Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Not just children, but heirs!

     I had one of those unexpected fun weeks when it comes to planning the liturgy.  I try to stay far enough ahead of Tina that I do not slow her down.  One of those places where I can gum up the works is in the readings.  We often have choices of readings during the Season after Pentecost.  I’m sure everyone here remembers my brilliant sermons on the so-called history tract reading three years ago.  If you are hoping for reruns, though, you will be disappointed.  This year, we will journey the prophets’ tract.  But do not worry.  Three years from now we will be back to the history readings.
     Anyway, I had a choice to make this week and had not ahead of time.  Tina needed me to choose.  Just so you know, our choices were Genesis, Romans, and Acts 2.  Since it is the Feast of Pentecost, we had to do Acts 2, right?  I mean, it would be weird not to read the story of the Holy Spirit alighting on the Apostles and causing them to speak Median and Persian and whatever other languages.  That meant I had to choose between Genesis and Romans, which is from my perspective, unfortunate, as one cannot understand Paul’s teaching on the body in Romans 8 without understanding his view on creation.  See the dilemma?
     I suppose I was already in a Romans frame of mind thanks to the evangelical work of a relatively new attendee at our services at the Fountains.  This actually serves as a bit of a reminder about the nature of Christ’s Body, the Church, in the world.  Something that is made possible by the coming of and empowering of the Body by the Holy Spirit.
     For those new to Advent, we do a monthly service at a step up facility down in Franklin.  Thanks to the work of Bobbi Krieger and a couple ladies at that home, we were invited starting a couple years ago, to come and celebrate the Eucharist for those living there who are liturgically minded.  The parish’s investment in this particular ministry is more emotional and volunteer time consuming rather than financial.  I go every month, as do those who give time to serve as Chalice Bearers.  Joshua always goes to help lead the Psalm.  Attendance can range from as few as two or three to a high of two dozen or so.  It can be emotionally taxing for volunteers as we tend to value big numbers, right?  So I have to remind us from time to time that we are ministering to our brothers and sisters who are ministering constantly in the valley of the shadow of death.  Few months go by where The Fountains residents are not talking about the loss of another resident.  That means few months go by where those who attend our services do not need to be reminded of the truth and promise of the Resurrection and to be nourished again by the Body and Blood of our Lord in the Sacrament.  To the extent that everyone present gives or prays or volunteers in that work, you make that ministry possible.  In a real way, it is a Pentecostal ministry of this parish.
     Last week, a new lady showed up and asked beforehand if she could come.  She shared she was a faithful Jew, but that Bill had invited her.  At first she thought he was hitting on her, but he was clearly excited by things he had learned in our church service.  When she commented that she really did not know why churches did the things they did, Bill told her to come and ask me like he did!  So, she asked if it would be ok if she stayed.  Immediately, my mind went to Romans.  For those who work to spread the Gospel of Christ among our Jewish brothers and sisters, Romans is the template.  If you want to understand how a faithful Jew views the world and God, Romans is awesome reading.  If you want to point out how Christ was the promised seed of Abraham and even Eve, again, Romans is the place to be.
     I tell you all of that so you know why are readings are what they are.  It’s not always random.  Worse, I don’t always get it right.  I may have been working from Romans early in the week, and Romans may not be the reading and teaching you need to hear today, but at least you know I have not lost my mind today.  OK.  Maybe that’s a bit too ambitious.  Maybe you understand the method to my madness this week!  It’s ok, it’s a festival day.  You can laugh and be joyful.
     Before we delve into these four verses penned by the Apostle Paul, we need to do a bit of background work.  One cannot read chapter 8 of Romans without some deep foundations in Paul’s understanding of God and the cosmos.  I know folks in the modern Church love to cast aside Paul, present his writings and teachings, as if he has a different Gospel than that of Jesus Christ.  You may have heard preachers from time to time express regret that so-called “Pauline Christianity” dominates the world rather than the teaching of Christ Jesus.  Nothing could be further from the truth.
     Paul was a zealot for the Lord long before his encounter with the resurrected Jesus.  Paul went to the best schools, studied under the best rabbi of the time, and was a fast riser in the Temple leadership.  Our introduction to Paul by Luke shows him in his former office as the chief persecutor of those who follow Jesus of Nazareth.  He holds the coats of those who stone Stephen to death, approving their actions in light of what he views as Stephen’s blasphemy.
     Paul is so steeped in the torah and the prophets and the wisdom of God that he finds Jesus’ claims, and those of His disciples, that Jesus is the Son of God and the Son of Man to be blasphemous.  To claim sonship in Paul’s mind is to claim equality.  No human being is equal to God.  Exclamation point!
     Then, on a journey to Damascus, he has an encounter that completely changes his life.  He encounters the Risen Jesus.  Use whatever expression you like, but Paul’s mind is literally blown.  Things like this cannot happen.  Jesus died on a tree—clearly He was cursed by God.  Jesus dies—the Romans are really good at killing people.  It’s not as if those soldiers were incompetent.  Yet, Jesus stood before him and asked him why he was persecuting Him.  I see the nods.  You remember the story.
     Skeptics or doubters among us will, naturally, wonder if Paul was that bad of a guy.  Was he really a good persecutor of the Church.  Never mind, for a second, Jesus’ question of Paul.  How do the followers of Jesus respond to the Lord’s instruction that they pray over Paul?  Uhm, Lord, you know he imprisons and sells our brothers and sisters, and he confiscates their wealth.  You sure You have the right guy in mind to take Your Gospel to the Gentiles?  Again and again we will read accounts of the early disciples distrusting Paul.  Understandably so.  But Paul, as single minded as he was in his zeal for the Lord still is!
     What happens in the interim is that Paul goes off, tradition has it for three years, to reconcile what he knows and what he has been taught to be true about God and his experience with the Risen Jesus on the road to Damascus.  Using fancier language, we would say that Paul has a new piece of data for his systematic theology.  God does not honor blasphemers; yet he met the Risen Jesus.  How can this be?  I can easily imagine Paul combing the torah, the prophets, and the wisdom literature of God in order to reconcile what seems in his mind, and maybe even to ours, to be irreconcilable.  Like us, Paul is led to that wonderful conclusion that Jesus really was who He said He was and is.  As Jesus reminds Philip today in our Gospel, the works that He did testified to Jesus’ identity.  He exhibits power over demons.  He controlled the weather.  He fed crowds in the wilderness.  He raised the dead.  He healed in the synagogues and in the Temple on the Sabbath.  Who but God could do such things?  And Paul has met Him!
     Meeting Jesus after His death, Resurrection, and Ascension causes a foundational shift in Paul’s understanding about God.  Though he did not understand his preparation at first as such, he, a Jew’s Jew and zealous for the Lord, is perfectly prepared to become the Apostle to the Gentiles and instructor for even the wider Church.
     Today, we see one such teaching spelled out in four simple verses.  Well, they are four easy to read and easy to understand verses, but the significance is anything but easy.  First, those of us who claim Christ as Lord are what?  Time to wake up and participate--this is the liturgy of the Word, after all.  What are we, according to Paul?  That’s right.  Children of God.  What does that mean?  Two things, right?  First, we should remind ourselves that we who have been baptized into Christ’s death and promised a share in His Resurrection and glory, share in all things with our Lord Christ.  First among them is this leading by the Holy Spirit.
     Think back fourteen weeks ago or so.  Who was first led by the Holy Spirit?  Jesus.  That’s right.  Where was He led?  To be tempted by Jesus?  Technically, that happens as a result of the locale, but where was He led by the Holy Spirit?  I heard it.  The wilderness.  Now, we know what happens in the wilderness—Jesus undergoes the Messianic Temptations.  Satan tries to lure Jesus from the path ordained by the Father, in much the same way as he lured Adam and Eve.  Satan offers Jesus false glory but no pain and suffering.  Jesus chooses the path of the Cross and the glory that comes from God that we might all be redeemed.  With me so far?
     Have you ever stopped to consider that you are led by the Holy Spirit?  You are.  Some of us just do not recognize the promptings and urgings of the Spirit as well as others.  Use the Fountains as an example.  What, do you think, prompted Bobbie to ask me about doing a Eucharist there?  What prompted her to go to the staff?  What prompted the staff to decide that a Eucharist might feed or help some of their residents?  What prompted volunteers to give up a couple hours on Sunday afternoons to minister to a small crowd?  What has kept us, as a Church, from making secular judgments about the “success” of that particular ministry?  The Holy Spirit.  Again, skeptics may think all this a coincidence or just a church doing what churches do, but do either of those seem likely?  I mean, that’s a lot of coincidence.  It’s not exactly random forces and atoms bouncing around to create a solar system and life on earth, but there’s a bunch in this little ministry, if it is not of God.  And as to churches being churches, do churches really have a reputation right now of ministering to non-members walking in the shadow of death?
     You and I are prodded by the Spirit, just as was our Lord, to the wilderness.  You might call it work; you might call it your club; you might call it your school; you might call it your exercise facility.  But you and I are driven to unsafe places in the world and anointed as God’s heralds, as His ambassadors, in those places.  Here, at church, we are taught and fed and prepared.  But there is where the real work begins.  There, through our persistent ministering, through our persistent presence, through our persistent obedience, God is glorified in our lives and people hear and see His Gospel in our lives.  To put it in simpler, but far more comprehensive terms, it is in the wildernesses of our lives that we begin to claim Christ’s Resurrection.
     Think I’m nuts.  Let’s consider it.  When Rich came eighteen months ago and talked about hunger insecurity in our midst, and y’all were inspired by his talk, who here thought we had the resources or energy to end hunger in our area?  Come on, raise your hands high!  What, nobody thought we’d end hunger around us if we joined that fight, if we followed the prodding of the Holy Spirit into that particular wilderness.  Why?  Lack of young energy?  Lack of money to buy enough food for that many people?  Lack of vision?  Lack of organization?  All the above and more?
     How has that ministry played out?  We have distributed tons of food.  Not pounds of food.  Tons!  Has it impacted our operational budget at all?  Hmmm.  You mean we had enough financial resources, after all?  Ok, then, we are all exhausted from the doing it, right?  I mean, Hilary and Nancy and Jerry and my kids and me and others who have really done some heavy lifting are exhausted and moaning and barely moving because we are so tired, right?  Wait, you mean we’ve had enough strength?  You mean others have joined us to lend their strength in the middle of this feeding effort?  Well, at least Hilary knew how it would play out when she came and volunteered to take leadership of the ministry off my plate, right?  I mean, she knew we would be supplying clothes and personal items to those who came to our new pantry way back when she started.  She had a plan for getting our food to the local schools.  She had a plan for plugging in with ESL and other groups to expand the reach of the ministry.  Heck, she knew we needed those red bags long before Andrea ever had the idea.  She just had to wait for Andrea to figure it out.  Why is everybody laughing?  Hilary, I don’t think they think you plan and organize as well as I think you do!
     I see the elbows and hear the chatter.  That ministry has led to other tangential but important ministries, right?  How many Adventers does it take to cook 22 casseroles for the homeless in Nashville?  I’m not entirely sure, but I know a lot of you have a lot of fun gathering for cooking, wine, and fellowship in the kitchen to prepare a bunch of them, and others of you love cooking them on your own.
     Have we conquered hunger in our area?  Of course not.  People are still hungry.  But what of those who have received the food we have provided or prepared?  How do they view us?  Ask those who work the pantry.  They have heard the stories.  We helped something like 113 individuals last month.  They see us as the difference between starving and paying electric bills or buying gasoline.  They see us as the church that helped them bridge a gap in income due to illness.  I have had elderly folks thank me that you gave them food so that they could purchase medicine.  I have had children hug me because you had “fancy chocolate Advent bunnies” for them.  We may not have conquered the evil of hunger in Nashville, but there are hundreds of folks who thank God for you, who see you as life savers.
     What other evils do we attack because of the prodding of the Holy Spirit?  Good Neighbors has no delusion that they will fix the attitudes that some have toward immigrants and refugees, but that reality does not prevent them from trying to live into their name.  I don’t think any of us thinks we can fix all that is wrong with our local school system, but our ministry to students and teachers, particularly over time, will remind them of the truth and hope they can have in the Gospel of Christ.  Heck, I get credit and blame around here for my work in the fight against slavery.  Neither of us have any delusion that I will stop that abomination, but some of you encourage me in that work, and many of you tolerate it, confident that God will do more than we can ask or imagine.
     What of your personal ministries?  What is it that God has called you to do that, had you understood before you said yes, you would never have done?  Those, too, were proddings of the Holy Spirit into the wildernesses of your lives.
     Why this focus on the proddings of the Holy Spirit in our lives, collectively and individually?  One, those proddings remind you that your are children of God.  You have a share in Christ’s ministry in the world.  For reasons known only to Him, God wants to use you to reach into the lives of those around you.  Put differently, He wants to use you as little “i” incarnations.  Your obedience and your sufferings will cause Him to be glorified in your life, and others will turn to Him because of your faithfulness and His empowerment.  All that, of course, is made possible through the coming of the Holy Spirit, which we celebrate this day in the Church.
     The second reason, though, is to remind you that God is not satisfied with you thinking of yourself simply as a child of His.  I know, we think that’s a great compliment, and it is the way we think of it, but it pales compared to Paul’s understanding.  Paul lived in a time and culture that thought of paternity and children much differently.  As the footprint of the Roman Empire increased, so did emulation of its cultural practices.  One horrible practice was the absolute power of the patriarch over every aspect of life in the family.  One extension of that power was that the patriarch decided whether the child born to the wife was his and/or whether he could afford to raise it.  If the dad had suspicions about a wife’s fidelity or worries about his ability to provide financially, fathers could have the babies discarded.  They could even sell the babies or other children into slavery, such was their authority in the Empire.  Places that emulated Rome more thoroughly had the infants placed in what you and I call the dump, where the infants were left to die of exposure.
     Ladies, imagine yourself in such a culture.  You have carried a life within you to term.  You have felt the kicking, the hiccups, the life within you, and your ability to care for that little child was dependent upon the whim of the father, or in some instances, the grandfather.  Can you imagine the anxiety of birth?  As bad as the physical pain is, what would be the mental anguish of birthing into such circumstances?
     Understandably, a big sigh of release was heard when a husband or other patriarch declared a child a member of the family.  I can well imagine the tension in the household being physically oppressive in the weeks and days leading up to the birth.  When Paul speaks of a spirit of slavery and spirit of fear and oppression, it’s that spirit that I hear as a student of Greek and Roman culture, in particular.  I know it’s hard for us to imagine family dysfunction in other families because our own families have no subscriptions or issues, but can you imagine someone with whom you had a fight making that decision?  Can you imagine an estranged relationship playing into that decision to keep or expose a child?
     Dads, and God, of course, were not done.  Being named a child was one thing.  Being named an heir, though, was quite another!  I know, you all know the stories about how emperors would play family members against one another.  It seems cruel and mean-spirited by our standards.  But being made heir of the patriarch was, at least locally, as important as being made an heir to the emperor.  Heirs were educated.  Heirs were trained.  Certain legal rights were bestowed upon them at the naming.  Perhaps most importantly, of course, was the fact that the heir would receive the power and influence and wealth of the patriarch when he finally died.  Oh, and lest we forget, daughters could not be heirs.  Daughters could not inherit any of the rights, privileges, or benefits available to a son.  Daughters were often viewed as a drain on the family.  Dowries were provided to marry them off, to shift the burden of them to someone else.
     And I get that what I have shared with you was especially true of the aristocracy.  The more powerful you were in Rome, the more these social conventions governed your behavior.  But, as today, the rich and famous unduly influenced those beneath them.  Just like so many today were particular designers or fragrances or follow particular diets because of the endorsement of the rich and famous, commoners wanted to be like those who ruled them.
     It does not take us long to begin to understand the intrigue and plotting that occurred in families during Roman times, does it?  Heck, we who claim God’s people as our spiritual ancestors have no similar story.  Ooops, what about that whole Jacob and Esau fiasco?  What was the point of Jacob adopting Joseph’s sons as his own?  Inheritance was an important aspect of family life even in the far away lands of Judea and Egypt.
     Now, when you hear Paul talk about child and heir, you should be hearing a polemic against the culture in which Paul ministered.  When you hear any of the early Church Apostles and disciples talking about a simple phrase, Our Father in heaven, you should have a greater appreciation for the relationship described in that prayer.  Our Lord is the Father we all wanted.  Our Lord is the Father who rules the family for the welfare and benefit of all its members, not just the favorite ones.  Our Father in heaven is THE father of His daughters, daughters who were created in His image and bearers of His image on earth every bit as much as the boys.  And, unlike the society in which Paul ministered, girls. . . women have no cause to worry.  They are His children—loved and adored and cared for by that loving Father in heaven.
     More significantly, as Paul reminds us this morning, that coming of the Holy Spirit that we celebrate today confirms us all as heirs of God, not just children.  We are promised by God, and we receive that Holy Spirit and its proddings, cognizant of the fact that He has named us not only His children, but His heirs!  And though we do not live in a day and age nearly as patriarchal, we should all begin to grasp some parts of its significance both in that culture and our own.
     If we are being driven into the wildernesses of our lives, then we know we are inheritors!  If we are in that place where we think of our Lord as our Father in heaven, we are inheritors!  If we pledge ourselves to God in baptism, and work to do as He taught, we are inheritors!  My brothers and sisters, do you understand the significance?  We often speak of God doing more than we can ask or imagine because we do not understand at all what He intends for us, but how many of us think of us truly sharing in the glory of Christ, truly sharing in the reign of Christ, truly being exalted and vindicated before all in the next life?  So many of us would be happy just to live forever on a cloud with a harp.  So many of us would be happy to discover we won’t be cast into hell for eternity.  How many of us really ponder the significance of God’s promises to us, promises that are confirmed by the gift of the Holy Spirit which we celebrate this day!  And Paul sums it up for us in four short but significant verses.
     Brothers and sisters, Pentecost occurs at the end of that season where our primary focus has been resurrection.  We begin the season focusing on our Lord’s Resurrection and meaning for us.  But, as we progress through the season, that resurrection that we have all come to expect as a future event in our lives becomes a pressing expression of our present.  Do we live as if we believe the Tomb is empty?  As Paul will continue in this letter, accepting His adoption of us is made possible only through the Resurrection.  Because we trust in Him and cling to His promises, we trust that He will keep His promises to us and rescue us even from death.  That rescue, nay even those promises, are trustworthy because we have seen His Spirit at work in the life of our Lord Christ just as we have seen His Spirit at work in our own lives and the lives of those around us.  And like our Lord, who was obedient and trusting, we lay down our lives, we lay down our privileges, and we lay down our expectations that others might be drawn into His saving embrace and live!  And in that laying down my friends, we are confirmed as heirs of His eternal glory!  That is something worth celebrating every bit as much as it is worth sharing, both 2000 years ago in the Roman Empire, and today in this Empire we call home!

In Christ’s Peace,

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Exalting Jesus and equipping and empowering us!

     If ever there was a remnant of God’s faithful people, I’m guessing this is it.  It is terrible unfortunate and a sign of the poor catechesis in the Church that Ascension Day is so ignored today.  To continue a discussion we had last Thursday at Wrestling with Faith, the Ascension is of such importance that its acceptance is one of those beliefs which defines us as Christians.  Every time we gather for the Eucharist, we remind ourselves that He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.  From there He will come again to judge the living and the dead.  Rejecting the Ascension in the early Church made one an anathema, outside, the Church.  Luke reports that the early disciples saw with their own eyes this event take place.  It has tremendous theological and pastoral meaning to us, yet few liturgical folks bother to attend the service that commemorates the event, to say nothing of those churches where the Ascension gets nary a mention.  So, why are we commemorating it and what is its significance to us in modern Nashville?
     The need for the service arose out of a couple sermons several months ago.  Truthfully, I was not focused on adding another service to our calendar, but some lines I had stated caused some interesting pastoral conversations.  One week I mentioned the comfort we should have knowing that our Lord Christ makes constant intercession for us, and some Adventers got to arguing with me about whether He does, in fact, do that.  Another week, maybe Trinity Sunday last year, I spoke briefly about the Holy Spirit incorporating us into that intimate relationship we call the Trinity through the work and person of Jesus Christ and the grace of the Father.  At the time, neither were my focus, but both flow as a result of our understanding about Christ’s Ascension.  Since the Ascension is an essential of the faith, we should be more familiar with it and some of the consequences of those essentials.  Add the overall struggle in some quarters of this parish with the creeds, and it simply makes sense that we need to focus a bit on the essentials more at Advent.  How better to do that than through worship?
     First, as a couple commentators and colleagues pointed out over the last week or so, we are wrong to understand Ascending in a rising above sense.  You and I live in a culture that has gone to the moon, sent probes out of our solar system, and has a couple television channels devoted exclusively to meteorological events.  When we think of Ascension, we probably think of Jesus rising and fading from view.  I see the nods.  That is not necessarily what the Apostles and disciples who witnessed the event described.
     Part of our problem is that we know clouds are up there, right?  Some of us who watch too much of the Weather Channel can probably name all the different clouds in the sky.  What the Apostles were describing, though, was less a meteorological event and more a theological event.  The cloud that conceals Jesus from their site is our clue.
     When Israel is led from Egypt in the Exodus, what shields them by day and illumines their path by night?  That’s right!  A cloud.  When Moses and the elders are gathered in the Tabernacle during the wandering in the wilderness, what signifies to the camp that God is speaking with Moses or the elders?  Too tricky?  That’s right!  A cloud.  Ok, here’s one for serious students of the Scriptures.  What does the Chronicler say happens in 2 Chronicles 5 at the dedication of the Temple, when the priests are trumpeting and the Levites are well dressed, and the people are thanking God?  The Temple is filled with a cloud.  In fact, the Chronicler records that the cloud was so thick that no one could minister to the Lord.  All right, let’s try one more easy one: what signifies to the prophet that God is going to allow His people to be defeated and carried into exile?  What leaves the Temple?  Did you know it or just guess?  That’s right, the cloud.
     When we read Luke’s description of what happened, it is the glory of God, the Hebrew word is shekinah, that we should be seeing in our minds.  Describing God is a challenge for mortals, right?  How does one describe the glory of God that is unfathomable and present and thick and all those other adjectives?  How do we describe something that is simply beyond our comprehension?  Earlier folks used the image of a cloud.  It makes sense.  It cannot be fully comprehended; part of it is never really seen.  What the Apostles saw with their own eyes was the Lord returning to the glory of God.  Was it a real lifting up in height?  Was it a dimensional gate?  Our language, were we to witness it, would struggle, too, to describe it.  But, we would all be trying to express that our Lord’s Incarnation and Resurrection has, for a time at least, ended; and that He has returned to the glory of the Father who sent Him.  So, instead of thinking of this as the day where Jesus rose up into the sky among the clouds, we should really understand that this is the day where our Lord was exalted and returned to the Father who sent Him, who loved Him before the foundation of the world.
     While we can wrestle with what our disciples saw and try and translate it into our own language that thinks it has an answer for everything, those wrestlings have nothing to do with the why.  Why is the exultation of Jesus important?  Why did our early forebears insist on this event being accepted by others who claimed to be Christian?  Why is it important for us to remember it today in 21st century Nashville?  It seems to me there are at least three reasons why we remember this day, why it is important to those of us who claim to be followers of the Christ Jesus.
     First, it is the completion of the Incarnation and the beginning of the time after Pentecost.  Jesus Himself told the disciples that He must return to the Father and that if they loved Him they would rejoice at His returning, but that He would not leave them comfortless.  Jesus’ exaltation enables the coming of the Holy Spirit.  While on earth in fully human and fully divine form, all that we attribute to God was particularly focused on and around the presence of the Incarnation.  Now, Jesus’ exultation allows all of God’s power, redemptive grace, wisdom, and the like to be incarnated with a little ‘I” in the members of the Body of Christ.  You and I and every single person who really is Christian are promised empowerment to accomplish the things that God has given us to do.  We act in Nashville; others act elsewhere in this country; others act in every country around the world.  All of us are called to act, called to work, called to minister to others that God might be glorified in our lives so that others turn and are saved!
     Does that mean God was limited in human form?  Yes and no.  We call it a condescension because Jesus left the exaltation of the Father to descend to our existence, to suffer as we suffer, to redeem our sins and the sins of everyone who would claim Him Lord.  No doubt God’s grace was active and alive and vibrant in the world during Jesus’ earthly ministry, but God is still God.  God chose to limit Himself in human form and to exercise this earthly ministry, to become the Living Word, for the purpose of drawing the world to Himself.  And during that ministry, Jesus exercised amazing power, miraculous power, and we gather here tonight in fulfilment of His purposes.  Think on that.
      Now, though, we are His Body.  You and I would say we are mystically joined with Christ and He with us.  We exercise ministry in His name that He might be glorified.  And when we sin, we repent and try again.  When others sin against and repent, we forgive and let them try again.  I see faces looking a bit strange.  Y’all are wrestling with the liturgy, aren’t you?  We don’t think them empty words, exactly, but we do not spend nearly enough time contemplating what they say.  Yes, we are empowered by the holy Spirit to do that work God has given us to do.  Some of us get easy work, right?  Not really.  Even the easy work requires the presence of the Holy Spirit to get it right.  The problems of hunger or poverty or any social injustice are beyond our ability to solve.  No matter how many people we feed, how many impoverished we help, how many folks suffering from injustice we assist, there will always be more.  If we understood the scopes of the problems which He calls us to act against in His name, how many of us would ever take that first step?  But, Jesus is there, at the right hand of the Father, interceding with the Father to give us exactly what we need to glorify Him.
     This, naturally, leads to my second importance.  Now that Jesus has returned to the glory of God, now that He has been exalted, He is able to make intercessions on behalf of each one of us.  Better still, because He is God, He asks the Father to give us the things we best or most need.  What do I mean?  Look, I try to be a faithful shepherd and steward.  Few Adventers argue that with me, at least publicly.  God has entrusted me for a time to lead you to Him.  I do not serve here because it’s a cushy job; I do not serve here because I get some special feather in my crown in the next life that says He served Us at Advent; I do not get any special privileges that I have discovered because I serve here.  But God has entrusted me to do the best I can to point you, to lead you, to cajole you to Him.  That is my singular focus.
     But even though it is my focus, even though I think that is the attitude that God demands of those we ordain, I still make mistakes.  I still sin.  Sins are easier for us to understand and deal with.  I repent; the offended forgive.  But what of the mistakes?  I have prayed for miraculous healings for those suffering from cancer.  How many people have been cured of cancer?  Not nearly as many for whom I have prayed.  I have prayed for miraculous provision for folks among us suffering particular privation.  How many folks among us, myself included, have won the lottery?  Most frustrating has been my prayers over those dying.  I know God hates death.  I know He snorts at it in anger.  Yet, I have not had too many experiences where the dead or dying got up.
     Those failures on my parts become lessons for us all.  Those of you who have lived those experiences and those anointed prayers and still experienced healing can testify to the truth that I and you did not always pray for what you needed.  We may have wanted cancer to go away when what you really needed was the perseverance to bear that cross faithfully, that others might see your cross-bearing and turn to God.  You and I may have wanted God to give you or me that winning lottery ticket, but what you really needed for effective witness was the childlike trust that God would give you your daily bread.  That simple day-to-day, childlike trust was far more meaningful to those who watched you live than any single super-sized blessing.  And, unsurprisingly, how we deal with death is often the most effective witness we will ever give to others.  Maybe, instead of praying against it, we should be praying that we do not fail in our own Gethsemane moments?
     The third and last lesson about which I want to speak is our purposes for gathering as a community.  We call it worship.  We Episcopalians have a liturgical way of going about things.  We have certain prayers; we have a particular order; we have specific people who exercise particular gifts leading us in this event we call worship.  Other denominations have different ways of going about this event we call the worship of God.  Why do we do it?  Why do we put so much energy and effort and study and consideration into worship?  Is getting worship right our focus?  Perhaps.  Is it we are trying to capture the way the Apostles were taught by Jesus?  No doubt in some quarters.
     At its best, though, worship speaks to the exaltation of our Lord.  How so, you ask?  Earlier, when I was speaking of the cloud and the Jesus being taken back into it, I mentioned that we have different languages to be used in trying to describe the event that took place.  One of those metaphors I used was dimension.  You and I are able to perceive four dimensions in our lives (length, width, height, and time), but people far smarter than me claim to be able to prove the existence of other dimensions in various ways, but usually mathematically.  They are real, but we cannot perceive them.  In some ways, that is the ancient view of heaven.  I know many of us grew up thinking heaven was up there and hell was down there, with earth being somewhere in the middle of the two, right?  Many of us were taught that, when we die, we hope to go up there, get our wings and harps, and play wonderful music for all eternity?  Good, you all are laughing, but you have heard that idea expressed repeatedly.  Is that what Scripture teaches us? 
     The last couple weeks we have been reintroduced to Revelation?  What is being described there?  A new heaven and a new earth.  Jerusalem descending and God dwelling in this new creating among His people.  If we think of ascending as enfolding into God’s glory and descending as the unveiling of God’s glory, does it sound at all like we get wings and harps?  No, it seems to be something else.  Now, I don’t waste too much time on it because I know for a fact that God will make my idea seem silly.  The best that I can dream of simply pales in comparison to what God has planned for us.  So I will just wait to be surprised and awed and not overthink it or rehearse my harp music.  I will work my hardest to get as many people there as possible, but I am not going to stress for a second about the reality that biblical authors tried to convey with Wedding Feasts and Ascension and modern scientists and mathematicians convey with dimensional theories all those other images about which we read.  While the particulars are hard both to express and to fathom, Scripture is clear there is another reality that you and I sometimes can perceive.  Paul warns us about Spiritual warfare.  Jesus teaches us about Whom to fear and what should be important to us and that all this is seeming reality is, in truth, transient.  Even our liturgy during funerals reminds us that in death life is not ended but changed—that’s what gives ultimate rise to our alleluia’s at the grave, right?
     Given all that, what is one of the purposes of worship?  Yes, thanking God is always a great place to start, but let’s think sacramentally for a moment.  We are, after all, Episcopalians.  Why are the Sacraments important to us?  It really should not be that tough.  Y’all are here when most of our brothers and sisters are blowing this feast off.  Why?  I hope, and it is a hope right now, maybe not a reality, but I hope that one of the reasons why you are here to celebrate the Sacrament with me this evening is to be reminded that in the Sacraments of the Church, the boundary which separates this world from the real, heavenly world of God, is at its thinnest point.  I hope you come to worship at Advent expecting to meet Jesus here, to see God here, to feel God’s presence in your life here!
     We are good little Anglicans here, right?  We only accept two Sacraments.  Some of our Anglican forebears call them Dominical in deference to the fact that Jesus Himself commanded them.  We are to baptize in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and we are to celebrate the Eucharist.  What happens at those two events?  Members are confirmed in God’s kingdom or grace.  Right, baptism is a kind of initiation, and the Eucharist is a reminder of the transformation that began in baptism.  We make a promise to God in the former, and He, in turns, makes unbreakable promises to us, knowing we will break ours.  But even the condition for restoration after our broken promises to Him are spelled out in that Sacrament.  We repent when we sin, and we will continue in the Apostles’ teaching.  The Apostles’ teaching is, of course, our service.  We gather for hearing God’s Word.  We hope to get good and engaging teaching.  Even failing that, though, we know we will meet Jesus in the Sacrament.  The meal, that pledge to use the language of the early Church, reminds us that we are being nourished, being strengthened, being equipped to do the work He has given us to do.  Then what?  We leave.  We head out into our various mission fields fed, equipped, restored, reminded, and ready to do His work in our lives.
     Even in those other five Rites of the Church, to use Anglican understanding, or Sacraments, to use the language of our Roman and Orthodox brothers and sisters, are understood to remove that veil that hides the reality to which we are called.  Is death and not an ending but rather a change?  Does not marriage shadowily reflect the relationship we call the Trinity?  Does Reconciliation not remind us of the forgiving and redeeming grace of God?  And so on?  Why do you think we have fought so hard about their nature?  Why do you think we continue to fight about them?  Out sacraments, our worship of God, thins that veil or cloud or dimension or whatever we want to call it, and gives us an opportunity better to see, or to hear, or to understand Him working in our lives.  It why we attach the words mystically to such understandings.  It’s true.  It happens.  It’s repeatedly happens.  But it defies logic.  It defies what we call science.  It defies especially what we know of ourselves, that we are His unworthy servants.
     There are more implications regarding the importance of this feast we celebrate today.  I chose three that seemed to me to be what God wanted me to speak tonight.  I apologize for a lecture than a real sermon.  In some ways, I feel I have been engaging in more teaching than normal these last couple weeks.  Yet, if I did my job well this evening, if I did my job faithfully, I trust that we each were reminded of why we gather this day to celebrate this event that was so important to those early disciples and apostles.  More importantly, I trust that, in us considering just a few implications of this event, we have all learned why this event should be important to us today.  Yes, that God raised Jesus from the dead is an important declaration of His power to redeem us and others and even the world, but His exaltation makes it possible that you and I, miserable sinners that we are, can be equipped properly to accomplish His will in our lives!  And that, my brothers and sisters, is worth an evening’s and a morning’s and continual worship and Thanksgiving!

In Christ’s Peace,

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

What if we fought Him less and really, enthusiastically followed Him?

     Our reading from Acts today is certainly timely and apt.  Timely, as it reminds us that we need to answer God’s call on our own lives, just as did Paul and those with him in his journeys; apt, in that we have participated in another telling of that story in our midst.
     The story begins with a vision.  Paul sees a Macedonian asking for help in a dream.  He and those with him pray about it and become convinced that God is sending them to Macedonia.  Luke describes the difficulty of the journey in a few words.  This is not like you and me being asked to take a cruise ship to your favorite Caribbean island.  Remember, the ships were, for the most part, coastal huggers.  Ships were meant to stay in sight of land.  Some sailed through the night, but many dropped anchor during the darkness to make sure there were no reefs or rocks to hit.
     Anyway, they arrive at Philippi, one of the bigger cities at the time in Macedonia and, as Luke notes, a Roman colony.  That little note tells us a lot.  Philippi has patterned itself intentionally on Rome, so the city will run in accordance to Roman law.  It also makes Paul a bit of a celebrity.  Philippi probably did have a handful of citizens, but in a world with only 100,000 citizens or so throughout the empire, every citizen was a bit more important to the locals, the further one went out from the heart of Rome.  Out in the border lands, there was a worry about getting to close to barbarians or spending time among the conquered who might bear ill will, but this was a town that intentionally patterned itself after Rome.
     Luke says they remained in Philippi some days, but that on the Sabbath Day they went outside the gate by the river, presumable to a copse of trees or meadow or some other distinguishing feature, that served as a place of prayer.  We learn a couple important details in this brief description.  First, where do faithful Jews usually meet to worship God?  That’s right, the synagogue.  Next question: How many Jewish men did it take to found a synagogue?  Three?  Good guess.  Three is obviously important to God.  One?  Ah, we have someone focusing on God’s immanence this morning.  Good.  Any other guesses?  No?  Twelve?  It makes sense, right?  The twelve tribes and all that.  I see the nods.  For Philippi to have had a synagogue at this time, twelve Jewish men would have had to found it.  In our language, they would have planted the church and become the Bishop’s council in the new faith community.  That there is no synagogue in Philippi tells us that there are not enough Jewish men present in the city to plant a synagogue.  Even if there are more than a dozen Jewish males present, not enough are serious enough in their faith to start a new synagogue.
     Now, and I know this will shock those of us who buy into the stupid post-modern narrative that God hates women or the authors of the Scriptures hate women, but who are the faithful in this story?  That’s right!  The women.  The God-fearers or faithful Jewish women in this story are the women.  They gather at the place outside the river gate to pray to God.  And what does “misogynistic” Paul do when he learns about them?  I know, it’s shocking.  He goes out the gate to the appointed place to pray with them!
     I know I am preaching to the choir in this place—you are here worshipping God on a holiday weekend and attend a church with women in leadership—but do not forget these little stories when someone confronts you with the idea that God hates women or that Paul hates women or that the authors of Scripture hate women.  God made women in His image and has used women repeatedly to advance His purposes in the world!
     While praying and worshiping with the women, Paul shares the Gospel with them.  In response, a woman named Lydia, responds.  As an aside, I want you all to note that she is a woman of means.  She is the seller of purple cloth in Philippi.  All the aristocrats in the city will have to come to her for their purple.  Did I mention that the city patterned itself after Rome?  She has a nice monopoly, and she does not seem to need a man to take care of her at all.  In any event, echoing the story of Cornelius with Peter, Lydia and her household are baptized by Paul, and she provides Paul and his fellow travelers with hospitality during their stay in Philippi.
     A couple lessons should jump right out at us this morning.  First, aside from the reputation Paul has about hating women among post-modernist scholars, what prompts Paul to go to Philippi?  It was quite a journey, and it had no synagogue.  From a purely pragmatic perspective, Paul should have no reason to expect an audience hungry for the Gospel to be present in Philippi.  Why does he, then, go?  That’s right!  God.  God speaks to Paul in a dream and tells him to go there. Don’t forget, Paul wondered at that, right?  He discerns with those with him whether it was God or just a dream.  For reasons left unwritten by Luke, the group is convinced they should journey to Macedonia.  Second, who does the real evangelization in the story?  It’s not a trick question.  Who opens Lydia’s and the other hearts to the Gospel?  That’s right!  God.
     This story, just like Cornelius’, ought to remind us of the freedom and joy we should have and encourage us to live our faith as God calls each of us.  I spoke a couple weeks ago about the general who joked about the “yabuts.”  His audience wanted to believe, but each had an excuse or a qualifier.  Adventers are much the same.  How many of conversations center around the idea that you, in particular, are ill-suited to God’s particular call on your life?  How many?  If I preach that God is using you in your daily life and work, which we believe and pray every week from our beloved BCP, how many conversations do I sit through listening to someone explain why they are particularly not prepared for this calling or that calling?
     Some will protest to the point where they will say “It’s easy for you, Father.  You have been trained.”  And how many times do I respond with a word more closely aligned with skubala?  I was not trained for 90% of the stuff I share with y’all.  I’ll let you all in on a little secret since you dragged yourselves to church on a holiday weekend, most of the time I am winging it.  Don’t scoff.  Listen.  Do you think I intended to teach the Ten Words at the Y so well that those men would find their answers to the New Zealand tragedy in that teaching in my absence?  Of course not.  Ask any folks at my last parish about the fight against slavery.  Who forgot Communion?  Who forgot oil for healing?  The professional!
     The big difference between me and you is experience.  I have experienced God’s power and grace too many times in my life not to believe He will show up in ways I cannot ask or imagine.  Jim asked Thursday night who all had seen miracles.  I shared with Jim my most . . . significant, but I also shared with the group I see and hear of God at work all the time.  And that is part of the problem, right?  We do not do the things that God is calling us to do for fear of failure or distrust in ourselves, and so we never see God’s redeeming power at work in our lives.  We focus too much on what can go wrong rather than trusting God to redeem our mistakes and make them go incredibly well.  There’s a spiral, of sorts, at work in our lives.  The more obedient to God we are, the more He seems present and at work in our lives; the more we fight Him, the more distant He seems.  When I share these stories with you in Bible studies or sermons or individual conversations, I do because they are your stories, too!  My sermon illustration for today is a perfect example.
     Three years ago, a long-haired, flip flop wearing, tattooed guy came through the office door asking to speak with the pastor.  You all now know him as James Harvey, of the missionary Harvey family for which we have been praying for a couple years.  Some of you know more of the story thanks to Bible studies and other gatherings, but James felt the call of the Holy Spirit to stop in and greet the pastor.  James was not too thrilled with this prompting.  Everything he knew about Episcopalians taught him we were little different than Unitarians with Popish worship.  For a baptist’s minister’s kid, we were kind of the perfect storm or hot mess to be avoided.  Events at Advent at the time made him a welcome visitor, from my perspective.  I thought his reason for sharing was weird, but I’d had plenty of reason to trust God in the past.  So I did.  Thanks to James’ openness and obedience, I have had a lot of good Wednesday afternoons ever since that first visit.  His practice now, don’t forget he’s the son of a Baptist minister, is to join us for Wednesday worship as we remember the life and witness of a saint, and then he and I spend time sharing where we have seen God at work in the world around us and praying for one another and our families.
     The reason I bring that up is that, in part due to James’ efforts, you have a modern Lydia story to share.  If you will recall three years ago, I shared with you that James and his missionary team were headed to the Tonka valley in northern Siberia to try and convert Urdu folks to the Gospel.  Now, understand, I am using the best I can do in English.  This valley in northern Siberia of which we speak has both a proper Urdu and Russia name.  The Urdu people living there are one of those unreached people groups about which missionaries like to tell the Church.  It may seem weird to us that a people can be unreached in this day and age, but there are several out there.  This group lived in a valley which measures winter snowfall by the feet and makes the windchills of the northern plains seem rather balmy.
     I used some small amount of Discretionary funds to help offset James’ expenses—that is your part of the beginning of this story.  Some of the money Adventers gave me to use to serve others in God’s name went to his work.
     Upon their arrival, James and his team discovered a house church meeting in a mechanics bay in the valley.  They went from “how do we find converts and plant a church” to “how do we support what the Holy Spirit is already doing?”  They asked the pastor what he needed to better serve his people.  He asked for some training, some prayer, and some help digging a new bay.  So they helped train him, prayed for him, and dug him a new bay.
     Imagine their disappointment about a year or eighteen months ago when they discovered he had been called home.  He was having to go back to Turkey or Afghanistan or wherever his family lived because of the family’s need.  The missionaries were fearful the house church would fold.  It was losing its pastor, its meeting place, and most of its membership.
     A bit over a year ago, some members of the team returned.  Much to their surprise, they encountered a woman they had never met before.  She had taken over pastoring that church.  When they asked her what she needed, she told them everything.  She had kind of been forced to assume the leadership of that church in that remote region of Siberia.  She had no training.  Heck, she had no Bible in Urdu.  She had no idea what she should be doing or how she should be doing it.  A Lutheran pastor had agreed to help her when he came through town, but it was not nearly enough.  I should add, he’s had a health crisis and been unable to visit her for more than nine months now.
     Anyway, the team, and all of us who supported the team, prayed about how she could be helped.  Short of missionaries staying there or bringing her here, what could be done.  Somebody came up with the great idea of purchasing her an i-Phone and teaching her the stories in the Orality project in Urdu over the internet.  How many of us sort of buy into the idea that smartphones are tools of the devil?  I see a few hands.  Here was God giving folks an idea of how to use a smartphone to spread His Gospel.
     That Bible-picture-book that everyone here has seen, was intentionally done the way it was done.  It is not meant for the preacher/teacher to be an artist.  The art was designed so that little kids could draw it and remember the stories.  Many of these unreached people groups of which missionaries speak are oral cultures rather than written like us in the west.  The picture provokes the brain to recall the story.  If I did a simple drawing of an ark with sets of two animals on a rocky mountain with a rainbow over it and a dove with an olive branch in it, what story do you think you would remember?  What details would be provoked in your mind?  I see the lightbulbs going off.
     I know some of us dismiss James and his work because of his appearance, but his work is really Gospel.  It generally takes years to translate the Bible into new languages.  Some of those countries confiscate the Bibles when they are translated.  James has a simple looking picture book that no customs agent ever wants to peruse!  Better still, the stories are told from one person to another.  I see the nods, y’all get the idea.  In the case of this woman in the Tonka valley of northern Siberia, whom we call Lydia because her real name is too long, someone fluent in Urdu can tell her the story related to the picture that captures her interest.  She in turn can show the picture or draw it in the dirt for those to whom she is called to minister.  And so on.  The discretionary funds with which you have trusted me have helped that book get published and purchased for folks around the world, and we helped buy this Urdu woman we call Lydia an i-Phone for training.
     Before you came to church this morning, how many of you had any idea that you, you sitting in the middle of Brentwood or Nashville, TN, had supported a modern Lydia with your thank offerings and gifts?  How many of you realized that God was still going ahead of those missionaries whom He calls and doing what seems impossible by modern standards?  How many of you expected that your gifts and thank offerings would be used today to help an Urdu woman in a remote valley of Siberia lead caribou and reindeer herders into a deeper relationship, a deeper experience with God?  Yet that is all our story today!  All of us at Advent have had a hand in that work.  Some of us have contributed financially; others have contributed by means of prayer. 
     Sitting here today in the comforts of this place and this country, you may be tempted to downplay this story in your mind or corporate faith journey.  But ask yourself this important questions: What do I think those folks in the Tonka valley of norther Siberia think of the pittances with which we have supported them?  What do I think the missionaries think of the small funding and constant prayer with which we have supported them?  You do understand their thankfulness to God for your faithfulness, right?  You do understand that they perceive of you as saints—folks who are committed to building up the Body of Christ across the world!
     It’s a cool thought, is it not?  They are thankful for us.  They give thanks to God for us in languages we can neither speak nor read.  I know, if they only knew us!  But here’s the Gospel my brothers and sisters: God does know us!  He knows us intimately!  And though we may not yet describe ourselves as a spiritually mature community of followers of Jesus the Christ, He knows what we can be!  Now, here’s a question we should all ponder as we give thanks this weekend for those who made such gatherings possible with the ultimate sacrifice for us, imagine what God could do with us and for us if we only responded with excited and determined “yes, Lord’s.”  If God can reach the remote areas of the world with our half-hearted efforts or yabuts, imagine what God could do with enthusiastic “here I am Lord, send me’s.”  Even then, my brothers and sisters, He would accomplish more than we could ask or imagine.  What is it He is asking of you this day?  What dream has He placed in your heart this morning?  What story does He want the world to know about you and me and this place in His salvation history?

In Christ’s Peace,