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A Homily: Why Our Suffering is Meaningless (And Why That’s Really Good News)

Job 38:1-7

You know Job’s story. He has suffered great loss—loss his personal fortune, his health, even his own children. All of this through no fault of his own, but as the result of some strange cosmic pissing contest between God and the devil, which we the readers are privy to, but which Job knows nothing of. He suffers, like the rest of us, in the dark—searching for answers, for the meaning in his pain.

And here, in the passage I just read to you, God enters the conversation for the very first time. He comes with perhaps an unexpected agenda. “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?” he asks Job. In other words: Who the hell do you think you are, Job, to question me? “Dress for action like a man, and I will question you.”

And question him, God does: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements—surely you know!”

Are you picking up the sarcasm? I hope so, because he’s laying it on pretty thick. And God doesn’t let up after these seven verses we read this morning. No, it goes on like this for almost four chapters.

  • Who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb…and said, ‘Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stayed’?
  • Have you commanded the morning, Job…and caused the dawn to know its place?
  • Have you entered the storehouses of the snow?
  • What is the way to the place where the light is distributed?
  • And who provides for the raven its prey, when its young ones cry to God for help, and wander about for lack of food?
  • Do you know when the mountain goats give birth?
  • Is it by your understanding, Job, that the hawk soars and spreads his wings toward the south? Is it at your command that the eagle mounts up and makes his nest on high?

If I’m honest, I find these verses more than a little distasteful. Maybe you do too? I mean, Job is at the end of his rope here. He’s poor, mourning the death of his children, scratching the boils on his skin with broken pottery in hopes of a moment’s relief. Now God shows up? And just to give Job the third degree? If we read these chapters by themselves God comes across as a pitiless bully who just wants to kick Job while he’s down.

But hold on just one minute. It was, after all, Job himself who asked for this trial—back in chapter 31. After rattling off a litany of his innocence:

  •  He’s always shared what he had with the poor.
  • Never said a bad word about anyone.
  • He’s been honest.
  • Faithful to his wife.
  • Why, Job’s never even looked upon another woman lust in his heart.

Then he cries out, in the words of Eugene Peterson’s translation, The Message:

Oh, if only someone would give me a hearing! I’ve signed my name to my defense—let the Almighty One answer! I want to see my indictment in writing. Anyone’s welcome to read my defense; I’ll write it on a poster and carry it around town. I’m prepared to account for every move I’ve ever made—to anyone and everyone, prince or pauper.

God is just giving Job the trial he had asked for. But you see, therein lies Job’s problem, and, I would argue, the reason for God’s unorthodox interrogation. Both Job and his so-called friends have, throughout the book, been assuming the law of reciprocity: suffering properly comes to the wicked, while the righteous should prosper.

What goes around, comes around.

You reap what you sow.

We may call it karma. Or, if you grew up in a certain corner of Pentecostalism, perhaps the health and wealth gospel: if only you have enough faith God will make you rich and prosperous.

So Job’s friends keep trying to convince him that he’s done something wrong, and that’s why God is punishing him.

But Job maintains his innocence. He’s done nothing wrong, and he certainly doesn’t deserve this. That’s why Job calls God to the carpet: He’s being treated unfairly, according to the law of reciprocity, and he wants some answers.

But maybe God’s not bullying Job. Maybe instead he’s showing Job just how little he understands the way the world works.

Have you commanded the morning…and caused the dawn to know its place?

Maybe God is pushing back against Job’s unquestioned assumption of the law of reciprocity.

But before we write off this naive worldview, consider how often you and I think like Job and his friends. It might be easy to see how we’re not thinking like them—we have long since given up the notion of reciprocity. Sure, there are folks like Pat Robertson who are always quick to blame every natural disaster on Wiccans or homosexuals or whatever group happens to be on the chopping block that week. But most of us, on our better days, don’t really believe that good things come only to those who do good, or that only the wicked suffer. We have seen too many good people stricken with cancer. Too many good parents cradle dead babies in their arms. Too many tsunami waves crash indiscriminately upon the righteous and the wicked alike. Yet, still, we search, sometimes frantically, for some purpose to our pain, some narrative that will explain why we suffer.

A friend of mine once told me about an essay he had read in an evangelical magazine. The author—whose name I can no longer remember—was trying to answer that age old question, why we suffer. His story was tame. Some hooligan had thrown a rock through his windshield. So he called AAA, had the window repaired, and then told the repairman about Jesus. Then he had an epiphany!  This, this is the reason God allowed his window to be broken—so he could tell another soul about Jesus!

Then he had another epiphany: this is the reason for all sorts of suffering in this world. Now, think about that. In essence, this author is declaring that God kills the children of his followers, strikes wives and husbands with cancer, destroys cities in earthquakes, and wreaks general havoc with human lives…

…so that believers can tell non-believers about Jesus?

That’s it? That’s the meaning of suffering?

Well, I don’t know about you, but I don’t buy it.

Are we really to believe that broken car windows and broken lives are the same thing—all a part of God’s plan for evangelism?

But this author is not alone. I can’t tell you the number of sermons I’ve heard explaining that God allows human suffering to teach us patience or humility or to make us ready to help others through times of suffering.

This is the same thing Job’s friends were doing. They came to help Job, to comfort him, to endure his trial with him.  But they ended up blaming him for his suffering.  Well-intended though they may be—Job’s friends, the preachers we’ve all heard over the years, the author of that essay about the windshield—each claims a wisdom no one really has, the wisdom to explain this world’s inscrutable ways.

The Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky resisted similar consolations. Ivan, an atheist character in Dostoevsky’s The Brother’s Karamazov, refused to accept the notion that suffering serves any purpose whatsoever.  And if it does, it’s a cruel purpose.

“Imagine,” Ivan says, “that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last, but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one [innocent child] . . . would you consent to be the architect on those conditions?”

Ivan’s protest is powerful because he does not dally in the realm of the inconvenient—the realm of shattered car windows—but goes to the heart of the real question: murder, abuse, torture, the gratuitous suffering of children.  Did God allow the Russian nobleman in Dostoevsky’s story to set his dogs upon an eight-year old boy so that the boy could later testify to the love of Jesus?

Well, the boy died.

Did he do it so the mother could—the mother who was forced to watch?

The fact of the matter is that these answers just won’t work for Christian theology.

Christian theology has always held that evil has no being of its own, but is merely parasitic on God’s creation. Think of evil like a hole in a shirt. A hole in your favorite shirt can be a pretty terrible thing. But when you think about it, it’s really no-thing at all. It’s just a big, gaping nothingness, where there should be fabric. So, the technical language for this is: evil is “a privation of the good.” Evil, according to Christian theology, is literally nothingness, a corruption of God’s good creation, a perversion of God’s purposes. So, according to classic Christian theology, we can never know why there is evil in the world, because there is no why. Evil, at its core, is chaotic, arbitrary, nothingness. I want to repeat that—and I’d like for us to let it soak in—because this is the frightening reality that many of us have spent a lifetime trying to escape:

Our suffering is utterly meaningless…

But now let me alleviate the tension a little bit. I want to suggest that this notion—that our suffering is not a part of God’s plan and purposes—it right near the heart of the gospel, the good news.

It really is good news, I think, that we don’t have look upon the devastation wreaked by the latest natural disaster and console ourselves with sentimental drivel about how God works in mysterious ways, or assure ourselves that there is some ultimate meaning or purpose in such misery. It is good news that we are permitted to hate death and evil and suffering with the kind of perfect hatred that they deserve.

It really is good news that when I see the death of a child I do not see the face of God, but the face of his enemy. That is why, at the end of the story, God vindicates Job’s complaint and says that his friends have spoken ill of God. For God does not permit human suffering to punish sin—nor for any reason.

It’s good news because the Christian gospel is a story of salvation. Our faith is in a God who has come to rescue his creation from the absurdity of sin and the emptiness of death. And while we know that the victory over evil and death has been won, we know also that it is a victory yet to come. The whole creation, Paul says, groans with the pains of childbirth in expectation of the glory that will one day be revealed. Until then, the world remains a place of struggle between light and darkness, good and evil, life and death. And the incarnate God enters this world, not to teach us how God works mysteriously through human suffering, but to break wide open the bonds of suffering and sin and death, and to redeem creation to its original beauty. God will not, in the end, show us how the tears of a small girl suffering in the dark were necessary for the building of the kingdom. No, God will raise her up and wipe away the tears from her eyes.

And there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying, nor any more pain, for the former things will have passed away, and He that sits upon the throne will say, “Behold, I make all things new.”

Amen.

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How the Church Grows: Or, Is the Kingdom of God a Nuisance?

Intro: Why Parables?

Our gospel text for today consists of two parables—these strange little stories Jesus was always telling. They’re farming parables about how the kingdom of God grows. But before we get to the actual text, let’s consider for just a moment why Jesus used parables so often, because it seems like people were always getting confused or upset when Jesus told stories. So why tell them at all? Why not just say what he meant?

A good clue comes in the previous chapter of this Gospel. Mark says that Jesus spoke to his followers “in parables and riddles.” Riddles, now there’s something we know about. We don’t quite understand parables, because no one talks about them except in church. Now parables are not exactly the same as modern riddles, but it might be a good starting point to understand what parables are all about. The similarity is this: you can’t tell yourself a good riddle. Go ahead, try it. Riddles and parables are what we call collaborative discourse—they require an audience.

So don’t imagine that Jesus ever told these parables in exactly the way they are recorded for us in the text. What we have is the edited version. The made for TV version. The longest parables in the gospels, as they are recorded, would take at most three minutes to read. Give Jesus more time than that. Give him thirty minutes to fill out the details, maybe even acts parts out dramatically. And don’t imagine his audience sitting there politely, like you people. Imagine them interrupting Jesus. Asking questions. Heckling. Shouting “Amen!” Getting angry. Disagreeing with Jesus. Disagreeing with each other.  And that’s exactly what parables are meat to do: they are stories specifically designed to spark debate, to annoy you, to get under your skin.

If at the end of a parable the crowd files out in a nice orderly line waiting to shake Jesus’ hand and say, “Great Parable this morning, Rabbi, I really enjoyed it!” then Jesus knows he missed the mark. He needs to get a new parable, or move on to a new audience. And this is where parables differ from riddles: the idea is not to “get it’;” the idea is that the parable is supposed to get you.

Okay, so now lets get on with it.

The First Parable: It’s Not What You Think

The first parable is about a farmer who plants some corn or some other kind of grain. He wakes up one morning and shoots have popped up out of the ground. A bit later he goes to bed again and when he gets up the ears have begun to grow. Then the corn swelling inside the ears. And the farmer doesn’t know how this is happening. Months ago he planted tiny little seeds in the ground, and now he has full grown corn.

Simple enough, right? The farmer plants the seed; the corn grows. But, of course, it’s not about the corn. It’s a parable about how the kingdom of God grows. And, like every other parable, it’s meant to be provocative, maybe even a bit annoying. So lets look at some of the cultural context that the first audience of the parable would have shared.

Start at the end. The last line in the parable: “but when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”—that’s a quote from the prophet Joel. It comes at the end of his short little book that is all about the coming Day of the Lord in which God would restore Israel’s fortunes, pronounce judgment on evil and on the violent oppressors who besieged them from surrounding nations, and would establish a kingdom of righteousness and peace. (On a side note: I’ve said it here before, but I just want to reiterate that the kingdom of God, is NOT some place we float off to when we die to get away from the world. The kingdom of God is about God’s wise and righteous governance right here on earth. That why our Lord taught us to pray “Thy kingdom come; Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Those two lines mean exactly the same thing. God’s kingdom come is God’s will being done right here on earth, just as it is done currently in heaven).  And that was the great hope to which all of Israel was looking forward. But they couldn’t quite wrap their heads around how it was going to come about, like the farmer who couldn’t understand how his corn was growing.

Of course, the corn was doing the same thing the farmer was doing. He kept going to sleep and then getting up. In the same way, the corn was resting in a cool Springtime ground, and then getting up with the heat of the Summer sun. The word that Jesus used for getting up—egeirō—was a common word used for resurrection, which, by the first century, was part of this great kingdom hope. Many believed that once dead saints would be resurrected to join in the fun of God’s new kingdom. (This, by the way, is the reason that the early followers of Jesus had this strange belief that the kingdom of God was already at hand, despite all the evidence to the contrary: the resurrection of Jesus from the dead was proof that the long awaited kingdom had, in fact, been inaugurated).

In this parable, Jesus is saying, “Yes! The long awaited kingdom is coming.” But here’s the kicker: “It’s not going to come how you’ve expected it to.”

There was lots of disagreement in the first century over how the kingdom would come about. One group, called the Zealots, thought that they should build an army and stage a coo against the Roman occupation so they could cleanse the Temple of that gentile filth. Then and only then God would establish his kingdom. The Essenes thought: “No, we don’t have to cleanse the Temple—it’s too far gone. We just have to separate ourselves from this wicked society, live in caves and set up our own little righteous sect, and then God’s kingdom will come. The Pharisees said, “You’re both wrong. It’s about being faithful to the Torah. If we can just get everyone to obey the law, right down to the letter, then God’s kingdom will come.”

But no matter what the disagreement, there’s an underlying theme here. Did you catch it? If we cleanse the Temple, then the kingdom will come. If we retreat… If we obey… If weif weif we…. They thought it was about them! If we build it, God will come.

But in this parable Jesus is saying: “You’re the farmer! Like it or not, you’ve fallen asleep, and the kingdom of God is growing right under your noses.” We may till the soil; we may plant the seeds; we may water the shoots. But when it comes right down to it, this corn is growing while we’re sound asleep. And that’s as mysterious and as annoying to us today as it was to that farmer, and to those first century Jews. Because somehow we’ve gotten the idea that the world can’t turn without us. That’s why we find it so hard to take a day off, or to get a full night’s sleep. That’s why the decree to Sabbath rest seemed so radical. How will things possibly get done without us? Well, the great and terrifying news of Jesus’ parable here is that in the kingdom of God we’re not the ones who get stuff done. The corn grows without the farmer. And the kingdom of God is God’s business. It’s not about you! It’s a frightening parable, because it makes us powerless…welcome to Christianity!

So I want to address for just a second, if I may, the Bishop’s letter, which Pastor read to us two weeks ago. The Bishop sites some pretty startling statistics:

  • A 20% decline of mainline congregations in America over the last 40 years, when our population more than doubled over that same period.
  • Our own synod has seen nearly a 40% decline over the last 25 years.

But what I don’t want—and this is not what the Bishop was saying, either. So I’m not disagreeing with him here, just clarifying something—What I don’t want is for us to get the idea that this relative dip in church attendance in recent years is something we can “fix” if only we’d work a little harder. As if we could just hone our gardening skills a bit and voilà, we’d see a full crop of new members growing up around us. As if this kingdom-of-God-thing were about us.

And while these statistics are startling, and they do matter, the really startling fact is not who’s not here, but that you and I are here.

Think about this. Two millennia ago and half way around the world, Jesus was setting around a campfire with his followers and he when he asks them this question: “Who do you say that I am?” And one of them, Simon, jumps right up and say, “Jesus, you are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” Well, Jesus must have liked this answer, because he says, “Simon, you didn’t come up with this on you own. God revealed this to you.” In fact it’s such big news, that as a result Jesus changes Simon’s name. He says “Simon, from now on you will be called Petros.”—in English, Peter. It means pebble, little stone you can hold in your hand. So Jesus says, “From now on, Simon, you will be called Petros, little stone. And on this petra”—on this massive boulder. So Jesus is talking here about the statement that Simon had made: that he is the Christ, the Son of the Living God. Simon is the petros, the small stone. The statement is the petra, the big boulder.—“From now on, Simon, you will be called Petros, and on this Petra I will build my Church.” And here we are in Beckley, West Virginia in 2012. Two thousand years later, and some five thousand miles away, we gather to proclaim along with the Apostle Peter that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God. Now that’s startling.

I will build my Church.

That’s good news! The kingdom of God is something far larger than we. We’re invited to be a part of it, but we don’t have to keep it going.

Martin Luther came to understand this when he was locked up in the basement of Warburg castle trying to avoid being imprisoned or killed after he had been formally deposed by the Catholic Church. He thought the Reformation would smolder out while he was in there, but instead it caught on like a wildfire. Reflecting on the experience later, Luther said, famously, “I simply taught, preached and wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing. And while I drank Wittenberg beer with my friends…the Word [did the work of the Reformation]. I did nothing; the Word did everything.”

Let me says this. I believe in evangelism. Lets tell the good new of Jesus to everyone we meet. But if you’re afraid that the Church in America is in decline because we’ve somehow let the Church down, I’ve got good news for you friend: we were never holding it up. This is God’s kingdom, and God will build it.

The Second Parable: So How Does God’s Kingdom Grow?

So if the kingdom is not going to grow in the way that anyone had expected, how does it grow?

The second parable is about a mustard seed, which, though it is the smallest of seeds, grows up to be a large shrub.

Now we’ve all heard sermons about how the mustard seed starts from humble beginnings but grows into something much larger. But there’s more going on here. Jews valued order, and they had lots of rules about how to keep a tidy garden. One of the tips was to keep out mustard plants. In fact, there are laws in the Talmud which prohibit growing mustard in your garden. Because mustard is like a weed that spreads and takes over neatly trimmed vegetables. When people heard this parable probably chuckled, or told Jesus to hush before he got himself into trouble speaking so flippantly about the kingdom of God

Many people would have cheered a more traditional image of the kingdom as the great and tall cedars of Lebanon, as we sang in the Paslter this morning. But Jesus’ parable mocks this triumphal image. After all, even fully grown mustard plants stand only a few feet high—it’s a modest shrub. Apparently Jesus wasn’t imagining that his kingdom would grow by upstaging the world, with better music, more charismatic leaders and more advanced PowerPoint presentations.

Rather, the Jesus revolution was to be a subtle contagion that grows slowly, but with annoying persistence…like a weed taking over a garden, or like leaven working its way through a loaf of bread…One person at a time.

One cup of coffee with a friend, during which you share how you’ve seen Christ at work in the world…

One neighbor helping out another…

One child guided lovingly and patiently…

One cool cloth on the head of someone who’s sick…

One coat offered with someone who doesn’t have one…

One meal shared with the hungry…

…Until the love of Christ takes over the world.

Once again, as he so often does in his parables, this is Jesus turning the power structure of the world on its head. So don’t worry, either, if it seems that the Church in America is in the situation that it’s in right now because for the first time in a while Christianity is no longer the assumed narrative of broader culture. If it looks for the first time in a while like we’re no longer a great and mighty cedar, but merely a weed, a plague and an annoyance on the culture. And don’t play into the hand of the American religious sentimentality that says “woe is us—we’re being persecuted. Or, we’re losing our power of persuasion or our cultural relevance and we need to fight to get it back.” For this culture shift that we’re experiencing may just be the best thing that’s ever happened to the Church in America.

Mustard’s incredible medicinal properties and its tangy bite as a spice only become effective when it’s crushed…ground…persecuted, you might say.

And isn’t this the great and wonderful mystery that we proclaim? Jesus told Pilate, “If my kingdom were like the kingdoms of this world, my followers would be in here fighting to get me out.” But they didn’t. Rather, Jesus submitted himself to the world’s persecution. No one had to take Jesus’ life; he laid it down. Rome thought they had finally rooted out this annoying weed, but Paul say that “we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.” The secret that the rules of the age didn’t understand was that—just like the mustard seed, which becomes potent only when crushed—crucifying the Lord of Glory only unleashed his power. From the death of Christ the power of life springs forth.  For “he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and by his stripes we are healed.”

And this is the great mystery we celebrate also at the table this morning. As we partake of the bread, broken for us, and of the wine, poured out for the forgiveness of sins, it nourishes us body and soul, and send us forth to be for the world the body of Christ redeemed by his blood.

One last thing about the mustard seed parable. Jesus says that when the mustard plant has grown up “the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” His audience would have been familiar with this from the cedars of Lebanon images, but the word Jesus used was not the word for the great eagles who would normally perch in the cedars. It was the word for scavengers who feast on the carcasses—the kind of birds farmers tried to keep out of their gardens. It was meant to convey a vision of Israel as a safe and hospitable home for Gentiles and outsiders—a vision which many in Jesus’ day had lost.

It seems that if the Church is going to grow it will do so by being a sanctuary—in the nest sense of that word—for outsiders and social cast offs…

…for people who don’t look like us.

…for people who don’t smell like us.

…for people whose sexual orientation might make us uncomfortable.

…for rambunctious children.

…for the poor.

…for the lazy.

God will grow his Church, in the mysterious, persistent, annoying way that he does, by making a creating a home for sinners like you and me who come to hear those wonderful words “I absolve you of your sins.” And then sending us forth to preach that frightening and beautiful good news to the world.

Amen.

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The Time has Come: An Epiphany Reflection

“Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.’” –Mark 1:14-15

This is the third week after the Epiphany—the season of revelation, of seeing the unexpected. The best way to get at what’s going on in the season of Epiphany is to contrast it with Christmas. At Christmas we get to look back, as it were, with 20/20 hindsight.

We worship that little baby wrapped up and lying there in a feeding trough as though he was God in the flesh.

We proclaim that this little baby is The Anointed one of Israel—the source of the world’s hope and peace and joy.

But in Epiphany it’s as though the Church directs us to forget everything we know about Jesus, to put ourselves in the shoes of those first witnesses to his life and to ask with them “Just who is this Nazarene, anyway?”

So in Epiphany we get little snapshots of the life of Jesus: his presentation and naming in the Temple, his baptism in the Jordan and this week we turn to Jesus’ teaching ministry. They are meant to be windows into who the gospel writers said Jesus was and is. Only in Epiphany—and this is so often the case in the gospels—the question gets turned around on us:

“Who do you say that Jesus is?”

So Jesus comes on the scene, in our gospel lesson this morning, proclaiming, “The time has been fulfilled. The Kingdom of God is here.”

Now it’s important to note that of our four gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John), biblical scholars tell us that Mark was the first to be written down (sometime in the early 70s ad). So this proclamation in Mark 1:14 is the first words of Jesus ever to be recorded. We have no context here. This Jewish Rabbi just comes from out of nowhere and says, “It’s time!”

Well, time for what, Jesus?  Tool time? Game time? Bed time? What time is it, exactly?

As it turns out, all of the first witnesses to Jesus would have understood exactly what he was talking about…well, sort of. They would have understood what Jesus was alluding to, but the claim he was making would have sounded very strange indeed.

Let me see if I can unpack that a bit. All of the first witnesses to Jesus, that is to say Jews in the first century, believed that the God of Israel was a good and just and merciful God. Just think of the Psalms: “For the Lord is good; his mercy endures forever, his faithfulness to all generations” (Ps 100:5). They also believed that this good and merciful God ruled the whole world. Again the Psalms: “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and all those who dwell therein” (Ps. 24:1). So that was their faith: Their God is a good God who ruled the whole world.

But their experience told them something different: not only, it seemed, was God not ruling the whole world, he didn’t even seem to be ruling his own people. Israel was subject to the pagan Roman emperor. But that was just the flavor of the week—before Rome it was the Macedonians. And before them it was the Persians, before them the Meads, then the Babylonians, then the Assyrians, and Egyptians. And it wasn’t just a matter of political rulership. The Romans were a violent and oppressive regime who defiled the holy Temple and put onerous tax burdens on the peasant class. (Some historians speculate that peasants in first century Palestine may have been paying 75% – 80% of their annual earnings to the Romans). And they squashed any hint of resistance with violence. The world seemed to be a place of sin, injustice, sickness, demon possession, death and violence.

Imagine how difficult it is two hold these two things together: the faith that your God is a good God who rules the world, and the experience that the world is full of sin, injustice, death and violence. Imagine the kind of tension they must have lived with.

We feel that same tension sometimes, don’t we? I mean even in our prayers later this morning we praise the holy, eternal, steadfast God of all creation.

…our stronghold

…our refuge

…and our deliverance.

And then we turn right around and acknowledge that ours is a world of endanger species and fragile ecosystems.

…That the cities of the world cry out for peace from the cycle of violence that perpetuates war.

…We pray for those who flee from war, poverty and famine. And for those who suffer from natural disaster.

…We pray for those who need healing from addiction, despair and illness. And for comfort for the dying.

Which is it? Are we caught in a cycle of violence that perpetuates war? Or is God our deliverance?

This tension we feel is what psychologists call cognitive dissonance—it results from try to hold two conflicting beliefs at the same time. We can handle the pressure for a while, but eventually something’s got to give. We either have to give up one of the beliefs, or adopt a third belief that can make sense of the other two together.

That’s just what the Jews did. They say, “If God really is good and he really does rules the whole world, then he won’t let things go on like this forever. Eventually God will intervene in human history.  He’ll set things right.” This belief—that God will eventually come and clean up the mess that’s been made of the world—is what theologians call—You ready? Big fancy theological word here—eschatology. That’s a very important word if you want to understand the New Testament.

Say it with me, ready? Eschatology.

It comes from a little Greek word eschaton—it means “the end.” It’s a normal, everyday Greek word. If you go out for lunch after Church today, and there’s a long line up to the hostess’ desk, and if you were a Greek-speaking person, you would be looking for the eschaton. And it wouldn’t have anything to do with theology—you’d be looking for the end of the line. So when first century Jews talked about eschatology, they were talking about “When’s it going to end?”

When is it going to end?

Now let me be clear. They were not talking about the end of the world. Eschatology is not about people going up to heaven and the physical word coming to an end. Don’t ever let anyone tell you that it is. That’s not a biblical picture. The biblical picture is not one of people going up, but of the New Jerusalem coming down from heaven and of God restoring the creation. Read Revelation 21 and 22. God doesn’t want to destroy the world—God created the word, and then he looked out at the whole thing and said it’s good, good, good, good, good, very good. It would be an embarrassment for God to destroy the world, like a manufacture having to recall a car back to the factory. Eschatology is not about the end of the world, it’s about the end of sin, injustice, oppression, sickness, demon possession, death, and violence. When will the good God who rules the world, step in and clean up this mess?

When is it going to end?

And so first century Jews thought that you could divide history is tow basic segments. There was the time in which they were currently living, called “This Present Evil Age.” This Present Evil Age was characterized by Israel being ruled over by some foreign regime, by evil, injustice, violence and death.

But there was a day coming—what the Old Testament calls “The Day of the Lord”—in which the Messiah, God’s Anointed One, would come and overthrow the Romans (or whatever regime was oppressing Israel at the time) and create a society characterized by righteous, justice and peace. And he would thereby usher in “The New Age,” or what the gospel writes often call “the kingdom of God.” Now again, don’t think of the kingdom of God as someplace else, where people go to get away from the world. The kingdom of God is about God’s ruling and reining right here among us. That’s why Jesus taught us to pray “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Those two lines say the same thing. God’s kingdom coming means his will being done right here on earth, the same as it is in heaven. So the kingdom of God is about God putting a stop to oppression and violence.

When is it going to end?

When will God finally rule a world of righteousness and peace and abundant life?

When will we see The Day of the Lord?

When will it be time?

So now we can see how the first witnesses to Jesus would have understood his teaching, and why it would have seemed so strange, so weird, so…almost…stupid. Jesus said, “The time is fulfilled. The Kingdom of God is here.”

You can almost hear someone speaking up. “Wait, Jesus, could you repeat that. I must have misheard you. I thought you said ‘the kingdom of God is here.’ But you couldn’t have meant that, Jesus, I mean look around: the Romans are still here, the Temple has been defiled, we are treated unjustly and oppressed, the world is filled with sickness and violence. What do you mean the kingdom of God is here?”

What a strange thing to say—the kingdom of God is here already.

This is what biblical scholars call realized eschatology, the belief that, somehow, in the person and work of Jesus, the end is already upon us—right here in the middle of history—that the kingdom of God has, in some sense, already come.

And this seems to be what Jesus is teaching: “I know, I know, the evidence looks mixed. But I’m telling you that the time has come. The kingdom is here…now…it’s among you…it is in you.”

In fact, this is what Jesus’ whole teaching and ministry seems to be about. Just look at the rest of Mark’s gospel: In 1:21 Jesus heals a man of demon possession.

In 1:29 he heals the sick.

In 1:40, Jesus encounters a leper. Now leprosy is a skin disorder. It’s not in any way contagious, but in the culture of first century Judaism, if you have it you are considered unclean. Therefore, you cannot worship in the Temple. You cannot shop in the market, use public restrooms or public fountains. If you’re thinking Jim Crow laws of the 1960’s, that’s probably about right. Except that, by the strictest interpretation of the law, a leper could be stoned to death even for just touching another human being. Lepers could not even eat at the table with their own families. Lepers were complete social outcasts.

So Jesus is teaching one day, probably in the market, when this leper comes running up to him. Remember, this man risked his life—if he had even bumped into someone else, he could have been sentenced to death. But what does a man like this have to live for, anyway? So he runs through the crowd, falls down on his knees at Jesus’ feet and says “Master, if you are willing, you can make me clean.” Now we know that Jesus can heal someone without having to touch them. Later in Mark’s gospel Jesus meets a Roman Centurion on the road and from there heals the man’s daughter who is at home. But to this leper Jesus says “I am willing,” and then he reaches out and touches the man.

Can you image?

This is probably the first meaningful touch from another human being that this man has felt in years. The healing must have seemed anti-climatic.

You see what Jesus is doing? He is beginning to deal with those things that we said characterize This Present Evil Age: demon possession, sickness and injustice.

And we’re still in chapter one.

There’s a wonderful story in chapter two about a quadriplegic. Not many opportunities in the ancient world for someone like that. Can’t get a job, can’t get around. His friends have to do everything for him. So when they hear that there’s a healer in town, they take their friend to meet Jesus.

But there’s a problem: The house Jesus is teaching in is packed…standing room only…they can’t even get in the door. That doesn’t stop these guys, though. They climb to the roof and start to dig a hole in it to lower their friend through.

Now we know that Jesus was homeless, so someone else must have invited him to teach in their home. And presumably if you’ve invited Jesus to speak at your home, you want to hear what he has to say. So we can probably guess that the owner of this home was standing in the living room beside Jesus when…

…little bits of his ceiling started to fall down one their heads.

Now image you’re the paraplegic, laying on your back, staring up at the man whose roof you friends just dug through. And you can’t go anywhere.

Then Jesus looks down at the guy and says something which seems to me a little insensitive. He says, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”

Now if I’m this guy I’m thinkin’ “Jesus, I appreciate the gesture and I understand you’re into this whole religious thing, but right now I’d like for someone to deal with my leg situation so that I can get out of here before that guy realizes what my friends just did to his house.”

That, at least, would be a reaction I could understand.  But the text tells us that when the Sadducees hear this they got angry. Why would anyone get angry about forgiveness? Isn’t that a good thing?

Well, how do you receive forgiveness of sins if you are a Jew in first century? You go to the Temple, right? You have sacrifices made on your behalf. And by the first century this was big business. And the Sadducees run it. And get kick-backs on the Temple fees. So if someone can go around proclaiming forgiveness of sin outside the Temple, they’re Sadducees are out of a job! So they say “Listen here, buddy, nobody forgives sins but God alone,” (meaning nobody forgives sins except in our building…on our schedule…by our prescription…and with our price tag).

So Jesus asks the question: “Okay, which is easier, for me to tell this man his sins are forgiven?  Or for me to tell him”…“Get up! Take up you mat and go home.” And the paraplegic gets up and walks out of the room.

Demon possession…sickness…injustice…sin…

In chapter five Jesus is on a boat with his disciples when a great storm comes and threatens to capsize them. The disciples are terrified, but Jesus is asleep on the back of the boat. So the disciples go and wake him up: “Jesus, how could you be sleeping through this? You don’t care if we die out here? Why don’t you do something?” So Jesus gets up, looks out over the sea, and says what most English Bibles translate as “Peace, be still.”

Actually what he says is phimoō—shut up!

And suddenly the waves stop crashing over the ship and the winds die down.

The disciples are amazed. “Even the wind and the waves obey him.”

You see what they’re saying? Somehow, through this man, God’s will is being executed over the earth, just like it is in heaven. The kingdom has come.

Makes you want to ask though, doesn’t it, “Why don’t you calm the storms in my life?”

I think what Jesus is trying to get at is this: In some strange sense, there seems to be an overlap in the ages. The Day of the Lord was not the might fell swoop so many had expected. So it’s true that this Present Evil Age is still a reality that exists all around us. But it’s also true that in the person of and work of Jesus the kingdom of God has in some sense already come. More importantly, there is a day coming when This Present Evil Age will finally come to an end—when cowardice and fear and murder and sexually perversion and idolatry and lies will all be burned away like sulfur, as the book of Revelation says. And when the kingdom of God will fully realized at last. We will see the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven.

…A city whose gates will never be shut, for they fear no evil.

…A city where God will reign forever and ever, and he will make his dwelling place among us.

…Where there will be no more death.

…Where there will be no more pain.

…or mourning.

…And God will wipe away every tear from our eyes. For those former things will have passed away.

…And, behold, he will make all things new.

But for now it seems that we are living in the time in between these times. Or what C. S. Lewis calls “the already and not yet.” For the kingdom of God has, through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, in some sense, already come. But still This Present Evil Age has not yet passed away.

The already, and the not yet.

And the thing we must never forget for life in between the time is this: Don’t judge by appearances.

Yes, I know, the evidence looks mixed. Of course it does. This Present Evil Age still persists. But, friends, I’m here today to announce that the old regime of violence and oppression, of sickness and death, of sadness and loss—it is getting tired, and soon it will lie down to rest. But dawn is breaking upon the kingdom of God and soon we shall walk in the light of its new day.

So do not judge only by what you can see.

Yes, there are many who are sick and dying. But many are healed.

Yes, our world is full of injustice and oppression. But many find freedom.

Yes, we are plagued by sin. But there is forgiveness.

Yes, there are storms in our lives. But even the waves obey our Lord.

So don’t judge by appearances.

For the time has come.

The kingdom of God is here.

 

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A Sermon on the Ten Commandments

Blessed is the one who delights in the Law of the Lord, who meditates on it day and night. For she will be like a tree planted beside the quite waters. She will bear fruit in its season, and her leaves will never wither. As we turn now to meditate upon your Law, Oh Lord, we ask that you give us your blessing. May the words that I speak and the meditations of all of our hearts be pleasing and acceptable in your sight, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen  

Do you remember Roy Moore?  A long forgotten icon of the Religious Right.  On November 12, 2003 Moore was deposed from office as Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court for defying a Federal Court mandate to remove a two-and-a-half-ton, granite statue of the Ten Commandments from the courthouse lawn.  At the hearing, Moore stood council in his own defense, arguing that, by refusing to remove the statue, he was simply upholding his constitutional and judicial duties, by recognizing the sovereignty of God, which is—I’m quoting—“the source from which all morality springs.”  Moreover, Moore argued that the Ten Commandments are the moral foundation of the United States legal system.   

I’d like to begin our reflection on the Ten Commandments this morning by making a claim that conflicts with popular religious sentiment, so I’ll have to make a case for it. But just stick with me for just a moment. I want to suggest that Chief Justice Moore was wrong, not for defying the federal court—Christians have a long and noble history of civil disobedience, going all the way back to Jesus himself.—No, Moore was wrong in his theology. The Ten Commandments are not the moral foundation of the United States legal system.  Neither are the Ten Commandments a guideline for, or the source of, a universal morality which is applicable to all people at all times.  Perhaps more to the point, I want to suggest that what Moore and others were defending on that day in the Fall of 2003 was not the Ten Commandments at all, but a cheap parody of them.

Why do I say that?  Well, to place the Ten Commandments on the lawn of a United States court house or a public school is to suggest that they can be followed outside of the context of Christian worship. But what I want to suggest is that outside of this context of the worship of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the Ten Commandments make absolutely no sense. Because before the commandment are ever about us, they are about God.

Notice that the first few verses of Exodus chapter twenty are not commandments at all. Rather they are an introduction of the speaker: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery…” (v. 2). So the first thing we notice right off the bat is that the One who give the commandments is not some vague, unidentified divinity—the giver of a universal morality—like the “Higher Power” of Alcoholics Anonymous or the Unmoved Mover of the Ancient Greeks—this is “the Lord” God. Okay, maybe that doesn’t sound much different, but perhaps some basic biblical Hebrew would be helpful. When “the Lord” appears in the Bible in all capitals like that, it doesn’t just mean ruler or master, like some middle-manager who strutting around constantly reminding everyone that he’s the boss.  No, the Lord is God’s name.

The name is revealed to Moses at a brush fire when he is minding his own business in the desert. First Moses receives his vocation: he will lead his people, the Israelites, to freedom by the power of the God of their ancestors. But how could Moses possibly convince anyone to uproot their families and walk away from the only life they’ve ever known? Who would follow this unknown God of the desert? So the voice comes from the bush: “Tell them that I am who I am has sent you.”  God’s name is related to the Hebrew verb to be: I am who I am, or perhaps its better translated I will be who I will be. The name is very difficult to pronounce.  The English transliteration is just four consonants—no vowels: Y-H-W-H.  In fact Jews will not pronounce this Name. (Christians shouldn’t try to pronounce it either, by the way. I will not pronounce it, because it is disrespectful to Jews). So, because they would not say The Name, when Jews would read the Bible aloud in the synagogue they had to come up with a word to use as a replacement. So when they were reading a passage of the Bible and came across The Name they would say instead Adoni, which means Lord.  So in English translations of the Bible when you see the world Lord in lower case, what’s there in the original is the word Adoni, or Lord.  And when you see the word Lord in all capitals, what’s there in the original is God’s name. You see, this is the whole point: the Lord resists being spoken about, figured out, tied down or universally applied. The Lord is the Hebrew un-name for God.

But the Lord does not stop with his name, he says: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” Now we have not only a name, but a history to connect this God with. God reveals himself to us the way we reveal ourselves to others, through story.

You know the story.  Moses goes to confront the most powerful man in the world insisting that the Lord—I am who I am—demands that Pharaoh let his people go.  Why?  Because God opposes slavery?  No.  (Surely God does oppose slavery, but that is not the point of this story).  No, the Lord insists that his people be set free to go and worship him.  Pharaoh resists—he is a hard-hearted man. There are negations, then gnat, plagues, frogs and lots of blood.  Finally the Israelites are freed. But by the time they actually make it to the desert it has been so long since anyone has worshiped the Lord, they don’t remember how.  So Moses is summoned to the top of Mount Sinai, and there come the list of commandments: “Don’t have idols.”  “Don’t steal.”  “Don’t have sex with other people’s spouses.”  Moses must be thinking, “this doesn’t sound like any worship service I’ve ever been to!”  So it turns out that God is less concerned with the kind of music we sing, with whether our liturgy is low-church or high, with whether we wear vestments or use incense, than he is with the way we live our lives.  To worship the Lord, the story seems to suggest, is to be the people redeemed by God—rescued from slavery in Egypt—in order to live in faithfulness to his commandments.

So the Ten Commandments are not principles for the moral society in general. Rather they constitute a way of life for the people who know who they are and whose they are—people who are freed from the Pharaohs of this world for the worship of the Lord. If you and I are to learn to live the commandments, we will do so first by learning to worship the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob—by identifying ourselves with the people of Israel. Not least, this will mean identifying with the one true and faithful Israelite, Jesus Christ, as members of his body, the Church. We simply cannot understand what it means to live the Ten Commandments outside of the communal worship practices of the Church.  Our Church Mothers and Fathers teach us that the one who has more than enough and does not give to those in need, commits theft.  So we cannot understand what it means to steal outside of the Church that teaches us what it means to have property.  Likewise, we cannot understand what it means to commit adultery outside of the Church that teaches us what marriage is.  And we cannot understand what it means to bear false witness outside of the Church that teaches us what it means to bear witness to the truth.

So what does it mean to live the Ten Commandments not as general principles of a universal morality, but as the worship practices of the Church of Jesus Christ?  Martin Luther makes three suggestions at this point—what he calls the “three uses of the Law.”

The First Use of the Law

The first thing the Law does, Luther says, is terrify us, because it reminds us that God has a standard that we have no hope of living up to. When you and I consider our sinfulness—that we have not lived up to God’s standard—we associate it with a mild sense of guilt.  Luther was terrified. I doubt Luther every had anything like the modern sense of guilt—that’s our experience. When Luther read the Law, he was scared to death that God would damn him to hell. But his terror was ultimately good news for Luther, because it drove him to the gospel. This is the first use of the Law: it teaches us to see ourselves as sinners so we can learn that our only hope is in the good news of Jesus Christ.  This is one of the reasons—maybe the most important reason—that the Ten Commandments do not work as general principles of morality, because we come to the Law of God, not primarily to learn how to be moral, but to learn how to be sinners. That’s good news, of course, because it’s sinners for whom Christ died.  And that’s why it’s important that we learn to follow the Law in the context of Christian worship in which there is regular opportunity for confession of sin, reconciliation and words of forgiveness.

The Second Use of the Law

The second use of the Law in Luther’s theology is that, in the end, God’s Law is good news for the whole world. So even though we cannot understand the Ten Commandments, from the outset, as principles of universal morality applicable to everyone in the world, they are, in the end good news for the whole world. This is, in fact, the way the structure of the Bible generally goes: from the particular to the universal.  A particular little, nomadic, near-eastern tribe, called Israel, is chosen for the blessing of the whole world. From the particular to the universal.  The life and death of one particular Jewish peasant from a town no larger than Beckley turns out to be the key to the history of the whole world.  The particular to the universal.  So the Ten Commandments are good news for the whole world, not because they are, from the start, the universal pattern of morality, but because through them a small group of people—the Church—are enabled to live in faithfulness to Jesus, as an alternative to the world, so that the whole world may be wooed into a life of faithfulness. 

The second use of the law is an affirmation that God has not done everything that needs to be done in the world. That he graciously invites us to be a part of his project of redemption.  The back ground to this use of the Law is the notion that Israel—and by identification with Israel—we are called to be an alternative society, a royal priesthood who intercede for, and who mediate God’s presence to the world.  To live into our calling to as a royal priesthood means to live in faithfulness to the commandments for the sake of the world.

The Third Use of the Law

So what you and I do—and the kind of people we are becoming—is of universal importance.  The Ten Commandments are a sign of this, too. That this thing between us and God matters. That God cares how we make our schedules, how we treat out parents, how we deal with our property, how we have sex, and that we tell the truth. The Ten commandments were given to Israel as a community of the redeemed. They had just been freed from slavery in Egypt to worship God and to be a blessing for the world, but the commandments were a sign that Israel, too, was still in the process of being redeemed. This is what Luther calls the third use of the law.  Learning to follow it—to delight in it—we are shaped into the image of Christ for the sake of the world.

For Luther, the good news about this third use of the law is that it frees us from spirituality.  There’s a wonderful passage in Luther’s commentary on the commandments where he says that when a maid in a house obeys the master of the house’s command to sweep the floor she is obeying the commandment to honor father and mother (since the master is the father of the house).  So a maid sweeping the floor is more spiritual than monks in any monastery with all their prayers and liturgies and fasts.  All of those spiritual practices you are told we have to do to have a relationship with God—all of those things you feel guilty when we don’t have the time or the gumption to do them—forget about them! God has given us Ten Commandments.  We can spend the rest of our lives working on those and that’s enough.  For instance, we don’t have to worry about the practice listening in our hearts for God’s will in our lives, because we already know what God’s will is: to follow the commandments.

I remember one time talking to one of my college professors. I was all tangled up in knots about what I should do with my life.  I knew what I wanted to do—what I was good at—but I was afraid that I might not be choosing what was most pleasing to God.  My professor was trying to explain to me how to make wise decisions about my career.  “Yeah, I know all that,” I said, “but how do I know what God wants me to do?”  My professor paused for a second and then said “O’ that’s easy! Love the Lord with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and love your neighbor as yourself.  When you’ve mastered that,” he said, “come back and I have ten more for you.”  The good news of the third use of the Law is that we don’t have to guess at what is pleasing to God. We know exactly what pleases God.  There’s plenty enough in the Ten Commandments to keep us busy today.  Let’s focus on that and let tomorrow worry about itself.

So, what does God’s law do?  It terrifies us by keeping before us God’s standards which we cannot meet, teaching us to be sinners, and causing us to flee to the gospel.  It invites us into God’s redeeming project as royal priests bearing witness to an alternative way of life for the sake of the world.  And it reminds us that we too are in need of redemption, and forms us into the image of Christ for the sake of others.  Did you know that the Law did all that?  We Protestants, and we Lutherans in particular, have a rather troubled relationship to the God’s Law.  We tend to think of it as a burdensome list of rules and regulation, that at best is obsolete and can be discarded now that we have the gospel of Jesus Christ.  But like the gospel, the Law is God’s word.  It cannot save us, but it is good for us.  So take delight in the law.  Meditate on it day and night—or at least sometimes.  You will find that it begins to refresh you like a quite stream, that you will bear the fruit of transformation in its season, and you faithfulness will not wither. 

Amen.

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Pastor Wanda’s Pentecost Homily

When my son Zach walked by while I was working & studying he asked how it was coming.

“Good,” I said.

“I hope you’re going to tell a joke,” was his next comment.

I don’t know if he asked for a joke because I’m such a sorry joke teller, or if he just wanted some relief during the sermon hour. Maybe he just likes jokes. So, here goes.

Did you hear about the boy who was wandering around the narthex of a large downtown church one Sunday morning? As he stopped and examined a large bronze plaque that was hung on the wall, he wondered aloud “What are all those names up there?” The pastor just happened to hear the boy so he replied, “Son, those are the names of people who died in the service.” After a long pause, the boy looked up and asked, was it the 9:30 or the 11 o’clock service?”

I am happy to report today that we are celebrating a birth—not a death—this morning, the birth of the church—the birth of Christ in you and me, and in all who call on his name. Let us pray.

Lord, life is far too deep for us to fathom, too large for us to grasp. We believe we are just ordinary people, seeking to make each day something special, and hoping that in some way our lives might have meaning, might count. We need wisdom and strength. We need compassion and courage. And we turn to You as the source of what we need. Open our hearts and our minds to the power you’ve given us through your Holy Spirit. And may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be pleasing unto you, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer.  Amen.

The annual celebration of the paschal mystery, which began on Ash Wednesday, culminates at Pentecost. Today is Pentecost.

Has anyone here ever heard of Holy Spirit Holes? Get a mental picture of this scene. In the middle ages holes were punched in the ceiling & roofs of churches to symbolize an openness to God. Well, on Pentecost they released doves through these holes and bundles of rose petals were dropped from them onto the people gathered inside. Then the Choir (which was all boys at that time) moved through the congregation making whooshing sounds to remind everyone of the rush of the Spirit. I bet some of our boys would have liked that job!

Another question.

When you think of the Holy Spirit, what bird comes to mind?

Anybody know? Right…the dove.

But instead of the dove, Celtic Christians chose the wild goose as a symbol representing the Holy Spirit. Can you imagine what church would have been like if they had released wild geese through those holes in the ceiling!

And here thousands of years later, what do we do on Pentecost Sunday? Look around & you tell me.

Oh yeah, we wear RED.

Doesn’t hold a candle to the middle ages, does it?

Our gospel lesson tells of Jesus appearing to his confused and grieving friends, offering them peace and the gift of the Spirit. “Receive the Holy Spirit” he says, as he breathed on the disciples the power of a spiritual life.

Jesus continues to greet us in this way.

God’s Spirit comes and moves people to repentance and conversion.

This breath, this Spirit gives birth to us as the people of God.

What God gives us when he gives us his Spirit is more than strength and support and teaching and comfort, those things we normally identify with God’s presence, he gives us more too than joy, and peace, patience, and kindness, those things which we call the fruit of the Holy Spirit.

He gives us as well a set of gifts designed for the building up of the body of the church, and for the individual ministries to which we are called, and for our spiritual life.

The prophet Joel, in his prophecy of the last days, mentions some of the gifts of God through his Spirit: gifts of vision and gifts of dreams, gifts of prophecy.

Peter, in his sermon on the day of Pentecost, speaks of the gift of tongues.

And Paul lists some of the gifts that God gives and explores with the Corinthian congregation how those gifts can be used and abused: the gift of teaching, the gift of discernment, the gift of exhortation, the gift of hospitality, the gift of intercession, the gift of the word of wisdom, the gift of prophecy, the gift of faith, the gift of administration, the gift of helping and the gift of mercy. These gifts are spiritual gifts—they are gifts of our second birth—that give us the ability to minister to others.

Over the few years, I have attended several conferences for Missional Leaders. Inevitably, there will be stories of ministers who have birthed large churches out of nothing in just a few years, or who have turned dying congregations into mega churches. These are spectacular stories that I assume are meant to inspire us. Truly, there is nothing wrong with that. I am always impressed.

The Pentecost story is even more astounding. It contains elements that are stunning, incredible, ecstatic: the sound of a violent wind, fire appearing over their heads and 3,000 new members as the result of one sermon. Wow! It was an amazingly dramatic beginning.  But I’m even more intrigued by what happened after the drama subsided.

The very next verse says, “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”

Not much drama here.

Worshiping together, eating together, learning together.

We know from the rest of Acts that there would be more excitement in the form of healings, unexpected conversions, visions. There would also be other events, far more of them and far less sensational: conversations, travels, meetings, more sermons.

Our lives together are somewhat the same, a couple of thousand years later. Occasionally we hear of some remarkable situation: amazing church growth, surprising personal turnarounds or healings, breathtaking testimonials.

More often, though, are the stories that never get told because they are not stories of wild action, but of simply living life with God:

A nurse who has been working with Alzheimer’s patients for ten years, and whose patients never get well or give testimonials…

A woman who cares for her children with humor, love and kindness even though her husband has left…

A teen who lead her community in starting a recycling project…

A man who somehow finds peace in his soul after he’s lived through a brutal war in Korea, Viet Nam, Iraq or Afghanistan…

When a gay couple have the courage and faith to come to church, knowing that they might receive condemnation, judgment or worse…

Or when a parent stops what seems urgent to do something more important, like spending some time with their kids…

When a husband or a wife chooses to remain faithful to a spouse when the temptation to drift creeps into married life…

Or when a kid finds the courage to stand up to friends or foes and say no to drugs or sex or bullying.

When a person is willing to sacrifice wealth, prestige, and power, to serve in jobs that don’t pay well, but serves others.

Or when a person bears the pains of sickness and age without becoming bitter.

When a 76 year old man remarries and then takes on the task of raising a 2 year old whose mother is into drugs.

Where is the Spirit at work?

The Spirit is at work in human hearts and minds, and souls. The Spirit is at work in the places where the Spirit chooses to take up residence. Maybe you’ll write your own sermon this week and tell me where the Spirit is at work. I would love to hear!

The Spirit’s people measure success, not by the number of converts or new members or programs, but by whether or not we are doing what the Spirit is urging us to do. That is a vastly more difficult calculation. We can easily count the number of people in the pews, but how do we measure the long-lasting effect we are having on our friends, family and community? The effect of the Spirit’s work through the Spirit’s people is indeed beyond measure. It is incalculable.

And yet…

Go ahead, admit it. You’re wondering about the future, maybe worrying—do we even have a future? Will our church survive? Will our children have faith? Will our faith have children? There are so many challenges. Money. Divisions. Arguments. We’re getting older. How are we going to pay the bills. We don’t know the people next door anymore. Why would they want to come to our church? People pass by. We don’t know them. No one comes in. They are outside. We are inside. And so we wait and watch and worry. But we don’t know what to do. Won’t someone come and help us?  These are big questions. But we are not the first to ask them, did you know? There’s a story in the bible exactly like this. Do you remember?  There are only a few left. People pass by outside. They are inside waiting, watching and they don’t know what to do. And then it happens—wind, fire, noise and then silence. What just happened? No one came and took away their problems. Instead the spirit comes and creates a new one. That’s right. The Holy Spirit shows up and creates a problem. They can’t stay inside. They have to go out and preach and teach and pray and teach and care and love and preach and witness and…It was Pentecost.

So I’ve got bad news and good news. The bad news is, there is no one to fix our problems. The good news is, the solutions we seek are all around us. You have strength and courage and compassion and a story to tell. Our problem isn’t money or divisions or arguments. Our problem is, we’ve got a story to tell and we can’t help but tell it.

Now imagine one person reaching out to another and then another to listen to tell to share to hold to preach to feed to care to love. Why? Because we can’t help it. It’s Pentecost.

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