Sunday, May 27, 2012

Let's Be Dreamers ~ Acts 2:1-20 ~ Pentecost ~ May 27, 2012

Today is Pentecost—and I hope you brought your imaginations with you today, because you’ll need them…
The event of Pentecost isn’t exactly an easy one for us to visualize, like the stories of Jesus’ birth, and his resurrection… 
And it’s even more difficult to try and understand what it all means…

You have a crowd of peoples from all over the Ancient Near-East…  They all speak different languages—and yet, somehow, they’re all here today…
A rush of wind comes from the heavens, and everyone is filled with the Holy Spirit.  The Spirit gives them the ability to speak the Word of God in languages other than their own.  Everyone hears God’s Word in their own language.

If we find this whole scene bewildering, we’re certainly not alone…  Some onlookers dismissed the whole event as nothing but a drunken frenzy.
As the onlookers scratch their heads in bewilderment, Peter sets the record straight—and his words are the key for us to understand what the Pentecost means for us…

Here and now, God is fulfilling a promise that had been spoken through the prophet Joel.  And incidentally, this is the same promise Jesus makes to his disciples in our Gospel for today.  God is pouring out the Holy Spirit upon human beings—and the people who receive the Spirit are forever transformed. 
It’s no accident that the Holy Spirit comes upon the people as a wind.  At the beginning of time, a wind from God swept over the formless void that was the earth—and brought all things into being.  This is the way the Spirit came upon the people that day—as a wind from heaven.  The Spirit gives them the power to do what would have otherwise been impossible.  They receive power to do godly works.

And as people who receive God’s Holy Spirit in baptism, this same divine power comes upon us as well.  It is the Holy Spirit (who speaks through the Scriptures) that draws us into a relationship with Jesus Christ—and it is the Spirit who gives us faith to believe that we are saved.
The Holy Spirit enables us to offer our prayers to God—even in those times when we are so weak that we cannot put our prayers into words. 

The Holy Spirit gives us the hope to believe that God is not powerless against all that is broken and evil in the world.. 
Yet we so easily forget that… 

The world is full of suffering and evil; and by all appearances, things get worse with each day that passes. 
Our lives fall into crisis; things fall apart, and the temptation is for us to we resign ourselves to our painful realities. 

If we succumb to this temptation, we to believe that there’s no hope for our lives, and no hope for the world.  We live as though God has abandoned us. 
Yet nothing could be further from the truth.

If we have baptism, we have the Holy Spirit—and that Spirit never leaves us.  God will not withhold the Spirit from us when we sin, or when we forget about God entirely.  The Spirit’s purpose is always to help us have faith in God and do God’s will. 
With God’s Spirit in you, you are not helpless against the worst that this life brings your way.  We as the Body of Christ are not powerless against the unbelief and the suffering and the injustice that infect our world. 

God’s Spirit has been unleashed, transforming all that is broken in the world.  Nothing is going to stop God’s will from being done on earth—because God is more powerful than chaos and evil.  God’s Spirit will not stop working until everyone knows the name of Jesus Christ and calls upon his name for salvation. 
This is God’s world.  God is with us—and God will always have the last word.

Today is a day for us to dream dreams and see visions of this future.  It’s a day for us to visualize our neighbors coming to baptism; to see children embracing their baptismal faith as their own.  It’s a day for us to see visions of the hungry being fed, and the lonely and outcast of our society finding their home in the family of God.  It’s a day for us to visualize our own congregation growing in faith and in numbers through our public witness of Christ’s love.  It’s a day for us to envision compassion and peace and forgiveness bringing an end to wars and violence and all the evils people suffer. 
We can be dreamers and visionaries because these aren’t pipe dreams.  This is God’s will.  And the Holy Spirit gives us the power to bring these dreams to life.  Our weaknesses and fears are no match for God’s grace.  Nothing is impossible with God.

Today is a new Pentecost—because the power of the Holy Spirit is upon us.  We are being transformed, from who we once were to the people God wants us to become.  We can pray with full confidence that God will hear us—because the Holy Spirit intercedes on our behalf.  And we can go out into the world with the power of the Holy Spirit within us—to do God-sized works.
So on this Pentecost, let’s be dreamers.  Let us dream of God’s plan for the world.  And let us be doers.  Let us go with the Holy Spirit as God transforms this world so that the love of Jesus Christ reaches every heart, and every corner of this world.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Lifted Up ~ John 17:6-19 ~ Seventh Sunday of Easter ~ May 20, 2012

I’ll always remember my third grade teacher for two things:

She gave me the part of a bearded, boiler-hat-wearing preacher in the class history play; and,
She was one of the first adults (other than my parents) to give me a big responsibility…

One day, she summoned me and another student. 
As she looked us in the eye, she said:

“I need you to go out to my car and bring in a box on my back seat.  My car is a brown Cadillac.  Be sure and lock the doors when you’re done.”
She then placed her car keys in our hands—along with a little yellow piece of paper, on which she had written everything she had just told us, along with her license plate number.

I was more than happy to accept this responsibility.  Any opportunity to go outside to do something other than clapping erasers was a real treat.  And since I was an avid collector of Matchbox cars, I knew what a Cadillac looked like.
But the best part of this was the trust she had in my classmate and me—and we realized this in our eight-year-old minds.  It was an honor to be trusted.  It was a privilege to be sent.

And I can’t help but remember her as I hear the words that Jesus prayed in our Gospel lesson for today. 
This is Jesus’ last night before his crucifixion—and the prayer that he prays on his final night is a prayer for us—because Jesus is sending us to carry on his work of revealing God to the world.  Jesus sends us to love all people with the love that he has for us.  He is passing the torch to us, to proclaim the Gospel of God’s forgiveness and the salvation of the world. 

Jesus sends us to make the invisible God visible. 
And it’s a good thing that Jesus prays for us—because being sent for mission does not always conjure up the same kind of excitement that I had when my third grade teacher sent me on errands.

Jesus sends us to do things that are extremely challenging.  We feel fear and worry—because we won’t always know where God is sending us—or what God is sending us to do. 

God sends us where there’s pain.  God sends us where there’s poverty.  God sends us to the people our society would rather forget about.  God sends us to where there’s doubt and unbelief.  God even sends us to people who won’t love us in return—and who will take great delight in calling us “fools” for believing what we believe. 
The Gospel we are sent to proclaim will not always be welcome—and because of that, we will not always be welcome.

But we are sent…  We’re sent because God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that all may believe in him and have eternal life.  The story of God’s love is still being told—which means that we have work to do.
And the good news for us is that Jesus prays for us. 

Jesus prays for his Father to protect us from the evil one.  He prays that we would not fall into despair at all the evil and suffering we see around us.  He prays for us to have the courage to love God’s people even when they hate us. 
Jesus prays that we as Christians would be one, just as he and his Father are one.  He prays for an end to the rivalries and quarrels and conflicts that weaken his church’s witness. He prays for us to arise and rock the world as one Body.

Jesus prays that we would be filled with joy as we take part in his work.  He prays that our mission will be fruitful—so that we have cause for rejoicing as we witness God’s power at work. 
And he prays that we would be sanctified in the truth of God’s Word—that God’s Word would be written in our hearts.  This way, we know whose we are—and we know our destiny, no matter what comes our way in life… 

Jesus doesn’t need to send us out into the world to do anything—because he is God.  He is perfectly capable of doing everything.  But is for our blessing that we are sent—because how else can we see Jesus unless we’re part of the action of what he’s doing? 
And the prayers that Jesus offers for us lift us up to take part in his work.  It’s Jesus who prays them—so these prayers will be answered.  God will do for us everything that Jesus asked, so that we can go wherever Jesus sends us and bear fruit for his kingdom.  It is a privilege to be sent—because this is our opportunity not just to please Jesus, but to see Jesus. 

Jesus may send us, but he goes with us wherever he sends us.  And because of this, we will be able to accomplish more than we could ever ask or imagine on our own—so that hearts would be touched and lives transformed by the love of Christ.
So are you ready for Jesus’ prayers to be answered?  Are you ready for God to fill you with courage and with hope—so that you may go and see the salvation that Jesus brings to the world?

Are you ready to be sent?

Sunday, May 13, 2012

To Be Jesus' Friends ~ John 15:9-17 ~ Sixth Sunday of Easter ~ May 13, 2012

Last weekend, my wife and I spent part of our Saturday at the Leechburg museum, just down the street from here.

Now we haven’t even been in town for a year—but the experience was a walk down memory lane…
As we took in photographs and the artifacts, we enjoyed imagining life as it used to be—as many of you experienced it in times past. 
But at the same time, the experience was bittersweet.  Many businesses and places of worship and recreation that were once so precious to this community aren’t around anymore…  And many of the people with whom we shared our lives are gone.  We can’t help but grieve the fact that so much of what is beautiful and good in life does not last forever.
This was the situation for Jesus and his disciples in our Gospel lesson for today.

Today’s passage is part of what is referred to as “Jesus’ farewell discourse.”  He’s already eaten his last supper, and his arrest is just hours—if not minutes—away.  Jesus’ time of living and ministering among his disciples has come to an end. 
But as Jesus says goodbye, he makes one thing very clear: his relationship with them is not going to end.   Even though he will be absent from them in body, he will remain with them.  He says:

“If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love…  This is my commandment: that you love one another as I have loved you.  You are my friends if you do what I command you.”
As we hear these words, let’s remember that Jesus is not laying down conditions that we must meet in order to be his friends.  His love for us has no conditions.  Becoming a friend of Jesus does not happen by a decision we make; nor do we have to prove ourselves worthy of Jesus’ love.  it is Jesus who chooses us as his friends.  We are Jesus’ friends solely on the basis of Jesus’ gracious love for us.

Because of that, there must be a response from us to so great a love—our response to Jesus is our friendship.  Friendship takes commitment—and to be Jesus’ friends, we must be committed to obeying his commandments.  And his command is that we love one another as he has loved us.
This is the way in which we abide in Jesus’ love.  This is the way live as his friends.

And as we know, loving our neighbors as Jesus commands goes far beyond being nice.  Love is about serving.  It’s about meeting our neighbors’ needs with the same urgency as we meet our own.
It’s giving whatever is in our capacity to give so that others may be built up. 

We’re not seeking something for ourselves…  We’re not out to try and win someone else’s affection—nor are we attempting to influence others to believe as we believe or live life as we live it… 
Being a friend to Jesus is all about learning to see the face of Jesus in the faces our neighbors in need—and serving that neighbor as we would serve Jesus himself.

That is the way in which we abide in Jesus’ love.  That is the way live as his friends.
And as we love our neighbors, our friendship with Jesus grows—because we are spending time with the one who calls us friend.  Jesus is always going to those people who need him most—whether they realize it or not.  So when we love our neighbors, we are with Jesus. 

On the other hand, if we do not live in love, Jesus will (very quickly) become a stranger to us.  And it’s not Jesus who would distance himself from us; it is the other way around.  Choosing not to abide in love; and choosing to withhold our love and our gifts from others is, in effect, turning our backs upon Jesus. 
This is not a life worth living—because this world has nothing to offer to us that will last.  Wealth, health, and power are great; but they can disappear in the blink of an eye, just like life itself. 

Jesus wants for life to be so much more for us—a life that is everlasting.
Jesus says to us “I have appointed you to go and bear fruit; fruit that will last.”  What that means for us is that no deed done in love will ever be in vain.  Anything you do for your neighbor in love will have eternal significance.  When you feed a hungry person; when you befriend a lonely person; when you share your faith with an unbelieving person, you are doing God’s work in healing this world.  You are doing work that will last forever.

And even as we become so easily overwhelmed by the ways in which are world is changing that are not good, God’s redemption of the world is happening all around us.  God’s is bringing all that is chaotic and evil in this world under his control.  Suffering and sin are not going to endure; Jesus is going to endure.  And today, Jesus calls each and every one of us to join him in filling this world with his love.  Jesus is calling us to bear fruit that will last.
A life lived for others is a life worth living—because we are living as the persons God created us to be.  A life lived in love is a life lived in Jesus Christ; and in Jesus Christ, we have a life that will last forever.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

The God of the Rejected ~ Acts 8:24-50 ~ Fifth Sunday of Easer ~ May 6, 2012

People are always surprised when I tell them that you don’t have to be a Lutheran to attend Gettysburg Lutheran Seminary, from where I graduated last year.

The reality is that the student body is made up of students from over two dozen different denominations.  One denomination in particular that has a long history at Gettysburg Seminary is the African Methodist Episcopal Church… 
One of this denomination’s first bishops was a student there almost thirty years before the Civil War.  He would go on to become the first African American in this nation’s history to graduate from a theological institution.  And since then, many men and women of color from this church have found a home Gettysburg Seminary.

But the denomination of which they all are part came into being over two hundred years ago in Philadelphia—after a group of black worshippers were forced to sit in a balcony in their predominantly-white church.
So it’s little wonder why our African American sisters and brothers in the faith know such a profound connection with the Ethiopian eunuch we read about in the 8th chapter of Acts.  His experience at the Jerusalem temple would have been very similar to the experiences of black Christians throughout our nation’s history.

The Ethiopian eunuch was a black man—and because of that, there would have been no question in anyone’s mind that he was a Gentile; an outsider…  And even though Gentile converts were permitted to participate in worship at the temple—he still would not have been able to do so.  The Law of Moses strictly forbids any man whose member had been maimed from coming into the assembly of the Lord.
The fact that he was a royal official of the queen of the Ethiopians would not have mattered.  His kind could not enjoy full membership in the community.  His kind had no choice but to worship God from outside of the temple…

But as we hear in our story—God was not about to have him make the months-long trip back to Ethiopia as someone who was rejected and excluded…  God was determined that he would go home baptized and believing in the risen Christ.  So God went out in pursuit of the Ethiopian eunuch.  God does this by sending in his direction a man by the name of Philip.
And when these two men encounter each other, neither of them give any thought to cultural differences or racial differences or cleanness versus uncleanness.  They receive one another in hospitality and in love.  The Ethiopian hears the good news of Jesus Christ and comes to faith—and now, there is nothing that can keep him away from the waters of baptism. 

What a miracle to behold in this story that this is the first timethat someone outside the land of Palestine is baptized into Jesus Christ.  God’s grace overcomes all human constraints. 
What good news it is for us to know that ours is a God who does not reject people, but instead, goes out in pursuit of rejected people.  Regardless of whether we are reading about Jesus in the four Gospels, or the mission of the early church in the rest of the New Testament, God’s Word makes one thing very clear: that no one who calls on the name of Jesus will ever be rejected.  There are no outsiders; no rejects in the salvation the living Christ brings to our world.

That is a miracle for us who live in a world where we suffer rejection every day.  Rejection is one of the greatest evils we will suffer in this life—and one of the greatest evils we do to each other.  People suffer rejection in ways that are too many even to name.  There’s racism, sexism, classism; there’s bullying in our schools and unjust wages and hiring practices in our workplaces.  And we live in a world of labels, where people come to know you not by your name, but by where you’re from, or by your past or by the reputation of someone in your family. 
But God doesn’t see us for the labels.  Instead, God reaches out to all who suffer this kind of rejection to bring them to baptism.  There, in the waters, our sins are washed away along with all the labels and all the gossip.  God marks us with the cross of Christ forever—the seal of our belonging.

So as you suffer rejection (and we all do), remember this.  Remember that Jesus suffered rejection.  He was rejected by a sinful humanity, so that a sinful humanity would not be rejected by God.  And when people speak ill of you—and they tell you that you don’t belong—know the truth: you belong to Jesus Christ. 
And because we all have God’s Spirit dwelling in us—just as it did in Philip—God will be leading us to people who suffer rejection and exclusion.  God sends us to them in love so that they will know that they matter to God. 

Wherever there are people who are lost; wherever there are people who are lonely; wherever there are people know only hurt and rejection—that is where we will be—by God’s Spirit who leads us.
And God’s Spirit will open our eyes to the ways in which we cause others to suffer rejection.  God’s Spirit gives us grace to change our ways—and even to ask others for their forgiveness. 

Today in God’s Word we see into God’s own heart—that burns with compassion for those who are rejected and lost.  And we see into the future God brings to this world—where no one gets left out because of who they are or where they’re from or what they’ve done. 
God’s compassion will win the victory over the rejection we suffer—and the rejection we cause others to suffer.  Labeling and discrimination will be no more; just all of us living forever in the love of our Lord.