Sunday, June 12, 2011

Why Pens Are Like the Holy Spirit

Acts 2:1-21


Last week was resurrection Sunday.  No doubt you all remember that Jesus was taken up into heaven on a cloud.  As some of you may be aware, I was at our neighboring church, preaching to the Methodists.  I had the best ideaever for the sermon.  I wanted to rig some kind of harness and pulley system along with a fog machine to lift me out of the sanctuary during the closing remarks of my sermon.  Nobody went for it.  They cited budget concerns among their top reaons for keeping creativity out of the sanctuary.

When I learned from my pastor that I would preaching today, I of course immediatly thought of how to bring this scripture to life in a theatrical way.  Of course, not far into my imaginings, a voice very similar to my pastor's popped into my head using words like "fire marshall" and "arson investigation."  Well, that certainly put a damper on things.  So it is, this morning you get a drama-free sermon.  Common sense won out.  Nobody get to have their head set on fire.

In Acts, which many consider to be our "primary" text for Pentecost, the Holy Spirit shows up amongst a crowd of disciples.  There is a great sound, like a rushing wind, and a tongue of fire rests on each of them, and they are all filled with the Holy Spirit.

Some of the more interesting aspects of this passage for me concern the nature of fire and the word that is translated "Spirit."  Fire is loud.  It requires the presence of oxygen to burn.  It tends to change whatever it touches--be it a forest fire or a backyard bar-b-que, nothing from trees to steaks is the same after it's been touched by flames.

The word for Spirit in the Old Testament is the Hebrew "ruach."  In the New Testament, it is the Greek "pneuma."  Both of these words literally translates "breath."  Beginning all the way back in Genesis, when God "breathed" life into a clump of dirt we call Adam, the spirit of God has been known as breath, and all who breathe are known to be created in the image of God.

The spirit of God is also closely linked with another character in the Bible:  the personification of wisdom.  This may explain the placement of the tongues of flame.  Come to think of it, this may also explain that voice in the back of my mind which spoke against any fiery theatrics this morning.

In our Acts passage, when the Holy Spirit appears, manifested as tongues of flame resting on everyone's head, the people began speaking in different languages; languages which were not their mother tongue.  As though this weren't amazing enough, those listening heard everything as though it were spoken in their own mother tongue.  It would be as though I stood up here this morning speaking Swahili, a language I've never studied, and each of you, knowing I was speaking a foreign language, nonetheless heard my sermon in English.

Some passersby assumed the people were drunk.  Knowing this, Peter stands up and says, "Are you all crazy?!  It's only 9:00 in the morning!"  And then, he starts to preach.  Peter repeats the words of the prophet Joes, assuring the people that God will fulfill the promises which were made.  God will restore to Israel everything that has been taken from her.  And after, God will send the Holy Spirit amongst the people and:

  • your sons and daughters shall prophesy
  • your young men will see visions
  • your old men shall dream dreams
  • both men and women, even those who have never held a place of honor, shall prophesy
  • and everyone who call onthe name of God shall be saved.
All of which seems realy cool to me.  Not only do people get to walk around with their heads in flames and not get burned, and speak in languages they've never known, they alsot get to have visions and dreams and to prophesy--to bring the word of God and the kingdom of God to others.

Paul explains it even further in 1 Corinthians.  He says that to each of us, the Holy Spirit gives gifts.  As an examply today, I've brought some gifts that have been given to me over the years.  For my last birthday, a dear friend gave me this:

It's a pig shaped egg timer.  Totally practical.  Complete whimsy.  It's like getting two gifts in one!  I danced around in raptures of giddy delight when I opened this gift.

A few years ago for Christmas, my best friend gave me this:

That's right, folks!  A toy hippo!  But not just any toy hippo.  This one sings.  And moves.  And it sings the best Christmas song in the history of human kind--Gayla Peevey's I Want a Hippopotamus For Christmas!  My dog, by the way, hates my hippo.  She goes crazy and tries to kill it everytime I play the song.

That same year, I gave my best friend a gift as well.  It's the same gift I gave myself.  A book.  The Tales of Beedle the Bard.  It's like Aesop's Fables for Harry Potter fans.  Rachel thought it was AWESOME!

Shortly after my birthday this year, my best friend and I were hanging out over coffee and she gave me a "just because" gift. 

This is a set of glass pens and colored ink.  Which I use regularly.  As much as email and facebook and the digital world have made instantaneous connections possible, I still prefer to both send and receive (contingent upon your penmanship, of course) hand-written letters.

Now, which of these gifts most resembles the gifts given to us by the Holy Spirit?

(After a moment of silence, someone in our congregation said, "The pens!")

I would agree.  Paul talks about the Spirit giving each of ust gifts at the direction and pleasure of God's will.  The gifts the Holy Spirit gives us are tailor-made for us.  God created us.  God knows us inside and out.  Everything about us is laid bare before our creator.  It should come as no surprise, then, that like each of these gifts my friends have given me, gifts which are surprised and delighted me, which fit me perfectly becuase my friends know me, similarly, God gives us gifts that are uniquely suited to each one of us.  This is because God know us, intimately.

And while I'd like to be able to tell you that the gits given to us by God are a lot like a singing hippo, even that's too far a stretch for my imagination.

No, the gifts we receive from God are more like this one: the pen and ink set my friend gave me. The reason:  my hippo sits on a shelf all year, and once or twice at Christmas, or during a sermon in June, I'll take it out and squeeze its...arm for lack of a better anatomy term, and I'll listen to it sing.  I'll watch it rock back and forth.  And while I delight in using a ridiculous toy as a sermon prop, it's primary purpose, it's sole purpose as a gift given, is my own personal delight.

These pens, on the other hand, though given to me, aren't solely, ore even really for me.  Now, certainly my friend knows me well, and she knew I would delight in receiving these pnes and inks as a gift.  But she also knew that I would use them.  And she knew how I would use them as well:  pulling out my favorite stationery, writing hand-penned letters, sealing envelopes with wax and a brass seal before sending them via US Postal Service to friends near and far.

It is a gift whose primary purpose in use is not for or about me.  The primary purpose of this gift is to bless others.  I use it to give to others.

And that's why I think this gift reflects most clearly the gifts given by the Holy Spirit.

The gifts of the Holy Spirit, be it wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, discernment, speaking in tongues, or interpreting tongues, these gifts are not given to us for our personal delight and private enjoyment.

Rather, they are given for the common good; for the benefit of all.  If you've been given the gift of teaching, how does it serve you to stand up in an empty classroom and teach to a crowd of empty chairs?

If you've been given a gift of music, how does it serve you to stand on a stage and perform to an empty auditorium?

It doesn't.  And it doesn't serve God or anyone else either.  Our gifts, like the ink in these bottles, will dry up if unused.  They will become useless, and will fail to bless us or anyone else.

And the Bible is clear:  the tongues of flame rested on everyone; to each peron is given a gift of the Holy Spirit for the comon good.  No one is exempt.  And no one gets to keep it all for themselves.  We are expected to follow the first rule of kindergarten:  Share!

Whatever gift or gifts you have been given, I hope this week and in the weeks to come you make an opportunity to share it with others.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Witnessing Jesus

Acts 1:1-11

When I was in college, my christian fellowship went on a roadtrip to southern Missouri for a conference.  To make te long trip pass more quickly, our car played a game of "If."  If is a book, subtitled Questions for the Game of Life. 

All of the questions in the book If bgin with he word "if."  If this...then what?  Implied in the question is the expectation that youwill also explain the reasoning behind your answer.  It's a neat game that helps you get to know your friends and yourself a bit better.

Questions run the gamut from the totally expected:  If you had only twenty-four hours to live, what would you do with the time? to the more novel:  If you could keep only one of your five senses, which would it be?  If, what, and the implied why.

During this particular game, one of the first questions stumbled upon in the book, and subsequently asked of the group was, "If you could witness any event in all of history, which event would it be?"

Now, I ended up being the first to answer, and it seems my response set the stage.  "Ooooh," I said excited, "I would want to witness the crucifixion!"

"No, no, no," the driver chimed in, "I'd want to wintness the resurrection!"

"I think I'd pick the ascension," said one of the women in the back seat.  The next hour or so was spent on theological debates, arguments, and explanations for our choices.  All in all, it was pretty cool road trip.

When I read the story of the ascension, it always kind of makes me want to giggle.  It actually reminds me of case studies I read about in my high school psychology class that dealt with the need to conform.  Humans are so geared toward social conformity that if a particular behavior is modeled by person A at a given time and place, subsequent people arriving will follow suit.

For example, studies have been done in which a person gets into a manned elevator, tells the engineer which floor they need and then does not turn around through the entire elevator trip, spending the whole of the trip facing the back wall of the elevator rather than the doors.

What subsequent riders did not know was that this is a social experiment conducted by the rider and the "engineer" who is a plant.  In this experiment some 80% of subsequent elevator riders also end up spending the elevator ride facing the back wall rather than the doors.  The need to conform, to create social cohesion, is just that strong.

It's another experiment in social conformity, however, that really reminds me of today's reading.  In this experiment, the researcher stopped on a busy street and looked up.  Thye said nothing, they did not point.  They merely stood there, looking up toward the tops of the surrounding buildings.

In this case, more than 50% of passersby also stopped to look, creating a larger and larger crowd.  Everyone just standing in the middle of the sidewalk, staring.  The average length of time a person stopped for was over 3 minutes.  When asked what they were looking at, they answered, "I don't know."

This is what comes to mind when I read today's story:  a bunch of people, standing around, staring at...nothing, with no idea what comes next.  And then, two men wearing white robes show up.  I think these "men" are traditionally identified as angels.  And tha identification makes sense.  Why?  Well, some might point to their shiny white dress.

I think a better indication is the fact that they don't act like human beings.  They don't stop and stare as well.  They do not simply ask the men why they are staring.  They also tell them what comes next:  that Jesus will some day return in the same fashion in which he left.

So, these men who have travelled with Jesus since the begin of his ministry three years previous return to Jerusalem to begin the work that Jesus set before them:  that by the power of the Holy Spirit they would become Jesus's witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

This is a charge we have also received, and it's not an easy one to fulfill.  We are fighting agains the very basics of human nature when we choose as Paul stated in Romans, not to "conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but to be tranformed by the renewing of our minds."

This is the exampel Jesus set, and the one to which we are called to be witnesses.  Not merely that Jesus was a miracle worker who was raised from the dead.  Historical record indicates that Jesus was not the only person living in the first century about whom such claims were made.

Rather, Jess, as a religious leader with a rag-tag band of followers was a rebel.  Jesus sought not to conform to the patterns of this world.  He chose not to conform to the pattern and history of spiritual abuses perpetuated by religious authorities in 1st century Jerusalem, nor to meekly accept the physical and economic abuses perpetuated by imperial Roman rule.

Jesus sought instead to transform the religious establishment itself.  Jesus sought to put an end to a system that used people's religious devotion as a means of separating out the "haves" and the "have-nots," of those who were considered worthy and those seen as worth less.  Jesus sought to end an exploitative system of sacrifice in favor of repentence and forgiveness based upon his own once-for-all sacrifice.

And it can't have been easy.  Bullies are everywhere.  And we see them clearly thoughout the gospels--the scribes and Pharisees who plot to destroy Jesus when he won't conform to their ways of doing things, the Roman rulers who sentence Jesus to death for sedition, the soldiers who actually crucify him--following orders.  Again, that drive to conform is so strong in humans--one Roman soldier actually recognizes Jesus as the Son of God, but does nothing to stop the heinous evens to which he is a witness.

Things haven't changed much in the last two thousand years.  The pages of history are littered with such tales.  In 1517, having witnessed the abuses of the Catholic Church--the selling of indulgences which turned the church into little more than a brothel, the increased wealth of the church leaders who exploited the starving masses, the threats of hell for loved ones if people did not pay specified amounts--a German monk by the name of Martin Luther nailed 95 theses to the door of a church in Wittenburg.

Luther was looking to transform a corrupt institution, to return it to its roots as a movement for people who were seeking to be close to God.  He never desire nor intended to start a new religious movement.  But it happened.  And the religious establishment he sought to transform responded much the way the religious elite had responded to Jesus--they sought to have him assassinated.

Ironically, Martin Luther's life was spared because the German princes who were tired of paying papal taxes gave him sanctuary.  And so protestantism began.

Fast forward 400 years, and another German--a Lutheran by the name of Dietrich Bonhoeffer is watching the political climate of his country.  He sses a young, rising star in the political realm using the propaganda of nationalism to gain power.  Bonhoeffer warns of the potential dire consequences of this individual ruling Germany.  No one pays heed.

Adolf Hitler is elected chancellor of Germany.  Hitler's plans to rebuild Germany after the first World War result in the second World War, and the systematic imprisonment and execution of over 6 million Jews, and the immediately slaughter of over 1 million Roma people.

While the majority of the German population conformed through active military serivice or silent ascent, a small group of committed individuals chose to defy their culture.  They sought transformation instead.

Even after his rise to power, Dietrich Bonhoeffer continued to speak out against Hitler.  Having studied at Union Theological Seminary in New Yok in 1936, his classmates and professors were instrumental in getting Bonhoeffer a teaching position at Union, knowing it would be too dangerous for him to remain in Germany.

After a few months, Bonhoeffer gave up his position at Union, and the safety and comfort it afforded him, and he returned to his homeland, saying of Germany that he could have no part in rebuilding her if he abandoned her during her fall.

Bonhoeffer and his family had been plotting the assassination of Adolf Hitler.  When the plan was uncovered, Bonhoeffer was imprisoned.  He continued to write theological treatises, which the S.S. officers at his camp smuggled out for him.  These letters and papers are much beloved and studied by theology students everywhere today.

On the morning he was taken from his cell and walked to the gallows to where he was to be executed for treason, Bonhoeffer was still writing of the love and forgiveness of God, that even in that moment was being extended to the men who would march him to his death.

Twenty years later, Martin Luther King, Jr. would take a stand against racial segregation and injustice in the United States.  He and those who stood alongside him, who marched with him, who sought to carry the light of hope, justice, and equality into the dark places refused to be conformed to the standards of this world, but rather were transformed by the hope of the gospel and sought to transform the world around them as well.  They were beaten, jailed, abused, and many, including King, were killed for their stance.

Doing what is right, living the gospel, seeking to be transformed by God and to be a tranformative agen in the world around us is costly.  It requires that we give up everything--wealth, position, privilege, loved ones--for the sake of the gospel, for the sake of knowing and following Jesus.

Though our natural inclination as humans is conformity and social cohesion, as Christians we are set apart and called to something more.  And while the sacrifices required to do the right thing, to live the gospel wherever we happen to find ourselves might be great, we are never called to do it alone.

God has promised not to leave us as orphans.  Jesus has sent to us what God has promised:  we have been clothed with power form on high.  we have been given the Holy Spirit, the very presence of God as our helper, comforter, sustainer, advocate, and friend.

It is through the Holy Spirit that we choose not to be conformed to the pattern of this world, but to be transformed and transformative instead.  It is by the power of the Holy Spirit that we can choose to love our enemies.  By the power of the Holy Spirit, we can, so far as it depends on us, live at peace with everyone.  By the power of the Holy Spirit, we are able, if our enemy is hungry, to feed him; if he is thirsty, to give him something to drink.

By the power of the Holy Spirit, we are able not to be overcome by evil, but rather to overcome evil with good.  In so doing, we fulfill the call of Jesus in the final chapter of Luke's gospel.  In doing what is right rather than what is easy, in choosing transformation over conformity, in seeking justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with the Spirit of God, we truly become witnesses of Jesus to the world, and we bring his tranformative power to those around us.