Saturday, May 30, 2015

"God's Spirit and Us" - May 31, 2015

Romans 8:12-17
“God’s Spirit and Us”
May 31, 2015

For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.  [Romans 8:14-17]

The people to whom Paul wrote those words were the Church in Rome, and what they had to fear was an emperor named Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus (Nero to his friends).  In the year 64 A.D., a large section of Rome was destroyed by a fire and some people blamed him because he was known to have wanted to redesign the city, and nobody put it past him to use a little arson to clear out the slums.  Nero tried to clear his name by pointing to a scapegoat in the form of a new cult that had arisen among the Jews, and who, like them, refused to worship the Roman gods in the accepted and respectful way.  According to Roman historians of the time, he rounded up some of these Christians, dipped them in oil, and used them as human torches to give light in his garden at night.  That had not yet happened when Paul wrote his letter to the Roman church, but he and they both knew what kind of terror could lie ahead, and that when he talked about suffering with Christ, he meant the sort of creative torture that the Romans exceled at.

Under those conditions, it was of no small importance to know with full conviction that when you stand up for what is right, that the Holy Spirit will speak to your own spirit with the assurance that you are doing no less than you should, and that you can be confident of God’s care in all things, no matter what.  I wish I could say that once Nero was gone, that lesson was unnecessary, but it’s one that every generation has had to learn in its own way.

Times of testing and trial come to everyone.  Sometimes they are part of large, national decisions.  In 1845, James Russell Lowell wrote:

“Once to every man and nation, comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth with falsehood, for the good or evil side;
Some great cause, some great decision, offering each the bloom or blight,
And the choice goes by forever, ’twixt that darkness and that light.
Then to side with truth is noble, when we share her wretched crust,
Ere her cause bring fame and profit, and ’tis prosperous to be just;
Then it is the brave man chooses while the coward stands aside,
Till the multitude make virtue of the faith they had denied.”

Russell was expressing his opposition to the Mexican-American War, which had been declared under the pretext of protecting democracy in the Western Hemisphere but which he understood as being fought in order to expand slavery into Texas and the southwest.  He wasn’t alone in his judgment.  His friend Henry David Thoreau went to jail rather than pay a tax to support the war.  When Ralph Waldo Emerson showed up, unasked, to bail Thoreau out, Emerson looked at him in his cell and said, “David, what are you doing in there?” to which Thoreau replied, “Ralph, what are you doing out there?”

            The Holy Spirit gives the human spirit a moral courage that helps the faithful stand against the crowd when they have to.  The picture that is painted of Martin Luther King, Jr. most of the time is of someone who bravely led a coalition of people in opposition to segregation.  At the end of his life, though, there were big chunks of that coalition that had begun to drop away because he pushed for more than that.  He drew the connection between segregation and unjust labor practices and the war in Vietnam in ways that made some of his allies very, very uncomfortable and a lot of them had begun to pull away.  But he kept on pressing the point.  In his last speech he said that he understood that he might get taken out for what he was doing, but that his confidence came from his relationship to his Lord.  The Spirit was bearing witness with his spirit.  You’ve heard the speech:
“Well, I don't know what will happen now; we've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter to me now, because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life–longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over, and I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. And so I'm happy tonight; I'm not worried about anything; I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” [1]
            Those moments to decide do come, and they come more than once, to everyone.  The thing to remember is that in the midst of it the Holy Spirit is right there to support and guide the believer.  The Spirit, above all, speaks to us of Jesus and reminds us of the faith he held and the faith in God that we hold through him.

“Though the cause of evil prosper, yet the truth alone is strong;
Though her portion be the scaffold, and upon the throne be wrong;
Yet that scaffold sways the future, and behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above His own.”

That is why when even on the immediate and personal level we are forced to make difficult and terrible choices that nobody should ever have to make, we do it with the awareness that there is a greater glory awaiting than this world has yet seen.

            A friend of mine tells the story of how she was with a family whose wife and mother had had a heart attack while she was on the operating table.  The surgeon stepped out to talk to them, to ask what to do.  Should they let her go, or leave her on life support?  The children looked at their father, who looked at my friend and said, “What does the Bible say about this?”  She says that she shook her head and told him it was a situation that the Bible writers never faced.  But then she added, “It does say this, though:

“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.” [Ecclesiastes 3:1]

She said he took a deep breath and nodded, and knew at that moment what to tell the surgeon.

“There is a time to be born, and a time to die.” [Ecclesiastes 3:2]

They didn’t like their choices, but they were at peace with the decision to let her go.

            There is no telling what choices you or I may ever have to make.  But when we make them in the full awareness of the way that God’s Spirit speaks to us of all that Jesus taught and all that he underwent, not leaving out either his crucifixion or his resurrection, then we will choose rightly.

“For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.”  [Romans 8:14-17]

[1] Martin Luther King, Jr., “I Have Been to the Mountaintop” delivered at Bishop Charles Mason Temple, Memphis, Tennessee, April 3, 1968.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

"New Wine" - May 21, 2015 (Pentecost)

Acts 2:1-21

               Family stories often get better in the telling.  This one happened to my own family, long before I was born, so I cannot fault you for every last detail, but knowing the people involved I am pretty sure it's accurate.

               First you need to know that my grandmother was vehemently opposed to alcohol in any way shape or form. She grew up in the coal regions where alcoholism was a serious problem for almost every family. She was a strong supporter of Prohibition, and its repeal was one of the two reasons that you wouldn’t want to use the name Franklin Delano Roosevelt in her hearing.

               Next, you need to know that my mother, her daughter, for many years worked for an auction company in Philadelphia. It was small but prosperous and the owner was always very generous to his employees. One of the things that he did to express his appreciation for their work was to give each and everyone at the firm a bottle of Passover wine each year.

               This presented a problem for my grandmother who despite her strong convictions about alcohol use, was the same person who was fond of telling her family, “Willful waste makes woeful want.”  You can see the dilemma that a free bottle of Manischewitz could present.  So, being resourceful, my grandmother did the only logical thing. She decided to use the Passover wine to make mincemeat for Christmas.  When it got to be toward the end of summer, she chopped up all the fruit: the raisins, the currants, the prunes, and whatever else was going into this project, put it in big jars, poured the wine over it, and set it aside.

               What she didn't realize was that the way to make mincemeat pie is to wait until you are almost ready to bake the pie before you add the wine. If you do it the way that she did, the wine added to the fruit makes the fruit ferment even more. If it's in a sealed container, it won’t be long before the carbon dioxide from the fermentation makes the jars explode and spews mincemeat
all over the place, and the smell of fermented fruit and Passover wine goes wafting on the breezes throughout the neighborhood.

               I’m sort of surprised that a woman who knew her Bible as well as she did didn’t think of that, because Jesus had told a parable about it. 

“No one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the new wine will burst the skins and will be spilled, and the skins will be destroyed. But new wine must be put into fresh wineskins.” [Luke 5:37-38]

The saying occurs in Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  Luke wrote not only the gospel that bears his name, but also the book of Acts, where he tells the story that we heard earlier, about how the Holy Spirit descended on the apostles and they began to speak in ways that visitors from across the known world would understand.  He tells how the people who heard the commotion had one or the other of two reactions:

“All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’ But others sneered and said, ‘They are filled with new wine.’” [Acts 2:12-13]

Yes and no.  Or no and yes.  Peter would assure them,

“Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. [Acts 2:14-15]

In a figurative sense, though, they were filled with something new and vibrant and potentially explosive, and the rest of the book of Acts tells about how the Spirit that allowed people from all over the place to hear them speaking in their own native languages would break open all kinds of preconceptions and prejudice.

            Gentiles like an Ethiopian eunuch and a Roman centurion, outsiders to the family of faith through and through, would find an apostle sent to them to speak the good news that Jesus had brought the kingdom of God, and would respond with faith and joy.  But then the community would have to figure out what to do with them, and others like them, who just didn’t fit the accepted religious mold.  Paul, himself somebody whose life had been turned around from one of hate to one of love, would share the good news with Gentiles (which, as I’ve said, was startling enough) but also with Gentile women, and someone like Lydia (who was already a bit of a maverick by being a successful businesswoman trading in purple dyes) would not only hear and believe the good news but would become a leader in the local church which she gathered together in her house.

            Old wineskins were popping apart like mincemeat jars in the heat of August.  It was, as Peter told those that scoffed at the apostles,

what was spoken through the prophet Joel: 
“In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
   and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
   and your old men shall dream dreams. 
Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
   in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
     and they shall prophesy. 
And I will show portents in the heaven above
   and signs on the earth below,
     blood, and fire, and smoky mist. 
The sun shall be turned to darkness
   and the moon to blood,
     before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. 
Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
[Acts 2:16-21]

The good news is never able to be contained, never able to be locked into one group or language or style.  It is never tied to one form of politics.  It is never limited to rich people or poor people.  It is for children and seniors.  It is for married people or single people.  It is for people who have everything together and people whose lives are a total mess. 

            It is for you and it is for me.

            Merci a Dieu.
            Gracias a Dios.
            Gott sei Dank.
            Ευχαριστίες είναι στο Θεό.
            Tack vare Gud.
            Hvala Bodi Bogu.
Thanks be to God.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

"Brace Yourselves" - May 17, 2015

Acts 1:1-11

            Rehoboth United Methodist Church, in the Frankford section of Philadelphia, closed a few years ago after a life of about one hundred and sixty years.  It had the largest parsonage in the conference, with seven bedrooms on three floors, and I’m glad that friends of mine bought it and live there now.  The church building has been bought and sold a couple of times since then and I’m not altogether certain who now owns it, but when I was familiar with the place it had some interesting aspects.

            One was a sign that had been put up in the 1840’s, when the church was recently organized, that had hung at the back of the sanctuary since then.  It listed rules of behavior, with the word “Rules” in big letters across the top that you couldn’t miss.  I don’t remember them all, but one said that if you needed to talk you should go outside and not disturb everybody else.  My favorite said not to spit on the floor.  You could use the spittoons.  That tells me a little bit about what the people and the place were like before the Civil War.  Yuk!

            Another aspect of the building was a curved railing that ran along the back of the sanctuary that enclosed a space about two feet deep by a good thirty feet long.  I’m not sure when it was installed, but it was to save space for chauffeurs to stand while their employers were in church.  It came from a later era.  Somewhere in between those two, Rehoboth had been the place where Grover Cleveland spent his Sunday mornings whenever he was in Philadelphia, both before and after his election.  A century after that, the narthex was being used to register people for LIHEAP energy assistance and the Sunday School room was a clothing closet.

            Take a person from the first stage of the church’s life, spitting tobacco juice on the sanctuary floor.  Would he (and I’m hoping it was a “he”) be comfortable with the presidential entourage forty years later?  I doubt it.

            Take the wife of one of the mill owners, whose driver carried her Bible for her and held her fur coat while she prayed a few years after Cleveland was gone.  Would she have felt at home in the same place sixty years after her own hey-day, in the hallway amidst the unemployed?  I doubt that, too.

            At each and every turn, however, the gospel was proclaimed, and all of this in one place, all of it in the life of one congregation!  No stage of it did not present a challenge, and no stage of it would have been entirely welcomed by anyone.  That was life, however – the life of a local church, and during that time Rehoboth did a great job reaching out to the people of the city and proclaiming the gospel to them in the way and in the terms that was best suited for them at that time.  Souls were saved and lives were changed and a lot of good was done.

            It could never have happened, though, if they had got stuck on how things had used to be, which is a great trap to beware, and has been since the earliest days.  Luke talks about how Jesus appeared to his disciples following his Resurrection, and how it raised hopes among some of them that he was going to bring back the good old days, the way they had been before centuries and centuries of warring empires had rolled across Palestine and left so many of the Jews as exiles in foreign lands and others as a subjugated people clustered around Jerusalem.

“So when they had come together, they asked him, ‘Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?’[Acts 1:6]

Who could blame them?  Who would not want things put back in order after centuries of chaos?  Who would not want to see their own national pride restored?  Here was their chance.  “It’s morning in Judea!” 

            But Jesus pointed them away from that. 

He replied, ‘It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’[Acts 1:7-8]

He was, in fact, preparing them to turn away not only from the past but also from the idea that their purpose would be tied to one place, however dear to them, or one culture, no matter how well it had nurtured their faith.  He told them they would be getting their marching orders shortly.

“You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’

Jerusalem was a good place, sure.  Judea?  That was home.  Samaria?  That was more of a problem, because it was full of Samaritans.  As for the ends of the earth, that’s fine in theory, but there are some pretty scary folks out there, with some crazy ways of living and absolutely no understanding of God’s ways.  For that matter, you don’t have to go to East Japip to run into folks like that.  Even worse, sometimes they find you.  Bishop William Willimon was fond of talking about the days when he was pastor of a church in South Carolina that was full of odd characters.  As he put it, “We had a sign out front that said, ‘All Are Welcome,’ and people read it.” 

            Jesus knew it would not be easy.  He knows it isn’t easy for any of us to live among or work with people who have different customs or ways of life.  I have neighbors who live in their garage.  At first I thought it was just because they didn’t want to smoke inside the house.  But they cook there at least four times a week.  They sit there using their phones.  When guests come over, they entertain there.  They don’t just have folding chairs, either; they have a little table and a couple of chairs beside it and I’m waiting for a television to appear there now that it’s warmer.  This is all really minor in the great scale of things, but it aggravates me at times.  How do people live with those who may have bigger differences, whose priorities in life are totally different, who take no interest in things that matter greatly to you but focus on things that you consider of no importance at all, or maybe just totally silly?

            So Jesus didn’t just send the disciples out without one thing happening first. 

“While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father.” [Acts 1:4]

This promise is the Holy Spirit.  He told them,

“You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you.” [Acts 1:8]

The power of the Holy Spirit would make it possible for them to do miracles wherever they went, and one of the great miracles has been that over time, wherever Jesus’ followers have gone into uncharted territory they have been able to share the good news about how God came to live among a small and oppressed people in an obscure part of the Middle East two thousand years ago and found only rejection and death, but that the power of his love and the strength of his righteousness was such that death itself couldn’t stop him, and he rose from the grave into life. To have found the way to get that across in all its fullness, that has been the Spirit at work.

Wherever Jesus’ people have gone into uncharted places, and whenever change has come to them, slowly or suddenly, as a group, or in the changes that are part of every life, they have found that his Spirit has strengthened them to live with confidence that he is there, too, and has even gone before them.  Wherever Jesus’ people have headed into the unknown land that is the future itself, they have discovered that their fears about it have been unfounded because he has said,

“I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” [Matthew 28:20]

            So brace yourself for whatever he has in mind next but know that it will be good.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

"Talking to Strangers" - May 3, 2015

Acts 8:26-40

            There were a number of people in the first century who were interested in Judaism but not ready to commit.  They came from all across the Roman Empire, and were drawn for a variety of reasons.  Some of them admired the ethics of a religion that turned its back on the gladiatorial games that were part of the Roman way, where human life was less important than entertaining, and thus controlling, the crowds.  Some of them saw the value of the Jewish Law, that taught that the widow and the orphan and the resident alien were all to be treated with kindness and honesty.  There were others who heard about Judaism’s insistence that there is one and only one God, and they struggled with that concept but in the end it made sense to them.

            There was an outer courtyard of the temple of this God in Jerusalem that was open to such people.  It was called “the Court of the Gentiles”.  Such people were also welcome in the synagogues that had appeared in cities far away from Jerusalem, considered places of study and community centers more than places of prayer.  The Gentiles who took part in these activities were sometimes called “God-fearers”.

            They didn’t take the step of actual conversion for a variety of reasons.  For the men, the prospect of circumcision was a big part of it.  So, too, were some of the requirements put on everyone, men and women alike.  Avoiding work every seventh day could lose you your job.  Turning your back on the worship of pagan idols meant no longer taking part in the civic life of your town and sometimes cutting yourself off from the closest people in your life, because if you no longer worshiped the family gods, what did that say about what you thought of your family?  So the God-fearers kind of straddled the line as well as they could.

            It would be easy to think of people like that as folks who were hedging their bets, and perhaps there was some of that going on.  After all, there have always been people who have looked at participation in the community of faith as a good thing – it teaches morals to the children, gives structure to the week, supports the arts, encourages charitable giving, and can be a stabilizing influence on individuals and society – but who may not necessarily have any commitment to the community’s specific beliefs.  It’s the sort of outlook that Eisenhower expressed one time:

"In other words, our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don't care what it is."[1]

I would say, however, that it really does matter what we believe as well as what we do.  If our actions and hopes and expectations are rooted in anything else, they will take us in the wrong direction.

            The God-fearer who is waiting on the edges of commitment knows that.  That’s why they hold off.  They know that to commit will mean making some changes, so meanwhile they want to weigh whether or not it is worth the risk, and if they will be risking so very much on the right beliefs.  This is a person who is gathering a lot together within himself or herself.  You and I know people like that.  The God-fearer is someone who is trying to make sense of things and has the courage to ask the questions that the people already settled in their faith have overlooked and the people with no interest in faith don’t care about.  The God-fearer is someone to whom God is reaching out in his or her heart and to whom God may send helpers in odd ways.

“Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, ‘Get up and go towards the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.’ (This is a wilderness road.) So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. Then the Spirit said to Philip, ‘Go over to this chariot and join it.’ So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ He replied, ‘How can I, unless someone guides me?’ And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him.”  [Acts 8:26-31] 

Now, I am not saying that God is going to put someone like that in your own path, but what if he did?

            The Ethiopian official already had a sense of what he was looking for.  He was on his way back from Jerusalem, and he was reading the Bible on the way.  What he needed from Philip was someone to explain to him his own understanding of who the Messiah was, and someone to encourage him to make a commitment when the moment was right.  It didn’t have to follow any prescribed script.  In fact, when this man knew the time had come

“He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him.  [Acts 8:38]

Conversion is the work of the Holy Spirit, who is out there in the world already, working within all kinds of people.  Evangelism, carrying good news, is helping people make sense of what the Spirit is already telling them one way or another.  As often as not, it’s just a matter of talking to strangers (or maybe people who are not strangers) and hearing the questions that they are already asking: “What does this religious language mean?”  “How can there be forgiveness in a world like this?”  “If there is a God, does he even care, and how can I know that?” 

It would be phony of us to say that we have all the answers to every question, but it would also be wrong to say that the good news of Jesus doesn’t speak directly to them, because it does.

“Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this:
‘Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,
   and like a lamb silent before its shearer,

     so he does not open his mouth. 
In his humiliation justice was denied him.
   Who can describe his generation?
     For his life is taken away from the earth.’ 
The eunuch asked Philip, ‘About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?’ Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus.
[Acts 8:32-35]

Right there is much of the content of Christian faith. 

I’ve been talking about the people who were God-fearers in Jesus’ day and people who are on the edges of faith in our day as if they were interchangeable.  In many ways they are, because human experience is, at base, constant.  The prophets spoke of the sufferings of the people of Israel, which were not unlike the sufferings of the peoples of the earth today: driven from their homes by war or wandering on the face of the earth, so desperate to find a place of safety that they die trying to reach one.  The Psalms describe how

“Some wandered in desert wastes,
   finding no way to an inhabited town; 
hungry and thirsty,
   their soul fainted within them. 
Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
   and he delivered them from their distress; 
he led them by a straight way,
   until they reached an inhabited town.” 
[Psalm 107:4-7]

That speaks to the immigrant from Central America trying to get across the U.S. border and to the Sudanese refugee stuck in Libya, to the Syrian Christian family driven from its home by Isis and to the North Korean risking life to get away from oppression.

The Lord who spoke to Israel in its own exile through a prophet like Isaiah would also be the one who speaks now, with the assurance that the Savior would not be someone who sat back in a palace and felt badly for them.  He would be one who was in their midst.  That direct involvement in their lives – in our lives – would be the way that God would intervene in a lasting sense, not just fixing the problem of the moment, but touching on human nature itself, because what the Lord touches, he heals.

            There was good news in that for Philip, and for the Ethiopian official, and there has been good news in that for millions of people ever since.  That needs to be said.  God gave Philip this gift of talking to strangers, and he kept on using it.

“When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he was passing through the region, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.” [Acts 8:39-40] 

May God give us in our own day and in our own place the same kind of gift to listen, to have people ask what we know, and to share what has been shared with us.

[1] Address at the Freedoms Foundation, Waldorf-Astoria, New York City, New York, December 22, 1952.