit another into that covenant.

“You shall not steal” seems straightforward until someone with the mind of a John Calvin helps you to understand its many subtleties:  

Now there are many kinds of thefts. One consists in violence, when another’s goods are stolen by force and unrestrained brigandage. A second kind consists in malicious deceit, when they are carried off through fraud. Another lies in a more concealed craftiness, when a man’s goods are snatched from him by seemingly legal means.[ii] All theft is a violation of God’s image in one another, whether we are talking about an individual breaking in to steal a laptop or a corporation claiming as its own property the drinking water we all need to live.

The ninth commandment, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor,” sounds like it is about giving testimony in court, and of course, that’s one of its applications. But the temptation to say things that are not true about people we don’t like, or who threaten us, or who have something we want, is something that starts in early childhood and doesn’t ever really leave us.  The bible has a cure for that: “Speak the truth in love,” and we can’t ever go wrong.

God loves us—all of us. God wants us to be happy. God loves you and me, and also the guy at the office whose voice sounds like nails on a chalkboard, and also the cousin who sued my parents right when my mother was dying, and also the husband or wife of that person who makes your heart skip a beat, even though you know it shouldn’t.

Get ready for a shock. The law isn’t about you. It’s about your neighbor. Again, wisdom from Professor Jacobson:

We  [say], “OK, God, we’re down with love. But, how do I love my neighbor?”

God says, “OK, let me be a little more explicit here. Make sure everyone gets one day off each week, take care of the elderly, don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t have sex with someone else’s spouse, don’t hurt your neighbor with your words, don’t desire your neighbor’s stuff. That’s how you love your neighbor.”

Because the law isn’t about you. It’s about your neighbor. And God loves your neighbor so much that God gives you the law. And God loves you so much, that God gives your neighbor the exact same law.[iii]

Do we want a world steeped in fear and anxiety, or one steeped in love? Do we live our lives as troops ready for battle or as loved ones gathered around a table? The world we create in concert with our great Creator has everything to do with which path we take. “Love your neighbor as yourself.” What will it be? Will it be fear? Or will it be love? Thanks be to God. Amen.


[i] Rolf Jacobson, “Commentary on Exodus 19:1-6, 20:1-17,” Narrative Lectionary Resources, Working Preacher Website, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2113, Accessed 7-5-2014.
[ii] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2.8.45.
[iii] Jacobson, Op. cit.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

The Ten Commandments Part 2: Loving the One We Can't See, Exodus 20:1-11


The things God will do to get our attention...!

 Scripture can be found here...

I don’t think it’s possible to convey the sheer trepidation with which I set out to share these words with you. I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that the stakes are very high here. Very high.

Don’t get me wrong. I believe in a God of love and grace, who will follow, even if we take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea. I believe in that God, who wants us, and who seek us out, and who, no matter what, will claim us, in the end.

But what about the days and nights between now and then? What about the hours and minutes and seconds? What we make of them is everything. The stakes are high.

We are talking this morning about what is traditionally called “The First Table” of the law. The commandments are divided into the first table, commandments about God, and the second table, commandments about our neighbor. This echoes just what Jesus said in our first reading. These first four commandments are all about loving God with all our heart, and with all our soul, and with all our mind, and with all our strength.

This is a fearsome thing, to love God so completely. I know I aspire to it. I know I fail at least as often as I succeed. But I also know it is what we are called to do.

God begins with a reminder: it is God who frees us—who has freed us—from slavery of one kind or another. Each of us has to work out with fear and trembling what those things are that enslave us. And as fearsome a thing as it is to even try to comprehend what whole-hearted, and whole-souled, and whole-minded, and whole-strength love of God is, in the end, we may find it more frightening to contemplate a life enslaved to our self-image or our cell phones or our addictions. Hear these words, from the God who sets us free.

But first, this: remember how I said last week that it’s really hard to memorize the Ten Commandments? A quick look at the chart[1] below reveals why that is.

Jewish
Catholic, Lutheran,
Orthodox
Reformed, Anglican,
other Protestants
1. I am the Lord your God


2. No other Gods (and no    graven images)
1. No other Gods (and no graven images)
1. No other Gods


2. No graven images
3. Do not misuse God's name
2. Do not misuse God's name
3. Do not misuse God's name
4. Keep the Sabbath
3. Keep the Sabbath
4. Keep the Sabbath
5. Honor father & mother
4. Honor father & mother
5. Honor father & mother
6. Do not murder
5. Do not murder
6. Do not murder
7. Do not commit adultery
6. Do not commit adultery
7. Do not commit adultery
8. Do not steal
7. Do not steal
8. Do not steal
9. Do not bear false witness against a neighbor
8. Do not bear false witness against a neighbor
9. Do not bear false witness against a neighbor
10. Do not covet your neighbor's spouse or house
9. Do not covet your neighbor's spouse
10. Do not covet your neighbor's spouse or house

10. Do not covet your neighbor's house


Across the faiths—for Jews and Christians—we agree on the content of the commandments (mostly), but we divide them up differently, which ends up creating different emphases. For Jews, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery,” is the first Word, out of ten Words spoken. For Christians, this statement of identity and action is preface to the commandments. It is a last reminder of the source of all these words.

The first commandment: You shall have no other gods before (besides) me. ~Exodus 20:3

In the ancient world people believed in many gods. Even the ancient Israelites, for a time, believed that there were many gods—this commandment provides sly evidence of that fact. An order to have no other gods besides YHWH acknowledges that those other gods exist. And having sojourned for 400-plus years in Egypt, the Israelites were no doubt familiar with the likes of the mother-goddess Isis and her husband Osiris, god of the afterlife, and their child, Horus, god of vengeance, protection, war, and the sky, not to mention Imhotep, god of peace.

It is relatively easy for us to disavow these gods and goddesses, and to look upon them as remnants of another age. It is comforting to think of ourselves as having evolved beyond such childish notions. It is less comforting to notice the many gods we still serve, even though they go by other names. Anything that interferes with God’s primacy in our lives is, in fact, another god. It is relatively easy to identify other people’s gods—how many times have we noticed someone else who seemed to worship power, position, sex, possessions, mind-altering substances? It is much, much harder to complete this sentence with brutal honesty: “I confess that _______ is my god.” Which is to say, “I confess that ________ is the thing that has me enslaved.” The first commandment is the hardest: it is the one that urges us to put down those other things that come between us and God. It is the one that begs us to recognize that this is our only hope for true freedom. Can we empty ourselves of our little gods so that we can open ourselves to a real relationship with the one true God?

The second commandment: You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them…” ~ Exodus 20:4-6

OK. First things first. Flat Jesus is not in violation of this commandment, unless: you are actually worshipping your particular version in ceremonies at home, none of which was suggested in last week’s children’s message OR in the take-home letter!

Seriously. What is this about? Well, in a few chapters we will have an example, when the people Moses left at the foot of the mountain get antsy and start melting down their jewelry to make a golden calf. But we have to step back a bit, I think, to really understand the commandment against making idols for ourselves to worship. We serve a Creator-God who is still creating, and to be made in God’s image is to participate in God’s creative acts. Many of us have experiences of God that are mediated through creation: we gaze in awe at the beauty of a waterfall or perfect blue sky patterned with gorgeous cumulus clouds. We hover by a window, listening with spine-tingling delight to a powerful storm. Alice Walker writes, “I think it [ticks] God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don't notice it. People think pleasing God is all God cares about. But any fool living in the world can see [God is] always trying to please us back.”

That’s why making an idol for worship is to worship in precisely the wrong direction. When we create something for the purpose of worshiping it, we always end up worshiping, not God, but ourselves—our own cleverness and artfulness. This is one of the reasons the Reformers tried to do away with art that represents God in worship spaces: the fear that we would forget to worship God and, instead, end up worshiping the wonderful sculptor or painter, human creativity, rather than the Creator of all.

The prohibition on idol worship suggests something else, especially if we remember the story of the golden calf. The creation of that idol was born entirely of the anxiety that can be generated when the God we worship is not readily visible to us. We long to gaze on God face to face. God is invisible, not so that we will stop seeking, but so that we will seek God more deeply where God can be found.  God will not be seen in our melted down jewelry. God insists, instead, on showing up in scripture, in nature, in prayer, and even in the faces of other created humans. Can we open a space for God by refusing to worship the products of our own labor and creativity?

The third commandment: You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.” ~Exodus 20:7.

As children many of us learned this commandment “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain,” which I still find a useful way of saying this. To do something ‘in vain’ is to do it for no good purpose. It is a waste of time, or, as here, a waste of breath. It is a waste of the Name, YHWH, which is treasured in Hebrew scripture and in Jewish practice to this day. My seminary was located across the street from Jewish Theological Seminary. At some point in my seminary career I learned that there is a repository (called a genizah) at JTS for all seminary-generated paper printed with the name of God. The Talmud Tractate Shabbat prohibits the destruction of anything bearing God’s holy name; such items are to be given burial in the earth. Until that burial, they are kept in genizahs.

Such care with God’s name has slipped away from a lot of us. Hoo boy, it really has. Maybe this could help us: imagine using the name of a person you deeply love in the way we often use God’s name. If we wouldn’t use the name of a cherished child, parent, friend or spouse that way, perhaps we can unlearn the habits that let us to use God’s name that way. Can we open up a space for God by being very intentional in the way we use God’s holy name?

The fourth commandment: Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work.  But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work…” ~Exodus 20:8-11.

How hard it is to stop. Just stop. And that is what is at the root of the word “Sabbath”: it is a form of the Hebrew word for “stop; cease.” And how many of us are able to find time in our lives to simply cease all our crazed activities, to simply “be still, and know that [God is] God?” In Exodus, there is a rationale given: even God, after all the labor of creation, rested on the seventh day! In Deuteronomy, the rationale is even more pointed: “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day” (Deut. 5:15). As Rolf Jacobson wrote in the commentary, " the Sabbath is also a day of rest and justice. The Sabbath was the first fair labor law." Not to observe Sabbath is to be a slave—to something. We might not be building pyramids for Pharaoh, but we are enslaved to some notion of busyness, or achievement, or perfection, or tradition—something that does not allow us to simply stop. Simply be.

This is not to say that the Sabbath is to be a time in which we can’t do anything. John Calvin found joy in bowling. Ask yourselves this about your Sabbath observances: Is there joy? Is there time to be with the ones you love? Is there time from which you unplug from your other obligations, or from those things that fritter away your time (like phone screens and computer screens)? And if you can’t manage 24 hours in this Eden of rest, can you find an hour? Just an hour for time that is for nothing but enjoyment of people, of creation, of the bliss of rest from a busy life? Can we open up one hour of Sabbath for starters? Can we simply stop, and know that God is God, and we are most emphatically not?

It is a fearsome thing, this first table of the law, which is all about loving God with all our heart, and with all our soul, and with all our mind, and with all our strength. These commandments urge us to open a space for the One who is truly the great love of our lives, if we will only allow it. Yes. We believe in a God of love and grace, who will follow us, even if we take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, and find us and claim us. But why wait to be rescued from ourselves? Why not open ourselves to God’s love now? The stakes are so high. We spend so much of our lives fleeing God. Why not spend ourselves on the One who will make us truly free? Can we open a space for God? Thanks be to God. Amen.



[1] Chart courtesy of WorkingPreacher.org.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

The Ten Commandments Part 1: Because We Are Loved, Exodus 19:1-6, 20:1-2



The Ten Commandments on display at the Texas State Capitol in Austin


Scripture can be found here...

In the beginning was the Word.

In 1956 Paramount Pictures released the dazzling religious epic, “The Ten Commandments,” starring Yul Brynner as the Pharaoah and Charlton Heston as both Moses and the voice of God. As part of the publicity for the film, director Cecil B. DeMille placed monuments containing the Ten Commandments throughout the United States. To accomplish this, DeMille joined forces with a Minnesota juvenile court judge named E. J. Ruegemer, who had been erecting displays of the commandments since the 1940’s. He did this based on his conviction that the troubled youth of America needed a moral foundation. Between them, DeMille and Ruegemer are believed to have been responsible for anywhere between 100 and 2000 monuments, made of granite, shaped like the traditional tablets of the law, and inscribed with the words we are about to study and ponder for the next four weeks. And despite efforts to remove many of these displays based on an argument in favor of the separation of church and state, in 2005 the Supreme Court ruled that the monuments could stay, and that they were historical, and not merely religious. The case, Van Orden v. Perry, was decided by a vote of 5-4.

And here we are, studying these words together. Scholars have a hard time pinpointing exactly how old they are—according to my reading, they may be anywhere from 3,000-16,000 years old. And yet their significance continues to be hotly debated. Are they general rules for living, applicable to all? Are they commands to be upheld only by those who were part of God’s covenant people, newly escaped from slavery, or do they include those brought into the covenant by Jesus Christ? And why is it so hard for us to memorize them? (More on that last one next week. There is a very good reason.)

Let’s start at the beginning—which is to say, in the days and months leading up to God’s and Moses conversation on Mount Sinai. The Hebrews approach Sinai freshly released from captivity… newly freed from their four hundred years as slaves in Egypt. God has led them out, across the Sea of Reeds (formerly known and wrongly translated as the Red Sea), simultaneously freeing them and destroying their enemies.

The months in the wilderness have had their challenges—as you can imagine, issues of food and water came up right away, and in both cases, God provided for the people. Now, three months later, they have entered the wilderness of Sinai, the area surrounding the mountain. Modern day scholars are not sure exactly where the biblical Mount Sinai is located, though the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula (part of modern day Egypt) is as good a location as any. It is notoriously hard to say exactly where astonishing, holy things happen. Suffice to say, the people camped out here, and Moses went up the mountain to meet with God.

In the beginning was the Word.

God begins with a reminder. Tell the people, God says, remind them—who I am. You know what I did—I rescued you, I “bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.”

And implicit in all that is: I changed the laws of nature for you. A sea parted. When you were hungry, I sent you bread from heaven. When you were thirsty I provided water from a rock. I was there for you. I was there for you.

I swear, the Lord God sounds like an anxious suitor, ready to propose. And, in a sense, that is exactly what is happening. God is saying, “You are already mine. You are my people. Let’s take this to the next level. This is a covenant relationship”—which, by the way, is one way we understand marriage. First comes love, then comes marriage. Or, in this case, first comes love—divine love as enacted in God’s works of rescue and sustenance. Then come God’s claims upon our behavior.[1] Then comes the spelling out of the terms of the covenant.

Unlike what we would consider ideal in a modern day marriage, one party is entirely empowered to spell out the terms of this covenant.  Because this is the relationship God is spelling out between deity and humans, God gets to do that. “If you obey my voice and keep my covenant,” God says, “you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the Israelites” (Ex. 19:5-6).

In the beginning was the Word.

Have you noticed something funny about this passage? Have you noticed the complete absence of the word “command” or “commandment”? Instead, God tells Moses, “These are the words you shall speak.” And that is a faithful translation of what we find in Hebrew. The Hebrew word for “word” is debar, or, plural, debarim. These are the debarim I want you to speak. This is why sometimes you’ll hear people refer to the Ten Commandments as the “Decalogue,” which means, literally, the ten words.

Here’s something fascinating. The word “word” is also translated from the Hebrew, throughout the psalms, as “promise.” God’s command to us, God’s word to us, is also God’s promise to us. God gives us God’s word.

“Then God spoke all these words. I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery…” God’s claims on us are based on God’s claim of already having rescued us. It all goes back to who God is, how we understand God.

But, you know, we who are Christians, in Endicott, NY, in 2014, could reasonably ask, “How does this apply to me? I wasn’t a slave in ancient Egypt.” And, depending upon how your life has gone up to this point, the idea of God having rescued you may or may not resonate, may or may not feel accurate. Are we included in the covenant?

One answer to this question has to do with how we view the Old Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures, or what Jews call “The Bible.” Do we take the Hebrew Scriptures seriously as God’s word to us? For the past two years I’ve been using a preaching tool called the Narrative Lectionary, whose answer to this question is, emphatically, Yes. The Bible that Jesus knew is our Bible too. The story of Jesus makes no sense whatsoever without the context of the Bible he and his ancestors clung to, the story of God and God’s people. And, though it is pretty common to think of the God of Old Testament as being about law and the God of New Testament as being about love, there is only one God, a God of both law and love, though the stories we tell of God change over time. As we hear in familiar refrains such as, “The Lord is kind and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love,” the God of the First Testament is, indeed, a God of love. And as we see in this prelude to the Ten Commandments, first comes love.

Another answer to that question—does this apply to us?—can be found in your bulletin, Question 90 from the Presbyterian catechism, Why did God give this law? The answer is this:

[The law] was the great charter of liberty for Israel, a people chosen to live in covenant with God and to serve as a light to the nations. It remains the charter of liberty for all who would love, know and serve the Lord today.

The Ten Commandments are God’s word, not only to the ancient Hebrews, but to all who would love, know, and serve God through our faith in Jesus Christ today. And the nature of these words is that they contain both commands and promise. God makes a claim on our behavior, both towards God and towards one another. And God promises that our living into, and living up to God’s claim, will be a sign to the world that we are, in fact, God’s chosen, precious, beloved children.

Those who are chosen and precious are always exposed to standards of behavior, from teaching a toddler not to hit when they are mad, to teaching a teenager to speak to others, including their parents, with respect. To love another, even another who is not a child—a parent, a partner, a friend—to love another is to enter into an agreement with them about our behavior. In marriage we take vows—to love, honor, cherish, to be faithful, in all circumstances. First comes love, then come our claims upon one another. We expect the best of each other, and we promise to give the best to each other, because we love.

In the beginning was the Word. It was a word of covenant, which means it was a word of love, and a word of command, and a word of promise. It was given in love, to further love. And whatever your view on DeMille’s and Ruegemer’s displays (or of Charlton Heston’s acting or activism), it is a word, and these are words, that are still living and moving and having their being in us today. Thanks be to God. Amen.


[1] Rolf Jacobson, “Commentary on Exodus 19:1-6, 20:1-17,” Working Preacher, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2113, 6-15-2014, Accessed 6-17-2014.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Whoop-De-Doo! A Meditation on Music, the Trinity, and Colossians





Scripture can be found here...

You may or may not be aware of this, but not everyone refers to this day in our church calendar as “Music Celebration Sunday.” In some circles today is referred to as “Whoop-de-doo Sunday!” As in, wow, what a big day this is, and what a big fuss we make! We worship God today, as we do every Sunday, but we set aside this day to celebrate that one way we love to worship God is through our music ministry.

And in many churches today, what is being celebrated is “Trinity Sunday,” the only day in the church calendar set aside to celebrate a theological doctrine. And I say, “Whoop-De-Doo!” is an appropriate moniker for Trinity Sunday as well.

The passage from the letter to the Colossians, which I read just before the anthem, speaks to the writer’s hopes for life in Christian community. We believers are encouraged to “clothe ourselves” with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. These are the markers of love—in any relationship. Parent-child. Life-partners. Respectful colleagues. But most essentially, here. In faith community. These are the non-negotiables.

We are encouraged to let our hearts be ruled by the peace of Christ—the peace that, elsewhere, is called “the peace that passes understanding.” In other words, this is a peace we can’t rationalize or reason our way to. This is a peace that we are asked simply to embrace.

We are encouraged to adopt an attitude of gratitude, as I’ve heard it called elsewhere.

We are encouraged, not simply to read scripture, but to let it dwell in us richly— let it pitch a tent in our hearts and abide there, kindling its fires, warming us and lighting up the night.

We are encouraged to speak the truth to one another in love.

We are encouraged to keep the music flowing.

And whatever we do, we are to do it all in the name of Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father. And, though it doesn’t say it in words, the strong implication—the only logical reality—is that we do all this, all these beautiful and often quite difficult things—by the power of the Holy Spirit.

The two main things I’d like to highlight in this rich little text—which could be the source of a dozen sermons at least—are these. First, in a short list of essentials for Christian living in community, music is included. And second, given a recipe for life in community, it is soaked in our understanding of God who is Trinity.

So I ask you, now, to join me in this meditation by Rev. Steve Garnaas-Holmes.

The Holy Trinity is not a doctrine
but a mystery, a koan,
the paradox of three persons in one,
a meditation on the names of God.
Meditate on the mystery.
Pray with the names. Let them speak.

Father, Son, Holy Spirit.

Mother, Child, Love Between.

Creator, Christ, Holy Breath.

Source of all Being, Eternal Word, Living Spirit.

Abba God, Only Begotten, Spirit of Love.

Infinite Parent, Infinite Sibling, Infinite Self.

The One Beyond, the One Beside, the One Within.

Transcendent Mystery, Healing Presence, Emergent Energy.

Source of Love, Experience of Love, Energy of Love.

Holy One, Holy Many, Holy Us.

Lord of the Universe, Jesus of Nazareth, Heart of my Soul.

Loving Silence, Gentle Word, Abiding Love.

Mystery of Being, Gift of Love, Breath of Life.

Mother, Son, Holy Spirit.

Loving One, Loving One, Loving One.

Thanks be to God. Amen.


Sunday, June 8, 2014

A Second Wind: A Pentecost Sermon on Acts 2:1-21




 Scripture can be found here....

Like so many of the truly beautiful things God does for us, this one starts in darkness and grief.

It is seven short weeks since the Easter event—since Jesus was raised from the dead and appeared to his friends. And now, not only is he gone again, but chapter 1 details a final, dreadful reckoning for Judas, the one who betrayed him.

His friends are in a world of darkness and grief. And as many of you are well aware, grief often stops us in our tracks. It gives us the distinct impression we cannot move. We want to lay low, to lie down. In January I attended a funeral and listened as Joan’s best friend from high school eulogized his mother. “I dread going to bed every night, because it means waking up and having to remember, again, that she is not here.”

As our reading begins, Jesus’ friends are gathered in the place we often hear called the “Upper Room.” It’s the same place where they have gathered every time they have come to Jerusalem. It’s the place where they ate the last supper together. And now, it’s the place where they are hunkered down, wondering what in heaven or on earth is next for them.

What comes next is the Holy Spirit. The Spirit arrives, sounding like “the rush of a violent wind,” and in the space of what seems to be moments, Spirit lifts them out of their inaction, their stuck place of grief and pain. The Spirit makes things happen.

The friends and disciples of Jesus are filled with the Holy Spirit, and it feels to them like wind and fire. The Spirit empowers them in two very specific ways: First, she gives them the ability to communicate in ways they were not able to before—they can speak in different languages. And second, she gives Peter, in particular, the ability to seize the moment, as he stands up and gives a sermon.

The Holy Spirit makes things happen. The Holy Spirit empowers us to do things we did not know we could do.

In our lives together as the people of God, we don’t talk about the Holy Spirit all that much. We have spent all the Sundays since last September talking about God the Creator, God the covenant maker, and God’s people of the covenant. And we’ve talked about Jesus. We’ve talked about him a lot. And the Spirit gets a passing mention here and there. But it is fair to say—it is classic Christian theology to say— the Holy Spirit is the reason we are all here.

It is through the Holy Spirit that we do almost everything that has anything to do with the life of faith.

The Spirit calls the church together, and gets us out of bed on a Sunday morning to go there.

The Spirit tells us that we are loved and accepted by God.

The Spirit inspires us with ideas about sharing the love of God with the world—the word “inspiration” literally means, the Spirit is in us. One Great Hour of Sharing Cabaret night? Sure, thank Jerry Natoli. But also thank the Holy Spirit who inspired Jerry to suggest it.

The Spirit reminds us that God is still speaking, and tunes our ears to listen, not only to what God said 2000 or 3000 years ago, but to what God is saying to our world today.

And that means that the Spirit may have some changes in mind for us. Some new ideas of what it means to be church. Some new vision.

The Spirit comes to us when we are tired, and grief stricken, and just thoroughly spent and discouraged. And the Spirit gives us a second wind—renewed energy, renewed hope, and renewed vision.

I serve on our Presbytery’s Committee on Ministry. At a recent meeting we had some time to step back from the specifics of the churches and pastors we are seeking to assist, and to talk together about what we hope and pray for every church. We asked the Big Question: What does it mean to be the church together? And together we came up with four essentials—call them fundamentals, if that word doesn’t make you squirm too much. Four basic ingredients of a healthy Christian community. And every single one of these, is something that is empowered in us by the Holy Spirit. A healthy Christian community is…

o   A community that prays passionately and consistently
o   A community that is committed to deeply know and live into God’s Word
o   A community that speaks the truth in love
o   A community that has a clear sense of their participation in God’s mission (word and action)

Passionate and consistent prayer: Prayer is a gift of the Holy Spirit. But like every gift of the Spirit, it requires our cooperation. Some of us feel this gift, and some of us don’t. To some, a conversation with Jesus is the most natural thing in the world, and to others, it feels strange, or childish—as if we’re play-acting. At the beginning of our passage, the grief-stricken and probably confused and somewhat paralyzed followers of Jesus are all in one place. Does it occur to them to pray? When does it occur to us to pray? It is not unusual for the Spirit to reach out to us (or into us) in times of sorrow and struggle. Prayer is a gift of the Spirit. And in all things, we have to start where we are. A life of passionate and consistent prayer begins when it first occurs to us to pray, and we stop whatever it is we are doing, and do it. For a minute. Or five. For thirty seconds, if that is what we can manage. Never forget: each prayer is a gift. The Spirit gave us the impulse, the energy and courage to follow through, and the Spirit will do it again.

Commitment to deeply know and live into God’s Word: A healthy Christian community is one that reads the Bible and strives to know more about it. Here at UPC we have a number of opportunities available to study scripture, but not everyone can get away on a Monday evening or manage to be here before church on Sunday morning. What to do? If you want to know scripture, the best way is to study it with others, but the next best thing is to read about it on your own. There are a multitude of wonderful books about our Book that are very readable and interesting, and I am happy to point you to some good ones. You can also read a devotional such as “The Upper Room,” which will place passages of scripture in the context of your own daily experiences. The Spirit nudged the writing of scripture, and the Spirit nudges us to read it. When we do, we deepen, not only our own faith, but the faith of the whole church.

Speaking the truth in love. Sounds so lovely, doesn’t it? Who wouldn’t want to speak the truth in love? But this is scary stuff. Speaking the truth in love means holding one another accountable. Speaking the truth in love means that we have to let go of the notion that to be a Christian is to be “nice.” “Nice” doesn’t cut it when we need to tell someone that their words and actions have no place in Christian community. “Nice” keeps us stuck and scared. “Nice” would never have allowed Peter to stand up and say the words of challenge he had to offer to God’s people on Pentecost day. The Spirit gave him courage. The Spirit gives us courage. The Spirit gives us power. Not to blow people away with our righteous indignation. But to lovingly tell the truth. Sometimes, there is nothing harder.

Having a clear sense of our participation in God’s mission. The mission statement of Union Presbyterian Church can be found on the front of your bulletin. Please read it aloud with me:

As members of Union Presbyterian Church, we live to serve our Lord, our congregation, our community, and our world. We unite our spirits in faithful, loving commitment to this calling in Jesus Christ and, as a church family, we celebrate the Kingdom of God.

Where do you fit in that statement of our mission? You might know instantly—you are a deacon, a member of session, a member of a committee, you sing or ring in a choir. Or you might wonder… where do I fit in this mission statement? How do I participate? I don’t care whether you are 13 or 103, you are included in these words. You may participate by your service or you may participate by your prayer. You may participate by uniting your spirit with all our spirits and the One Spirit of the Living God. But you are included. The Spirit has called you. The Spirit gives you the power to do it.

The Holy Spirit of God finds us in our places of sadness and sickness and stuckness, and provides us with what we need to be God’s people—fully alive, fully engaged, fully awake and aware and ready to move forward into the future God ahs already planned for us. Like so many of the truly beautiful things God does for us, it can be hard to imagine, hard to believe. But it is true. The Spirit arrives. The Spirit lifts us out of our inaction. The Spirit makes things happen, in us and through us. Thanks be to God. Amen.