Saturday, July 13, 2019

“God and Greed” - July 14, 2019




II Kings 5:15-16, 19-27


            Money itself is not bad.  It is a convenient method of getting things done, and unless you live in a society that works by bartering, money is a necessity of life.  I cannot go up to the window at Dairy Queen and offer the girl at the counter two peppers and a zucchini for a chocolate blizzard.  Using money, a commonly-accepted standard of exchange, makes it possible for us to regulate the relative worth of physical commodities, people’s work, their skills, their time, and so forth.  Whether it is hard currency or credit on the books, quarters or bitcoin, it makes our interactions far simpler and smoother than they would be if we were exchanging a can of sardines for five minutes of internet access.

            The problems start when money becomes a tool for manipulation instead of simplification, for controlling relationships instead of making them easier.  Power and prestige push in.  That doesn’t happen because of money, but it shows up in the way money can be misused.

            Today’s Bible reading picks up on last week’s.  Naaman the Syrian had traveled to Israel to find healing for the leprosy that he contracted.  After some preliminary difficulties centering on his own pride, he finally did as the prophet Elisha directed him and washed seven times in the Jordan River and was cured.  So far so good.

            He went back to thank Elisha.

“Then he returned to the man of God, he and all his company; he came and stood before him and said, ‘Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel; please accept a present from your servant.’  But he said, ‘As the Lord lives, whom I serve, I will accept nothing!’  He urged him to accept, but he refused.”  [II Kings 5:15-16]

Elisha himself had done nothing.  He had simply passed on directions from God.  He certainly had not cured Naaman himself.  That was God’s doing, and God’s alone.  To accept a gift, which to be fair probably was meant as a gift, was coming too close to looking like accepting payment.  That would have been tantamount to putting himself in the place of God.

            Now, here I have to step onto uncomfortable territory.  We’ve got a church to run, here.  We have electric bills and water bills to pay.  I also collect a salary and get good benefits.  I am very grateful for that, and aware of where the money in the budget comes from.  So I’m going to make a distinction here, and I believe it’s a valid one, but something to keep a close eye on.  That is to say that there’s a difference between supporting the human work that goes into an organization and somehow thinking that God’s work is in any way bought or sold.

            Since this comes up in connection with a story about a healing, I’ll point out that doctors are far better at openly addressing such matters than clergy.  More than once I have heard a doctor remark, “God does the healing and the doctor collects the fee.”  Hawkeye Pierce even said that on MASH one time.  In mental health circles, there’s the old joke that says a neurotic builds a castle in the air, a psychotic lives there, and a psychiatrist collects the rent.

            Elisha’s servant Gehazi didn’t see what God had done for Naaman.  He saw what Naaman could do for him.

“But when Naaman had gone from him a short distance, Gehazi, the servant of Elisha, the man of God, thought, ‘My master has let that Aramean Naaman off too lightly by not accepting from him what he offered.  As the Lord lives, I will run after him and get something out of him.’” [II Kings 5:19-20]

Which he did.  He made up a story about how the money was needed for the ministry, but it was really for himself. 

            Gehazi has many successors, some of whom make him look like a total bumbler.  Kenneth Copeland is a TV preacher who bought Tyler Perry’s private jet.  I guess he was being financially prudent, even frugal, by buying a secondhand plane instead of a new one.  “He made that airplane so cheap for me, I couldn’t help but buy it.”[1]  That’s a direct quote from an interview I watched online when a reporter ran up to him to ask about it.  The whole interchange is well worth watching.  Just don’t do it on a full stomach.  He goes into amazing convolutions about why he cannot be ready to preach if he flies commercial.  He also admits that he uses the plane to visit his vacation homes.  (That’s “homes” with an ‘s’.)

            Elisha called Gehazi to account.  When we do our job, the religious community as a whole does the same.  It’s only by honest recognition of how things can and do go wrong, of how people’s vulnerability can be and far too often is misused, that we can maintain any kind of credibility with the world as a whole – but most importantly before God, who looks into hearts and minds. 

            In our day the so-called “prosperity gospel” preachers teach that if you give them money, that it will be a sign of faith and God will therefore bless you with more and more wealth.  That appeals to the desperation of exactly the people who have the least, and who therefore feel that they have nothing to lose.  It’s the same dynamic that puts the majority of lottery tickets into the hands of the poor. 

            Naaman could easily afford the money that Gehazi took from him.  What he could not afford, and what Gehazi’s greed took advantage of, was his newly-developing understanding of how God works.  Elisha’s refusal of his gift highlighted that you don’t need to buy God’s goodness, and that it isn’t ever for sale anyway.  Gehazi’s little scam threatened to undermine that.  The Bible doesn’t say what happened to the money.  I hope it was sent back.  What it does say is that God had shown Elisha what had happened and Elisha knew enough not to sweep it under the carpet.

God bless auditors and accountants!  Say what you will about denominational structures and organizational bureaucracies.  They make mistakes.  They can become creaky and cumbersome.  Yet they provide oversight and answerability that does more than just keep people honest out of fear that they might get caught.  Even when they do only an average job, they keep God’s people focused on real ministry and help hold greed at a distance. 

Money is not a bad thing.  Greed is.  John Wesley put it well when he said, “Earn all you can.  Save all you can.  Give all you can.”  The Bible, of course, puts it best of all:

“Of course, there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment; for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these.”  [I Timothy 6:6-8]


Saturday, July 6, 2019

“Restoration” - July 7, 2019



II Kings 5:1-14


            The Syrian general Naaman was in big trouble.  He had contracted leprosy, and the disease would be fatal.  In the course of it, he would also find himself cut off from contact with others as what we would now call a public health measure.  It would mean permanent quarantine.  A man in his position probably would not be driven away into the wilderness, as happened to most lepers.  People with his kind of power and prestige were treated slightly better.  In Israel, when King Uzziah was struck with the disease, he could not stay in the palace, but they built him a separate house [II Kings 15:5] and his son Jotham ruled as regent until his death.  Essentially, though, he was kept in isolation until he died.  That might have been the best that Naaman could have expected – permanent solitary confinement on an aristocratic death row.

            Word of his situation got around his household.  His wife and his servants could see what was going on.  After all, it was a disease that showed up on the skin, and eventually it would not be able to be hidden.  The king had become aware of the situation already, too, and would not let Naaman stick around indefinitely, though he may have been reluctant to lose the service of someone who apparently was an effective officer.  During the short window of time before it became public knowledge, Naaman must have become desperate.  He grasped at straws, taking the recommendation of one of his wife’s slaves, a girl taken captive in Israel.

“She said to her mistress, ‘If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria!  [That would have been Elisha.]  He would cure him of his leprosy.’  So Naaman went in and told his lord just what the girl from the land of Israel had said.  And the king of Aram said, ‘Go, then, and I will send along a letter to the king of Israel.’”  [II Kings 5:3-5]

So off went a sort of combined military and diplomatic expedition that showed up on the doorstep of the king of Israel, ordering Naaman’s cure.  The king of Israel figured that this was a setup to provide a pretext for another invasion.  He couldn’t cure this man, but if he disobeyed his overlord’s order then he risked punishment.

            Enter Elisha, who heard about things and sent a message saying that he could take care of the situation.  Naaman was sent on his way.  He arrived at Elisha’s house with his horses and chariots [II Kings 5:9], and here’s when it got interesting.  To this point it has been a story of politics.  It’s about to become a story about faith.

            Elisha left Naaman outside.  He didn’t receive him.  He didn’t greet him.  He did send a servant out, who told Naaman to wash himself seven times in the Jordan and then go home.  [II Kings 5:10]  It’s a borderline insult, and Naaman took it as more than borderline.  He was not being treated in the fashion to which he had become accustomed. 

“Naaman became angry and went away, saying, ’I thought that for me he would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy!”  [II Kings 5:11]

That little “for me” says a lot.  He figured he deserved special treatment.  It was not enough to be blessed with life and health.  He had to be recognized as the powerful, mighty Naaman!  Who is this Elisha, and who is this Elisha’s God, to be so unimpressed?

            It was a good thing for Naaman that his servants understood how to manage and how to handle him.  You get the feeling this was not the first tantrum that he had thrown.  They protected his fragile little ego, and talked him into going along with the process.

“Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it?  How much more, when all he said to you was, ‘Wash, and be clean?’”  [II Kings 5:13]

What they didn’t see is that Elisha had, in fact, asked him to do something difficult – at least for Naaman.  That was to accept God’s gift as something unearned, as what we call “grace”.  God would (and did) bless him, but it would not be because God was impressed with Naaman’s riches and power, but because God was aware of his need.

            There was even a need that Naaman didn’t see.  Left to progress, his leprosy would cut him off from human contact, but Naaman’s pride had already turned to arrogance toward the people around him and, left to progress, would lead him to turn away from the God who could restore him not only physically, but in relationship to those people and to God himself.  On God’s behalf, Elisha had presented a true challenge to Naaman: “Get over yourself.”  Only then would there be a real cure, both body and soul.

            I submit to you that this is a challenge we all face.  We all have to learn, one way or another, to accept God’s love at face value, pure and simple, when so much of the world tells us that what matters is our wealth or our achievement or our beauty or our intelligence or how many friends we have – pick your measure of self-worth.  None of that is any measure of our God-worth.  That comes from God alone, and if there is any kind of requirement for us to be restored to our fullest being, that requirement is to trust God and to take the love that he offers, a love so entire that Jesus lay down his life so that we could be enveloped by it.

            When Naaman gave up on impressing anybody, he was cured.

            When we accept God’s gift of grace as a gift, our life in Christ, our real life, begins.

            On July 16, 2011, in St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna, people had gathered from all across Europe for the funeral of Otto von Hapsburg.  The service was presided over by the Archbishop of Vienna and there was a full orchestra.  At the end they sang the “Kaiserhymne”, the Austrian equivalent of “God Save the King”.  Soldiers in ancient uniforms picked up a coffin covered with a flag embroidered with his complicated coat of arms and in a cloud of incense hundreds of people lined up behind it to process on foot to the Capuchin monastery where the imperial crypt is found.

            As had happened before at the funerals of his predecessors, when they arrived they found the front door closed and locked.  The Master of Ceremonies knocked three times.  A voice came from inside.

“Prior: Who desires entry?
MC: Otto of Austria; once Crown Prince of Austria-Hungary; Royal Prince of Hungary and Bohemia, of Dalmatia, Croatia, Slavonia, Galicia, Lodomeria and Illyria; Grand Duke of Tuscany and Cracow; Duke of Lorraine, Salzburg, Styria, Carinthia, Carniola and the Bukowina; Grand Prince of Transylvania, Margrave of Moravia; Duke of Upper and Lower Silesia, of Modena, Parma, Piacenza, Guastalla, of Oświęcim and Zator, Teschen, Friaul, Dubrovnik and Zadar; Princely Count of Habsburg and Tyrol, of Kyburg, Gorizia and Gradisca; Prince of Trent and Brixen; Margrave of Upper and Lower Lusatia and Istria; Count of Hohenems, Feldkirch, Bregenz, Sonnenburg etc.; Lord of Trieste, Kotor and Windic March, Grand Voivod of the Voivodeship of Serbia etc. etc.
Prior: We do not know him.
(The MC knocks thrice)
Prior: Who desires entry?
MC: Dr. Otto von Habsburg, President and Honorary President of the Paneuropean Union, Member and quondam President of the European Parliament, honorary doctor of many universities, honorary citizen of many cities in Central Europe, member of numerous venerable academies and institutes, recipient of high civil and ecclesiastical honours, awards, and medals, which were given him in recognition of his decades-long struggle for the freedom of peoples for justice and right.
Prior: We do not know him.
(The MC knocks thrice)
Prior: Who desires entry?
MC: Otto, a mortal and sinful man.
Prior: Then let him come in.”[1]

Saturday, June 29, 2019

"Elijah Is Gone" - June 30, 2019


II Kings 2:13-18

            A short but classic book by Max DePree, Leadership Is an Art, closes with this story:
 “The noted English architect Sir Christopher Wren once built a structure in London.  His employers claimed that a certain span Wren planned was too wide, that he would need another row of columns for support.  Sir Christopher, after some discussion, acquiesced.  He added the row of columns, but he left a space between the unnecessary columns and the beams above.

The worthies of London could not see this space from the ground.  To this day, the beam has not sagged.  The columns still stand firm, supporting nothing but Wren’s conviction.

Leadership is much more an art, a belief, a condition of the heart, than a set of things to do.  The visible signs of artful leadership are expressed, ultimately, in its practice.”[1]
 It seems to me that Christopher Wren and the prophet Elisha were cut from the same cloth.  Both had enough confidence to listen to others and yet stick to what they knew to a certainty in the face of other people’s doubts.  There was at least one difference, though.  Wren kept quiet about things and let the others think they knew better than he did.  Elisha couldn’t help saying, in at least one case “I told you so.”

            Maybe it was best that Elisha allowed the people who questioned what had happened to Elijah to look for themselves.  There are always going to be people who for one reason or another do not accept somebody’s account of extraordinary events.  It makes sense not only to allow but even to ensure that there is a strong system of verification to answer the objections of those who would deny what others identify as fact.  When General Eisenhower saw the concentration camps his troops were liberating and realized the depth of evil that had ruled them and the depravity committed against the prisoners, he ordered his men to go and see for themselves.  He said,

“Get it all on record now - get the films - get the witnesses -because somewhere down the road of history some [fill in the blank] will get up and say that this never happened.”[2]
Sadly, he was right.  But the films and the stories persist to bear witness to the ugly truth, even when those who would perpetuate hatred say otherwise.

            Elijah’s disappearance does not fit that category, but those who did not at first take Elisha’s account as complete may have had their own reasons for reluctance.  It can be hard to let go of the good that you have known in the past to reach toward another, uncertain good yet to come.  Sure, Elisha is a worthy prophet himself, they might think – they did show him honor when he returned from seeing Elijah off, and they did recognize that he crossed the Jordan by means of a miracle.  But, really, would he ever measure up to Elijah?

            I do not care what you say; Justin Bieber will never rise to the level of Billy Joel, and it is ridiculous to put the names Taylor Swift and Stevie Nicks in the same sentence.

            Was it possible that the fiery chariot sent by the Lord to collect Elijah left him off someplace?  Sure, it was possible.  But what lies behind the search is a desire to hang onto the way things have been lest they descend to something less.  That happens, you know.

            The United Methodist Church has been going through some troubling times lately.  This [picture projected on the screen] is the delegation that went from Eastern Pennsylvania to the special General Conference held in April of this year to try to move things forward and break the log jams we’ve created.  One of them was ordained the same day I was.  One of them is married to an old friend ordained the same day I was.  One of them I have known since she was in high school.  One of them I have worked with in various ways since 1998.  I babysat the youngest children of another.  This month we elected a new delegation for the regular General Conference in 2020 that will have to consider the fallout from 2019, and for the Jurisdictional Conference that will meet next summer to elect bishops for the Northeast.  All but two of the people in this picture are gone. 

  Of the delegates who are coming on, not one is over 40, which is especially interesting considering that, according to a study by the Pew Research Center,
“the share of U.S. adults under age 40 who identify with a religious group is 17 percentage points lower than the share of older adults who are religiously affiliated.”[3]
So, here are these under-forties who are not only religiously affiliated, but whose commitments have led them, both clergy and laity, into religious leadership.  Who better than they to look seriously at the situation of their peers?  Who better to understand the word of the Lord for the coming days?  What greater support could someone like me offer than to say, “I’ll be over here for now.  If you need me, just holler,” and then to stay out of the way?

            Not that that’s easy for everybody, and I include myself.  I understand the way that Christopher Wren’s uninvited supervisors must have felt.  In Allentown, I helped one of my churches to get a young adults’ ministry started.  It wasn’t huge, but it brought a dozen or so people together in meaningful ways.  Yes, it began with bowling and movie nights, but they broadened out into some wonderful discussions on deep matters.  That was about when the person who had really done most of the hard work came to me and said, “How are we defining ‘young adults’?”  And I said that it generally meant people between about twenty and thirty-five years old.  And she said, “Your birthday is coming up soon, isn’t it?”  She and her husband really loved to throw cookouts and were always looking for an occasion, so I was feeling pretty good until she said, “You’re going to be thirty-seven, aren’t you?”  (Yeah, well you’re forty-seven now, Michelle!)

            I am not saying to push us oldsters out of the way.  I am not saying anyone gets to retire from discipleship until the Lord calls them home.  Nor am I saying that the leadership God calls is all younger than forty, or ninety, for that matter.  I am saying that it’s a big mistake (but one familiar even from the days of the kings of ancient Israel) to discount someone for inexperience.  The goals that the Lord sets out for his people do not change, but the best methods of working them out may shift and sometimes a new perspective is not just helpful, but necessary and it’s important to know when to step back.

            Elijah was a great man.  And when it was time, God sent a chariot of fire to take him out of the way, so that Elisha could continue what Elijah had begun. The work that they achieved together has outlasted them both.

[1] Max DePree, Leadership Is an Art (New York: Dell Publishing, 1989), 147-148.

Saturday, June 22, 2019

“When a Prophet Departs” - June 23, 2019



II Kings 2:1-12


            This morning I’m starting a sermon series on the Second Book of Kings.  It isn’t exactly Game of Thrones, but it comes close to it sometimes, without the dragons.  It describes the ups and downs of the Kingdom of Israel and some of the surrounding kingdoms over a period of generations, and uses as one of its main frameworks the life and career of the prophet Elisha. 

            It’s easy to confuse Elisha with his mentor, Elijah.  It’s like being around here when David Bretzius, David Bryant, David Hayes, David Shaw, and David Stauffer are all taking part in Bible School with Kathy Hayes, Cathie Shaw, Cathie Yeagle, Karen Bretzius, Karen Stoltzfus, and Karen Kerwin.  Elijah was the prophet who faced off against King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, and whom we hear about in today’s reading.  Elisha is the one we’ll hear about in the coming weeks.  Today we’ll consider the handoff between them.

            Elijah at one point was told by God to find Elisha and let him know that he would be his successor [I Kings 19:16], which he did.  He found Elisha just going about his business, plowing a field.  In one of those dramatic gestures that prophets are so good at, he just walked up to him, threw his mantle – his cloak – over his shoulders and kept on walking.  [I Kings 19:19-20]  Elisha understood the symbolism, went home, threw a goodbye party with his family, and left to become an apprentice prophet.

            Where we begin in the story today, though, is where the apprenticeship comes to an end.  It seems to have been common knowledge, at least in prophetic circles, that Elijah’s time was just about up.  We have this great opening sentence:

“Now when the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal.” [II Kings 2:1]
Elisha was not ready to leave him, or to let Elijah leave.  The other prophets kept raising the issue with him, and he didn’t want to hear anything about it from them.  When Elijah brought it up, Elisha refused to say goodbye.

“As the Lord lives,” he said to him, “and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” [II Kings 2:6]
Elijah tried to wind things up the best that he could, asking one of those open-ended questions that can get to the heart of things.  And he got an honest answer about what was going on with Elisha.  It wasn’t just that he was losing a teacher and a friend, but that he wasn’t sure that he would be ready to carry on the work that Elijah had dragged him into.

“Elijah said to Elisha, ‘Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you.’  Elisha said, ‘Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.’” [II Kings 2:9]
Elijah wanted to give him that confidence, but what he had done all along, throughout his life, had not been done under his own steam.  It had been the power of God that had supported him, and it would have to be the same helper who would be with Elisha.  The choice would be God’s.

“You have asked a hard thing; yet if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you; if not, it will not.” [II Kings 2:10]
            Right here lies the source of Elisha’s effectiveness as a prophet.  Right here is a crucial element in the character of anyone who is going to be a leader in any situation – at work, in the community, in church, in the military, wherever.  It’s called “humility”.  It’s an openness to self-criticism, maybe, but certainly to hearing the advice of others, but above all the advice and guidance of the Spirit of the Lord.

            Go through the Bible and time and time again you will see these elements come together: God calls someone, they question their fitness, God promises to empower them for the task, and together they see it through.

            At the burning bush, God told Moses what to do: go back to Egypt, find the pharaoh, and tell him, “Let my people go.”  Moses, of course, said, “Sure.  No problem.  Give me a couple of days and I’ll be right back out here in the desert again, with the livestock.”  Right?  No.  He made excuses and hemmed and hawed.

“Since I am a poor speaker, why would Pharaoh listen to me?” [Exodus 6:30]
So God sent Moses’ brother Aaron along with him to be his mouthpiece, and they worked as a team.  Actually, when you look at Moses’ life, he almost always had somebody working alongside him.  If it wasn’t Aaron, it was Joshua, who would take over from him like Elisha eventually took over from Elijah.

            The prophet Isaiah also questioned himself when God called him.  Like Moses, he put things in terms of his speech and, by extension, his conduct, but he was really going deeper and saying he was just plain unworthy.  “Woe is me!” he said,

“I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and dwell among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”  [Isaiah 6:5]
God’s response was to grant him a vision of an angel putting a burning coal against his unclean lips, as if to burn off the wrong.

“Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.”  [Isaiah 6:7]
Then God gave him a message to deliver and said, “Go!”

            It was the same for Elisha, I suspect.  Travel around with a great and faithful prophet like Elijah for long enough, and maybe you’ll grow to be more and more in awe at what you see happen.  You could develop a sense of your own smallness beside someone like that, and maybe that is a good thing if you can also see clearly that the people through whom the Lord does great things are still people, like anybody else.  Hold onto the awareness that it was not Elijah that did wonderful things and it was not his own word that he spoke, but the word of the Lord.  It was not Moses who parted the Red Sea, but God.  It was not Isaiah who gave a suffering people hope of redemption, but the same God who would redeem them.

            So when the time came, and God gathered Elijah up to heaven in the most miraculous way, Elisha found Elijah’s mantle left behind, the mantle that had been tossed over his own shoulders when he was first drafted. 

“He picked up the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and went back and stood on the bank of the Jordan.  He took the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and struck the water, saying, ‘Where is the Lord, the God of Elijah?’” [II Kings 2:13-14]
He didn’t look for Elijah anymore, but for Elijah’s God.  I should say “his own God”, too, because that is the whole point of the prophetic call.  It is for people to know that God is alive and present and involved in the nitty-gritty of daily life.  God cares what we do and what we feel.  God wants us to hope his hopes and dream his dreams.  God wants us to forgive as we are forgiven, and to love as he first loved us.

            Elisha picked up the mantle of Elijah.  When he reached the Jordan, he bent over, holding it out as Elijah had done. He

“struck the water, saying, ‘Where is the God of Elijah?’ When he had struck the water, the water was parted to the one side and to the other, and Elisha went over.” [II Kings 2:14]
Then the work began.

            God is calling you for something.  God is calling all his people.  Do I know what each precise task is?  No.  But there is some word to speak, some kindness to show.  Are you up to it?  No.  None of us is.  That’s the beauty of it.  That’s what grace is about.  None of us is in any place to speak, let alone act.  But God has provided us with complete pardon through Jesus, the kind of pardon that frees us up to live in better ways and beyond that to move the world toward a better situation because we aren’t (I pray) doing it for ourselves or under our own power.

            Just keep asking, “Where is the God of Elijah?”


Friday, June 14, 2019

“An Interlocking God” - June 16, 2019

When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.  He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you.  All that the Father has is mine.  For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.”
To be totally frank about my first reaction whenever one of these readings from John comes along where Jesus speaks about his relationship to God the Father and to God the Holy Spirit, (and this is not the most convoluted of those passages) I feel a bit like Nathan Fillion in this brief clip:
I want to say something but recognize that I could get it totally wrong and do more harm than good.  I also recognize that I am in good company on that.  Carlo Carretto, in his book The God Who Comes, sums it up when he says,
“The revelation of a triune God in the unity of a single nature the revelation of a divine Holy Spirit present in us, is not on the human level; it does not belong to the realm of reason.  It is a personal communication which God alone can give, and the task of giving it belongs to the Holy Spirit, who is the same love which unites the Father and the Son.  [I’m going to come back to that, so let me read that last part again: ‘the Holy Spirit, who is the same love which unites the Father and the Son.’”]
The Holy Spirit is the fullness and the joy of God.
It is so difficult to speak of these things.  We have to babble like children, but at least, like children, we can say over and over again, tirelessly, ‘Spirit of God, reveal yourself to me, your child.’”[1]
So, with the caveat that better people than I have babbled about this, let me babble, too.
                Of all the New Testament writers, John is the one who has the most highly-developed way of thinking about the relationship among the three persons of the Trinity.  (And that word “Trinity” is not itself in the Bible, but is a shorthand word for a complex thought.  It is a word like “gravity” or “relativity” would be in physics, or “caramelize” would be in cooking.)  Matthew 25:19 gives us Jesus’ parting direction to make disciples and to baptize
“in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”
and Paul talks about how
“the Lord is the Spirit” [II Corinthians 3:17]
in the same letter where speaks of
“the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” [II Corinthians 4:4]
but Paul also calls Jesus “Lord” all the time and even says that
“God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself” [II Corinthians 5:19],
so it seems clear to me that the sense of what we call “the Trinity” is right there all the way along, even if the wording that we use when we get theological was only hashed out in later centuries with a lot of debate and sometimes even fighting.

                But I digress.  It’s unavoidable on this topic.

                John, whose gospel has the most developed ways of expressing this aspect of God, also uses the simplest language in one of his letters, where he says,
“Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.”  [I John 4:8]
So at the risk of sounding foolish, I will share how I believe those go together: the notion that God is love and that God exists as the Holy Trinity.  If it helps, great.  If not, take a few minutes and pray quietly, ignoring me and using the time better.

                Start with the idea that God is love.  Now, that’s all very good to say, but how can love simply exist on its own?  Love is more than a concept.  It’s an activity and a relationship.  For there to be love, there must be someone to do the loving.  That someone is God. 

For there to be love, there must also be someone to be loved.  Without an object, the verb “love” is meaningless, like when someone says, “I love humanity.  It’s people I can’t stand.”  If love is real, it attaches to an object.  Even the pagans knew that – Cupid’s arrow was always aimed at a target, not just shot into the air.  

Now, here I’m going off into one of these metaphysical moments.

Since God is eternal and existed before creation, that someone who is loved must also be eternal, which means the object of the divine love must be God as well, but in some way differentiated from that which loves.  So what we end up with is God, who is love; God, who loves; and God, who is loved. (And since love is reciprocated, neither is subordinate except in the way that love leads someone to put the other first, so that what one wills the other wills also, and so forth.) What we end up with is a three-personed God, no part of which is identical, yet each part of whom is necessary to the other two, and in agreement with the other two in all things.

Jesus expressed what it would mean for his disciples to worship this interlocking God.
“When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.  He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you.  All that the Father has is mine.  For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.” [John 16:12-15]
Confusing?  Yes.  But a true and living God is not ever going to be totally understandable to anyone but himself. 

                    The creeds that the Church worked out by trial and error over the centuries reflect not a precise definition of God, but a statement of faith.  This, they say, is what we have known and what has been shown to us.  This, they say, is what is central to keeping our own loving response to a loving God focused and direct.  So, when you look at any of them, and when we recite them together, including the Apostles’ Creed that we will share in a moment, you will see them built around the three persons of the Trinity, understanding that we cannot speak of any one of them without the other two.  Nor can we speak of just some vague divine being without reference to the concrete life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and to the Holy Spirit’s work in the life of his followers.

So I invite you to stand with me and together confess our faith using the words of the Apostles’ Creed, and as we do so, to bear witness to the eternal God, three-in-one and one-in-three.
                             
[1] Quoted in Reuben Job and Norman Shawchuck, A Guide to Prayer for Ministers and Other Servants (Nashville: The Upper Room, 1983), 194.

Saturday, June 8, 2019

“Blowing in the Wind” - June 9, 2019

A Call to New Birth
June 9, 2019
Pentecost

Pentecost was a unique and holy moment, with the coming of the Holy Spirit upon God’s people, but it isn’t as if Jesus had never spoken of the Spirit’s unlikely doings.  He told Nicodemus that 

The wind [or the Spirit – the word in New Testament Greek is the sameblows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it goes.” [John 3:8]  

From time to time the Holy Spirit has decided to turn up its normal, gentle breeze, it’s constant and quiet breathing of life into the Church to the level of a gale.

In August of 1801, a small Presbyterian log church in Cane Ridge, Kentucky announced that they were going to offer a couple of days of preaching services to conclude with communion on the last night. They were hoping the local community would find When thousands of people started pouring in from the backwoods, the local clergy called in extra preachers from the neighborhood and built a bunch of outdoor platforms for them to stand on in front of the crowds.  Peter Cartwright, who was nineteen at the time, recalled, 
“The people crowded to this meeting from far and near. They came in their large wagons, with victuals mostly prepared. The women slept in the wagons, and the men under them. Many stayed on the ground night and day for a number of nights and days together. Others were provided for among the neighbors around. The power of God was wonderfully displayed; scores of sinners fell under the preaching, like men slain in mighty battle; Christians shouted aloud for joy.
To this meeting I repaired, a guilty, wretched sinner. On the Saturday evening of said meeting, I went, with weeping multitudes, and bowed before the stand, and earnestly prayed for mercy. In the midst of a solemn struggle of soul, an impression was made on my mind, as though a voice said to me, “Thy sins are all forgiven thee.” Divine light flashed all round me, unspeakable joy sprung up in my soul. I rose to my feet, opened my eyes, and it really seemed as if I was in heaven; the trees, the leaves on them, and everything seemed, and I really thought were, praising God. My mother raised the shout, my Christian friends crowded around me and joined me in praising God; and though I have been since then, in many instances, unfaithful, yet I have never, for one moment, doubted that the Lord did, then and there, forgive my sins and give me religion.”
Our meeting lasted without intermission all night, and it was believed by those who had a very good right to know, that over eighty souls were converted to God during its continuance. I went on my way rejoicing for many days.
Apart from the good that it did for the people who responded, the events at Cane Ridge kicked off the establishment of camp meetings all over the country.  Places like Ocean Grove, Chester Heights, and Mt. Gretna were part of that.

A little over forty years later, the country was at war with itself.  Soldiers who found themselves close to death began to ask questions about the meaning of life, about justice and injustice, about what they were doing in combat, about all sorts of things.  That was when another series of spontaneous revivals arose in both armies.  This is from a history of Virginia by Stephen Woodworth:

Revivals in the armies took different forms. In 1862 a Georgia soldier serving in Virginia wrote that although there had been none of what he called "revival meetings"—large, enthusiastic, often highly demonstrative religious services—nevertheless a strong religious movement was in progress, characterized by nightly prayer meetings 
in many regiments and a large upsurge in Bible reading among the troops. At other times the army revivals included more traditional displays of heightened religious interest. During the first months of 1864, delegates of the United States Christian Commission, an organization established by Northern churches to minister to the spiritual and material needs of the soldiers, set up a tent in the Vermont Brigade of the Union's Army of the Potomac. Though the tent could hold two hundred men, it hosted overflow crowds at nightly meetings, with many men unable to get close enough to hear the preaching. Services lasted an hour and a half, with a short sermon followed by a lengthy experience meeting in which many soldiers took part. Similar meetings were taking place throughout the Army of the Potomac that winter, as well as in the camps of the Army of Northern Virginia.
The time was right.  The need was there.  

Who would have expected that?  But I guess

“The Spirit blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it goes.” [John 3:8]  

In April of 1906, a spontaneous revival began at a chapel on Azusa Street in Los Angeles.  The Assemblies of God, that run the University of Valley Forge, and most churches that call themselves “Pentecostal” trace their beginnings to this. The happenings at Azusa Street went on until around 1915 before dying down.  Can you imagine a nine-year revival?  Five days of Vacation Bible School can be exhausting!  

“The Spirit blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it goes.” [John 3:8]  

And Jesus continues:

So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” [John 3:9]

What happens when you do go with it?

Peter Cartwright, whose recollection of his conversion at Cane Ridge I shared earlier, became a Methodist circuit rider.  Most Methodist preachers, even today, start out assigned to a circuit.  My first appointment had three churches.  Another I served had two.  Cartwright was appointed to Illinois.  That was his territory – all of Illinois.  He wasn’t preaching to ten thousand people at a time, but to four or five here and a dozen there, but his work left its mark.  And he was just one of thousands who came to faith in Christ that summer.

As to the Civil War revivals, I like to think that it was the Christian witness offered to one another by people gathered from what were then distant places eventually allowed them to see even their enemies, when the smoke cleared, as brothers in faith and to begin the hard work of rebuilding across the lines of victor and vanquished, so much so that fifty years after Gettysburg some of the survivors of those bloody days stood on the land where they once shot at each other, shook hands, and then sat down to a picnic lunch together.

“I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.”  [Matthew 5:44-45]

One of the blessings of the Azusa Street Revival was that those present saw the gifts of the Spirit being shared out among both dark- and light-skinned people.  In the time when Jim Crow laws were being laid down across the continent, the Holy Spirit was at work breaking down the barriers that humans were trying to reinforce.

“In the last days it will be, God declares, 
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.” [Acts 2:17]

There is no one way, but an infinite number of ways, that the Holy Spirit makes its way into the human heart and soul.  It might in a crowd of people standing and waving their hands with tears running down their cheeks.  It might be at a campfire at Innabah or Pocono Plateau.  It might be when you’re called on to stand up for what is right, and you suddenly find courage you didn’t know you had.  It might be when you find words that don’t feel like they’re entirely your own and you say to yourself later, “Where did that come from?”  It might be at a moment when you are overcome by joy or beauty.  It might be right now, this very moment, or in the car on your way home today.  
“The Spirit blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it goes.” [John 3:8]  

Wherever it is going, go with it.