Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Lectionary Notes for Second Sunday after Pentecost, Year C

Readings for Second Sunday after Pentecost, Year C, 6/2/13:
1 Kings 18:20-21, (22-29), 30-39 Psalm 96, Galatians 1:1-12, Luke 7:1-10

1 Kings 18:20-21, (22-29,) 30-39:
  • "How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him." What an awesome verse. How often do we do just this - wanting to hedge our bets and live between two things. I'm reminded of Jesus saying, "Let your yes be yes an your no be no." Which is it? Is the Lord God? Then follow!
  • Notice the word "limping" repeated in this passage. Not just what Elijah says, but what the prophets of Baal literally do. 
  • "At noon Elijah mocked them, saying, "Cry aloud! Surely he is a god; either he is meditating, or he has wandered away, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened."" Ah, biblical sarcasm. Isn't it great? 
  • What are the differences or similarities between what we see the prophets of Baal do and what Elijah does? 
Psalm 96:
  • The first verses don't distinguish this psalm for me from many others. Praise God, tell of God's salvations. Great is the Lord, greatly to be praised.
  • God judges with equity - as a judge is supposed to do. But so often we experience injustice even in the very justice system. God's justice is always - just!
  • Vs. 11 is some of the anthropomorphic language often found in Psalms, but I find it effective. Heaven, earth, sea, fields, and all that is in earth is glad for God's ruler-ship. The trees sing. To my mind come images from The Lord of the Rings or The Chronicles of Narnia with trees who could indeed sing praise.
  • We will be judged with God's truth. How do you understand that? With what else are we judged?   
  • This psalm is also in the lectionary on Christmas Eve. Does knowing that make you read it any differently? 
Galatians 1:1-12:
  • Paul starts out by writing that he is sent neither by human commission nor human authorities, but by God. Why do you think Paul says this? How do you think people would react to his claim? 
  • Bam! Just a few sentences into his letter, Paul lays it out: I can't believe you are abandoning what I taught so quickly and turning to a different gospel! Paul uses a shaming "I am so disappointed in you" tone here. Hey, it has worked on children for millions of years, right?
  • Paul seems very protective of his "turf" here. Yes, he wants the Galatians to believe the gospel he has presented, but do you think it is also quite personal for Paul? 
  • Again, Paul emphasizes sources. This time, not the source of his authority, but the source of his message. His message isn't made up by people - it is from God. I find this phrasing more compelling than the first instance!
  • Have you ever had to defend your authority? Your sources? Your credibility? How did you/would you go about doing that?
Luke 7:1-10: 
  • What Jesus had just finished saying was a string of teachings, most immediately, the story of the foundation built on sand vs. the story of the foundation built on rock. 
  • "a slave whom he valued very highly." We don't know if this means because of a personal connection to the slave or value because of the work the slave could do. Still, he brings him for healing, the only example of a master bringing a slave for healing. 
  • Check out all the places in the gospels a centurion appears. Are there themes/common threads? 
  • "I am not worthy to have you come under my roof." What do you think the centurion knew of Jesus? What would make him say this? 
  • "Only speak the word, and let my servant be healed." Would you trust this to happen? Would you want to witness Jesus in action? Would you trust sending a proxy with your message? 
  • The centurion has remarkable wisdom about his position and the position of Jesus. Even Jesus is amazed at him, a rare reaction for Jesus. "Not even in Israel have I found such faith." 

Monday, May 27, 2013

Sermon for Trinity Sunday, Year C, "Pentecost Aftermath - Stephen," Acts 6:8-15, 7:1-2a, 51-60


Sermon 5/26/13
Acts 6:8-15, 7:1-2a, 51-60

Pentecost Aftermath: Stephen


            Some of you know that I have a real interest in psychological personality types, specifically a model of understanding called the Myers-Briggs Type Indicators. You might have taken this test yourself at some point, or at least be familiar with part of the system. You receive a four letter type – either an E or I – for extrovert/introvert – this is the part many of you many know about yourself already – then either N or S – are you intuiting or sensing? – T or F – thinking or feeling – and J or P – judging or perceiving. If you want to know more about my psyche, I can tell you that I am an INFJ. I usually have couples who are doing premarital counseling go through this personality typing process, because it helps me get to know them, and helps us have conversations about how they relate to each other, particularly in situations that are less than perfect. Sometimes workplaces have employees and bosses take these tests, so that all can work together to create a better workplace environment. I’ve read a resource that particularly talks about personality types among clergy, and what the strengths and struggles are for pastors of different types.
For all of the types, for example, the Myers-Briggs test will reveal something about how you handle conflict. You might already know this about yourself too. Are you a person who is confrontational? Do you love a good fight or debate? Do you keep quiet in an argument? Do you make sure you are not even around in a conflict? You all might have been amused to see, once upon a time, Pastor Aaron and I on a long road trip with your former associate, Pastor Heather. Aaron loves a good debate, and Heather can’t stay out of a debate if her buttons have been pushed, and I sat quietly in the back seat, occasionally offering up placating words to diffuse conflict! I could have told you before I ever took my own test that I tend to be a conflict-avoider. My official results say this: “INFJs are concerned for people's feelings, and try to be gentle to avoid hurting anyone. They are very sensitive to conflict, and cannot tolerate it very well. Situations which are charged with conflict may drive the normally peaceful INFJ into a state of agitation or charged anger.” Of course, avoiding conflict isn’t really something that is possible if you want to interact with people, is it?! And in particular, avoiding conflict isn’t always helpful in the midst of a congregation of diverse people and opinions, particularly when you are a leader of those people! Over my years of ministry, handling conflict has been something I’ve had to work hard it, and sometimes I have more success than others!
Today we step into a major conflict in the book of Acts, one that ends in death, as we read the story of Stephen. Unlike the disciples like Peter and company, Stephen’s task in the community of Jesus-followers was not primarily as a preacher of the gospel at all – he wasn’t one of the apostles. Stephen was part of a group of servants who had a special task in the early church. People outside of the faith criticized that the fervor of the disciples for preaching the gospel had caused them to neglect other duties like feeding the widowed and the needy. Their criticism was a reason for them to reject the teachings of Jesus – the disciples didn’t really take care of those in need! Why believe their message of good news? But the twelve responded, “‘It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables. Therefore, friends, select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task, while we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word.’” So seven were chosen, one of whom was this man we read about today, Stephen. These seven looked on the needs of the least in their community, making sure that those who were without could receive food and be taken care of. In other words, Stephen wasn’t a preacher or a pastor, or an apostle – that wasn’t his vocation. He was a servant, a helper, a supporter in ministry. If Stephen were a 21st century believer, he might be any one of you – someone who stepped up to help meet the needs of the community.
It turns out though that Stephen, even though he wasn’t one of the apostles, was still a rowdy synagogue member. He wasn’t content to just go with the flow or keep quiet in his own community of faith. So Stephen and some of his fellow synagogue members were constantly debating and arguing about his involvement in this new faith. Eventually, his peers had enough, and began to plot against him. We read of their scheming in Acts: “But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which [Stephen] spoke. Then they secretly instigated some men to say, ‘We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.’ They stirred up the people as well as the elders and the scribes; then they suddenly confronted him, seized him, and brought him before the council. They set up false witnesses who said, ‘This man never stops saying things against this holy place and the law; for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses handed on to us.’ And all who sat in the council looked intently at [Stephen], and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel.”
The authorities ask Stephen to respond to these accusations. And he does, in a big way. Stephen says that through the ages people have rejected the prophets that God sent to reach them, and just so they rejected Jesus, God-come-to-earth to reach them. He doesn’t try to soften his words, and he doesn’t try to make friends. He doesn’t temper what he says, or recant any of his beliefs, even though he is clearly in trouble. Stephen just says what is on his heart. The synagogue leaders respond to Stephen’s testimony: “When they heard these things,” we read, “they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen.” Instead of being scared by the group, Stephen is fortified by the vision of Jesus he has. He tries to share his vision, but his words fall on unhearing ears. The men drag Stephen into the street, they throw their coats at the feet of a man named Saul, and they stone Stephen to death, literally pelting rocks at him until he dies. Stephen’s last words echo Jesus’ on the cross, as he pleads for forgiveness for those who are putting him to death. Stephen, not one of the twelve, not known for his preaching or leadership, was just someone who was trying to serve others, and he was unwilling to say or do otherwise, even with the cost being his own life.
            Yet, Stephen is known as the first Christian, the first Jesus-follower, who sacrifices his life for the movement. He’s the first martyr of this newly-birthed church. That word, martyr, comes from the Greek word marturia, and in Greek, that word means witness. Someone who is willing to martyr themselves is a witness for an issue or topic or person about whom they are passionate. Stephen was a witness for Jesus. But witness is one of those funny words that has a lot of baggage in the Christian church today, baggage that distracts us from understanding what the word means. We sometimes think of a witness as when someone goes door to door, like a Jehovah’s Witness adherent, witnessing, or proclaiming their faith, in an evangelistic sort of way. But I think we better understand witness if we think about a trial, and people who are called as witnesses in a trial. Witnesses in trials are called on to tell the truth about what they have seen and experienced related to a particular event. That’s actually just what Stephen does, isn’t it? He tells the truth about what he knows about Jesus Christ, what he’s experienced. What moves Stephen from being more than a witness, in today’s language, to being a martyr, is that he witnesses to the truth despite his circumstances, which were clearly dangerous to his life. When would you be willing to tell the truth about something, to witness, no matter what the costs were to yourself?
            What strikes me as so powerful about Stephen’s witness to us is that he didn’t have to do it. He could have, at some point, stopped debating with synagogue leaders, joined a different community, run away. He could have gone into hiding, left town. He didn’t have to have this fight. He chose to, because he was so committed to speaking the truth he believed about the life he was called to in Christ. What would you give your life for? When would you speak up, and when would you stay silent?
            We are the story-tellers, the ones, now, in whose hands and hearts the good news of the gospel resides. At what cost will we stay silent? Stephen wasn’t even silent with threat of death. But I worry that we sometimes can be silent even over our mild discomfort! You have probably heard this famous poem by Pastor Martin Niemoller, written in the wake of Nazism and the Holocaust. First they came for the communists, and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a communist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a Jew. Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out for me. We say actions speak louder than words, and if that is true, then inaction is a deafening silence. 
            Today is a day when we have honored and remembered loved ones we have lost, and particularly, for many, loved ones who felt so committed to their country and the values of their nation, that they were willing to put themselves in harm’s way in order to uphold these values for the good of the whole. What do you value so much that you will not fail to speak the truth about it, no matter what situation you encounter? I’ve told you how much I dislike conflict, but in my own life, I find I rarely have trouble speaking up if you are harming in word or deed a member of my family, a dear friend, a loved one. Then it is easy to speak. Or if I witness an act of injustice in progress, I find it much easier to speak. I’m guessing many of you feel the same way. But what about when the situation doesn’t involve someone you are close to. Would you still feel compelled to speak the truth? What about when you hear people speaking of others who are not present? Would you still speak up? What about when there would be immediate negative consequences in your life for witnessing to truth? I’ll be honest – I hope I’m never put in a situation where I have to choose whether or not to lay down my life – I’m pretty fond of it! But I don’t think we can read about Stephen without asking ourselves some hard questions. How much is telling the truth worth to us? How much do we value it? Our lives are witness – what we do, how we behave, how we act, when we speak, when we stay silent – they’re always testifying in some way. What is your life saying? Amen. 

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Lectionary Notes for Trinity Sunday, Year C


Readings for Trinity, 5/26/13:
Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31, Psalm 8, Romans 5:1-5, John 16:12-15

Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31:
  • Wisdom, personified as a 'she'. Sophia in the Greek, hence the controversy of the 90s over the ReImagining Conference where some women suggested a feminine imagining of God might be called 'Sophia'. Oh, the uproar it caused! I think that there are so few ways women can find clear cut images of the feminine divine in Christianity, so laden are we with a patriarchal heritage. What is so wrong with identifying with the sophia image? After all, certainly no description of God is all-encompassing, and we have so many names for God. God is Creator, but not Creator only; Physician, but more than that. Parent, but beyond parent only. Is not sophia perhaps another face of God?
  • All that aside: wisdom is created, but with standing, created before other things, standing by the side of God, "daily God's delight, rejoicing before God always."
  • What is wisdom? In my church, we are currently taking part of the Companions in Christ covenant discipleship group. In the student book, it lists 'wisdom' as one of the spiritual gifts and describes it this way: "This is the gift of translating life experience into spiritual truth and of seeing the application of spiritual truth to daily living. The wise in our fellowships offer balance and understanding that transcend reason. Wisdom applies a God-given common sense to our understanding of God's plan for the church. Wisdom helps the community of faith remain focused on the important work of the church, and it enables younger, less mature Christians to benefit from those who have been blessed by God to share deep truths." (pg. 221) Life experience = spiritual truth. Do you like this description of wisdom?
Psalm 8:
  • What a great psalm! Chalk full of good lines. 'How majestic is thy name in all the earth!' The words to one of my favorite praise songs. But beyond this opening line:
  • "What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? Yet you have made them a little lower than God . . . " I think this verse is one of life's deepest questions. This is maybe more detailed then 'why are we here?', but it is close. It presumes God, but asks, 'why has God made us?' 'Why does God care about us?' 'What's the point?' I hate not having the answers sometimes, but I think it is part of what makes God God and me not God!
  • "Dominion." This is a loaded word when it comes to our care of the earth and all that is in it. What does dominion mean? Domination? Responsible stewardship? License to do as we will? Care for our human needs above all else? As a vegetarian, and an earth lover, my senses are aware of a word like dominion - just us use with authority from God with great care!
Romans 5:1-5:
  • "Since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God." That's in interesting if --> then statement. Both parts on their own are not necessarily surprising, but that the first causes the second is an interesting play on words. What does it mean to have peace with God? Trusting that it is our faith, not our faulty, failing works, that brings us to God, and more than that, God's grace, then we can rest in peace (not just the RIP kind!) with God.
  • Suffering --> produces endurance --> produces character --> produces hope. "and hope does not disappoint us." I like Paul's logic here. It's sort of like those puzzles where you have to make the first word into the last word by changing one letter at a time like this:
  • P A I L
  • M A I L
  • M A L L
  • M I L L
  • M I L K
  • "and hope does not disappoint us." What do you think about that? Has your hope ever disappointed you? If you're like me, you can probably think of times that you would say, 'yes' to this question, so what does Paul mean here? Has your hope in God ever disappointed you?
John 16:12-15:
  • "I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now." Bear, from the Greek bastazo^, meaning, to lift up, to bear in mind, to consider. Perhaps this statement from Jesus still applies to us today - Jesus is always wanting to fill us in, share more, but we are never able to bear it, it seems.
  • "When the Spirit of truth comes, [it] will guide you into all the truth." What a unique way of phrasing this - "all the truth" (emphasis added). What is all the truth?
  • The Spirit is not speaking things the Spirit comes up with, the Spirit is not originating direction on its own - the Spirit is like a messenger, conveying what is heard, and what is to come. The Spirit is the Vessel for God's communication with us, at least in this interpretation from John. Interesting words for Trinity Sunday . . .

Sermon for Pentecost, Year C, "Wind and Fire," Acts 2:1-21


Sermon 5/19/13
Acts 2:1-21

Pentecost: Wind and Fire


Happy Birthday! In the Christian Church we celebrate this day, Pentecost Day, as the birthday of the church universal. Pentecost is the biggest birthday celebration I can think of, next to that birthday we celebrate on December 25th. Today is the birthday of the Church. Today, we read about the disciples receiving the Holy Spirit. Today we read about that strange experience where the sound of a mighty rushing wind broke into the house where the followers of Jesus were celebrating Pentecost. Today, we read about the beginnings of Church as we know it – where Peter steps up and finally does what Jesus had been preparing him and the others to do all along: he shares the gospel – tells the Good News about God’s grace to anyone and everyone he can get to listen. Today is meant to be a day of celebration, this day of Pentecost.
Our text from Acts opens with the disciples already gathered together. They are gathered together for the celebration of Pentecost, a Jewish festival set out in the Torah, the law books for the Jews, which make the first five books of our Bible today. Pentecost was a celebration taking place fifty days after Passover, and was called also “the feast of weeks” or Shavuot. The festival celebrated the “first fruits” of the early harvest in spring. So the disciples were gathered together for this traditional celebration. But suddenly, we read, a sound like the rush of a violent wind came, and filled the gathering place, and the apostles were filled with the Holy Spirit, which seemed to them like divided tongues of fire. And they began to speak the gospel message to all who were gathered in such a way that everyone in the city could understand them. Many people from many places were gathered in Jerusalem for the Feast of Weeks, and it seemed that everyone could understand the disciples. Some were amazed at this, but others were a bit cynical, and accused the disciples of being drunk. Peter stands and raises his voice to the crowds: We’re not drunk – we are speaking as the prophets spoke – and he goes on to speak to them of visions and power that will come to all – young and old, men and women, slaves and free – using words from the prophet Joel.
Today, then, when we celebrate Pentecost, our focus is on not on the feast originally celebrated, but on the out-of-control wind that swept through and stirred up the celebration – the giving of the Holy Spirit. This is the gift that Jesus has promised the disciples they would receive, the thing that would be their Advocate, their Comforter, helping them to make the transition from followers of Jesus to those who would be leading and guiding and sharing with others. Personally, though, I have always found this Spirit thing a bit hard to explain and understand. It all sounds so ambiguous, doesn’t it? How do we connect to an event that had a violent rushing wind, tongues of fire, and people speaking in other languages? Maybe we get that something special happened on that day, but how can we relate to it? What does the gift of the Holy Spirit mean to us?
When our scene opens for today, the apostles don’t know that today is the day. They don’t yet know that Pentecost is the day they will receive the Spirit Jesus promised. They’re just waiting in Jerusalem, as Jesus instructed. We’ve talked about the loneliness, fear, and abandonment the disciples must have felt in the days between the crucifixion and resurrection, and that was three days of believing that Jesus was dead and they were lost. Last Sunday, we talked about the ascension of Jesus, when he returns to be with God, when God’s messengers have to tell the apostles to stop staring up in to the sky. Jesus had been telling them that this Holy Spirit thing was coming, and they were supposed to wait. Wait for it, and then they would receive the help of this spirit, this advocate. Yes, now they knew Jesus was resurrected, but they also knew Jesus had left them again, at least physically. And this time, Jesus does not reappear physically after three days. He told them to wait, and they’re waiting. That’s where we find them today. But it is ten days between Jesus’ ascension and the feast of Pentecost. Ten days that they’ve been waiting, finding out just how much they trusted what Jesus said. I wonder how many times in those ten days they figured they’d misunderstood, or missed this spirit-helper thing, how many times they considered leaving, wondering if they’d been crazy.
             So they’ve been waiting, waiting, and finally, this wind/Spirit thing arrives, and I have more questions than before. I find a couple of points in this Pentecost story really fascinating. First, I think it would have been so easy for the apostles, waiting in Jerusalem, to not recognize this Spirit thing, as dramatic as this windy fire sounds, when it came. When Jesus talked about the Holy Spirit coming to them, I just have to wonder what the apostles were expecting. Jesus, talking about the Spirit, said things like, with it they will be “clothed with power from on high.” They’ll be “baptized with the Holy Spirit” and will “receive power” and “will be [Jesus’] witnesses.” He talks about the Holy Spirit being an “advocate” and “helper.” He said it would remind the disciples of everything Jesus had taught them. And then, what it turns out to be is this sound like a mighty rushing wind, that appears like flames of fire. I wouldn’t be surprised if the disciples reacted like: “This is what you meant by a helper? This thing that has caused everyone to ask if we’re drunk at 9 in the morning – that’s the great help you sent us?”
            The other point that fascinates me is that the Holy Spirit had already shown up in the scriptures. Jesus talks about the help he’s sending like it is a new thing. But the Holy Spirit has already been mentioned – in the Psalms and Prophets. In Mary, mother of Jesus, and in her cousin Elizabeth – the Holy Spirit is mentioned at work in both of those women and in Simeon, who sees baby Jesus at his dedication in the temple. Jesus talks about the Holy Spirit having been with King David. He himself is described as being full of the Holy Spirit. He teaches that God gives the Holy Spirit to those who ask for it, and that the Holy Spirit will equip apostles with words to say in difficult situations. All of these examples of the Holy Spirit! The disciples, you might think, must have wondered what was so special about what Jesus was sending to them, how it was any different from the Spirit they already had seen at work.
            What amazes me most about Pentecost is that the apostles, waiting and confused for a week and half for something, ambiguously described by Jesus, finally receive the Spirit, only to find out it is this weird wind thing, that’s actually been with them all along – and, as it turns out, this seems to do the trick! Suddenly, the apostles, who’ve had very little to say since the crucifixion actually, and certainly not a lot to say since the resurrection, suddenly, they spring into action, preaching in front of crowds, finally start telling people about Jesus and what God has in store for the world. This fiery, windy spirit seems to be like a switch suddenly flipped, and the apostles start taking action. This is, after all, the acts of the apostles, and they finally get down to business.
            So, the questions we have to ask are: What do we do while we’re waiting for the Holy Spirit? And then, what do we do when the Holy Spirit comes? At Easter time, Pastor Aaron and I talked a lot about how resurrection still happens today – it isn’t just some past event that we celebrate, but a present and future reality that we live into. We’re resurrection people. The same holds true for Pentecost. The coming of the Holy Spirit, the transformation of the disciples into these bold messengers for God, the explosion of new faith communities – this isn’t just a record of an event long past that we study out of historical curiosity. I believe it is God’s hope for the church today, that Pentecost still happens.
            While we’re waiting to feel that Spirit move among us, I think we, like the disciples, have some of the hardest tasks. We have to keep doing what Jesus has told and taught us to do, and we have to believe that God’s promises will be fulfilled. Not knowing when God might act in our lives, when God might move in a new way is no excuse to do anything but follow God’s commands while we’re waiting. The disciples didn’t leave Jerusalem because God was taking too long. They didn’t know how Jesus’ promise would unfold, but they knew that it would. When we, as individuals or a congregation, are experiencing in-between times, our best plan is to keep doing the things Jesus taught us to do while we wait.
            I think we also have to recognize the ways that Jesus has already given us the gift that was promised. We are already people who have received the Holy Spirit, just like the scripture record the Spirit at work throughout the stories we read, long before Pentecost found the Spirit arriving in a new package. How has the Spirit moved in you? How has it been in work at Liverpool First? For me, I experience little Spirit-moments whenever someone tells me that I preached a great sermon, because it really inspired them when I said (blank), only I never said what they heard! I figure God must be using my sermon to deliver a message. I’ve seen the Spirit at work through our choirs making music, through children giving answers in worship that are profound to adult ears, through unexpected gifts, through celebrating sacraments, through serving beyond what we saw possible. The spirit is already here – let’s recognize and celebrate it.
            Finally, I think we experience Pentecost whenever we find that something, that spirit, that energy, that causes us to stop talking and thinking and mulling and planning and start doing. Sometimes you can talk about a dream you have, a plan you’ve made, a bucket-list item that you’ve had on your mind forever. You dream about it and dream about it and dream about it. And then, one day, finally, after 1000 false starts, you just do it. You start. You begin. You get going, get moving. What gives you that final push? What starts the engine? The Holy Spirit, like the wind, is something you can never pin down. But when I think about what makes us finally go, that’s the best way I can understand it. The apostles, with the wind finally stirring up in them the Spirit that was already there, finally get up and go, and start sharing the best news about the kingdom of God. I’m praying for the winds of the Spirit to move us here, too. We’ve got some dreams. Hopes. Things we’ve been talking about, dreaming about. Is something urging us to finally get up and get going?
            Happy birthday, church. How will we celebrate God at work in us? Amen.    

           


Monday, May 13, 2013

Lectionary Notes for Pentecost Sunday, Year C


Readings for Pentecost Sunday, 5/19/13:
Acts 2:1-21, Psalm 104:24-34, 35b, Romans 8:14-17, John 14:8-17, (25-27)
Acts 2:1-21:
  • I have to admit - speaking in tongues is something that I don't connect to, don't understand, and frankly, usually don't take seriously. My only witnessing of speaking in tongues has left me more than a little skeptical. But I can't deny its frequent presence in the scriptures - so where does that leave me? Last year, a girl of approximately 9 year of age read this passage in church on Pentecost, and she whipped through Phrygia and Pamphylia like they were her hometowns. It was amazing. If I think about her reading this passage so flawlessly, I think I can get my head a little bit around the idea of speaking in tongues. When an unlikely vessel communicates an even more unlikely message, with unlikely abilities?
  • Pentecost. In some ways, these scene is one of the most exciting in the Bible. This is the moment of truth - Jesus is dead, risen, and ascended. The disciples have been taught, prodded, encouraged, but most of all, entrusted with the good news. Will they carry it on? Will they stand up in the face of opposition and accusations? Yes! The start of the church.
  • Everyone who calls on God's name will be saved!
  • Notice that Peter quotes how God's spirit is poured out on all flesh: songs, daughter, young, old, slave free. Seriously, where do we get the idea that God only speaks through some people, whom we deem acceptable?
Psalm 104:24-34, 35b:
  • manifold: many and varied
  • Leviathan: same name as Jonah's whale is given - a big sea 'monster'/creature, or just generally a big thing of its kind: the 'Leviathan' of the redwoods would be the biggest of the trees. (check out Dictionary.com)
  • The dependence of creation on the Creator. While I don't like to think of God hiding God's face from me, the psalmist makes the point that we are dependent on God.
  • "I will sing to the Lord as long as I live; I will sing praise to my God while I have being." Amen!
Romans 8:14-17:
  • "not a spirit of slavery, but a spirit of adoption." I'm always torn by Paul's language of adoption. On the one hand, I'm hesitant to think that we're not born into God's family, God's children. I shudder to think that God only adopts some as children, and not others, which is an unfortunate and often drawn conclusion of such theology. But on the other hand, there is a special-ness about God going the 'extra mile', as it were, to make us God's own. Out of God's deep desire to have us as children. I guess I just want to make sure God has no limits or qualifications for who is adopted! That we can all become heirs with Christ...
John 14:8-17, (25-27):
  • "Show us the Father, and we will be satisfied." "Have I been with you all this time, and you still do not know me?" I like this exchange between Philip (a highly under-played apostle) and Jesus. "We will be satisfied." What would it take from God for you to be satisfied? It seems we humans always need one more proof, one more sign, one more prayer answered as we want it answered. Jesus says, "don't you get it? I'm all you need to be satisfied." Do we get it?
  • Spirit talk - another passage where Jesus is trying to prepare the disciples, convince them that they can and will continue his work even after he is no longer physically present. Unfortunately, this passage is couched in John's highly repetitive and circular language, which makes it tiresome if not hard to follow. But the verses 25-27, which were in the lectionary two weeks before, give very understandable words of comfort with which to part: Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives..." Indeed.

Sermon for Ascension Sunday, Luke 24:44-53, Acts 1:1-11


Sermon 5/12/13
Acts 1:1-11, Luke 24:44-53

Ascension Sunday


            What titles are you known by? Do you think titles are important? Next weekend Aaron will graduate with his Doctor of Ministry, and officially earn the title of “Doctor.” I hope to join him in that when I finish my own degree, but really, I still prefer titles like “Her Eminence.” In some churches I have served, people have preferred to call me “Rev. Beth,” while in others, like this one, people more often call me, “Pastor Beth.” Does that make any difference? Aaron recently had his job title for our Conference changed. Previously his title was “Associate Director of Connectional Ministries for Congregational Revitalization.” In theory, the folks who gave him that title thought it helped make clear that his job was part of a certain department in the conference structure. But mostly, it just confused people. Now, his title is just, “Director of Congregational Revitalization.” You can actually tell what he does by his title now, instead of falling asleep before you get to the important part! What titles do you carry with you? What do they tell us about you? How have they changed over time?
I remember the sense of strangeness I experienced when I started at my first church, St. Paul’s UMC in Oneida, in 2003. I was just out of seminary, and although I had spent time interning in various capacities at churches, chaplaincies, and agencies, this was the first time I would be the pastor of a church. And on June 30th, 2003, I wasn’t a pastor. And then, on July 1st, I was. At least, that’s what my title said! Elizabeth Quick, pastor. It said so right on the sign out front. I had some real moments of panic at first. Sure, I’d been to a lot of school, but what did I know about being a pastor? I couldn’t have responsibility for a whole church! What was I thinking? Was there still time to back out? How did I go from being “regular old Beth” one day to having the “pastor” title the next?
There’s certainly always more we can learn. There’s always more I can learn about being a pastor. This week, I’ll attend a continuing education event in Nashville called The Festival of Homiletics, which focuses on preaching and worship leadership. My learning isn’t finished just because I’m qualified to be a pastor. Pastor, like many of you in your careers, are required, in fact, to do a certain amount of continuing education each year. But there are some things that you just don’t learn about being a pastor in seminary. For example, you never figure out how to hold a baby, read the words of a baptism liturgy, and bless them with water all at the same time until you’ve awkwardly tried to do it a few times! You could spend an endless amount of time preparing to be a pastor, and never just start being a pastor, if you were always trying to learn everything. So in those first days, I felt unprepared. But I plunged ahead, with many helpers and guides, not because I suddenly found some burst of confidence, and not because I suddenly felt like an expert, and not because I knew I would do everything right. I became a pastor because, from the start, I felt called by God to do so, sent by God to take this particular journey in ministry. I had to transition from being a student of ministry to being a minister. 
I read once about a man named Johnny Lechner who refused to graduate from his undergraduate school. I’m not sure quite how he got started – he was ready to graduate, and a friend urged him not to rush, so he decided to stay an extra year. That’s not so uncommon. But Lechner ended up being an undergrad for about 15 years. It wasn’t that he just couldn’t complete the requirements. Indeed, he had credits to graduate in half a dozen majors – Communications, Health, Education, Women's Studies, Theater, and so on. He would say he was finally ready to graduate, and then back out at the last minute, remembering he’d never studied abroad, or never been in such and such club. His University became so sick of having him as a student that they implemented a so-called “slacker-tax” – students who take too long to graduate have to pay double tuition. Lechner was unfazed. Bolstered with income from speaking appearances and acting jobs related to his unique life path, he had enough money for double tuition. Lechner said he just likes learning. I can relate to that. But when do you have to be more than a student? When do you have to also move on, move out, spread out, branch out, and start becoming whatever you’ve been studying to be for so long?  
Today is Ascension Sunday, and it is a weird in-between sort of day before Pentecost that we don’t spend much time thinking about. It is the day that we remember that Jesus, forty days after the Easter Resurrection, returned to heaven to be with God. Our two scripture lessons today come from one author – passages from the gospel and from Acts both written by Luke, who writes to explain first Jesus’ ministry and the then infant church that Jesus’ early work births. In our text from Luke, Jesus reminds the disciples that his time with them has been a fulfilling of the law and the prophets and the psalms – Jesus brings into fullness all the promises laid out by God in God’s story with the people. And then, we read, Jesus “opens their minds to understand the scriptures,” a conversation we’d all surely like to have overheard. Then he tells the disciples the task: to proclaim repentance and forgiveness to all nations, beginning in Jerusalem, in Christ’s name. He tells them they have a little bit of time yet before they begin, while they wait to be “clothed with power from on high,” but then they will be ready to begin their work.
Our scene from Acts overlaps somewhat with our passage from Luke, but the focus is the same. Jesus has gathered with the disciples and is speaking to them about the kingdom of God. He tells them to wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit. But still, they have questions. “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He tells them not to worry about that, but to concentrate on the coming of the Spirit, and the fact that they will be witnesses of Jesus’ work to the ends of the earth. Then he leaves them to return to God, and they watch him go. Finally, a messenger from God rouses them, asking, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking toward heaven?” urging them to trust that Jesus will still be a part of their lives. That is what the Ascension is. But we need to know the why or it doesn’t much matter. Why is the Ascension important for us to think about?
We’ve talked today about being students. Throughout most of Luke’s gospel, the twelve are referred to as disciples. Luke occasionally gives them a different title, but most often, they’re label “disciples,” students, students of Jesus and his teaching. But then, in Acts, written by the same author, even today describing the same events, Luke uses slightly different language. A small, but important shift. In Acts, we find the same followers of Jesus most frequently called apostles, a word that means “ones who are sent.” Actually, the full title of the second volume of Luke’s account is called, “The Acts of the Apostles.” Same people, different titles. Suddenly, those who were students are something else too, something more: ones sent by Jesus for a specific purpose – to continue the work Jesus began, by preaching about the kingdom, about repentance and forgiveness.
            Perhaps, in such a state of chaos following the death and resurrection of their teacher, it would have been easy for the disciples to not want to move from their comfort zones. Were they ready to go out and be messengers of the good news? Certainly, the disciples had bumbled through years of Jesus’ teaching, barely seeming to get it at times. Even in this opening scene from Acts, the disciples exhibit that they still don’t get everything, and God’s messengers have to tell them to stop staring dumbly into the sky. But now, they’ve been sent. Can the baby church be planted by these disciples who still have so much to learn? The disciples, I’m sure, had their doubts and fears and questions about becoming apostles. But if their fears kept them from becoming apostles, where would we be? If they never felt ready enough to be ones sent, to be the ones to take over the preaching and the teaching, who would hear the good news about the kingdom of God?             
            I think we all experience this struggle, if in our own unique ways. In the church, we are sometimes very good at discipling, and not very good at apostling. I mean that we are very good at nurturing our members – taking care of those who are inside the church family already. If you walk through the purple doors of Liverpool First, we will try hard to welcome you and invite you to be part of us. We try to be students of the scriptures. We’re good at being in fellowship with one another. We’re seek to grow in our discipleship, nurturing the faith journey from infancy to adulthood. We’re good at being the church for the church. But are we as good at being the church for the world? Are we as good at being apostles – being sent – as we are at being students of God? Are we as good at going out into ministry as we are at the ministries that serve those who are already here? Are we willing to answer God’s call once we hear it, or will we insist that we are not ready enough, not prepared enough to be sent?
            The official mission statement of the United Methodist Church, and really, the Christian Church in general, is “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” Our discipleship won’t accomplish much if being disciples doesn’t lead us to do something. If being a disciple has no impact, if being disciples doesn’t equip us for something, if being a student doesn’t help prepare us for a purpose, why bother? If being a disciple doesn’t lead us to apostleship, if being with Jesus doesn’t lead us to spreading the gospel, how can the world be transformed? How will others find out about God’s love?       
We’re all working at discipleship. And we never stop being disciples. That’s a title we should always keep. We’re always students of the living Christ, seeking to be like him, molding ourselves after his spirit. But we have to start being apostles too. The message has to be delivered. The good news aches to be preached. We are the witnesses. We are the ones sent. We are the apostles. Let’s go. Amen.

Monday, May 06, 2013

Lectionary Notes for Ascension Sunday


Readings for Ascension Sunday, 5/12/13:
Acts 1:1-11, Psalm 47, Ephesians 1:15-23, Luke 24:44-53

Acts 1:1-11:
  • Luke's account to Theophilus, Part II. The ascension is such an interesting part of what happens to Jesus, in that, for most, it is something we care about least. Where does it fit in our Christian faith? Is Jesus' ascension important?
  • For me, the importance of the ascension is that we are now left without Jesus physically present - that means we have to do it now - we have to do the work that he has been teaching and teaching about. No excuses, no right-there Jesus to do it for us. Just the Holy Spirit to be our Advocate. Jesus' ascension means that Jesus really is asking us to get to work.
  • Ah, those men in white robes again. They're almost like stage directions in a script - they let you know what's going on that is not, apparently, obvious in any other way. I think if I ran accross them they would raise more questions for me than they would answer!
  • Luke says that Jesus gives instructions, and shares "many convincing proofs", and is with them for 40 days speaking about the kingdom. It's little verses like these that drive me crazy. Where is all this stuff Jesus said and did? Why didn't Luke record it? Why do we only get to have such little snippets of somebody that we adore so much? Gr!!

Psalm 47:
  • An audience-participation psalm: "Clap your hands!" Lots of musical settings for these words, and no wonder - they make you want to sing and clap!
  • Of course, there in verse 3, is God with subdued people under 'our' feet. Gives the whole psalm the tone of a war-victory psalm of praise.
  • "He chose our heritage for us." I like this verse. God chooses our heritage for us - God chooses our history, our people, our story. I'm all for free will, but I manage to balance that, tricky though it sometimes feels, with a clear sense that God has a hand in or at least an eye on all that goes on in my life. Even better to think of it woven into the tapestry of as weighty a word as "heritage."

Ephesians 1:15-23:
  • I especially like the first part of this passage, verses 15-19. These verses sound like great words of blessing to speak on someone, a person of faith. To pray that God grants wisdom and revelation, enlightenment, riches of Christ's inheritance, knowledge of the immeasurable greatness of God's power. . .
  • Aside from that, this passage seems very typical of a lot of the epistle writing. Here is set up the metaphor: Christ as the head of the church and of the body, the church as the body of Christ, and thus under Christ, who is over all things, filling all things.

Luke 24:44-53:
  • Luke's part 1 account of the ascension. Compare and contrast to his testimony in Acts. I think here, the account is more backward reflective - calling up Moses, the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies, talking about what has happened up to this point, whereas Acts is setting the stage for what has yet to happen.
  • "And they were continually in the temple blessing God." Indeed - I think we just can't imagine what these first weeks and months for the disciples must have been life. The emotional roller-coaster they must have been on. But to finally just be driven to give thanks - their friend and teacher was still going to be in charge of their lives.
  • Looking back on Luke, moving ahead into Acts. We must take what Jesus has lived, and then live it ourselves. I guess that would be my 'theme' for the day.

Sermon, "Not-So-Secrets of New Life: Committed," John 15:1-11


Sermon 5/5/2013
John 15:1-11

Not-So-Secrets of New Life: Committed


            Today is the last Sunday in our series the Not-So-Secrets of New Life. Since Easter morning, we’ve been talking about the promise of resurrection, the promise of new life, and how we can claim that new life, how we can start living as people who are resurrected, new creations. Resurrection, doubt, simplicity, generosity, love, and today: commitment. Commitment is a funny, loaded word that we use in multiple ways. We get asked to make a lot of commitments in life. When a bank makes you a loan, like when you’re buying a home and taking out a mortgage, there’s a commitment letter between you and the bank: the bank commits to lending you money, and you commit to providing them documentation about every single thing in your life, as far as I can tell! You might notice that a lot of advertising today will focus on the fact that you can get their product commitment-free, which certainly implies that a commitment is a bad thing, doesn’t it? Try this for 30 days, commitment free. While many cell phone and cable companies want to lock you into contracts and commitments, some companies also offer contract-free commitments, where you make no commitment to stick with that company for more than a month at a time. Of course, without the commitment, you also miss out on some of the benefits a particular company offers. We also use the word committed when someone is placed against their will in a rehabilitation program of some kind. Commitment here has the sense of boundaries that can’t be crossed, limits within which you will be contained. We talk about being in committed relationships. When we say a relationship is committed, we usually mean that it is both exclusive – we haven’t made this commitment to anyone else – and that it will endure – commitment has a sense of lasting, being permanent or at least long-term. We have all sorts of spoken and unspoken commitments to our loved ones. We expect parents to be committed to the well-being of their children. We commit to keeping confidences and looking out for each other in friendships. We commit to complete certain tasks, to serve on committees, to our jobs, to be part of teams, to attend events, to sponsor participants in some walk or cause, to go to the gym, and so on and so forth. We make commitments all the time. Every day.
            Today, we’re talking about what kind of commitments are involved in being Jesus-followers, in having a relationship with God, in being part of this community. What commitments do we make to God, and what commitments does God make to us? For some reason or another, all of you have made a commitment to be here today in worship, in this place. Why is that? That’s a question Pastor Aaron and I have been and will continue to be asking around the church these past couple of weeks. Why are you here? And why do we do the things that we do here? Why do you spend your time come to worship, or going to a bible study, or hanging out with our young people, or teaching Sunday School, or being on a committee, or helping out at the auction or a barbeque or helping to fold newsletters or visit folks at Birchwood…why do you do it? Why? In so many ways, you’ve made a commitment of your time, your talents, your resources, to this particular part of the Body of Christ. Why? That’s a question we’re going to keep coming back to in the months ahead.
            We heard a text from the gospel of John today, where Jesus says that he is the vine and we are the branches. John contains several of these “I am” statements of Christ – I am the light of the world, I am the resurrection, and so on – that tell us about the nature of Christ through vivid imagery. Jesus says that he is the vine, and we are the branches, and that we are meant to bear good fruit. In order to do this, we have to abide in God, and God will abide in us, because branches that become separated from the vine can do nothing, serve no purpose, can’t grow healthy fruit. To have God abide in us, and to abide in God, we have to be disciples – students and followers – of Jesus, and keep God’s commandments. But when we do this, we experience the joy of Christ in our hearts – complete joy. That word abide is repeated time after time in this passage. In fact, it is one of the most repeated words in a single passage in the gospels, giving us a pretty good idea how important it is. It means literally “to stay at home” or “to remain at home.” So when we read this passage, we can think of Jesus telling us that to be vine and branches, to experience this complete joy, we need to remain at home, make ourselves at home, with God, and let God be at home in our hearts in turn. Think of this image – when you have company over, or you visit someone at their house, sometimes you are just that – company. But other times, someone will say to you, “please, make yourself at home.” When they say this, what they mean is, “be yourself here. Act here as you would act at your own home. My home is your home.”
            If we’re talking about commitment, this passage makes it pretty clear. God wants to move into your heart, permanently. And God wants you to move into God’s heart. Because if Jesus is the vine, and we are the branches, then we can have no real life apart from the vine. We’ve got Jesus’ blood, Jesus’ life, flowing right through our veins, because we are the body of Christ in the world. God wants a commitment from us, to be disciples, to follow Jesus, and we’d be smart to take it, because we die without it. Maybe not literally. But our living isn’t really abundant life. Branches just can’t exist on their own. I read this week that healthy branches, strong branches on a grape vine become so strong that unless you carefully inspect, you can’t tell at first glance which is the vine and which is the branches. That’s actually what Jesus wants! For our discipleship, for our fruit-bearing, for our Jesus-following, to make our lives so patterned after Jesus that we look like him!  The more deeply we commit to Christ, the more we make our life like his, the more we commit to following Jesus, the more like the vine our strong branch becomes, so that our branch closely resembles the Christ vine, the more we will find that we have space and time and energy for God to make a home in our hearts and transform our lives as God’s dreams take root in us and in our community and in our world.
            What kind of commitment are you ready to make in our life with God? Today is Commitment Sunday, and we have some opportunities to make commitments today, as expressions of our discipleship. We’re experiencing one form of commitment that some choose to make related to this community of faith, and our commitment to follow God. At (9:30) and at (11) during worship today, we’ve received new members of the congregation, people who want to make a particular commitment to this congregation, belonging in a particular way. You don’t have to be a member here to be fully involved in the life of the congregation, but this group of people wanted to make this particular kind of commitment, and you heard them publicly vow – along with you – that your commitment is expressed through your prayers, your presence, your gifts, your service, and your witness.
            This is also Commitment Sunday for our Stewardship Focus. For the past two weeks, we’ve asked you to think about filling up our metaphorical buckets with the visions and dreams you think God has for us here at Liverpool First. We’ve talked about these buckets in different settings around the church, had a lot of conversations about what God is dreaming about for us. And today, we come to offer one form of our commitment to this community of faith and to carrying out dreams. These commitment cards represent much more than a plan to pay our bills. We certainly appreciate being able to do that, but the commitment part comes because of our commitment to follow a generous God, a commitment to thank God for our blessings, and a commitment to God’s future for us. These cards represent that we are committed in a specific way to doing what it takes to make sure we have the resources we need to make God’s dreams for us real, concrete. God’s dreams for us are so much more than survival, or getting by, or making ends meet. God dreams life as part of the true vine, life that brings us complete joy.
            Maybe there’s another commitment that you want to make today. Maybe you’re just starting out, and you want to make a commitment to get to know more about God, more about who Jesus is. Maybe you feel that God has been calling you to do something in particular – anything from selling your stuff and becoming a missionary across the globe, to finally signing up for that Bible Study you’ve been meaning to attend, or volunteering to serve the homeless. Maybe right now you just want to commit to asking yourself the revealing question: why? Maybe today you want to commit to asking and answering the question of why you are here and what you want to get out of and put into your relationship with God. Maybe you’re ready to commit to God abiding in your heart – staying in the very core of your being, always. Maybe you’re ready to journey into the heart of God, abide in God’s heart.
            Jesus says he tells us about this committed relationship “so that [his] joy may be in [us], and that [our] joy may be complete.” Complete joy. Have you ever experienced such a thing as complete joy? Think about the times in your life when you have felt the most joy – the most sheer, unblemished, undiluted joy. I’m going to guess that these experiences of joy probably have something to do with experiences of love as well, that our experiences of joy are never just about us, but always have something to do with the relationships in our lives. Jesus speaks to us of commandments, commitments, not to burden us with unwanted contracts and bad deals, but to free us, because he wants us to have this joy not just in fleeting moments, but in complete, as a regular part of our living. “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” Are you ready for a commitment?
            Amen.