Sunday, June 29th, 2014 – The Sacrifice of Despair, a sermon on Genesis 22:1-14

Genesis 22:1-14
After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” 2He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.” 3So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him. 4On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. 5Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.” 6Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together. 7Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” 8Abraham said, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So the two of them walked on together.

9When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. 10Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son. 11But the angel of the LORD called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” 12He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” 13And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. 14So Abraham called that place “The LORD will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the LORD it shall be provided.”

Years ago, when I was a youth director, I also spent time as a trumpet teacher. My very first trumpet student was a high schooler who was very devout in her faith. And so it was quite common for us to talk about faith and Christianity while we were having a trumpet lesson. And one particular day, she seemed distracted from the trumpet lesson. After a little light interrogation from me, she finally confessed. “I’m struggling to put God first in my life,” she said. I’ll admit I was a bit surprised. She, of all people, seemed like someone who had very much made God a priority in her life. But it didn’t feel like enough to her.

You see, she had this boyfriend. And she was quite close with her mom. And she had her friends. And she went down the line of all the things in her life that seem to compete with God. She couldn’t help but feel like she needed to give up those relationships, or make them less of a priority, so as to put God first in her life. To make God her number one priority, over everything else.

Which raises an interesting question: Is God your number one priority? Is that even what God expects of us?

As one who believes in God, what would you be willing to do for God? How far does your devotion go? If God asked you to, would you be willing to sell all of your possessions and give the money to the poor? Or, if God came to you as clear as day and asked you to sacrifice your own child, would you do it?

It is a horrible question and an even more horrible thought, but it is the one we face today in the reading from Genesis, and the story of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his son, Isaac.

Do you remember this story? We are not prone to tell it in Sunday school, for obvious reasons. But once you hear it, you’ll never forget it.

After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” 2He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.” And Abraham obeyed.

He obeyed! Without flinching or saying one word of protest, Abraham gets up early in the morning to prepare the donkeys, to split the wood, and to take one last walk with his boy, Isaac, before planning to set him on fire.

That divine voice that just years ago spoke to a childless Sarah and Abraham, saying, “You’re going to have a son! Name him Isaac” is the same voice that today says, “Now take your son, the one you love, and kill him. For me.” Isaac was the miracle child for Sarah and Abraham. The one for whom they waited and waited and waited. And not only that, but Isaac was the one on whom God’s promise to Abraham rested – that Abraham would be the father of many nations, and his descendants would be a blessing to the world. The father of many nations, whose descendants would bless the entire world. But now God is asking Abraham to kill off the only hope descendants. No Isaac, no promise. Why would God do such a thing?

Like I said, it is a horrible story. And the only thing more shocking than the story itself is that we listened to this story ourselves just minutes ago without flinching either. Where is our own outrage at what appears to be divinely commanded child abuse?

If Abraham were alive today and he said, “Well God told me to do it,” we would lock him up in a mental institution. Is that what it means to make God number 1 in your life?

So for three days, they walk. And no one said a word. A deafening silence. When they arrived, Abraham told the servants, “Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.” We will come back to you? Really? We, Abraham? Was he lying for Isaac’s sake, or was he just hopeful for his own? Who knows?

But so they go. Only Isaac starts to finally sense that something isn’t right. “Father…where is the lamb for our burnt offering?” “God will provide the lamb, my son. God will provide,” Abraham whispers. And on they go.

After finally reaching the place that God had showed them, Abraham prepared the altar. And with very little details and very little struggle, Abraham binds Isaac, lays him on the altar, and raises the knife.

And suddenly, like a parent snatching a child out of the path of a speeding car, God breaks the silence, “Abraham! Abraham!” What music to his ears. The shift in the story comes so quickly, you can’t help but wonder if God wasn’t a bit surprised at how willing Abraham was to go through with it all. Who knows, maybe God never wanted it to get that far. Maybe God wanted Abraham to argue with him over this command, like Abraham had over so many other.

Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, (God said); for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” 13And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. 14So Abraham called that place “The LORD will provide.”

The Lord provided. In the end, it all worked out. Except for the fact that after this, Abraham and Isaac never speak again. Nor do Abraham and God. Such an awful story and a horrible picture of God it paints. A God who tests. A God who demands sacrifice. A seemingly narcissistic and murderous God who wants nothing more than to be obeyed, to be number one in your life and then everything will be just fine.

This is one of the most bothersome and conflicting stories of all of scripture. But perhaps there is another way. Another way of understanding. Perhaps, maybe even embracing this story, as hard as that is to imagine.

The ancient Israelite people were a storied people, a oral culture. Everything from traditions to rituals to history was passed down from generation to generation by word of mouth. By story.

Imagine for a moment that you lived 6,000 years ago and you know so little about the world. And around the camp fire one night, your child asks you, “Where did we come from?” And you go on to tell her a story that is as new to you as it is to her about the heavens and the stars and a God who creates out of love.

And we still do this. When I say to Lauren that she is the most beautiful woman in the world, I don’t say it as fact. As information. I say as part of a love story. About who she is for me. Or when parents say to their child, “Before you were born, you were the twinkle in my eye.” It isn’t fact. It’s a story. A love story.

So maybe, this awful story of Abraham and Isaac is not so much of an event in history that describes a God who tests and demands bloodshed and obedience, but what if this is rather a hopeful story told to a people in need of hope.

You see this story was around during the time when the Israelite people had been living in exile for years and years. The people of Israel were living in a land of loss. They lost their homes, and work, and families, and land. All of it taken from them and now they were living under the rule and control of a ruthless and slave-driving king. You could imagine that in their minds the future of their people, their children, and their culture was certainly dead and gone. There was surely no way out.

And no doubt that the older generation felt a sense of responsibility. “How could we have let this happen? How could we have been the one to ruin our future?”

And so being a story people, imagine then for a moment an Israelite grandfather sitting around the campfire late at night with his granddaughter, when they are living in exile. And the granddaughter, seeing the destroyed and crumbing life of the Israelite people, speaks up. “Grandpa…what is going to become of us? Will we always be living in exile? Has God forgotten us?” And with that twinge of guilt and fear, he tells her a story about their ancient ancestors – Abraham and Isaac.

A story in which Abraham, the older generation is commanded by God to put the very future and hope for the people of Israel – Isaac – on an altar for sacrifice. Perhaps this grandfather said God was to blame so as to relief some of his own guilt. Who knows?

And so Abraham gathers the wood, the fire, the knife, and (of course) the son. The whole time he’s whispering to himself and to Isaac, “God will provide a lamb. God will provide a lamb. God will provide a lamb.” But it isn’t long before Isaac – the one who was the hope for the future of the people of God – is lying on an altar, bound up, and a knife hangs in the air above his head. Surely, his future, the promised future of God’s people, is dead and gone. Any moment now.

When suddenly there is a loud shout! “Abraham! Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him.” And there it is stuck by its horns in the bushes – a ram. A way out of this dark nightmare.

And in that moment, Abraham is saved from any roll he might have played in destroying Isaac’s, and the people of God’s, future. And Isaac is saved for a new life. A new hope.

And to that little grandchild, sitting by the fire, living in a exile and wondering if all is lost, the message is clear: Hang in there, little one. God will provide a way. Our future is not lost. God will always provide a way.

And that is exactly what this is. It is a story of hope for the people of Israel who are living in the hopeless and deathly land of exile.

It is a story about sacrifice, but not the sacrifice Isaac, but a story about the sacrifice of despair. It’s a story that in the end puts despair on the altar and puts it to death. For no longer must the people of God worry about their future. No matter what the future holds (and it is never guaranteed to be a safe or easy one), no matter what happens, we need not despair. For the God of Abraham and Isaac. The God of Israel and David. The God of Mary and Jesus. The God of the world has promised – look to the heavens and count the stars. So shall your descendants be. For you will be a blessing to this world. I promise, God says. I promise.

Perhaps this is not a story about making God first in your life….or else. Or even a story about obedience. Because the truth of the matter is, I don’t think God wants to be number one in our life. I don’t even think God wants us to rank the people in our life in order of importance. But what God does want is to be present when life for my trumpet student gets hard. When those relationships start to break down. When college doesn’t go as she planned. When that unexpected illness shows up. And so maybe this story of Abraham and Isaac isn’t about putting God first, but what if it is more a story about a desperate people, feeling like they and their future have been placed on an altar. And the only thing they can see is the glare of a sharp blade that has been raised above their heads. And their demise is certain. But then suddenly there is a rustling in the bushes nearby.

Because the hope that we have, the hope that we cling to is that no matter what we face in this life. No matter what comes at us and threatens our hope or our joy or our future, God will provide a way. A way through this dark moment. A way that opens a path not to death and despair. But to life. And life abundant. No matter what the future holds, no matter what happens, we need not despair. For the God of Abraham and Isaac. The God of Israel and David. The God of Mary and Jesus. The God of the world has promised – look to the heavens and count the stars. So shall your descendants be. You will be a blessing to this world. I promise, God says. I promise. Amen.

Sunday, June 22nd, 2014 – Sermon on Matthew 10:24-39

Matthew 10:24-39
24 “A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; 25 it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household! 26 “So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. 27 What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops. 28 Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. 29 Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. 30 And even the hairs of your head are all counted. 31 So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows. 32 “Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; 33 but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven. 34 “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35 For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; 36 and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household. 37 Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; 38 and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39 Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.

Welcome to the Second Sunday After Pentecost. This is the time of the church year when we focus on what it looks like to be led by the Spirit of God to be a disciple of Jesus. Now some of you might remember that our readings are based on something called the lectionary, which is a 3-year cycle. Meaning every three years, the same scripture readings are repeated. Well, this past week, a pastor friend of mine posted this on her facebook page: Note to self: when 2017/Year A rolls around again and it’s the second week after Pentecost, plan on pulpit supply.

Now, for those of you who don’t do “pastor speak”, what she is saying is that in three years, when this gospel text comes around again, she’s going to plan to be on vacation. And I can’t say that I blame her. No one, and I mean no one, wants to preach on this gospel text this weekend. Listen again to what Jesus said to his disciples: Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35 For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; 36 and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household. 37 Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; 38 and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39 Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.

This isn’t your Sunday School, lovey-dovey, warm-fuzzy Jesus. This Jesus is hard to hear. Hard to accept. He seems so harsh and rigid, and I would much rather a text about Jesus being all about love and loving others. But no, Jesus says, “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;…whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me.

And it is not exactly the ideal text when you have visitors for a double baptism of two adorable and loveable babies. I’d much rather have the warm-fuzzy Jesus today.

But you know, that warm-fuzzy Jesus isn’t entirely absent. Did you notice that three times, he said to the disciples, “Do not be afraid.” Which means he is speaking to people who are afraid. It is a compassionate and caring word, a parental kind of word for those who are frightened or fearful. And he tells his disciples, “God knows every hair on your head and you are more valuable than you know.”

And so I have to believe that whatever Jesus is saying here, in these hard to swallow parts, he is saying them out of care and love for his disciples. And anyone who has cared for and loved a child knows that sometimes you have to speak a hard and painful word to the one you love. Here is what I trust about Jesus – that even when Jesus speaks a hard word, a truthful word, he does so to bring about more life and love for the world. When Jesus speaks the truth, he always says it so that life can come out of it.

So what is the truth that Jesus is trying to speak? I think that the truth that Jesus is trying to speak to his disciples is this – Christianity, being a follower of Jesus is not about living a safe and clean and wholesome life. Jesus is sending out his disciples to be grace-givers. Grace meaning the unconditional love of God that is free and forever and for all. Jesus tells them that as his disciples, they will experience rejection, slander, and persecution, and even death. Jesus is giving them a heads up. That when it comes to grace – it will divide like a sword. It will bring conflict. I don’t think he is saying, “Go and cause conflict.” But rather, that when you follow me, conflict may be a byproduct. Because some will not want grace to be given to others. And, as Jesus says, it will even divide families.

A couple of weeks ago, I spoke about one of my favorite new TV shows Friday Night Lights. And I introduced you to Lyla Gerrity, the 17-year-old high school cheerleader on the television show. She has recently “found Jesus” and she is ready to do the work of the Lord. She spends her free time putting flyers for her church on windshields in parking lots and she begins the school day in a prayer group. Well, in this particular episode, her new found faith also led her to speak to the inmates inside their local juvenile prison.

And you can see the fear come across her face as she passes through the metal detector, as some of the inmates hoot and holler at her as if she is a piece of meat, and as men her age are frisked up against the wall. And then it fast-forwards to the end of a speech she is giving to the inmates. We watch along as she limps to an unconvincing conclusion where she hesitantly says, “And…and…so…uh…that’s a few examples of why…um…it’s helpful to make choices in our lives…with Jesus…in our lives.”

Lyla is this beautiful, clean, goody-goody who is telling these criminals how to make better choices with Jesus in their lives. And it rang hollow. It didn’t connect with the reality of these young men’s lives. And so when she asks for any questions, she gets confronted with the hard truth. A young man raises his hand and says, “No disrespect. But you people are always coming in here acting like you care, right? When the truth is, if you seen any one of us on the street, you’d just run the other way.” And it left Lyla speechless. Because she knew he was right.

Which is why when that same young man is let out on probation and Lyla sees him walking along the road, she pulls over and opens the side door for him.

“What are you doing?” he scoofs back at her.
“I’m putting my money where my mouth is,” Lyla says.

Lyla then goes on to try and find him a job in their community. She asks her mom if they can pay him to paint the garage and her mother responds, “Do you even hear what you are saying? This boy is an ex-convict. You want him hanging around here with your brother and sister? It’s not right.”

When it comes to grace, that unconditional love of God – it will divide like a sword. It will bring conflict. Because some will not want grace to be given to others. And, as Jesus says, it will even divide families.

Jesus sends the disciples out to be grace-givers. And he sends us out to be the same. And those who need your grace, those who need the grace of God, just might be the very people no one wants you to give it to.

Which makes what we are about to do with these two precious children incredibly radical and risky. Because when we baptize children, we baptize them into a risky life. Christianity makes no promise of a safe life. Or a suffering-free life. But rather it is a life that is oriented towards being a grace-giver, in the name of Jesus. And that can be quite dangerous. But the promise that Jesus gives is that in the midst of that risky, grace-giving life, we need not fear. For in baptism we hear that God has claimed us and called us by name. That we are God’s beloved and we have been marked with the cross of Christ forever.

And here’s the thing, I pray that just as we promise to teach our children about God’s grace, I pray that they will teach us about it too. I pray that the children among us will teach us to be more gracious and more loving. That they may show us what we cannot see about ourselves. And so then show us how to live out of grace. And the consequence may be that it divides and strains us. Which means we also must pray that they will not be afraid to teach us to be more gracious.

I have heard from so many of you who were taught to never speak up in your families out of fear. “Don’t rock the boat” was so many mottos in our families. Don’t say what you really feel. Don’t say what you really think. Don’t risk conflict.

Let’s not pass that on to the next generation. But rather let us pray that the young ones among us might have courage and not fear to teach us how to be more loving and more gracious, as God is.

Remember, Jesus says over and over again, “Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid. Yes, following me will be risky, but do not be afraid. For you belong to God. God knows every hair on your head. You have been marked with the cross of Christ for ever. And you are more valuable than you’ll ever know.” Thanks be to God. Amen

Sunday, June 8th, 2014 – Pentecost Sermon on Acts 2:1-21

Acts 2:1-21

1 When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2 And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3 Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. 5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6 And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 7 Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9 Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11 Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” 12 All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13 But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.” 14 But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. 15 Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 16 No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: 17 “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. 18 Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. 19 And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. 20 The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. 21 Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’

Sermon

1 When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2 And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3 Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

Welcome to Pentecost. It’s kind of weird. And chaotic. It’s got violent winds, and tongues on fire, floating above people’s heads. It has a room full of rural farmer folk, Galileans as they are called, who suddenly speak in languages that are not their own, but languages that reach to the ends of the earth. What else would people think, except that they must be drunk again. Only they’re not drunk. Intoxicated, yes. But not with alcohol. With the Holy Spirit.

Like I said. Welcome to Pentecost. It’s kind of weird. And chaotic. I hope you got a sense of that chaos when you heard this Acts reading with your ears and eyes in 5 difference languages just a minute ago. I hope it was hard to pay attention, because no doubt it was back then too. When the Holy Spirit came rushing like wind and fire into that tomb-like house the disciples had buried themselves in.

That’s what today is all about – the Holy Spirit. It’s like the Holy Spirit’s 15 minutes of fame. Only 15 minutes, because let’s be honest, at least for those of us who are Lutherans, the Holy Spirit freaks us out. We don’t get it. Probably because our image of those who are “filled with the Spirit” is the image of people singing and dancing in church with their hands in the air, and huge fake smiles across their face. It’s like they really do have that joy, joy, joy, joy down in their hearts. And that freaks us out. Because we don’t want to look like fools. At least I don’t.

Or maybe it is because we used to call the “Holy Spirit” the “Holy Ghost”, and “Holy Ghost” is way more creepy and stalker-ish. And so as a result, we just haven’t quite warmed up to the idea of the Holy Spirit and what she brings into our lives and churches and communities. Whether we want it or not.

And that’s the thing …the Holy Spirit should freak us out. But maybe not for those reasons. Maybe the Holy Spirit shouldn’t freak us out because she is going to make us so excited and slap-happy that our friends will think we are drunk, or because she is this ghostly-stalker-god that won’t stop moving your keys or making that sound every time you lie down to sleep.

Maybe the Holy Spirit should freak us out because when the Holy Spirit comes, it will mess you up. It will disrupts and disturb us. At least, that is what it did on that day so many years ago.

The disciples were all locked up together in a house. Scared. Uncertain. Nervous. Why? Because Jesus had just left them. Ascended into the sky to be with God, and they don’t have a clue what to do? Is this it? Is this the end? Jesus said that he would send them the Holy Spirit, but he never told them when. So what are they to do?

Meanwhile, down in Jerusalem, there is a party going on. In fact, it was a Pentecost party. You see, Pentecost was already a holiday before the Holy Spirit showed up. It was a Jewish festival celebrating the first fruits of summer and the giving of the Law to Moses at Mt. Sinai. Which means thousands of Jews from all over the world are having a party in Jerusalem. And when the Holy Spirit comes, you know what it does? t interrupts that party.[1] There’s an attribute for you. Holy Spirit – party crasher. Listen.

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6 And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9 Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11 Cretans and Arabsin our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.”

Suddenly, the party is no longer located in downtown Jerusalem. No, it was rudely interrupted by all the noise that was coming from this other house filled with scared and uncertain Jesus followers. And so those devout Jews left their party to come and see what was going on at this party. And they could barely believe their eyes and ears. Not only was it Galileans, which also stood for hick, who were talking in all of these languages, but they each could hear their language. How is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language, they ask. Their native tongue. A word. A voice. A message meant just for them. And that was the great miracle that day. Not that Galileans spoke in another language. But that the others had ears to hear a word from the Holy Spirit.

When the Holy Spirit comes, it comes to interrupt your party. And to speak to you, through the least likely people (Galileans!). And it speaks a word, a message that is meant for you. In your own language, so that you might finally hear something you need to hear. And chances are it is going to mess you up. Because that is what the Holy Spirit does, it disturbs us. It interrupts the rhythms of our life that we have grown complacently comfortable with. The rhythms of life that are so constant and regular and mind-numbing that we have finally just given in and said, “Okay, I guess this is just how life goes.” And that is exactly when the Holy Spirit shows up and flips the whole game board over.

Have you ever had a Holy Spirit moment? Not a nice one, but one when your whole life was dislodged from some rut you had been living in? And when the Holy Spirit showed up and kicked you in the pants, it hurt. Not because you didn’t need a kick in the pants, but because you had become so comfortable in the rut.

In December 2011, I had been pastor here for just about 5 months and Lauren was about 4 months pregnant. And as some of you might remember, Lauren was commuting to school. She would drive up late Monday night, have 9 hours of classes all day Tuesday, and then drive home late Tuesday night. Now, as a side note, I kind of prided myself on being an awesome husband to my pregnant wife. And on this particular night, I was sitting on the couch watching TV as I heard the garage door open. And I was sitting on the couch watching TV, as I heard her lug all of luggage and book bags out of the car and up to the front door. And I was sitting on the couch watching TV as I heard her struggle to open the door, with her hands and belly so full. And I was sitting on the couch watching TV as she waddled her way into the living, dropped all of her bags on the floor, and gave me that look. And then she finally said it. “Really?…..Really? Strangers won’t let me open the door for myself at school because they can see that I am 4 months pregnant, but I come home and you don’t even help me with my bags? Really?”

The whole air in the room shifted. Lauren was speaking English, my language. But she was also speaking to me on a deeper level. Something that I knew was true, and had been true for a couple of weeks now, but I just couldn’t quite admit it. The Holy Spirit was telling me something. Through Lauren. “Wake up Jon. You are not well. You are not being the husband you want to be.” And it was like who air in the room changed. A light bulb, or who knows, maybe it was a tongue of fire, went on above my head, as I knew something was wrong. Turns out, I was going through some depression. And the Holy Spirit had interrupted it, woke me up to it, disturbed my complacent comfort in it…through Lauren. And it messed me up. But also because of it,I got the help I needed. And I was transformed. Into a new creation. Maybe I would even dare to say I was born again.

And that’s how the Holy Spirit works. It takes the pattern that is our life and it interrupts it. It takes the way we live and move and have our being and it dislocates it out of joint, so that we can no longer move in the same ways we used to. Or in other words, when the Holy Spirit shows up – it transforms us. It changes us by speaking to us what we need to hear.

Have you ever had a Holy Spirit moment like that? When your life gets interrupted or dislocated, and it hurts. But it also heals. A moment that smacks you between the eyes and leaves you stunned. A moment when you finally realize:

I’m not happy at my job.

That person who I thought was nothing like me is just like me.

I can’t live this way anymore.

I don’t have to be angry all the time.

It’s time to let go.

It’s time to make amends and heal the relationship.

When the day of Pentecost came, the disciples were gathered together in a house. And, you know, maybe it wasn’t a tomb-like house after all, where the disciples and the church followers had gone to die. Maybe it was a womb-like house. Where they were waiting for something to be born out of their fear and uncertainty. And along comes the Holy Spirit. Like a violent wind and with tongues of fire. Sounds like birth pangs to me.

The Holy Spirit comes and disrupts and disturbs our life so that something new might be born. So that we might be made into a new creation.

So let’s bring this home. This summer our two churches join together in worship. And here is what I know. We are no different than the people on that very first day of Pentecost long ago. I know that sometimes we just want to lock ourselves and our lives up behind closed doors and not let anyone in out of fear. Not share our lives with anyone. And sometimes we look around this room and all we see are others as “Galileans.” What could that person teach me? Why should I bother to get to know that person? Hes just a Galilean. Why should I share my highs/lows with them, they dont really care about me.

But maybe our time together this summer can be a summer of Pentecost. Maybe this summer, the Holy Spirit will disrupt us out of comfortable places in these pews. Maybe she will throw us on our heels as we meet new people, or at least hear new stories about what is going on in each other’s lives. And maybe. Just maybe, we will be transformed and born again as the people of God that we are as a result.

Welcome to Pentecost. It’s kind of weird. And chaotic. But also very beautiful. Thanks be to God. Amen

[1] Anna Carter Florence, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hwrHfxtlH3w

Sunday, June 1st, 2014 – Sermon on John 17:1-11

John 17:1-11
1 After Jesus had spoken these words, he looked up to heaven and said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, 2 since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. 3 And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. 4 I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do. 5 So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed. 6 “I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. 7 Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; 8 for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. 9 I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. 10 All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. 11 And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.

In the television show Friday Night Lights, Lyla Garrity is a 17-year-old, high school cheerleader whose parents have recently decided to get a divorce. Now, in the midst of this turmoil and chaos, she has also recently found Jesus. You know the type. She was newly baptized and she’s on fire for the Lord. She spends her free time putting flyers for her church on people’s windshield and leading a prayer meeting before school.

As I said, her parents have recently decided to get a divorce, but Lyla’s mom has already started dating again. And on this particular night, her mother’s new boyfriend is over for dinner. Lyla’s younger brother and sister don’t seem to mind it, but to the viewer, there is no doubt about it. Lyla is not happy about what is happening between her mother and this new guy.

So after the food has been passed around and everyone is two spoonsful into their dinner, she arrogantly and rudely says, “Ahem, aren’t we forgetting something?” as she reaches out her hands for prayer. The family sets down their silverware, grabs hands, bows their heads, and Lyla begins to pray…

Thank you, Lord for this food we are about to receive. And for your wisdom, Lord. I pray that you will guide me and everyone at this table to help respect you and make good choices. For example to not take advantage of the vulnerability of a recently separated but not yet divorced woman. And in turn, to give others at this table the strength to remember that a mother of three should not be wearing skinny jeans. Amen.

Have you ever been in a situation like that? Where it felt like the one praying wasn’t so much praying to God as much as they were lecturing those listening to the prayer?

Now, even though Lyla was quite rude about it, she was making a pretty common mistake when it comes to prayer – praying to the people, rather than for the people. As preacher Tom Long says, this mistake happens whenever the one praying “loses sight of the fact that the true audience of prayer is God and not the congregation overhearing and joining in the prayer…Prayer is communication to and with God. Prayers are properly spoken to God, and God alone.”[1]

Now, this may seem obvious, but it really is a simple ditch to fall into. At times here at church, I feel tempted to pray for someone as if I am making an announcement about them, rather than actually praying for them. Lord, we especially pray for Joe who has just recently had back surgery, and who will be in hospital room 226 through Thursday, but he would rather not have any visitors at this time.

Or just yesterday, Lauren and I were asked to say the prayer at our 10 year college reunion luncheon that was being held at the college president’s house. Immediately after being asked, my first thought was, “Okay, we had better make this an awesome prayer so that we can impress of our classmates.” Which just goes to show that my focus was not on praying to God and for my classmates. But rather praying to my classmates and impressing them.

It’s a common mistake. In fact, Jesus, of all people, makes this mistake throughout the gospel of John. In many cases, Jesus’ long-winded prayers can seem more like teaching sermons for his disciples, rather than prayers to God. It almost seems like Jesus is intentionally praying to the congregation, rather than to God.

Which means, maybe it is not such a bad thing at all. To pray to the congregation. With the intention that they overhear the words that are being spoken. Sure we don’t have to be as rude and passive aggressive as Lyla Garrity, but maybe it is not such a big mistake after all. Which is good news because Jesus does it again in our gospel lesson for today.

Here’s the scene: it is the night before Jesus’ death – Maundy Thursday – and he’s been saying his goodbyes to all of the disciples. And then with everyone still gathered around and listening in, he starts to pray. Now, I don’t know if you actually heard or remember any of what Jesus said, because, as one person put it this week, Jesus in the gospel of John can often sounds like the teacher in a Charlie Brown cartoon – waaa wa waa waa, wa wa waa wa.

Jesus prays with such high and lofty words, that twist and turn, and curve in on themselves, it’s hard to keep track of what he is trying to say. But if we listen closely, just like the disciples did, we can hear that not only is Jesus praying for them…he’s praying to them. So that they might also hear. ““Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, 2 since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. 3 And this is eternal life, that (all people) may know you.” He’s teaching them as he prays. That eternal life is to know God. That eternal life isn’t about getting into heaven. It’s about knowing God. Here and now.

A little later, he says, “All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. 11 And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” And now Jesus is empowering them through is prayer. I am no longer in the world. But you are! You. The disciples of Jesus are still in the world. In this prayer to God, Jesus is sending a message to his disciples:My time has come. I am no longer in the world, but you are. And now my works are in your hands. Through this prayer, “Jesus is counting on us to be his presence in the wake of his absence.”[2]

So there you go. That’s what Jesus wants his disciples to overhear in his prayer. That he is counting on them – on us – to be his presence, in the midst of his absence.

How about that for a graduation speech, during this graduation season – Jesus needs you to go and be his presence in the world.

And here’s the thing: you already are. You already are being the presence of Jesus in the world. The only question is whether you choose to see it or not. Because when you can see it, it makes all the difference.

In one of the greatest commencement speeches ever given, the late David Foster Wallace begins by telling a short story. “There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the (heck) is water?”[3]

As Wallace says it, the point of this story is “that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about.”[4] Some times we are oblivious to that which is most obvious. That which is most real.

He goes on to tell them what so often goes unspoken in graduation speeches. That most of our lives end up in the exact same place. That we will spend much of our life sitting in traffic, going to the grocery store, waiting in long lines, being sick of our jobs, and worried about finances. All of us.

As he says it, we will wake up early, go to work, come home, realize there is no food to eat, go to the store, where it is too busy and there are not enough checkout lines open. The person in front of you is arguing over whether she can or cannot use this coupon to get beef jerky, and the cashier is clearly over tired and over worked. And then when you finally get through the check out, the cashier says to you, “Have a nice day,” in a voice that absolutely sounds like the voice of death. And then you go home, eat, go to sleep, and wake up and do it all over again.

Which isn’t the most uplifting graduation speech. “Happy graduation. Welcome to life. It gets kind of old after awhile.”

But this is when Wallace says we all have a choice to make. “Because the traffic jams and crowded aisles and long checkout lines give (us) time to think, and if (we) don’t make a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, (we will) be (angry) and miserable (most of our life). Because (our) default setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about (us). About MY hungriness and MY fatigue and MY desire to just get home, and it’s going to seem for all the world like everybody else is just in my way.” And then our only goal will be to figure out how to get them out of our way.

So we can think like that, Wallace says. Or we can think differently. We can choose “to consider the likelihood that everyone else in the supermarket’s checkout line is just as bored and frustrated as (we are), and that some of these people probably have harder, more tedious and painful lives than (we) do.

But most days, if you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at (the) dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she’s not usually like this. Maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer. Or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department, who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating, red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible. It just depends what you want to consider. If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down….You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship.[5]

We need to be reminded, woken up to this reality. That every moment can be sacred ground. We need to be reminded of this, or else we run the risk of worshipping the wrong thing.

“If you worship power, you will always feel insecure and afraid. If you worship money, you will never have enough. If you worship intellect, you will convince yourself you are a failure. If you worship the body, you will grow to hate yours.”[6]

But to worship God makes all the difference in the world. This is what it means to worship God. To know that you live in a world that God created and loves. A lot. And that what happens here matters. A lot. And so you pay attention to it. To what happens all around you, trusting that every moment has the potential to be a God-moment. If we can stay conscious to the ordinariness that is around us, we will learn to see how sacred it all can be.

It’s about having abundant life… before death. And this is Jesus’ prayer for you. That you would be the one to help others see and experience that life before death. That you would be the presence of Jesus in the world, after he’s left.

It’s late. It’s after supper. And the time has come. And there is no doubt about it. Jesus is praying for his disciples. But he is also praying to them. He wants them to overhear what he has to say to God: All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. 11 And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world.

Friends, Jesus is pointing out the water to the disciples. The most obvious thing and real thing that we, like those fish, can be so oblivious to – that we live and move and have our being in God.  And Jesus prays that we will remain awake to this reality. That we would know that we are the ones in the world. The world God loves so much. And that in seeing that and knowing that, we would then be the very presence of Jesus in the world, after Jesus has left it. This is our world, folks. And it is filled with such divine and sacred things that are so ordinary that we can become so obvious to it. Divine and sacred things that we do. Divine and sacred things that other do – all of which is the work of God in us. And it is everywhere. We’re swimming in it. May we have the eyes to see. Amen.

 

[1] Tom Long, Whispering the Lyrics, pg. 121.

[2] Karoline Lewis, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1996

[3] David Foster Wallace, http://moreintelligentlife.com/story/david-foster-wallace-in-his-own-words

[4] Ibid.

[5] David Foster Wallace, http://moreintelligentlife.com/story/david-foster-wallace-in-his-own-words

[6] Anna Carter Florence, Lecture at Festival of Homiletics, 2014.