Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The promise and power of Pentecost . . .

     In the liturgical seasons of the Church, we have made it to that one day when we begin to recognize our inheritance as first born sons and daughters of God the Father and to live our lives as if we believe we are who He says we are.  This day in the church we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit to empower and enlighten us to discern and to accomplish those things which God has given us to do.  Truthfully, here at St. Alban’s, I have a hard time with a sermon for this day.  Non-Christians and lapsed Christians and doubters and seekers will show up on Easter and Christmas, but it is more likely those active in the church and aware of what He has done who come this day.  In a sense, it is a day when I could rightfully read the Gospel and give us some silence to ponder the enormity of what has been given to each of us.  But, I think sometimes, in the parochialism of our lives, we sometimes miss just how busy the Holy Spirit is in the world around us.  We might recognize a healing miracle, but do we always notice the coming of the Holy Spirit into our midst in great power and the wonderful works that are accomplished to the honor and glory of God?

     I must say, part of the reason I have been so busy these last few weeks has been a direct result of that Spirit at work in and through many of you.  But I wonder if we spend enough time reflecting upon both the enormity of the Spirit’s work and the Spirit’s attention to even the small things in our lives or even our very selves?  By that, you and I and the rest of the world are always looking for the obvious miracles in our lives as signs that we are doing those things He has called us to do and as signs that we have earned His favor.  In truth, you and I should always remember that the real proof of His love to us and the proof of His ability to keep His promises to each one of us was His work on the cross and His Resurrection.  But, like the Pharisees and Sadducees, we like the flashy miracles.  Even in that, though, God has been faithful.  Three people given to our prayer chain have either been cured of or presumed to have been misdiagnosed as having cancer in the last month.  We could spend a few hours here celebrating those healings and a couple others, and this would be a memorable day in many of our lives.  But I think we need to look both bigger and deeper.

     I say bigger because of the ministries to which we have been called as a group.  It is hard not to think of Human Trafficking as an obvious example of that bigger working of the Holy Spirit.  To the extent that a little $100k budget church dared to start a fight with a $300B industry, it is obvious that the Spirit is every bit as powerful today as it was that day so long ago recorded in Acts.  But think bigger for a second.  Raise your hand if you ever thought, nearly five years ago, that Roman Catholics, non-denoms, Baptists, Methodists, Episcopalians, Anglicans, and people outside the faith would be united in this particular fight.  You might have hoped in your wildest dreams once you recognized the reality of modern slavery that such would come to pass (after all, we did experience that with Angel Food in the fight against hunger), but can you honestly say you saw this as an outcome in the beginning?  How about as little as two years ago?  And now we Christians, who have significant and serious disagreements among ourselves, to the dishonor and slander of our Bridegroom, find ourselves united in our insistence that the cross and the empty tomb must be shared with those recovered victims in our midst, that they might find true healing and true hope, as opposed to the coping the secular world wants to teach.  We are divided in so many ways, yet locally we seem to speak about this issue in one voice.  Is that not the obvious working of the Spirit in all our lives?

     I must say, I have also had the privilege of watching a parish have this kind of leading and discernment from the outside as they go through a particular struggle.  The struggle, I think, is part of the natural maturation process of a church.  By that, I mean that the struggles are not unexpected.  Though it may be natural and may be expected does not obviate the fact that the process is full of all kinds of pitfalls.  As they began to consider whether their plant should move into a permanent space, God has been working powerfully in their midst.  Taking on a mortgage or rent payment is a huge step in the life of a church.  What if the church overreaches?  What if the neighbors are bad?  What if the fact that the church has permanent location actually turns off those who like the nomadic existence?

     Typically, as you all would expect from Fr. Bryan’s leadership, the Vestry was encouraged to fast and to pray about the opportunity that presented itself.  Was this of God?  Was it not?  As is so often the case, the answer became visible to more and more people, both on the Vestry and in the parish.  When they had first entertained the space, the potential landlord was going to be charging rent.  Within the last few weeks, however, he changed his mind.  Test out the space.  See if it meets your needs.  See if you can settle there permanently.  From his perspective, a permanent resident tenant might cut down on vandalism.  His decision was made purely on economic terms, but look at the impact on the church:  one cause for concern eliminated.

      When they began to meet for the final decision making meeting, and I am skipping tons here, one of their members was compelled to answer a question.  I say compelled because this member considers herself uneducated and uniquely unqualified to lead other Christians or to speak on such matters with any authority.  And I will tell you that, on the basis of secular judgments about such things, she is absolutely right.  Yet here she was, with all her baggage, speaking into the process and naming those things that needed to be named and binding and casting out those things which were evil and loosing those things which were of God.  Of all those in her parish to say the things she said, she was the least likely.  To put it in terms that you or I can understand, think of how unlikely it would be for Jane or Linda to ask me to preach during church.  My guess is, knowing Jane and Linda, the devil will be bundled in a snowsuit before that day comes voluntarily.  Yet this parish found just such an individual leading their discussions and discernment.  To some, her very willingness to speak and her ability to articulate were the final piece of discernment that they needed.  And so they acted.  Were there fears real?  You bet.  Could there be a failure?  Perhaps.  But, collectively, the church had been given its obvious sign in response to their prayer and fasting.  God had answered powerfully, and they could only choose to be obedient to their discernment.

     Bigger movements of the Holy Spirit seem to get all the attention, but I was reminded of the personal attention given by God’s Spirit this week.  While these big events were going on, lives were being lived and lives were being lost.  Nowhere was this more obvious than in the ICU at Genesis East.  As most of you know, I have spent a lot of time there over the past three weeks.  As I arrived during the middle of last week, Jan was sleeping.  Occupational therapy had worn Jan out, so she was sleeping.  The came the cries of ultimate suffering.  Those of you who have ever heard people wail and sob when a loved one is dying and there is no hope know what I heard.  I must confess, I did not want to deal with it.  The nurses came and needed me to leave as they worked on Jan, so I retreated to a section of one of the three ICU waiting rooms to wait for the nurses to finish rather than walk over to the next room over.  Wouldn’t you know it, the family came into my section in my waiting room sobbing.  Now, I have the discernment skills of a slug, but even I am not that blind.  I listened to the crying and anger and hopelessness until the opportunity presented itself.  The family was being asked to take the lady of life support.  Everything but her heart had ceased working.  Doctors told the family there was no hope.  And the family was unable to let the lady go.

     As I was sitting in the room listening to the anguish, I was struck at the difference between the Chapman clan and this family.  Jan and her family, at various times during this ordeal, had been given difficult news and not great prognoses during the course of her treatment.  The difference between the two families was pronounced.  Both families were worried; both were scared.  But one family believed that Christ had died and had risen.  One family had that peace that passes all understanding.  How they faced the death of a loved one was entirely different.  One had hope despite the fear and possible mourning; the other had no hope.  I will say, by way of my obvious duties, I spoke into that hopeless situation.  As it turns out, the lady dying was a woman of faith.  Her children and grandchildren and others did not share her faith in our Lord, but she was, by their accounts, a Christian woman “for all the good it did her now.”  I was able to remind them that it was for this moment in her life that He died.  It was to give them and her hope at this moment that God raised Him from the dead.  What if it is a joke?  What if Jesus is dead?  Then, to be sure, she is to be pitied for living her life as if it were true.  But have you all asked the question of yourself, “What if it is true?  What if He is alive today and claims her as His own?”  Even in the midst of painful news and decisions, the Holy Spirit is still comforting.  Even in the midst of fighting slavery through us and helping churches discern God’s will, the Spirit is reaching into families. 

     The last story that I choose to share this week is of one that you know well, but do not know.  Those of us who read the papers inBettendorf might be aware that a particular individual was returned to our community.  His crime is of such a nature that no one will ever forget.  He will be, if he has not already, moving out of state to avoid the infamy.  Those of you with a couple year’s memory might remember our good friend and fellow laborer “Larry from Houston.”  It turns out that Larry was forced to deal with this individual.  Without going into too much detail, this was the last kind of person that Larry with whom Larry would want (or most of us) to have dealings.  But, as Larry said, that is how were are all seen by God before we plead the cross and Resurrection of Christ.

     As Larry was dealing with him, the young man opened up.  Larry, it seems, had been the first person to treat him with any respect since he returned to the community.  The young man told Larry that he sees the disappointment in his mother’s and father’s eyes every time he talks to them, and rightfully so.  Worse, he hears the whispers and catcalls of total strangers.  As they were driving down Locust, the young man asked Larry for an accounting of his behavior.  Larry pulled over into the Hy—Vee parking lot and answered all his questions.  At the end of their conversation, the young man asked the question of the Ethiopian Eunuch:  “What must be done for me to get that peace?”  Larry told him that God only asked that we say the sinner’s prayer and repent of all our sins. “Would you teach me the prayer?”  Larry showed up in my office after having dropped off the young man, newly forgiven, begging forgiveness.  When he told me the whole tale, I asked “for what?”  I forgot the prayer and may have given him the wrong words.  “Did he repent?”  I think so.  “Then no guilt attaches.  In fact, great joy attaches.”  How do you figure?  “Because one who was lost found his way home thanks to your testimony.”  But my pastor is going to kill me?  “Why?”  Because I forgot the words of the prayer?  “I doubt it, but if he does, I think heaven will still be throwing the confetti when you get there if he does.”  While doing the “grand” and “big” things in life, the Holy Spirit is still speaking into the lives of individuals, and redeeming those who were lost.

     This day, brothers and sisters, we remind ourselves that God has kept a promise to send us power and gifts, both of which are to be used to His honor and glory.  That same Spirit, about which we read in Acts and John this morning, brothers and sisters, is every bit as active today as it was then.  The question is whether we have eyes to see and ears to hear the Holy Spirit at work not just in the world around us, but in our own lives and our own hearts.  The feast of Pentecost, brothers and sisters, is one that ought to have the same importance in our lives as Christmas and Easter.  As those days signify God’s desire to reach out to us and bridge the chasm that exists between us and Him, Pentecost reminds us that He has already begun to keep His promises to us.  It is a day which signifies that you and I and all whom have accepted His call on their hearts have started that process by which He turns us each into priests in His eternal kingdom.  It is that day which reminds us that we are witnesses of the healing that He brings to the world around us and to individual lives like our own, and given a commission and power to take that tale of hope into the world, that He might be glorified, and His kingdom enlarged through the faithful obedience of men and women like ourselves. 

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