Saturday, May 15, 2010

The Promise and The Call

Acts 1:1-11

A dad I once met had this conversation with his 5 year old son.

“I think I’ve figured it out, Dad,” the boy said. “I think I’ve figured out why Jesus had to go back to God.”

“Really?” the dad questioned. “Why do you think that is?”

“I think Jesus had to go back to heaven, Dad, because it is the best way he could see all of the whole world at the same time.”

This insight may have been helpful for the disciples-turning-apostles who experienced Jesus’ ascension in person. Imagine the emotional and spiritual roller coaster they have been on since Jesus’ final entry into Jerusalem- - even longer if you count the years they spent following Jesus during his ministry.

From the initial excitement of being called by name to follow this charismatic preacher, teacher, and healer. To the painfully slow realization that he is also their Lord and their God. From the pride at being trusted to minister in his name. To the frustration of being rebuked when they just didn’t get it. From the festive entry into the city of Jerusalem for Passover. To the agony of his suffering at the hands of others. From the devastation of putting his body in a tomb. To the confusion and elation of discovering it was empty three days later.

The time of his ascension must have been another hill on the roller coaster the disciples were riding. On the one hand it was a time that provoked great celebration and worship. How glorious for the disciples to see their Lord and master, their Messiah and savior, being lifted up and carried into heaven the only suitable place for their God and king to reside.

On the other hand, now there’s another letdown. It was like he died and left them alone all over again. He had been among them teaching and leading, and now he’s left the earth on which they are stuck with no leader, no teacher, no friend in the deepest sense. The times look, yet again, desperate and foreboding. The crisis of the unknown has hit this body of believers, and the way forward must seem impossible to see. Jesus’ ascension could carry his disciples back down the hill into depths of despair. Their worry and confusion about how they will proceed could easily monopolize their time, their energy, and their life together.

It could, but Jesus tries not to let that happen by leaving them with a unique promise and an important call to action. Knowing he is about to leave the earth and their presence, he orders them to wait in Jerusalem for what has been promised, the power of God, the Spirit of God, that is on the way.

Similarly, our times of confusion and frustration and worry are not solitary confinements. They are not without hope or direction or inspiration. Our times when the way forward seem difficult are also blessed with the knowledge that God’s Spirit is forthcoming, God’s presence is with us, and God’s guidance is never failing. God’s Spirit brings us the power we need to continue on in the life of faith and even just the PROMISE of that power can be enough to bring comfort and ease the anxieties of transition and uncertainty.

The promise and power of which Jesus speaks is the promise and power of the Holy Spirit. Now the Holy Spirit itself is not something NEW that comes to the people of God at this point. The Spirit of God blew over the waters at creation. The Spirit of God was with the Israelites in Egypt, the exodus, and the wilderness. The Spirit of God was on the prophets of God and among the people of God throughout their turbulent history and rocky relationship. The Spirit of God is not new.

What is new is the deliverance of the Spirit of God to this particular group of God’s people for this particular purpose. For the other piece of Jesus’ instruction to the disciples is a call. The narrative from the opening words of the book of Acts tells the disciples this call will take them to “Jerusalem, all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. The first volume of this 2 part story of Jesus and the early church, the gospel according to Luke, though, gives the substance of the witnesses’ expected testimony; it concerns crucifixion and resurrection, repentance and forgiveness. In a nutshell the testimony of the disciples is the wonder wrought by God in Jesus and the effect of that wonder on the world.

This is the call to the earliest church, and it is the call to the church today. It is the call to be witnesses to what we have experienced in the life of faith. It is the call to share what we know to be true about God and God’s love for the world in Jesus Christ. It is a call to reach others where they are, and point to the one who gives us the power, and courage, and mandate to cross unwritten boundaries with the gracious love of God. It is a lofty call, but is a call that comes with a promise.

We are promised the Holy Spirit in order that we will have the power to live as God calls us to live, the power to witness to the unbelievable truth of God’s love for the world. We are promised the Holy Spirit in order that we will discern where we are to carry God’s message. The accounts through Acts that we have heard in the last few weeks should be a comfort in this calling. Everywhere the apostles go to be Christ’s witnesses, it seems that the Holy Spirit beats them there. They are both carried and preceded by the Spirit in their faithful following of Jesus’ command.

This is God’s promise and God’s comfort. Even though the situation around us may change, our calling never changes. Even times budgets may get tight and anxiety may be high, our calling stays the same. And as our calling never changes, neither does the promise of God’s presence and guidance in fulfilling our calling.

Brothers and sisters, even in times the times that feel like an emotional and spiritual roller coaster, we are being called and we are being sent. These are not times to turn fearful, or circle the wagons, or hold ourselves back from the ministries God is placing in front of us. Even in times that feel like they are uncertain, maybe even because the times feel uncertain we must trust in the Spirit that has been promised and step out to follow the call that is placed before us. By the power of God, we will move forward being Christ’s witness not only in our community, but around the world. Hear Jesus’ promise, and praise him in great joy as we discern the Spirit’s leading and call to our church.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Friday Five: Family Trees

Sophia posted this Friday Five at the RevGals. I haven't played in too long, but this one I want in on! We're getting super close to adding a new leaf to the tree, so it seems so timely.

1. Do you have any interest in geneaology?
I have a real interest, but I don't have the time at all to dedicate to that interest. (Or the organizational skills or the drive to do what it takes)

2. Which countries did your ancestors come from?
I really only know about my mom's sides of the family, and they are pretty much straight Scottish/Scotch-Irish.

3. Who is the farthest back ancestor whose name you know?
On my mom's side I have a family tree that goes back to the first immigrants to the US, central PA (Lancaster County - - they beat the German/Amish there), in the late 1600's. I'm momentarily blanking on the father who brought his two sons, but the son from which my family comes, who was the first to have his family born on this continent, is Thomas. It's the name we have picked out if this baby is a boy.

4. Any favorite saints or sinners in the group?
I don't know many stories at all that are beyond the relatives I have actually known in my lifetime, but my grandmother is a favorite saint and sinner. She was a complex, but very strong woman, an alcoholic with various mental health issues at play, too. When she discovered her husband was not only having an affair, but having an affair with a 16 year old (they're oldest child, my mother, was 17 or 18 at the time) whom he got pregnant at the same time as her, she took the young woman into her care when the girl's own parents kicked her out of the house. Their babies were born within weeks of each other. My grandparents were divorced soon after, but I admire the heck out of her for that sort of compassion. If this baby is a girl, she will be named Margaret, the name of many of my grandmother's maternal ancestors.

5. What would you want your descendants to remember about you?
I don't know. I hope I've got a good funny story that can be told and embellished and relished over and over and over. I hope they remember me as strong and joyful and fun. My standards aren't too high!

Bonus: a song, prayer, or poem that speaks of family--blood or chosen--to you.
Like for many, this is a favorite song in our family. My grandmother, the one mentioned above taught it to all the grandkids she could before she died. My sister and I (the oldest of the grandkids) made sure we taught it to the ones born later. Our mom now sings it to our kids.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

I hope she remembers

I hope Megan remembers what she witnessed - - no - - what she was a part of this afternoon. I hope she remembers the body of Christ that piled into Jim's home on his 90th birthday and what will likely turn out to be one of his last days of earthly life. I hope she remembers the men and women who left work early today because sharing this time was more important than anything else they could have been doing, the ones who cancelled afternoon plans rather than miss out on this opportunity to share in the Spirit. I hope she remembers the birthday picture she colored for him.

I hope she remembers the great songs of faith that were sung, the words her 3 year old voice chimed in on about a half second after everyone else's sang them. I hope she remembers the harmony of voices, lifted up in prayer offered on behalf of a brother in Christ, offered for ourselves as we are already beginning to miss his regular presence among us. I hope she remembers that prayers don't have to be spoken in sentences by someone official to be prayers that are special to God. I hope she remembers the prayers of the notes mixing themselves together to provide familiar chords of comfort and honest mash-ups of dissonance. I hope she remembers the words - -
"Be still and know that I am God."
"Blessed Assurance! Jesus is mine!"
"Blest be the tie that binds"
"On Christ, the solid Rock, I stand"
"Take my hand, precious Lord, lead me home."

I even hope she remembers the tears that streamed down many faces that witness to the love of the people of God for one another, the pain we feel when we know we're losing someone, when we're turning him over to God's tender care. I hope she remembers the joy on the faces of his family, their gratitude, their thankfullness for his friends who came to bless him and them with the best gift they know how to give. I hope she remembers the way he lifted his shaky voice to shout down from the hospital bed set up in the loft, "God bless you!" and the way men and women shouted back to him, "God bless you, too!" "We love you, Jim!"

I hope she remembers, no matter what else she learns or witnesses of the Church in the rest of her life, no matter what debates she experiences, no matter what human failings are a part of our institution, no matter what bickering she may hear, I hope she remembers this hour of the beloved community doing exactly what God wants us to do - worshiping, loving, sharing, praying, comforting, and celebrating the life of a true saint of God.

I hope she remembers.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

In the Spirit's Steps

Acts 16:9-15

We’ve been making our way, these last few weeks, through the accounts of the early church in Acts. As I have prepared for worship I have been asking the Scripture – “How did the early church do it? How were they church together? How did they go about God’s work in the world?”

The stories that have demonstrated the answers each week have been dramatic. Peter and the apostles were thrown in jail for teaching about Jesus. Despite the threat of the long arm of the law, they are STILL witnesses to what they have seen. And then there’s Saul, a notorious persecutor of the Christians who is blinded by a vision of Jesus, yet finds his way to faithful Ananias, who follows the Lord’s call to minister to this dangerous enemy of his faith. Then last week Peter is given visions of animals and food descending on a blanket from heaven. He hears the voice of God and has the courage to stand up to his fellow believers with a message of inclusivity beyond their imaging.

Jail. Visions. Voices from heaven. Divinely-inspired dreams. It seems like the folks in the old days had all the fun!

Hear this story about a woman, a good and faithful Christian. She’s a member of her church, the first or second to raise her hand for most jobs. We’ll call her Susan. She worships most Sundays, and has for about a decade. She’s one folks know they can count on not only for committee work or to serve on the session, but for last minute jobs like greeting on Sunday morning, because they know she’ll be there.

But somehow, even with all her activity in the church, Susan feels that something is missing. She somehow senses, and secretly fears, that despite all this church activity, she’s not much different than her friends who don’t attend church at all, the ones who go to yoga or Spinning at the Y on Sunday morning instead of attending any church, the ones who travel with their kids to soccer games or even just sleep in instead.

Susans or Samuels are all around us. Probably they even ARE some of us. They are the faithful who “wonder when their ticket is going to be punched, when they are going to experience the changed life they’ve been promised and expected to experience at church” (Reggie McNeal, The Present Future). They are the faithful, dedicated saints of the church who hear God’s call to the ministries we undertake, but wonder if maybe there isn’t supposed to be a little something more to who we are as the church.

Now hear this story about a few first-century travelers who have set out on a journey. They are on fire as they are led by their tireless tour guide, the Holy Spirit. You know the type. When I was little Disney World was crawling with them. Young men or women from Brazil or Japan or any number of other countries. They had perfected the art of walking backwards holding a small flag of their country high in the air, while smiling for the entire day and leading a herd of tourists from Tomorrowland to Fantasyland to Frontierland. They had energy like no one else in the park and could make standing in a 30 minute bathroom line look like fun. No one in those tour groups ever looked bored. Their guide’s enthusiasm was infectious.

The traveling conditions of our ancient trekkers are tough, funds are tight, and there is frightening opposition to the group they represent in some of the places they plan to visit. Yet despite all this, they set out with conviction and faith. They’ve poured over the map in preparation for the journey and know exactly where they will go and what route they will take, retracing the step one of them has already taken for some of the trip. But then one night, in the middle of their trip, one has a vision, a itinerary changing vision. They believe the vision is calling them to proclaim the Good News in a way different than they had initially thought. Their tour guide has a better plan, so they immediately change their plans and set off in a new direction.

With faith and dedication and a commitment to sharing the message, story and life of Jesus Christ with others, they continue on a completely different journey than they planned without really knowing what they might encounter along the way. The plan to check up on some previously planted “new church developments” has turned into something altogether different as they make their way to a new continent with their message about Jesus.

What faith. What dedication. What a commitment to sharing the life of Jesus Christ with others.

Contrasting the stories of modern-day followers like Susan to early church followers like Paul, we see a marked difference. Jesus’ early followers were alive with the fire of the Holy Spirit, whereas many of us today seem to lack that fire, passion, and conviction. We claim that the world is a different place; our responsibilities keep us tied down. At the Synod meeting I attended recently someone lamented being constrained by our polity. I’ll be the first to admit that the Presbyterian way sometimes seems slow and closed off, but I think we’re passing the buck if we blame all our frustrations on an organizational structure.

Perhaps the real difference is that followers of Jesus in the early church were clear about what they were called to do, whereas today many of our traditional, mainline churches lack that clarity. Followers in the early church were clear that they were to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ, as we heard in today’s reading. How Paul and his cohorts accomplished this purpose can be instructive to us if we seek to reclaim and increase a passionate, fiery faith.

In the middle of their journey, Paul saw a vision. Now, Paul has had experience with visions before, remember. In his former life he was struck blind by a vision of the resurrected Christ asking him why he was killing Christ’s people. Paying attention to visions has made him a new man, a man of faith, a man with a calling from God, passionate about what he has seen and experienced, passionate enough to want to share it with the world. Again and again in Acts, Paul’s passion spring directly from his willingness to listen for and act on God’s word. If we are to rediscover the fire of the early Christians, we, too, must be willing to listen and act on God’s word.

Do we take the time to talk AND listen to God through regular prayer and silent Holy listening? If and when we sense that God is leading us in a certain direction, do we test out that direction, seeking affirmation from church, family, friends and other trusted sources? We sometimes tease about our Presbyterian polity, but this is the point of it! To gather people of faith to discern the leading of God’s Spirit around particular areas of ministry, and then to test what we have discerned against the understanding of the Spirit-led community? If it what we have seen or dreamed does indeed seem to be God’s gentle hand acting in our lives and our discernment is affirmed, are we bold enough to act, or do we let fear, complacency, routine, or something else stand in the way?

We must listen for, trust in, and act on God’s Spirit in our lives and in our midst if we are to reignite a fire in our faith.

Another way Paul proclaimed the Good News of Jesus Christ was by going to where the people were. “On the Sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer, and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there.” They did not stay in a synagogue, or put up a new sign outside the synagogue and wait for people to come. Rather, they went out to where the people were.

If we are to rediscover the fire of the early Christians, we too must reach outside of our established church. We cannot just open our doors and wait for people to come in. We cannot simply mow the lawn or make a new sign and wait. Instead, we must look at the needs of the people in the community, the places where there is hurt, where there is need for support and loving community, where there is spiritual longing, and reach out to address it. It is our responsibility as people of God. It is where our tour guide is leading us.

Sometimes it’s more comfortable to stay in here, though. In here, we know what to expect. We know our friends; we know our fellow travelers on the way. In here, we can have control over the culture, the traditions, the rules, and the expectations. Out there, it’s all changing and changing faster than we can imagine. The culture is decreasingly “religious,” but increasingly “spiritual,” and frankly we don’t know how to address that. It’s more comfortable to keep our ways and trust what we know, but searching out the unknown ways to proclaim Christ’s message and share his love beyond our church building is mandatory. In doing this, we will find the fire of faith rekindled.

Lastly, when Paul proclaimed the Good News of Jesus Christ he didn’t limit who was to be reached. The vision that brought Paul to Macedonia was a vision of a man who asked him to come over and help. Yet, as the story develops, he finds something different, “a certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God. … The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul.”

If we are to once again become on fire with the gospel message, we must not limit God by defining the people we are called to reach. We can seek the unexpected person who might be longing for the transformative message of Christ’s love, and risk sharing the gospel message. We must be open to the idea that the Spirit may take us to unexpected people in unexpected place. She may pull us into relationship with people who are sitting outside the gates, outside the church, outside the usual relationships and organizations of society. Following the steps of the Spirit may bring our journey to places we never imagined to go, meeting people we never imagined to know.

With whom might God be calling us to share our faith?

Let’s return to Susan, the woman with whom we began with, who was feeling as if she wasn’t growing and changing despite her church activities, despite her commitment, despite her faith. I imagine Susan could be any of us; Susan could be many of us. Story after story, study after study, tells us there are people like Susan in many congregations, people who aren’t experiencing the spiritual transformation for which they hoped. As one Christian missiologist observed, “They came to us seeking God, and we gave them church instead.”

Many congregations, despite their best intentions, seem to have lost focus and give those seeking Jesus a slate of church activities rather than avenues for spiritual growth that can be truly transformational. In our visioning process this is exactly what we are trying to avoid. We have a whole slew of church activities out there on the walls and it would be easy to let that process simply re-organize the things we have always done. Yet that is not the point. The point is to discern what steps the Spirit is calling us to make. The point is to discover our areas of passion and commitment. The point is to try together, as a congregation, to get a vision for what God is doing in our midst and calling us to do in our community, in our world!

Our church, like Christian communities of faith throughout all time and space, exists to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ, to share God’s love that is forgiving, accepting, healing, and free. We, as people who are a part of this specific and global community of faith, must ensure that our activities are in alignment with this purpose and in step with the Spirit’s leading. By refocusing on this, we can transform the smoldering embers of faith into brilliantly burning flames.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

The FAT Church

The passage we will hear today centers around one of the most common debates in the early church. Do you have to be Jewish first to be a Christian? The very first believers in Jesus were, like him, faithful Jewish men and women. What they believed about what was happening they believed through Jewish eyes, Jewish hearts, and the Jewish faith. They didn’t think of themselves as pioneers of a new faith, just a continuation of a very ancient one.

However, when the news of what had happened began to travel outside of Jewish territories and when people began to actually BELIEVE what they heard, the folks back in Judea, started to ask, “What does it take to be a follower of Jesus?” Many of them believed that to be a follower of Jesus, one must become a Jew, meaning one must submit himself or herself to ALL of the Jewish faith, not just the parts about Jesus. They expected Gentile converts to begin to keep the seventh day as a Sabbath (as well as gather with other believers in Jesus on Sunday morning for resurrection celebrations), to keep the food laws that prohibited the eating of unclean animals, even for men to submit themselves to circumcision as a sign of inclusion in God’s covenant with Abraham. You can imagine some of these didn’t go over so well with newcomers to the faith.

Listen now to how Peter responded to the questions of his community of faith in Jerusalem (and their reaction) after spending time ministering among the Gentiles.

Acts 11:1-18

The early church wasn’t as rosy as we sometimes like to think, especially as we are faced by the contemporary controversies of the church and wonder why we can’t just go back to the old days when people just believed in Jesus and didn’t worry about the rest. This question about who a real Christian is was just as difficult as similar, yet more contemporary questions during the Reformation about who receives God’s grace, questions in this country in the 1800s about slaves being real people in God’s eyes, questions in the last 100 years about women being called to offices of the church, the question today about the ordination of homosexuals. So yet another question remains to be asked, “Why should this VERY post-Easter church in 2010 turn to the account of that BARELY post-Easter church of the 1st century for ‘advice’ when they seem to be as messed up then as we are now?” What does this account tell us about being the resurrection church?

First I think we learn that the resurrection church is made up of human beings. It was made up of humans 2000 years ago when it was first coming into being. It has been made up of human beings throughout our rocky history. It is STILL made up of human beings as we debate in our denomination, as in others, about the role and interpretation of Scripture and how that is applied in our current culture.

I have seen a bumper sticker (admittedly not my usual source for sermon support material) that says this, “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven.” The church is not perfect. It never has been. The church 2000 years ago was made up of imperfect human beings just as when we look around the church today we see the exact same composition - - imperfect human beings trying our best with what we’ve got to live the life of faith as we understand it, as we experience it, as we have been given it, and as we see it growing and changing right before our very eyes. Ultimately, we don’t look to the early church for insight because of who they are. We look to them because of what God has done with them. We look to them because somehow through these completely imperfect human beings, Jewish and Gentile alike, the church did grow.

The church did figure out how to reflect the resurrection life of Jesus inside itself and to the world. The church did realize, as Peter said, “The Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning.” The church, I might say, was FAT. Of course, I don’t mean heavy or overweight, unhealthy or at risk of heart disease. FAT is an acronym I first learned in high school in a discipleship group of which I was a part. We used it in that setting to talk about individual disciples and followers of Jesus, but I like it as much, if not more, as a guide for the community of Jesus’ followers who somehow have to work TOGETHER to do more for God’s mission than any one of us could ever do alone. So, FAT is what I think the early church was that helped them be the ones through whom the Spirit worked in the world, particularly in this account, the established, Jewish portion of the early church.

First they were FAITHFUL. They may have been faithful to a fault, but they were faithful to what they knew and believed. They knew that for them following Jesus was one and the same as being faithful Jews. They knew this meant bringing their infant sons for circumcision. They knew this meant avoiding certain foods or food combinations. They knew this meant honoring particular holy days and celebrations. They were knowledgeable about their tradition and faithful to God whom they knew through this tradition. They were faithful to God who had saved their people from the Egyptians through Moses, from the Philistines through David, from the Persians through Esther, from their imperfect selves through Jesus of Nazareth. They may seem argumentative and exclusive to us right now, but let’s not forget that it was their faithfulness that instilled in them such strong feelings, such worry about changes to “the way things have always been.”

However, if faithfulness to their tradition and their long-held beliefs was all that the early Jewish church possessed we very likely would not be here today. In addition to being faithful, the early church was also AVAILABLE. I don’t mean that they all had gobs and gobs of free time. Many of us would be in trouble if that was the key to a vital and Spirit-led church. Free time isn’t the only thing availability is about.

Peter, for example, was available to the Holy Spirit before he ever gave up any of his time. He was praying, opening himself to communication with God and not just talking to God, listing his own prayers of thanksgiving, worry, desire, or even praise. He was waiting and listening for God. He was open and available to the possibility that God might have something to say to him. Likewise, so were his brothers and sisters in faith when they came to hear his report. They may have come, it seems with contention on their hearts, but they were open and available to hear what Peter had to say. They didn’t fight back with ready-made arguments and h slogans to counter what he said. The early church sat and heard what he said, and even kept silence to truly understand what was happening before they responded. They were available and ready for God, who just might be doing a new thing in their midst.

Lastly, the church was TEACHABLE. We see it in Peter individually as he comes back to share his story with his own change of attitude and belief, but we also see it in the whole church itself. The climax of the story is their teachability (I know that’s not a word, but I need it to be one). The climax of the story is when the apostles and believers who were in Judea, who had heard (with great suspicion) of these Gentile converts, who had been so faithful to the traditions they had always known, who had believed that God’s word was exclusively for them, who had felt the special anointing of the Spirit, who had understood themselves to be chosen by God for this unique revelation - - the climax of the story is when THESE apostles and believers broke their shocked silence and praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”

They have heard and even out of their brokenness, even out of their intense faithfulness to tradition, actually BECAUSE of their faithfulness in God who works in unexpected ways through unanticipated people, because of their availability to the unpredictable Spirit, because of their willingness to be taught and changed, they are led forward in faith to the future. This is why we look to the early church. This is why their experiences and struggles are recorded in Scripture and shared among us as we look to forge our own way in a culture that is changing and challenging. This is why accounts of their birth and growth have been given to us by the living Spirit of God and the church before us – because their example shows us the way forward for our own Easter church today.

May we have the same wisdom and courage in our time to be the faithful, available, and teachable people of God that they were in theirs.