Saturday, May 23, 2015

Pentecost 2015

Last Sunday we thought about the Ascension, this week we move to Pentecost, the birthday of the Church, the day the Holy Spirit was given to the early disciples. They are in Jerusalem, waiting as Jesus had instructed them. The account of the Holy Spirit descending on the waiting church is only in Acts. For the Gospel we go back to John, to that time when Jesus was preparing to leave His disciples and face the cross.
The story in Acts is dramatic and colorful. One of my favorite pictures of the event is in a Roman Catholic shrine in England. It is a mosaic and pictures Mary and the 12 Apostles, with tongues of flame, of course. The first time I saw it it reminded me that this was a universal gift, that there would, likely, have been people whose names we do not know waiting with the Apostles.
Whoever was in the room we know that the transformation they underwent was amazing. Outwardly they found themselves able to speak in every language – a reversal, of course, of the Tower of Babel story. In that story human beings tried to build a tower up to heaven and their punishment was to be given different languages so that they could not work together in such a way again. Here it is not human beings climbing up to heaven but God descending onto humanity. God gives understanding and universality to the gift.
This, of course, is vital to Luke’s message – this story of Jesus, this Gospel, is not to be limited to those who speak the local tongue, Aramaic, nor those who speak the lingua franca of Greek nor, even to those who speak the language of the Empire, Latin. All people, no matter who they are or where they come from are invited to receive this same story and this same gift.
If we go back to the Gospel we will see Jesus beginning to flesh out what this coming gift will mean to the disciples. If you remember the older version of the Bible you may wonder where the word “comforter” has gone – this version uses advocate. Advocate, in modern use of language, is a better translation of the Greek parakletos, which is a term for one who pleads for another in court. Advocate, from a root meaning to cry out towards, gives this idea of the Holy Spirit as one who speaks on our behalf, who defends us and pleads for us.
If we go back to the word comforter and try to look at where it came from, we find something very different from our idea of comfort. It means “with strength” – so a comforter is one who brings strength. This makes sense in some of the ways we still use the word but we have softened it in our modern usage to a rather emotionally soothing concept.

The Spirit brings not just advocacy and strength but, according to Paul in Galatians, a set of gifts.
“….love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control,” he says are the fruits of the Spirit. But what do these actually mean. Again we have tended to soften them into a rather mushy collection of things which involve staying quiet and being passive. But this cannot be true, because if the Holy Spirit continues the work of Jesus, if the Holy Spirit is one with Jesus – or as has been suggested, is the glue in the Trinity, we cannot just water the message of Jesus down into a sort of comfortable and passive assignation.
Robert Greenleaf came up with the idea of Servant Leadership in the 1960s and 70s. Servant leadership is often mistakenly taken to mean simply going along with what other people want in order not to cause and conflict. But Jesus version of servanthood does not fit this model.
Greenleaf’s own theory does not fit this model either. For whilst Greenleaf certainly says this:
The servant-leader is servant first……The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant-first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. The best test, and difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society? Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived?
Marks of servant leadership include persuasion, foresight and building community. I use this example to say clearly that following Jesus, living a life in the Spirit is not a quiet option. Comfort is about living with strength, not avoiding conflict at the expense of watering down the Gospel.
Forbearance, kindness, goodness are not easy options because they come, not from walking away from difficult situations, but by walking into them, knowing that we are equipped by the Spirit for the journey. Knowing that we will be taught to live and act in a way which is consistent with the God who we serve, if only we will listen.
So, whilst we are called to follow Jesus into servanthood. Whilst we are called to wash the feet of our fellow travelers and tend to the needs of those around us we are not called to become some sort of sanctified doormat. Jesus dying on the cross was not an act of someone who could not do anything else. It was not an act of disempowerment, but was an act of ultimate power, but power acted out in a way which those around Him would never recognize.
Thus with the gifts of the Spirit. We have to examine them for what they might mean. What does it mean to be kind with the yearning and pleading of the Holy Spirit? What does it mean to be kind with strength? Where does that mean we have to stand in patience and goodness – who are we in all of that?

The Spirit comes, not to even out the nascent Church into a vaguely enthusiastic mush but to set each of those disciples on fire with love for Jesus and for each other. People on fire are rarely amenable to simply allowing life to happen, to passive engagement. What does it mean to be on fire, to live into the fruits of the Spirit as active participants in the Life of the Spirit? What does it mean to live Christian lives with strength and to know that God, in the person of the Spirit, is always watching and breathing in us?

Friday, May 15, 2015

Sermon - The Sunday after the Ascension

Today we are thinking about the Feast of the Ascension. The Ascension is just as much a part of the rhythm of the Church year as Easter and Pentecost but, because it falls on a Thursday, it is often the poor relative when it comes to us actually paying attention to it.
As many of you know, the Ascension is always celebrated 40 days after Easter. The date of Easter moves each year so the date of the Feast of the Ascension moves with it. Ten days later we have the Feast of Pentecost, which always falls on a Sunday.
This great movement from Advent to Pentecost summarizes Jesus’ life and ministry. Advent, the season of anticipation, Holy Week and Easter, the remembrance of death and the celebration of the Resurrection. The church calendar leaves 40 days for us to rejoice in the presence of the Risen Lord and then comes the Ascension, Jesus returns to heaven and we wait, again in eager expectation, for Pentecost.
The Ascension is one of those Festivals where we are invited to experience the moment. The Biblical narrative gives us idea of what happened, somehow Jesus was taken up into heaven, The Gospels give slightly different pictures but the best account, telling us what we do with this experience is at the beginning of Acts.
Interestingly in Acts Luke has the disciples asking a question about restoring the Kingdom to Israel. The end of the Gospel does not contain this and we have to wonder what Luke’s motivation was in including this information – after all it seems like a step backwards in the story.
To understand this we have to look a little bit at Luke and Acts as a team act. Luke wrote both the Gospel and Acts. It can be hard for us to understand but giving precise dates to these ancient texts is not possible – all we can do is guess by looking at what is and is not included in the writings. Because Luke does not mention the invasion of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple in either book many scholars would say that both books were written before AD 70 – so in the very early days of the Church.
So what is Luke saying in these early and formative days – well again and again his message is that this great story of Jesus is not only for the Jews? So the Disciples asking that question gives him a frame – he does not alienate the Jews by saying “That will never happen,” but sidelines the question by saying it is not for them to know what they need to get on with is the great work of mission.
Acts really is a book of mission. Paul, in later chapters, is the great carrier of the Gospel to lands afar but in these early verses we are still in Jerusalem with the twelve and those who travelled with them. Jesus stays forty days. One day for each year in the Wilderness in Exodus and an exact mirror of his own self-imposed exile at the beginning of the Gospel. The beginning and end of Jesus’ earthly ministry are wrapped around with this numerical reminder that God is saving God’s people from slavery and bringing them into a new covenant relationship of hope and promise.
These times of forty are times of preparation and prayer. The Israelites re-learn what it means to be a covenant people in the forty years. Jesus explores his vocation in the forty days and now the disciples have been learning what it means to be a resurrection people.
The fact that Luke has them still not really getting what is going on gives leverage to his story of a Gospel for the whole world but it should also give us profound reassurance. This core group have just spent forty days of preparation for being the foundation of the Church, they have walked and talked and broken bread with Jesus – and still they have not quite got the story straight.
Jesus gives them the final task of taking the Gospel to Jerusalem, all Judea and to the ends of the earth. This story is for everyone. But they are not left alone in this, they are to wait for the Gift of the Holy Spirit.
I have to say, I always wonder what they did for those 10 days. Were they excited, sad, afraid – probably all of the above. We tend to read these passages in a rather staid voice, but I rather wonder whether Jesus actually said it a little differently,
“Guys, this is really amazing, it is going to be so good. I have the best gift ever for you – if only you will be patient, hang on in here with me. Don’t worry about building an earthly kingdom – you really have something much better to do with your time. Tell my story, tell it to everyone. Tell the people in this city, in the suburbs and you know what, you will be able to take it all over the world.”
That excitement is part of our story too. We are invited to be a part of the Ascension in the church calendar not so we will spend our time worrying about physics and how that worked but rather that we can simply exist in wonder in a moment of God’s glory. Sometimes we look at the Gospels and think that we have to validate these experiences against our own – but these stories which are shared with us, these ancient foundations of our faith, are not shared as hypotheses, methods and conclusions they are shared as experiences of God’s glory and grace.
It is from these shared experiences of Jesus’s life and resurrection that we are bound as one Church throughout the ages. Those first Disciples received a clear charge – to go and tell people about this amazing story and we are told the same.
There are things in human experience which we cannot explain or label. We need to be careful not to try to stick everything in our life in a box of reason and logic – some things have to be allowed to be mystical and wonderful – just because they are.
We get excited about things we can see and just about explain like sunrise – how much more should we get excited about the eternal and glorious God of heaven and earth? If we make that which is unseen by human eyes somehow not real we limit out capacity to grow as human beings. Wonder is not a childish trait, it is a human trait and not the sort of wonder which seeks to categorize, label and hold on to – but the sort of wonder which allows a life-changing “Wow!”
If we allow ourselves to believe in the possibility of a God who is far beyond what we can ask or imagine then our asking becomes framed in that mystery. No longer are the earthly preoccupations with which we surround ourselves as important as ever entering deeper into that mystery which is the source of life. St Teresa of Avila was someone who knew that mystery and as she writes interior castle she warns that our prayers eventually run out of words as we exist in God, in a place where words make no sense.

Perhaps the Ascension is like that – words make no sense but we can experience the glory and presence of the Risen Christ and we can wait patiently, in eager anticipation, with those excited and scared and hopeful Disciples for the next and wonderful gift of the Holy Spirit.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Naked before God

In Publix yesterday there was a table which had large heart-shaped cookies and lots of icing bottles. The idea was clear, that children would be able to decorate a cookie for their mothers for Mother’s Day. My daughter quickly explained that this was no help to her because I was with her and then added, a few minutes later, well you would not have been able to eat the cookie anyway.
Commercially, in our stores, love looks like red and pink hearts, flowers, candy, cakes and those never ending jewelry trying to persuade is to buy a necklace or ring. It is interesting, of course, that we use a heart shape. The heart is the center of our human body in the sense that it pumps life around us. No heartbeat, no life.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus commands us to love. It is a passage with which many of us are familiar but what does this love look like. It is commanded and the commandment is an expansion of the 10 commandments. Jesus states it in a shorter form elsewhere – Love the Lord you God with all your heart, says Jesus, and love your neighbor as yourself.
God is love, the Bible tells us this. Our ability to love links our humanity to God’s divinity. Loving and being loved makes us more human, and God always loves us. Loving others brings us into community and this is the second part of Jesus’ command, to bear fruit that will last. Love, as a habit, transforms a soul from here and forever.
But it is a  constant practice, something which we have to learn and that learning is through prayer, spending time in the presence of God, in the presence of Love.
Julian of Norwich, the fourteenth century mystic and anchoress talks in Chapter 5 of her book Revelations of Divine Love about coming into God’s presence and there are three words she uses which I would lie to explore with you. She says,
Our good Lord revealed that it is very greatly pleasing to him that a simple soul should comennaked, openly and familiarly.

Naked, open and familiarly.

My guess is most of us are not particularly comfortable naked. We do not like what we see in the mirror. Julian, of course, is not trying to start some movement of abandoning clothes but rather is asking us to look at ourselves kindly and without all the ornamentation with which we so often surround our bodies. Who are we at root, in what is a personhood based. Most of us are very careful with clothes. The clothes we wear portray and image of ourselves, they express our values in all sorts of subtle ways. Clothes are coded in different cultures to mean different things. But what happens when we strip away all that coding and all the other stuff with which we surround ourselves – can we come before God as who we are, as a child of God and learn the confidence of being really and truly loved.

This idea reminded me of the times each of my children learned to undress themselves and they would appear, without clothes, and delighted with their achievements. Some of them did this many times, deciding that no clothes, or just underwear was preferable to being dressed. But here’s the thing, a small child finds no embarrassment in this, they simply delight in who they are and the achievement of learning a new thing.

Julian’s second word is open. Openness overlaps with the previous point but is adds something as well and that is the willingness to learn and change. As we grow, as we fall more and more in love with God, we are challenged and invited to pray and live in more and more mature ways. It comes as a surprise to many people to find that they hit a point in life when the spiritual practices and ways of praying which they have been engaged in for years, no longer seem to work. It is no surprise to us that our children and grandchildren read different books, watch different movies and listen to different music from older generations – yet often we think that our approach to God, our talking with God, our path to God is set throughout our lives with no variance. And then our fear is that things are broken.

Openness means that we accept that our faith journey is a process. We accept that sometimes we will feel close to God and sometimes we will go through periods of doubt and darkness. Openness means that we are willing to grow and change over the years – that we try new things before the old ones wear out on us. Being in love with God is not simply a repetitive process which we go through because we should, that is very sad, it is something dynamic and life giving.

Julian’s last word is familiarly – we come to God with familiarity, as someone we know and who knows us. Familiarity is something which some of us might find a hard concept. After all God is high and holy, God is different from us and perfect and exalted. All of this is true, but the reality of the Incarnation, the reality of Jesus is that God is made familiar. This God of Trinity is both other and the same and love is the key which connects all.

When we come to God we are entering our home territory. This is not the same as watering God down to an over-familiar “my mate Jesus” God. Jesus did call his disciples friends but in this same passage he commands them. This is not a suddenly passive God going towards the cross but rather a God who provides a way which can be known and explored by all – a path of love. This path of love builds us up and makes us more who we can be but it is not easy, it is not like those things which we can buy in the store which get used up and thrown away. When God says “I love you” it is a permanent and life changing statement.
Love is a hard thing. If I am who I truly am and you are who you truly are and if we are loved by God just as much as everyone else on this planet, then there are some tough questions to be answered in terms of the way our works behaves and who has, and has not got, what.
There are questions to be asked about children who grow up without hope, around the world. Children who will never learn self-honesty because they have never been allowed to develop into their God-given identity. There are questions to be asked about those children who are literally naked or wear our left-overs, who do not have access to food, education of medicine. There are questions about children who grow up surrounded by hatred, who witness atrocities. Love does not look lightly at this problem, does not turn away because it is too painful. Love asks questions and seeks real and long-lasting, life changing answers.
But we are endowed with a real capacity to make change. We are given tools with which to transform our own lives and tell that story to others, to invite them in to community. Today we celebrate mothers, but the invitation to love, to nurture and to return to other people through thick and thin is one which is made to every living person. The gifts which we give to each other on days like today are real and important demonstrations of the love which we hold and share. But the most important demonstration of love is our own lives, transformed and shaped by the love of God and our love of each other. “ Love one another as I have loved you,” says Jesus. And so we must.