Sunday, May 22, 2016

The Awesome Mystery: Romans 5:1-5 - Holy Trinity Sunday

1Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. 3And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. (NRSV)
Wave by Steve Shupe.  Creative Commons image on flickr
They had nowhere to go…

Hurricane Katrina was bearing down on the city of New Orleans.  So Charles and Angela took shelter in their church.  It wasn’t long before they could feel the winds shaking the building.  Helplessly, they watched from the balcony as the flood waters rose… higher and higher…

With nowhere to go and nothing to do, they prayed for God’s mercy…  And then, they began to sing.  After a while, they heard voices calling out to them in the darkness: “sing this song; sing that song.”  So they sang, together…  All night…  Though they were so close to death, God was even closer.

The music was God’s presence for them.  They would go on to say that their lives were radically transformed by that experience—and for their good.  But how could that be possible?

At the same time, why did God seemingly permit thousands of poor, innocent people to parish in that storm?  Why did so many lose everything they had?

And how on earth could the Apostle Paul ever say that “we [Christians] boast in our sufferings?”

The Apostle Paul was certainly no stranger to suffering.  Throughout his ministry, he suffered beatings, imprisonments, riots, sleepless nights, hunger, and bitter hatred. 

But he is not boasting about how he’s “earned his stripes” for Jesus…  Paul (along with Charles and Angela) are testifying to God’s power and grace amid the most terrible suffering.

When everything else was swept away, the Triune God swept in

There was no doctrine of the Trinity during Paul’s time…  That didn’t come until later.  So Paul just testifies to what God does for his sake and the sake of all: Jesus’ self-giving acts make humanity right with God.  We now have peace with God through Jesus Christ, who’s given us access to the grace that brings salvation to the world.  When we suffer, we are in fellowship with Jesus.  The Holy Spirit takes that suffering and uses it to create the gifts of peace, endurance, character, and hope. 

No human being can ever fully explain or understand how God can exist in Three Persons, any more than one can explain or understand the mysteries of life.  We don’t know how the Triune God works; we just know that the Triune God works—apart from our understanding; in spite of our weakness; beyond our control. 

There was nothing Charles and Angela could do with one of the biggest storms in recorded history bearing down on them—except to pray.  God gave them a song.

So when that’s you, remember these simple words: “be still, and know that I am God.”  Trust that the Triune God comes to you, ahead of all life’s storms.  Be still and know that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit for you.  You are not abandoned.  The Triune God is going to carry you through it—even from death into life

But it isn’t just in crisis that we know the awesome power of the Trinity.  Each and every one of you possesses spiritual gifts.  You may not be aware of them.  The fact that the Church is smaller than ever before doesn’t mean that we’re in a famine for the fruits of the Spirit.  On the contrary, the gifts are all here.  We lack nothing that is essential for us to participate in what the Triune God is doing right here on our turf.

Think about it this way: God wanted us to have a clothing closet—and that’s why the clothes come in—and go out—by the thousands.  That’s why you answered the call to give your time.  Fact is, spiritual gifts are even more abundant in this church than clothes.  We don’t know how the Trinity works, just that the Trinity works…

Music is one of our spiritual gifts, no question about it.  That being said, I do believe that we haven’t even begun to unlock its full potential.  There’s infinite possibilities—surely different, but not all that difficult—to use this gift to share and experience the presence of God.  We don’t know how the Trinity works, just that the Trinity works…

Vacation Bible School is just one month away—and this ministry has grown year after year, in spite of all the obstacles and setbacks that have come our way.  The excitement for this year’s VBS is like it’s never been before.  We don’t know how the Trinity works, just that the Trinity works…

To know the Trinity, you need to embrace change.  You need to leap out of the comfort zone; do the good that’s in you to do; and refuse to let fear blind you to the power of God. 

Ultimately, God’s will is for you to be as close to God as Jesus is to his heavenly Father.  We don’t know how or why God is Three persons, just that God is Three Persons for you, me, and the world.  The Holy Trinity is God working for you what you cannot do for yourself.  The Holy Trinity is God working in you what is greater than you can do for yourself.  

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Brave New Church: Acts 2:1-21 - Day of Pentecost

1When the day of Pentecost had come, [the apostles] were all together in one place. 2And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
5Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 7Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” 12All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”
14But 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. 15Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 16No, 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.
18Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
  in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
   and they shall prophesy.
19And I will show portents in the heaven above
  and signs on the earth below,
   blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
20The sun shall be turned to darkness
  and the moon to blood,
   before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.
21Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’ ” (NRSV)
JESUS MAFA. Pentecost, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. [retrieved May 13, 2016].
Watching Sesame Street as a kid, I loved the “Yip Yips.”  These were googly-eyed aliens from the planet Mars.  They’re called “Yip Yips” because their native tongue consisted only of the words “Yip-yip-yip-yip” and “Uh-huh. Uh-huh.”

They never interacted with people—but they were very curious about life on earth.  Whenever they discovered everyday objects like the telephone, radio, or computer, they consulted a small book—and (humorously) attempted to speak about it in English.  But as soon as they sense that human beings are near, they disappear into thin air.  I guess earth is just too scary for these creatures. 

That being said, it’s a very scary place for human beings. 

You look at how much our world has changed, and how many terrible things keep happening all across the world, you can’t help but be scared. 

Watching the news reports about the wildfires in Canada, you’d swear hell had come to earth.

There’s always that dreaded question—what next

But we can’t forget that the Church was born in a time every bit as scary…

Fifty days have passed since Jesus was raised from the dead.  Ten days have passed since Jesus ascended into heaven.  Certainly these were events to celebrate—but what was to be next?

We know from Acts 1 that there were 120 believers at that time, which is equal to the number of active members we have here at First.  They know that if they continue to follow Jesus, they will be hated and persecuted just as much as he. 

So they raise up Mathias to replace Judas Iscariot, so that there are twelve apostles once again.

And they pray, and watch, and wait…

Then it comes to pass, on that fiftieth day, as the twelve apostles are gathered together inside a house: The Holy Spirit comes upon them so powerfully as if to blow the walls off…

They begin speaking God’s Word in other languages, so that the Jews living in Jerusalem hear God’s Word, in their native tongue, with the power of fire.  Thousands come to faith in Christ.  The Church as we know it is born.

Some onlookers dismiss these things as mere drunken revelry.  The reason why is because God is doing something so utterly new.

Think about it—Jews spoke Hebrew and Aramaic, and nothing else.  Most of these people worshipping God had no Jewish lineage to speak of.  They were unclean, uncircumcised, unwelcome in God’s Holy City. 

God is doing something altogether new—what no one expected, no one asked for, and what no one can explain—except that it is God’s doing.  This is the Holy Spirit at work.  Jesus is going global.  No one is going to be left out because of race, ethnicity, language, gender, social status, or anything else.   

While this is something to celebrate, it is at the same time terrifying.  The globalization of God’s reign brings with it drastic change and opposition by the powers of death and evil. 

This is exactly what Peter’s quote from the prophet Joel describes: “portents in heaven, signs on earth below; blood, fire, and smoky mist; the sun turning to darkness and the moon to blood…”

I don’t know about you, but as I hear this I can’t help but think about the Alaska wildfires; Hurricane Katrina; climate change; 9/11; ISIS; school shootings; recession; poverty.  I think about the decline of Christianity in this country and that people care about no one but themselves.  I could not have imagined the world becoming what it is today.

But with all this happening, God is not absent, nor is he silent.  God sends the Holy Spirit upon us so that we know God’s love and live within his power over death and evil.  God sends the Holy Spirit so that we may speak the truth with our mouths and our whole lives.

As Christians, you and I will not be held captive by fear and foreboding over what the world has become.  Renounce the power, privileges, and possessions the world says you need to “live the good life.”  Refuse to get caught up in the factions and finger-pointing that are dividing our nation and even the community of Christ.  Don’t resist change; embrace it!  As our world invariably changes, trust that the Holy Spirit will be constantly transforming and renewing the you with the Church so that we can live on the forefront of God’s saving love.

I love that the Holy Spirit appears as fire in the Pentecost story.  God is anything but tame.  At Pentecost the Holy Spirit literally blew apart religion as it had been known and understood, creating something altogether new for Christ’s love to reach the nations

Today, we need that same fiery Spirit.  The world is changing rapidly—but Jesus goes both with the change and ahead of it.  So must you and I.

Do you dare to receive the Holy Spirit today?  Are you ready to be roused from sleep and made restless to share Jesus’ love?  Are you ready to be sent on a missionary journey, fueled by the grace of God, to become Christ’s victory over sin and death?  Are you ready to go and serve “those people” whom you thought had no place in God’s family?   Are you willing to let holy fire consume anything and everything in your life that’s blinding you to the light of God’s love?

If today’s Church and today’s Christian faith must be blown apart to be relevant to the times, let it be, Holy Spirit.

We live in a brave new world—but we’re a brave new church.  We are alive with the Spirit, burning with love, walking in truth, filled with peace, saved by grace.  

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Singing in the Darkness: Acts 16:16-34 - Seventh Sunday of Easter

16One day, as we were going to the place of prayer, we met a slave-girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling. 17While she followed Paul and us, she would cry out, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” 18She kept doing this for many days. But Paul, very much annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, “I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And it came out that very hour.
19But when her owners saw that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the authorities. 20When they had brought them before the magistrates, they said, “These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews 21and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.” 22The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods. 23After they had given them a severe flogging, they threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely. 24Following these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.
25About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. 26Suddenly there was an earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened. 27When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, since he supposed that the prisoners had escaped. 28But Paul shouted in a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” 29The jailer called for lights, and rushing in, he fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. 30Then he brought them outside and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” 31They answered, “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” 32They spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. 33At the same hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay. 34He brought them up into the house and set food before them; and he and his entire household rejoiced that he had become a believer in God.
Dungeon by Simon Evans.  Creative commons image on flickr
94-year-old Henry didn’t have much of what we’d call “quality of life.”

For ten years, Henry resided in a nursing home, spending most of his days slumped over in a wheelchair.  Dementia and frequent seizures had rendered him almost completely unresponsive and unaware of what was happening around him.  He did not even recognize his own daughter.

One day, Henry’s daughter puts a pair of headphones on him, connected to an iPod loaded with all his favorite songs. 

Immediately, his eyes open.  He sits up in his chair, and begins singing along.  He’s even moving with the beat. 

Later, his daughter takes the headphones off—and he begins talking—enthusiastically—naming his favorite musician; naming his favorite song and singing the words by heart; carrying on a full conversation.

It is as though his spirit leaped to life within his ravaged body.

This is no isolated incident…  Music has the power to trigger memory along with powerful emotions, in persons suffering the most severe stages of Alzheimer’s and dementia.

We see the same thing happening in our first reading for today from Acts, with Paul and Silas chained and tortured in prison.

A little backstory first:

Paul and Silas are in the ancient city of Philippi, located in the Eastern region of modern-day Greece.

For days, they encounter a slave-girl with a spirit of divination, who brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling.  Anytime she saw Paul and Silas, she would cry out that they were slaves of the Most-High God, proclaiming the way of salvation. 

Paul quickly becomes annoyed at the sight and sound of her enslavement.  So he commands the spirit to come out, and it does. 

Naturally, Paul has destroyed her owners’ freedom to pursue unlimited profit through her enslavement.  So they seize Paul and Silas and drag them before the magistrates.  They accuse them of sabotaging the local economy and the Roman culture.  These are high crimes against the Empire—the same of which Jesus is accused. 

The magistrates order them stripped, beaten, and flogged.  They are then locked in the innermost cell of the prison, with their feet chained in stocks.

And what do they do there, all chained and tortured?  Paul and Silas sing hymns.

They sing hymns—because there is nothing else they can do.  They’re bound, bloodied, and beaten within an inch of their lives.  They are helpless and powerless; prisoners of evil.

Most of us never have and never will face such cruel persecution for our faith in Jesus Christ.  But that’s not to say that you can’t be held captive by something bigger and more powerful than you… There’s circumstances you cannot change; mistakes you cannot take back; evils that you cannot fend off.  You’re trapped.  There’s no way out.  There’s nothing you can do. It will get so bad that prayer will feel pointless.  It’ll become easier to believe that Satan is in control, rather than God.

This was Paul and Silas—until God put the song in their hearts.

Jesus was all they had, and Jesus was all they needed.  In this place of death, they were alive.  In this place of bondage, they were free.  Their joy came not of circumstance, but because they were bound to Jesus in his death and resurrection.  What’s more is that the Holy Spirit uses their song to infect the fellow prisoners—along with the jailer and his family—with new life. 

Faith is like music: you can have it in your heart and in your mind just like you can have it in a songbook or on a CD—but it’s not really anything if you keep it inside of you.  What good is a musical instrument if you don’t play it?

Faith is daring to sing at the face of death & evil; daring to love in the face of hate; daring to share in the face of one’s own poverty.  Faith is saying “no” to the power, privileges, and possessions the world says you need to “be alive.”  Faith is saying “yes” to Jesus.  It is choosing to die with Jesus rather than living out him.  Boldly, you are living, breathing, and doing—trusting that Jesus rules the world, even while evil rules the day. 

In Christ, you are free and alive even in the clutches of death and defeat.  You can even be like Paul, who before had been the most vicious enemy of Jesus and his people; now, free from the past and alive in the light.  No matter what the circumstance; what the odds—every single act of faith, hope, and love puts death and the devil on the run. 

God’s love and life-giving purposes will not be defeated.  The forces of death and evil, on the other hand will.  You can chain up the apostles, you can put Jesus on the cross.  But God wins.

So sing out your faith and feel the life God breathes into you.  Be free.  Be at peace.  

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Your Missionary Journey: Acts 16:9-15 - Sixth Sunday of Easter

9During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” 10When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.

11We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, 12and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days. 13On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there. 14A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. 15When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.” And she prevailed upon us. (NRSV)
Boat at Sea by Christina Kekka. Creative commons image on flickr
When Saturday rolls around, I always look forward to sleeping in. 

A friend of ours likes to get up early and drives to cities and towns, seemingly at random—in order to share his faith with the people he encounters.

To be clear, he’s not one of those “eccentrics” you see walking around with bullhorns and posters, shouting out to anyone who will listen.  He prays as he walks the streets—and he always finds someone to talk to, which often opens the door for him to share his faith.  (He is Lutheran, by the way…)

That seems so surreal to me—maybe it’s because I don’t share his spiritual gift; or maybe because I don’t understand how such a ministry can even be possible. 

But he can’t help himself.  He loves Jesus—and he wants others to love him too…

He is, in every sense of the word, a modern-day apostle like St. Paul and many others we encounter in the pages of Scripture…

Today in our first reading from Acts, Paul has a vision during the night in which a man from Macedonia is pleading with him to come and help us.  He gets up, and he goes!  (Bear in mind that this is a 150-mile journey by boat across the Aegean Sea!)  Eventually, he and his traveling companions end up in Philippi.  Chances are, they don’t know where to begin their ministry—so they go down by the river to pray.  That is where they encounter a group of women.  Among them is a worshiper of God named Lydia, from Thyatira (which is back in Asia, where they just came from).  We are told that the Lord “opens her heart to listen eagerly to Paul’s words.”  Subsequently, she and her household are baptized.  And then she opens her home to the apostles.  This will mark the beginning of Christianity in Europe. 

What I find so amazing about this story is that Paul didn’t have a strategy or a plan for his ministry.  They pray and they go. 

Could you picture yourself taking a missionary journey like this?  I can’t say that I do.  Quite frankly, I’m not always sure if I’d even want to.  It all seems so daunting—journeying to a foreign land, starting with nothing; with no guarantees of success.  It’s dangerous, too—Paul and his buddy Silas will land in prison before chapter 16 ends. 

Yet these apostles go with a bold, passionate faith.  They encounter women who listen.  Lydia gives them room and board, and will share with them the mantle of leadership in the new Church that is born.  People will be dramatically transformed.  Needs will be met.  New life in Jesus will abound. 

If that’s what God made happen in Macedonia, what about “our little neck of the woods?”  What is Jesus doing here—and who is he sending?  Who will we meet when we go? 

So often, when I’ve thought of ministry, it’s felt foreign to me; like something meant for other people.  Don’t you need ironclad faith?  Shouldn’t you have it all together?  Must you have “all the right gifts?”  Don't you need to know the bible well enough to be able to answer every question?  In this day and age, with Christianity declining and congregations struggling, is it wise or even worthwhile to go on a missionary journey at all?

But remember Paul’s dream: when God’s people cry out in need, Jesus responds.  Jesus sends ordinary people like you and me on missionary journeys.  But Jesus doesn’t send you out of guilt or obligation. Jesus sends you so that you can be alive in him!  He goes ahead of you to provide whatever you need, including people.

When people need Jesus and his love, God will always make a way.

You may not think of your life as a missionary journey, but it is.  The journey may take you across continents; to new and unfamiliar territories, or to the places you live, work, and play.  It doesn’t matter.  Jesus isn’t sending you to do his errands.  He isn’t even sending you to convert people.  Jesus is sending you to be a part of what he is already doing.  He is sending you to those who cry out in need and want.  You will meet him in the people you meet, as they meet him in you.  He is sending you share in the new creation he is bringing, for all people.

Every missionary journey begins with prayer.  We close our eyes in prayer so that Jesus is our only focus—for Jesus to reopen our eyes to see what he wants us to see.  This is what we will do as a Church.  We close our eyes to life’s pressures and terrors.  We close our eyes to the bright lights and shiny things beckoning us to self-indulgent pleasure and glory.  Jesus will open your eyes to see those who need Jesus’ life and love that we can share.  Jesus will go before you and make the way to where he wants you to be.  Jesus will draw you to the people with whom you will grow in faith, hope, and love. 

The missionary journey isn’t so much about work as it is about relationships.  We share in the love of Jesus as we share our lives with one another.  The journey may take you near or far, high or low, through perils unknown—but we go because we are journeying straight into the heart of Jesus, into the resurrection of all things.