UNARMED—AND DANGEROUS!

Eighth Sunday After Pentecost

Proper 10, Year B

TEXT: Mark 6:14-29

The word was getting around about Jesus, and soon even King Herod had heard what was being said … “It’s John for sure,” he said. “I had his head cut off, but he’s come back anyway, and more trouble than ever.”

—Mark 6:14a, 16 (Laughingbird paraphrase)

I write this week’s blog from Calgary, Alberta, where the “Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth” is in full swing. Thankfully, so far, the Calgary Stampede has only killed three of its rodeo animals (fingers crossed there won’t be more).

I desperately need to escape from the cowboy atmosphere which pervades everything here. So, today, I’d like to focus our attention upon a man who was anything but a gun-slinging hero from a Hollywood Western. As far as I know, he never packed a six-gun or wore a tin star upon his chest. He didn’t have to. He was in touch with something far more powerful.

You all know his name (or at least, you should). I’m talking about Mohandas Karamchand Ghandi (1869-1948), the father of modern India, who most of us probably know by the title “Mahatma” (which means “great soul”).

In the early 1920s, Gandhi and India’s National Congress Party began moving more and more towards civil disobedience as a chief political strategy in order to achieve independence from British colonial rule. In spite of numerous setbacks to his cause and violent confrontations with the authorities, Ghandi never gave up his vision that independence could be achieved without spilling one drop of British blood. He continued to walk his way back and forth across the country preaching his message of non-violent resistance.

As he did so, his reputation began to spread throughout the Indian subcontinent. Both Hindus and Muslims would come from long distances—on foot, with their bedding on their heads and shoulders, on bullock carts, and on horseback—just to catch a glimpse of him. Never before, it seemed, had any political or religious leader so profoundly inspired and mobilized the masses of ordinary people.

Even the civil authorities had to sit up and take notice. Although they resented deeply what Gandhi was attempting to do, they could also not help but admire what he had come to represent. Gandhi’s hold on the public imagination was tremendous—and that is the kind of threat that the rulers of this world fear most.

In today’s gospel reading, Mark plunks us down squarely in the real world of politics. This is the only significant story in Mark’s Gospel that is not about Jesus; and it is no accident that Mark places it where he does.

Jesus has just finished giving instructions to his disciples about how they are to embody God’s love in the world (Mark 6:7-13). Expect opposition and trouble, he tells them, but the only thing you need to take with you is the gospel and a confident faith. And then, Mark—as if to “slam dunk” his point—reminds us of the story of John the Baptist; and he does it in a very deliberate way.

He does it by reminding us that Herod was tormented by fear. Now, I should point out that this is not Herod the Great, who ruled Israel around the time of Jesus’ birth. No. This is Herod the Great’s son by his Samaritan wife Malthace. He was called Herod Antipas to keep them straight, but he was a chip off the old block.

Mark calls him “King Herod”—but in reality, he had only pretensions to be a king. True, he was the ruler of Galilee for about 43 years, and—aside from the Romans—he was the chief political authority during Jesus’ lifetime. Still, his official title was “tetrarch of Galilee and Perea,” a position made available to him as a result of his father’s accommodation with the Romans.

Herod Antipas never did get to be king of anything, but he was an ambitious man who enjoyed great power and wealth. He was also thoroughly despised by his Roman masters and by his Jewish subjects. Herod was the kind of ruler who thumbed his nose at Israel’s religious laws, both by marrying his brother’s wife Herodias and by building his capital city—Tiberias—on top of a pagan cemetery.

The story told by the gospels (and also by the Roman historian Josephus) is that he got into deep political controversy with John the Baptist. John condemned Herod for several reasons—but the one that really stuck in John’s craw was Herod’s marriage to Herodias.

John publicly accused this famous couple of “living in sin.”  That was enough to turn Herodias purple with rage, and she convinced her husband to throw the troublesome prophet in jail.

Apparently, Herod feared the Baptist almost as much as he feared his wife. He knew how popular John was with the people—and he knew that he might provoke an uprising if he mishandled the situation with John. Herod may have thought that if John was in prison, then at least he could keep an eye on him—as well as keep peace in his own bedroom.

But it wasn’t just fear that motivated Herod. He was fascinated by John and frequently visited the prison just so that he could hear him ranting in his cold, dark cell. The portrait Mark paints is of a man who is obsessed by the very thing he fears and despises.

“Herod took a perverse pleasure in listening to John speak,” Mark tells us. “Everything John said aggravated him, and yet he kept coming back for more.” (Mark 6:20b)

Unfortunately, this fascination was not enough to convince him to change his behaviour. And the day Herod decided to throw a birthday party for himself, he unwittingly set himself up for a profound embarrassment. It was a grand and decadent celebration which was bound to impress all of Herod’s political cronies.

However, the evening included an unexpected turning point (unexpected by Herod, at least). Herodias’ daughter Salome (who was actually Herod’s niece) performed a provocative dance that was intended to arouse Herod—and make him vulnerable to suggestion. Now, whether Salome herself meant anything by it, her mother saw this as the chance she had been waiting for.

Caught up in the moment, Herod gave in to both his lust and his pride by following through on an oath to Salome to give her anything she wanted. Herodias made sure that what her daughter asked for was John’s head on a platter! And that, as they say, was the end of John the Baptist. Or so everyone thought.

By the time Mark tells us this story, John has been dead for some time and Jesus has been actively preaching his own message throughout Galilee. Although Herod apparently hadn’t met Jesus, he knew that something equally as powerful as John was stirring out there among the people.

“It’s John for sure,” he said. “I had his head cut off, but he’s come back anyway.”

This is what Mark wants to tell us. This is not just a story to remind us of the dangers of preaching the truth. It is a story to remind us of the delusions of the powerful. Herod’s own actions have engendered in him a deep-seated fear about the results of his deed. He interprets what he hears about Jesus “and his gang” by imagining that John has come back to get him.

Neither is this merely a story to tip us off about what lies ahead for Jesus as the plot develops. Of course, a similar fate is going to befall Jesus, as it befalls anybody with the courage to speak truth to the powerful. But that is not something Mark’s church would ever have questioned. What they would have had doubts about was the effectiveness of such truth-telling. Would following Jesus and speaking truth to the powerful ever make any difference, in the end?

Mark says that defenceless, unarmed, decapitated, dead prophets like John the Baptist do come back to haunt the powerful of this world. And you know, that is the truth. It is a truth that has been embodied in heroes like Martin Luther King, Jr., Oscar Romero, Cesar Chavez, Anne Frank—and of course, Mohandas Ghandi, who said that what kept him going in the face of apparently unbeatable opposition was the deep conviction, not just that love would eventually conquer, but that evil would inevitably defeat itself.

“When I despair,” he said, “I remember that throughout history tyrants and dictators have always failed in the end. Think of it. Always.”

Those words can offer us hope even in these frightening times when tyrants and dictators—and terrorists—still exert their malevolent power over the hearts and minds of many. Hatred is a powerful force; but it is also a heavy burden, and those who embrace it will, eventually, themselves be crushed by its enormous weight.

The power of love is different; it does not oppress, but rather lifts up—even in the worst of circumstances, the power of love is a buoyant force. I think that just may be what Jesus meant when he said:

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” —Matt. 11:28-30 (NRSV)

Amen.

____________________________

 

MARK’S GOSPEL quotations from Laughingbird paraphrase ©2000 Nathan Nettleton (access at www.laughingbird.net)

MATTHEW 11:28-30. The New Revised Standard Version (Anglicized Edition), ©1989, 1995 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Prayer For a World Awash in Blood

Halfway through 2024 …

  • A deadly stalemate continues in Ukraine, with no end in sight.
  • In Palestine, we see a bleak future for Gaza and the West Bank as the spectre of a wider Middle East War looms ever larger.
  • In Yemen and the Red Sea, rising tensions threaten peace and international security.
  • Civilian casualties mount as government forces battle Fano militia in Ethiopia’s Amhara region.
  • In Sudan, thousands starve as a long war drags on.
  • In the Democratic Republic of Congo, fighting in North Kivu province has sent over 1.7 million people fleeing their homes, driving up the number displaced in Congo by multiple conflicts to a record 7.2 million.
  • In Myanmar, the Rohingya genocide intensifies as war ages in Rakhine state.
  • In Haiti, Kenyan police struggle to impose order as criminal gangs and vigilantes battle in the streets.
  • In Mexico, deadly political and criminal power struggles continue.

Holy God, we who are surrounded by voices raised in protest and in anguish bring before you the wrongs from which humanity still suffers. Remembering that you are the Creator of the whole human family, we pray for those upon whom are inflicted the cruelties of war: those who are killed, maimed, and made homeless by armed conflict; those who are mistreated by members of occupying forces; those who are brutalized by what they are ordered to do; those who are forced to fight against their conscience.

We pray for those who are denied their liberty: those who are persecuted for their religious views; those compelled to live and work as slaves; those denied access to education and health care. Make us more open to new ideas—and more able to see the face of Christ in the face of every neighbour.

We pray for those who stand against injustice and oppression: those who protest publicly; those who rouse opinion by their speech and writing; those who bring just concerns to the attention of politicians and others in authority. By the power of your Holy Spirit, make them willing first of all to appeal to the judgment and the conscience; guide them as they ponder whether to use violent means to right extreme wrongs; preserve them from corrupting those whose cause they take up—from destroying some while liberating others.

Great, mysterious, Triune God, we thank you for standing with us as we work for justice and peace—for it is difficult work. In many cases it seems that we can only have one without the other: peace, at the cost of perpetuating injustice; or justice, at the cost of a broken peace. O God, show all people how they can strive for justice without recourse to the violence of war; and—if a nation must go to war—may it not cause more evil than it seeks to remove.

O God, speak strong words of courage to those who must live out their lives facing challenge as it comes. Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy name.

PRAYER FOR DELIVERANCE:

From a spirit of contention which would destroy our unity;

Good Lord, deliver us.

From a spirit of rage which would destroy our love;

Good Lord, deliver us.

From a spirit of despair which would destroy our hope;

Good Lord, deliver us.

From pride of self which leaves no room for your Spirit;

Good Lord, deliver us—for Jesus’ sake.

Amen.

 

“TALITHA CUM!”

טְלִיחָא קוּמִי (“Little girl, I say to you, get up!”)

Sixth Sunday After Pentecost

Proper 8, Year B

TEXT: Mark 5:21-43

When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered round him; and he was by the lake. Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet … (Mark 5:21-22)

Jesus had sailed over from the eastern shore of Lake Galilee, where he had been very busy. Now, stepping ashore on the more familiar north-western bank, Jesus was immediately met by one of the leaders of the local synagogue—a man named Jairus, whose 12-year-old daughter was gravely ill. Jairus begged Jesus to come immediately and lay his healing hands upon her. Right away, Jesus agreed to help, and they set off together.

The journey, however, was slow because of the pressure from the crowd. As Jesus worked his way ahead, a diseased woman, with astounding faith and courage, reached out her hand to touch the hem of his garment, trusting that this would heal her—and it did! Jesus publicly commended her faith, and sent her on her way in peace.

But then—just as Jesus finished dealing with the woman—a message arrived for Jairus, telling him it was too late. His young daughter was dead.

Even so, Jesus was undeterred. He simply told Jairus not to panic but to have faith. Having said this, he continued on his way to the house. Upon arriving there, Jesus found a scene of pitiful despair. Relatives and neighbours were gathered around weeping and wailing for the dead girl.

Then Jesus made a shocking statement: “Why are you making so much fuss? The girl is not dead, but sleeping.” Hearing this, they mocked him. And that’s not hard to understand.

So Jesus ordered the mourners to go outside. Then, taking with him just the father and mother, and some of his disciples, Jesus went into the girl’s room. Taking her by the hand, Jesus said: “Talitha cum!”

In the Aramaic language, that means “Little girl, I tell you, rise up!”

The girl stood up and walked. Those present were stunned. Of course! Who wouldn’t be? But Jesus, sensitive as always to the situation, said to them: “The child is hungry. Give her some food.”

Mark plainly tells this tale as a part of his unmasking of the profound mystery that was Jesus of Nazareth. Something as deep as Creation empowers this fellow.

Previous to this incident, Jesus had stilled a storm on Lake Galilee. After that, he calmed the raging voices in a disturbed man’s head. Then he healed and blessed the woman who dared to touch the hem of his robe. And now he raises up a child who was presumed dead!

What on earth is going on here? That’s what Mark wants us to sincerely ask. Who is this Jesus? From where does he derive his unique authority? What is the source of his power?

Mark knows that, if only we will pursue these questions to the end, we will come up with a divine answer—one that will forever change our lives. That is the dynamic of his gospel. But the thing I find most intriguing in this story is Mark’s quotation of the Aramaic words, “Talitha cum!”

The actual Aramaic—the common language of the people in Jesus’ day—is what Mark uses. He wrote the rest of his gospel in Greek, but he preserved this phrase in Aramaic: “Talitha cum!”

Scholars generally agree that wherever the Greek New Testament reverts to the Aramaic, it is because a particular word or phrase was especially important to the early church. They loved to repeat such words, and recall Jesus actually saying them. It put them in close touch with their roots as a community of faith.

Why and in what circumstances were these words—“Talitha cum”—so treasured and repeated? I can only speculate, but my hunch is this: often in those first years of Christianity, when a loved one died, the bereaved must have been tempted to despair, with much weeping and wailing.

But because of Christ, such despair was inappropriate. Grief was appropriate, but not despair. Jesus had banished despair. So the actual words of Jesus were often lovingly repeated: “They are not dead but sleeping. Little soul, rise up. Talitha cum!”  That is the very Word of the Lord!

I wonder how many times in that first century these words of Jesus were lovingly repeated—when disease broke out, or when bloody persecution devastated the young churches. Hundreds of times? Thousands?

Blessed were those—and blessed are those today—who whisper, or sing, or even inscribe upon a grave stone, the words: “Talitha cum.”

I do not know that the male form of the words of Jesus would be in the Aramaic language. But whatever they are, I would be honoured to have such an epitaph: “Little soul, I tell you, rise up!”

This is the very essence of our Christian faith. The Gospel of Christ is Good News—not only for this life, but for eternity. As Jesus himself said in another context:

“Very truly, I tell you, the hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live!” (John 5:25)

Talitha cum! Thanks be to God for such words of hope. Amen.

“WHO IS THIS, THAT DARKENS COUNSEL?”

Fifth Sunday After Pentecost ~ Proper 7B

TEXTS: Job 38:1-11 and Mark 4:35-41

Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind: “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me.” —Job 38:1-3

If any of you are familiar with the Revised Common Lectionary—which prescribes the Scripture readings for any given Sunday—you will know that occasionally several choices of readings are given. Proper seven, year B is like that. The passage from Job was listed as the alternate reading. The other choice was from the First Book of Samuel—and it was a doozie! It was the story of David and Goliath, for goodness sake—a veritable gold mine of sermon ideas.

So why did I choose the reading from Job? Why did I pick out this passage from what well may be the most disturbing, and obscure (and depressing) book in the Bible?

David and Goliath—now there’s a story chock full of all the stuff that makes for a great movie. It is impressive. It is an epic tale of good versus evil, wherein the underdog triumphs. The big, powerful, arrogant Philistine is brought down by this apparently insignificant young shepherd boy. And when David socks it to Goliath, we all jump up and cheer.

The story of Job, however, is not like that at all. Here, there doesn’t seem to be a clear victory by the forces of good. In fact, if you persist in reading through all 42 chapters, you may be left wondering just where the forces of good are in this story. I’ve always found Job to be a troubling book. Reading it almost invariably upsets me. Honestly, I’m not quite sure what to make of the story of Job.

Remember, Job was not only a righteous man, but also a genuinely good one—“blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.” (Job 1:1b)

Job had been blessed by God. The Bible tells us:

There were born to him seven sons and three daughters. He had seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen, five hundred donkeys, and very many servants; so that this man was the greatest of all the people of the east. (Job 1:2-3)

And Job was grateful. He never ceased to praise God for his good fortune, and he sought always to do God’s will as he understood it. But as the story unfolds, things fall apart for this good man. Satan challenges God, who has held up Job as a shining example of faithfulness. “Of course he’s faithful,” says the devil. “You’ve given him everything a man could want! But if you take it all away, I tell you: Job will curse you to your face.”

So—to prove a point—God takes everything away from Job: not just his possessions and his livestock, but also his children, and finally his health. However, God does leave him a wife (who tells him to kill himself) and three friends (who tell him his misfortune is somehow his own fault).

Finally, Job snaps. He curses the day he was born. He declares himself forsaken by God. He complains—at length—about the unfairness of it all, and finally Job puts his own challenge before God:

“I cry to you and you do not answer me; I stand, and you merely look at me. You have turned cruel to me; with the might of your hand you persecute me. You lift me up on the wind, you make me ride on it, and you toss me about in the roar of the storm.” (Job 30:20-22)

Finally, in the passage we read today, God answers Job directly. And what are God’s words?

“Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me. Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding.” (Job 38:2-4)

Then the LORD proceeds to tear a strip off poor old Job, basically telling him that he’s just an ignorant human being, and he’s got no right to complain or to question.

I told you this was a troubling book! I cannot imagine a less flattering portrayal of God, or a more daunting passage on which to preach. And yet this passage is the one which, many years ago now, led my best friend into Christian faith. This very passage which I find so repulsive is the one which spoke to him—and spoke persuasively—at the end of the darkest night of his soul.

I vividly remember my conversation with him—and my own amazement—as he told me that God used this passage to end his struggle with doubt and despair. He became a Christian, he said, because of the way God spoke to him through it. God set him free from the “impossible need” to understand—and gifted him with the sacred ability to trust.

To this very day—even in times of severest trial—my friend displays a solid, serene confidence which transcends and surpasses all understanding.

Every time I read or hear the words, “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?” I think of my friend, and I re-visit my own astonishment. And I suppose the reason I am still astonished is that I cannot imagine myself finding in those words anything resembling comfort, or resolution, or peace.

But my friend did. And as I consider that fact today—and as I consider also our gospel reading for today—I see that there is in all of this something of a revelation for me (and maybe for you, also).

The revelation, I think, is just this: the Bible was written not for one kind of person, but for all kinds—“all sorts and conditions of men” as the old, politically-incorrect language states it. Because you see, for all the many things which my friend and I have in common, we are in certain ways very different.

He has always been brighter, and braver, and more analytical than me. His struggle with doubt had to do with understanding. He thought he had to sort out the problem of evil before he could believe. He was one who asked the question, “How can a good God allow bad things to happen?”

I, however, have always been more like the disciples who were in the boat with Jesus in our reading from Mark. When cast upon turbulent waters, I’m always way too scared to analyze the situation. In the moment, why it’s happening never seems important to me. The fairness of it never seems to matter. Making sense of it isn’t something I even try to do.

If my friend is like Job, who called God to account because he felt God had abandoned him, I am like the frantic disciple who rushed to the stern of the boat to grab Jesus and shake him and wake him up—all the time babbling and ranting, “Help! We’re all going to drown! How can you sleep through a thing like this?”

Probably also like that frantic disciple, I’m never really sure what Jesus can do to help, but I wake him up anyway—and then, invariably, I am dumbstruck when I see what he does.

If my friend was one who needed to be set free from the notion that he had to understand God before he could trust God, I remain one whose continuing need seems to be a need for rescue.

And whatever level of trust I have in God … well, I guess that’s shown by the fact that Jesus is the One I rush to; the One I turn to, the One I rouse and cling to whenever the sea of life gets rough. He probably wishes I didn’t panic so easily … but even so, Jesus always calms the storm, somehow.

And maybe, if there’s a moral in common between the two stories—between the story of God speaking to Job from the whirlwind and the story of Jesus saying, “Peace! Be still!”—maybe it’s just this: God gives us what we need. When it comes to faith, God gives us what we need, whatever that is for each of us: words of comfort, or words of challenge; a tornado that picks us up and spins us around, or a place of refuge from the storm.

It strikes me that, whatever it is that each one of needs in order to build faith, it’s really all about learning to trust. Or, to put it another way, it’s about learning what to cling to, and what to let go of. Before my friend could embrace faith, he had to let go of the idea that faith had to make sense. And as for me: well, I think I’ve learned how to cling to Jesus, even though I haven’t quite figured out how to let go of my fear.

But that’s okay. Just as God did not smash Job with the whirlwind, he’s never let me fall overboard, either. He’ll keep you safe, too, if you let him. And he’ll give you what you need—even when what you need surprises you. I think that’s good news. Thanks be to God for it. Amen.

The Power of the Small

Proper 6, Year B

TEXTS: 1 Samuel 15:34-16:13 and Mark 4:26-34

“… the kingdom of God … is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” (Mark 4:30-32)

Today, both of our scripture lessons speak about the value—and the power—of small things. Jesus offers us two parables—and in both of them, the Kingdom of God is represented by a small seed. And in our first reading, we hear about how the prophet Samuel was sent to Bethlehem, to anoint from amongst the sons of Jesse the one man chosen by God to be Israel’s king. And which of Jesse’s eight sons did the Lord choose? Was it tall and impressive Eliab? No. Neither was it Abinadab, or Shammah—or any of the older brothers, in fact. After seven of Jesse’s sons have passed before Samuel, he asks, “Are all your sons here?”

And Jesse replies that, “Well … there is one more, but …”

“But what?”

“But he’s the youngest. He doesn’t count for anything. He’s just a kid, for crying out loud! I didn’t think it was worth calling him in from tending the sheep.”

“Send and bring him,” the prophet says. And so they go and fetch David from the pasture, and the LORD says, “Rise and anoint him; for this is the one.”

Small seeds. A small boy. Hidden potential—huge possibilities in tiny packages.

Human society, unfortunately, has not always valued the worth of its children. In the culture of ancient Israel—as in all of the ancient world—children were valued (if they were valued at all) for their future potential, but were not seen as all that important in the present tense. That’s why Jesse left his youngest son tending the sheep. That’s why the disciples of Jesus tried to shoo the children away—so they wouldn’t waste the Master’s time with silly games or childish questions. But we all remember Christ’s response: “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.” (Matt. 19:14)

Small things count, Jesus said. The small, the powerless, the seemingly insignificant—these can astound us, sometimes. Like that mustard seed. The thing about that story, you understand, is that mustard seeds never do what that seed in Jesus’ story did. Mustard simply does not grow into a gigantic tree, so big that birds can make nests in its branches. No. At best, mustard becomes a small shrub. Jesus would have known that, and the people listening to him certainly would have known that. So the seed in the parable must have been some kind of bizarre mutant mustard seed!

Either that, or Jesus was using his characteristic humour and hyperbole to bring home his point about the Kingdom of God; that God’s realm—once it takes root in the human heart—can accomplish far more than we can hope for, or imagine, or understand. Children, it seems, have a better grasp of that than adults do. Or maybe it’s just that they’re more open to the beckoning of the Spirit.

If we’re willing to look around for examples of the power of the small, I think we will find them abundant.

One example I can think of concerns a young girl, whose name was Hayley. When I knew her, she was a child in my congregation in Kamloops.

The worship committee and the church board—with my encouragement—had made the decision to stop using the colourful, pre-printed bulletin covers produced by the United Church of Canada. Instead, we used plain, “recyclable” bulletins.

There was no “cover,” per se—the Order of Worship was printed on what would have been the cover, and prayers were printed inside, numbered so that a different one could be used each week. That way, we were able to get six or seven or eight weeks’ use out of one set of bulletins, before we had to print more.

The idea was to save on paper and printing costs—and also to be more environmentally responsible. And the plan did meet those objectives quite well. However, there was a drawback, and Hayley—who was eleven years old at the time—noticed it immediately. After the second or third service with the re-usable bulletins, she approached me with a concern—and a proposal.

Hayley explained that, if we weren’t going to be using the United Church bulletin covers anymore, then people would no longer get to see the Mission and Service Fund information that was usually printed on the back cover. And that worried her. Hayley felt that, if people weren’t told about the mission work of our church, they might stop contributing toward it. I had to admit, I hadn’t really thought about that. And—although I didn’t say this to Hayley—I was kind of skeptical that anyone paid much attention to those Mission and Service blurbs, anyway. Even so, I was touched—and moved—by her concern.

Hayley, though, came to me with not only a concern, but also with a solution. She had in her possession a copy of the then-current “Minutes for Mission” booklet from the national church. It was a collection of brief reports about the work of the Mission and Service Fund, designed to be read aloud during worship services. There was a two-minute piece for each Sunday in the year, and Hayley asked me if it would be all right if she read one of these each week, to remind people to give to missions.

Of course, I said yes. I didn’t know whether it would make any difference, but I was impressed by her passion.

Anyway, Hayley stood up in church the following Sunday, read the “Mission Minute,” and explained to everybody why she thought it was important that we do more than just take care of ourselves. She did the same thing the next Sunday, and the next, and the next … and in fact, she kept at it just about every Sunday for several years thereafter. Well, if I had been skeptical that people ever read what was on the bulletin covers, I soon realized—with no doubt whatsoever—that people were listening to Hayley. Mission and Service givings tripled within the first month, and—far more significantly—people sustained that level of giving, year after year.

Part of it, I’m sure, was that the grownups—witnessing the passion and deep conviction of this eleven-year-old girl—could not help but respond positively. However, there had to more to it than that. They wouldn’t have kept giving—week after week, year after year—unless, somehow, they had caught Hayley’s vision, and began to care about it as much as she did.

That, my friends, is like watching a gigantic tree grow from a tiny mustard seed. That is evidence of the Holy Spirit at work, taking the small effort of a lowly and apparently inconsequential person, and making out of it something immense—something truly great.

Let’s consider our own paths of faith, and look around to see where the mustard seeds might be planted. And where they could be planted. And where they are already sprouting.

JOIN THE FAMILY

Sacrament of Holy Communion

Proper 5A

TEXT: Mark 3:20-35

Jesus came home and, as usual, a crowd gathered—so many making demands on him that there wasn’t even time to eat. His friends [and family] heard what was going on and went to rescue him, by force if necessary. They suspected he was getting carried away with himself. (Mark 3:20-21, The Message)*

Family is as foundational a concept in the Bible as anything else. The Bible begins in Genesis, not with talk of nations and tribes, but families. Big families. Real families. With moments of dysfunction so great it makes your head spin—and gives one pause, hearing about “biblical family values.”

And, sure, there are other great metaphors to describe the relationship between God and humankind. King and subjects. Master and slaves. However, it always comes back around to family. Sometimes God’s faithful people are likened to the bride of the Bridegroom. And our infidelities are then compared to adultery.

But, most of the time we’re called God’s children. God’s daughters and sons who bring great joy, as well as profound heartbreak. And so, coming to God and God’s Kingdom is really like going home—to family.

In Mark, chapter three, Jesus’ family is either frustrated with him, or just plain worried about him. They hear that Jesus is drawing crowds again, and they go to restrain him, because people are talking. The professors of religion—the well-educated scholars from Jerusalem—say he’s “working black magic, using devil tricks to impress them with spiritual power.”

Other people say that he’s crazy. And his family is … well, likely, they’re embarrassed! Certainly, they’re also worried about what might become of him. Jesus, however, doesn’t seem to be all that concerned. After all, he knows how badly things are going to turn out.

Anyway, as Mark tells us, Jesus’ mother and brothers come to get him. They show up at the place where he’s teaching. But there are so many people there that they can’t get near him. So, standing outside, they relay a message that they want to speak with him. And the message comes to him: “Your mother and brothers and sisters are outside looking for you.”

And what does Jesus do? He responds with a question: “Who do you think are my mother and brothers?”

Then, looking around, taking in everyone seated around him, he answers the question.

“Who is my mother? Who is my brother? Right here, right in front of you—my mother and my brothers. Obedience is thicker than blood. The person who obeys God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.”

In other words, he opens up the tent and invites everybody in. Anybody who wants to come in—anybody who wants to join the family—is given the chance.

Who is his family? Those who do the will of God. When you do the will of God, you get the chance to be Jesus’ brother, his sister … even his mother!

Jesus’ family is a welcoming family. The front door is wide open. And while we may bring dysfunction in the door with us (and at times we can look like a group of misfits), the things we gain are amazing. And the greatest of those things is love.

Sometimes I am asked why it is that, in most places in my denomination, the Communion table is an “open” table—why it is that, every time we gather to break bread, we make a point of saying that everyone is welcome. Everyone. Member or non-member. Baptized or unbaptized. Mostly believing or mostly doubting. Everyone is welcome. Anyone who wants to may eat the bread and taste the grapes.

How come? Why do we do that?

In most denominations, before you can take part in a Communion service, you have to be an official member. You have to be baptized. You have to be confirmed. And there are good reasons for that, which have to do with different traditions and theologies—and different understandings of what is taking place when the bread is broken and the wine is poured. In fact, for some Christians, it’s extremely important that real wine is used—instead of the alcohol-free grape juice we commonly use.

Now, I’m not going to criticize what other believers do in other places. But I also will not apologize for our practice. Like most Protestant churches, we do not see the Sacrament of Communion as involving some kind of miraculous transformation where the bread and wine become—literally—the flesh and blood of Jesus. That’s not what we believe. For us, the bread remains bread, and the grape juice … well, it doesn’t even turn into wine!

However, I do think there is a kind of transformation that takes place here, when we gather round this table. Exactly what it is … that’s not so easy to define. Maybe it’s more metaphorical than literal. Or maybe it just has more to do with the heart than with the head. Or more to do with feelings than with rules. And I know some of us get uncomfortable, hearing that. We want clear guidelines, parameters, definitions. We want to understand exactly what’s going on.

I used to want to understand things, too. And at one point, I guess I thought I did understand, rather well, just what was happening at the Communion table. But then

I have a story to tell about this. It has to do with a Confirmation Class I was leading some years ago. Most of the people in the class were junior-high-aged kids who had asked for some instruction in the basics of Christian belief, before they made their own formal professions of faith.

So these young people were all around 13, 14, 15 years of age. Now, for some reason, I thought it was important to lay out for them some of the different ways that Christians looked at the Sacrament we call Communion, or the Eucharist, or the Lord’s Supper.

I wonder how many of you know this stuff. It all has to do with how we think Christ is “really present” at the table.

First of all, there’s the doctrine of transubstantiation, which holds that, in the Eucharist, the substance of wheat bread and grape wine changes into the substance of the Body and the Blood of Jesus, while all that is accessible to the senses remains as before. This is what many Christians believe.

Then there’s the doctrine of consubstantiation, which attempts to describe the nature of the Christian Eucharist in metaphysical terms. It holds that during the sacrament, the fundamental “substance” of the body and blood of Christ are present alongside the substance of the bread and wine, which remain present. Many—though not all—Lutherans believe this.

Then there’s the belief called memorialism, which says that the elements of bread and wine in the Lord’s Supper are purely symbolic representations of the body and blood of Jesus, the point of the feast being simply commemorative. Memorialists feel that the chief purpose of the sacrament is to help us remember Jesus and his sacrifice on the Cross.

Other Christians agree with John Calvin that the reality of Christ’s body and blood do not come physically to the elements, but that “the Spirit truly unites things separated in space.”

Fascinating stuff, isn’t it?

Anyway, this group of young teenagers was pretty tolerant. They listened to me going on and on about the fine points of sacramental theology, and some of them even asked some polite questions about it all.

Then, this young girl spoke up. I’ll never forget her. She had an uncanny ability to see what was important.

She said, “It doesn’t matter how Christ is present in the elements on the table. What’s important is that God’s people are there. That’s where the ‘real presence’ of Christ is—it’s in the people who come to the table.”

And I thought: “Wow! She understands it better than I do.” Some people spend five years in a theological college, and don’t grasp the concept as profoundly as did that young teenager.

When you come to the family table of Jesus, rest assured that the entrance to his dining hall has swung open wide. He bids you come, and share a meal. If you feel no hunger, you are not compelled. But you are welcome, in any case.

Look around you. Here is Jesus’ mother. Here are his sisters, his brothers, his friends. To be part of this company, all you need is an appetite for God’s will.

Perhaps you are really, really, hungry for the things of God.

Maybe you’re starving.

Or maybe you’re simply curious, just wondering what faith might taste like.

To all of you, in Jesus’ name, we say: Come on in, if you want to. Join the family.

____________________

The Message Copyright © 1993, 2002, 2018 by Eugene H. Peterson

 

“LOOK AND LISTEN!”

Second Sunday After Pentecost (Proper 4B)

TEXTS: 1 Samuel 3:1-20 and John 1:43-51

Now the LORD came and stood there, calling as before, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.” (1 Sam. 3:10)

What is it like to hear a call from God?

After a quarter-century in pastoral ministry, I’ve become very conscious of how so many people fail to hear the call of God. And this is true despite all the talking that the church does about how each one of us is called to be a follower of Jesus. Despite all the sermons that tell us we are each called to be like the prophets, hearing and speaking God’s Word to one another, it seems that few of us actually believe it.

Why is that? Why is it that so many people—who already believe in the living God—find it impossible to believe that God is speaking to them personally, trying to guide them in a particular way?

Here’s what I think: we fail to hear the call of God either because we are ignorant about how God calls to us, or because we allow ourselves to pass over that call—to “set it aside,” as it were.

Consider, for a moment, the boy Samuel. If you remember his story, you know that he was a special gift from God to his mother Hannah. She dedicated him to the LORD upon his birth, and—when he was still very young—she sent him to live with the old priest Eli at Shiloh.

The Bible says that Samuel lived in a time in which the Word of the LORD was rare—a time in which visions were not widespread.

Nevertheless, Samuel lived in a blessed place and in the holy presence. He witnessed the sacrifices made on the altar at Shiloh, and he ministered in the house of God.

Like his teacher Eli, Samuel prayed to the LORD. Like Eli, he served God faithfully. Day after day, he heard the sacred teachings proclaimed—the stories of God’s love. And Scripture tells us that “the boy Samuel grew up in the presence of the LORD” (1 Sam. 2:21).

Samuel, then—of all people—should have been able to recognize the call of God. But, as today’s reading shows us, he did not! That is, not until Eli recognized that call for him.

We are told that three times the LORD called to Samuel as he lay in bed, and three times the boy answered by saying, “Here I am!” and running to the next room to see Eli.

On the third occasion that this occurs, Eli perceives that Samuel is hearing God’s voice and instructs him: “Go, lie down, and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.’”

And so it was that Samuel finally heard what it was that God wanted to say to him. So it was that Samuel learned the fate that was to befall Eli. So it was that Samuel learned that he was to speak the Word of God to others.

I wonder: how much are we like Samuel? We live in a blessed place. We have heard the stories of God’s love, and we serve him in his house and in his world.

How are we like Samuel—dedicated to the Lord, yet believing that the voices we hear in the night come from another room? That our dreams are simply the result of eating too much pickled horseradish late at night? Or that the inner nudges we feel come only from our subconscious mind?

God calls to us in many ways. God speaks to us in many forms. And almost all of them are gentle. Almost all of them are subtle. Almost all of them can be mistaken for something else. That is, until we heed those calls. Then we discover that the power of God is in them, and behind them.

That’s what happens in today’s gospel lesson. The power behind the call of God is discovered by one who decides to listen to it. John tells us that shortly after his baptism Jesus decided to go up to Galilee. By this time, he had already received Andrew and Simon Peter as his disciples.

As he prepares to leave Bethany for Galilee, Jesus goes out and finds Philip. Jesus seeks him out—just as the LORD sought out Samuel—and he says to him, “Follow me.”

Philip responds to this call immediately. But, before he leaves with Jesus, he goes and locates a man called Nathaniel, telling him: “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus, son of Joseph from Nazareth.”

It is obvious that both Philip and Nathaniel are “seekers”—people who are looking for the Promised One of God. Nathaniel, however, is not prepared to accept that the call of God he has heard through Philip is in fact from God. And so, he replies: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

Still, Nathaniel goes along with Philip. He goes to check things out for himself, and in so doing, he discovers that Philip knows what he’s talking about.

I wonder: do we listen to our fellow seekers? Do we check out the calls they issue us, to meet the Lord in a particular place and time? Do we answer the call to discover what we have been looking for?

Make no mistake about it: God is calling all of us. He is calling to each one of us. He is calling us not just to follow him, but also to do and say particular things at particular times. He is calling us to walk a particular path with him.

God has a plan for you. And God’s call to you is personal. He seeks you out, as Jesus sought out Philip. God is calling you by name, just as he called Samuel by name.

God calls in our dreams. He calls in the voices of people who are trying to help us find our way. He calls through our spouses and our workmates, and even through our loudest critics. He calls to us when we take time to read the Bible, or to meditate. He calls when we are trying to decide what to do next. He calls when we gaze upon the heavens. He even calls out to us when we pray.

You know, a lot of people pray without ever really considering just how God might answer them. They speak to God without seriously considering how they are meant to listen to him. It’s like they pick up a telephone to speak into it, but they’re holding the receiver upside-down!

I remember a “Family Circus” cartoon I saw once. Bil Keane drew a yard filled with children playing. They were yelling and screaming, blowing horns, and crying. The dog was barking, a jet was flying overhead, and two boys were beating on a drum. Yet, inside the house, the mother said to her husband, “Listen. That’s P.J. crying!”

The mother’s ears were conditioned to hear the sound of one child’s voice, even above the din.

If we want to hear God, it sure helps to hold the telephone right. It sure helps if we have learned how and where he speaks. It sure helps if—by continual practice—we have conditioned ourselves to hear him.

So I urge you: listen for God’s voice wherever you are. Seek God’s call in whatever you see or hear—be it in a dream you have just had, in a sermon you’ve just heard, in the quiet voice you have heard inside yourself, or in the words of a friend.

Yes, by all means, listen for God’s voice in the words of his messengers: people who want to tell you how God has dealt with them—and even, perhaps, what they think God is trying to say to you!

Because that happens, you know, when you belong to a church. That happens when you gather with fellow believers. Sometimes they speak to you about God. Sometimes they have a message from God that is meant especially for you.

Listen, as well, to “the book.” Read your Bible, and judge the things you hear by what you find there, as the Spirit of God reveals it to you.

Examine the events around you and pray about them. In other words: look and listen! If you do that, you will hear the voice of God; you will hear his call.

Look and listen—and then do what you believe God has called you to do. If it is a true word, you will experience the power that is behind that word, behind that call.

You will see things happen as promised. You will see changes happening for the better. You will see God glorified. You will see mercy and grace, judgment and vindication. You will see new life arise out of ashes and new hope come out of despair.

Look and listen—and, as Jesus promised to Nathaniel, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.

Look and listen—and you will find what you have been looking for. Amen.

 

THE THREE-IN-ONE GOD

TRINITY SUNDAY

TEXTS: John 3:1-17 and John 16:12-18

Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.” (John 3:4-5)

“When the Spirit of truth comes,” Jesus said, “he will guide you into all the truth” … They said, “What does he mean by this …? We do not know what he is talking about.” (John 16:13, 18)

The Canadian theologian Douglas Hall—whom I had the privilege of hearing speak, many years ago—tells the story of being at the beach one day with his three little children. An argument broke out between his older daughter and his son, and it escalated until she shouted at her brother, “God knows! God knows you are not nice!”

Her little brother was not about to be outdone. “Well,” he said, “Jesus is annoyed with you!”  Whereupon Dr. Hall imagined that if his third child had been old enough to enter the fray, the Holy Spirit would no doubt have weighed in on one side or the other.

And so it is that the Trinity has for centuries been misused and misunderstood by children and adults alike. In fact, the Trinity may well be the least understood basic teaching of our Christian faith. We mouth the creedal words and sing the hymns, but few of us would be able to take the Trinity much further than that.

A traditional but less than satisfying response to questions about the Trinity has been simply to describe it as an enigma we cannot ever fully grasp. I remember the story of another preacher who got into the pulpit on Trinity Sunday and delivered his message in such incomprehensible language that, afterward, one desperate soul complained that no one had been able to understand the sermon. To which the preacher replied, “You aren’t supposed to understand—it’s a mystery!”

Well, the Trinity is a mystery—just as the fullness of God is now concealed from us. Our very language itself, inadequate as it is, often gets in the way.

But if we are to embrace and worship and follow this God of ours, we have no choice other than to attempt to name and describe God. That’s how the Trinity came into being: as a way for people to describe their own experience of God.

Can you imagine what it must have been like to be among the first Christians to worship God? There were no established Christian liturgical practices, not even an agreed-upon sacred text. No service bulletins, no hymnbooks or worship slides—only songs and stories, poems and prayers, all of which people had come to know by heart.

Most perplexing of all to those early Christians surely must have been the question of how to address the God whom they had gathered to worship.

After the death and resurrection of Jesus, in the first days of the church, when people gathered to praise God and to pray to God, they needed to name God. They continued to address God as the ancient Hebrews had, as “Father” and as “Spirit.” But they also found themselves praying to Jesus! Those earliest Christians must have asked themselves: “Exactly who are we worshiping?”

So the Trinity—one God, yet known or experienced in three personae—became, over time, one way for Christians to express their understanding of God. Initially, the concept emerged in their worship and prayer life; and eventually, it became central to their way of conceiving of and naming God.

Now, the Trinity as a theological doctrine does not appear explicitly or systematically anywhere in Scripture. In fact, the word Trinity is not used even once in the Bible! Rather, it lurks there like so many pieces of a puzzle waiting to be discovered and assembled.

In John’s Gospel, Jesus offers us some of those puzzle pieces—referring as he does to both the “Spirit of truth” and the “Father.” And then he concludes by saying, “All that the Father has is mine.”

Earlier in the Gospel of John—in the third chapter—we find a passage that is actually the lectionary choice for Trinity Sunday, Year B. Recorded here is a conversation between Jesus and a leading Pharisee named Nicodemus.

The Pharisees believed in eternal life, and Jesus and Nicodemus find themselves in a discussion of this topic. They are talking about the nature of the kingdom of God, and Jesus insists that to be part of God’s kingdom one must be born again—in and by the Spirit. Then he says that whoever believes in God’s Son will not perish but have eternal life.

In the space of just a few verses, Jesus makes plain his own conception of God. It includes a traditional Hebrew perspective that God is like a Father who rules over the world—and that God is also a Spirit offering us new life. He then goes on to add the rather startling assertion that belief in the Son of God is the gateway to eternal life.

Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It does not seem to be the intention of John, the gospel writer, to teach us in this text about the Trinity per se, but, from our point of view, what we have here in this exchange between Nicodemus and Jesus is a rudimentary introduction to the notion of a “three-in-one God.”

Elsewhere in Scripture we find references to God as the Sovereign who creates, the Son who redeems, and the Holy Spirit who sustains. But it took the early church several centuries to work out the Trinitarian language that we have come to see as a basic teaching of the Christian faith—the language used at baptisms and benedictions: “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

Ever since Christians first began using Trinitarian language we have been tinkering with it, unsatisfied with the traditional male-infused formula to describe the being of God and our experience of God.

As early as the fifth century after Christ, Augustine suggested this as an alternative way to name God: “God the Lover, God the Beloved, and God the Love.”

In the 14th century, Julian of Norwich wrote: “As truly as God is our Father, so just as truly is God our Mother.”

More recently, Letty Russell has proposed: “God the Source of life, God the Word of truth, and God the Spirit of love.”

Clearly, part of our tradition has called for innovation in the way we speak of God. We tend to think of the search for new imagery about God as a phenomenon of our time—but really, it’s not a new thing. Since the earliest days of the church, Christians have struggled to find new and better ways of naming the God we worship.

The problem the Trinity was designed to address is with us still: what language can adequately express the fullness of God? Or perhaps it cannot be expressed in words!

The great Russian icon painter Rublev, in his famous 15th-century portrayal of the Trinity, has three persons seated in an open circle at a table, with their hands outstretched, as if to welcome the viewer into the circle. It suggests a Trinity that invites us to join and participate in the life and community of God.

A Trinity for today offers us not some monolithic, imposing, doctrinal Supreme Being, but rather an accessible, interactive, approachable, hospitable God. The Trinity is a conception of God that suggests that God is—within God’s own self—a community.

God does not exist apart from relationship or outside community. And neither do we! When we read in First John 4:8 that “God is love,” we are getting to the heart of what the Trinity means.

As Jurgen Moltmann said, “It is only from the Trinitarian perspective that we can claim that ‘God is Love,’ because love is never alone.” 1

The Trinity is like a household—the household of God. It is a loving household, and we are included in it. A Trinity for today focuses on the threeness of God as a window onto the one loving community that is God. And that divine community is the model for all genuine human community.

We need the Trinity now more than ever to begin to grasp, or at least get a glimpse of, the depth and breadth and height of who God is and what God does. Peter Gomes asserted that the Trinity “works to explain the unexplainable and helps to draw for us the big picture, satisfying our need to engage and stretch and stimulate our imagination” about God. 2

A few years ago, I ran into a woman who was a former member of the church I served at the time. She was still living nearby, but no longer part of our congregation. I’m sure she dreaded running into me, fearing that I would ask her about her current church involvement, which—of course—I did!

In response she said, “I have found other ways to feed my spirituality now.”

You know, there are lots of people who would say the same thing. The church’s way of proclaiming its faith no longer feeds their spirits, no longer offers them the nourishment they desire for their souls. I wonder how much of that has to do with our lack of imagination when we speak about God.

Far from being an outmoded, obsolete image for us to use as we speak of God, the Trinity invites us to a new understanding of God—and to a re-energized relationship with God.

Part of our challenge as Christians today is to find a way of using “Trinity” language that is not bound exclusively to the traditional words—language that can have life and meaning not only for us, but also for a world full of people hungry for spiritual experience.

The Trinity pushes us to discover a God who is much bigger than any single image or word—a “three-in-one” God who is above us, beside us, and within us. One God in three persons, blessed Trinity.

________________________

1 Moltmann, Jurgen. “The Triune God: Rich in Relationships,” in The Living Pulpit, April-June, 1999, p. 4.

2 Gomes, Peter. Sermons, [New York: Wm. Morrow and Company, Inc., 1998], p. 108.

DEAF TO THE SPIRIT?

The Day of Pentecost

TEXT: Acts 2:1-21

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. (Acts 2:1-4)

 

On Pentecost Sunday, we celebrate the birth of the Christian Church. You know the story. Christ has already ascended to heaven, after telling his disciples to go to Jerusalem and wait for the Holy Spirit to come upon them. They do as he tells them. And so, there they are, in Jerusalem, waiting. Then comes the harvest festival known as Shavuot, or Pentecost—which also celebrates the giving of the Torah to Moses.

Now, Shavuot—Pentecost—is an important Jewish holiday. And in the first century, it was an occasion when thousands of religious Jews would visit Jerusalem. They would have come from all over the known world—“every nation under heaven,” as it said in our passage from Acts. And all these people, even though they shared a common religion, would have spoken different languages. Many of them would have had some understanding of Greek, some would have understood Hebrew; but their “mother tongues,” the languages they understood best, would have been varied and many.

So, what happens? Well, again, I’m sure you know the story. The Holy Spirit chooses this time to descend upon the followers of Jesus—or to come upon them “with power,” since according to John’s Gospel, they had already “received” the Spirit when the risen Christ breathed it upon them (see John 20:22). Whatever it is that’s supposed to be happening here, whatever distinction we might want to make between “receiving” the Spirit and having it come upon you or fill you, the effect of it is quite astonishing.

The disciples are all gathered together in a room somewhere in Jerusalem when the Holy Spirit bursts in. Filled with the power of that Spirit, they begin to speak in other languages—presumably in languages they had not been able to speak previously. And they are speaking so loudly that the people out in the street hear them, even over the din and the bustle of the marketplace.

Soon a crowd gathers outside the house. They can’t believe their ears, because they hear the disciples speaking to them—to each of them, in the native language of each one. “What’s going on here?” they ask. Then they say:

“Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” (Acts 2:7b-11)

Not surprisingly, everyone is shocked and bewildered, and want to know what’s happening. And even though the text says that those who had gathered outside the disciples’ window could understand what was being said, it seems that not everyone out there in the street could. To them, it just sounded like gibberish—like the inebriated ravings of men who had been drinking too much wine too early in the day. They sneered, and—as we read in verse 13—they said of the disciples, “They are filled with new wine.”

Now, in every Pentecost sermon I’ve ever heard, that verse is just sort of passed over without comment. Usually, the preacher goes on to emphasize what happens next. Peter rises to the defence of his friends, declares that, no, they are not drunk at all, but are filled with the Spirit of God. Then he delivers what must qualify as the most successful evangelistic sermon of all time, because at the end of it some 3,000 people believe and are baptized. I wish Peter was still around to give me some preaching tips!

But today, I want to focus on that usually passed-over verse, where the nay-sayers put down the disciples by saying they’re just a bunch of drunks and rabble-rousers. I think it’s a very significant verse, because it points out something important about the gift the Spirit gave at Pentecost: it was not just a gift of speaking—it was also a gift of hearing. And not everybody received it.

Now, the Bible doesn’t tell us why some of them did not receive the gift. It doesn’t say why some of them couldn’t hear the message of love—could not understand the languages of love—which the disciples were speaking. But if I’ve learned anything about the gifts of God—about the gifts of the Spirit—it’s this: God’s gifts are freely offered, and they are offered to everyone. All you have to do is to be willing to accept them.

So it seems to me that these folks who could not understand what the disciples were saying, even though they were speaking in just about every language there is on earth, must have had some kind of barrier inside them, or in their lives, that made them deaf to the Spirit’s words of love. It seems to me that if there was a problem, it must have been with the hearers, not with the speakers.

As I said, the Bible doesn’t tell us what the problem was. It doesn’t let us know about the hang-ups, or the hatreds, or the petty jealousies or prejudices of those who could not or would not unstop their ears. But it does give us a clue—and it’s in that little verse which we preachers usually pass over: “others sneered and said, ‘They are filled with new wine.’”

They sneered. They treated the Spirit’s gift with derision. They treated the Spirit’s messengers with disrespect. They called them a bunch of drunks.

I have to wonder whether, perhaps, the sneering ones were not visitors to Jerusalem, but longtime residents. Folks who knew the disciples well. Or who had at least heard about them before. Or who, perhaps, had felt let down by this Jesus fellow when he didn’t turn out to be the Messiah they had been hoping for.

I mean, doesn’t it sound like there might have been just a touch of bitterness here? Like maybe there were some old tensions, some long-standing grievances, some hurt feelings from the past?

I’m giving my imagination free rein here, of course. But you know, I can hear these bitter folks saying things like:

“Look at those blasted show-offs! Look what they’re doing now! Jesus is gone, and they still want to be big shots.”

Or: “What a racket, this early in the morning! How undignified! Followers of Jesus shouldn’t draw such attention to themselves.”

Or: “Who does that Peter think he is, to be speaking in tongues, after he denied Jesus three times? There are certainly other people who deserve this gift more than he does.”

Or maybe some of them really did believe the disciples were drunk, and were upset because they thought the church’s money had been squandered on alcohol.

Whatever their issues were, whatever their grievances or grudges were, they became loud, bitter voices that drowned out the message that God so wanted them to hear. And that was a tragedy, because it meant that these people were now on the outside. While some 3,000 others made their way into the Kingdom of God on Pentecost Day, these poor souls remained on the outside, condemned by their own stubborn bitterness—by their own willful deafness to the voice of the Spirit.

I think there’s a warning here for all of us, even—and maybe especially—for those of us inside the Church. Because (I’m sad to say) church people don’t really have a very good track record when it comes to accepting new ideas, or encouraging novel ways of doing things. When stuff happens that is unfamiliar, or different, or which maybe just doesn’t suit our tastes, we tend to get our backs up. And sometimes our first reaction is an angry one, and we want to shut down this unfamiliar thing. Perhaps we even want to lash out at the people who are doing it.

Well, that’s a natural reaction, I guess. Someone once said, “Only babies like change.” And it’s been quite a while since most of us were babies (alas, that is especially true in my own denomination). But I think we have to be careful, and give some deeper thought to the way we react to things. Because we don’t want to allow old grievances, or new jealousies—or anything else—to put us on the outside of God’s Kingdom … do we?

Listen to the word of the Lord, being spoken anew:

I am about to do a new thing;
    now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
    and rivers in the desert.

(Isaiah 43:19)

Look for the new thing, my friends. Look for the new thing that God is doing. Look for the way through the wilderness. In whatever desert you find yourselves, may you locate the river winding through it … and climb aboard the Spirit’s lifeboat.

Blessings on your journey. Amen.

IN THE WORLD … AS ONE

Seventh Sunday of Easter/Ascension Sunday (Year B)

TEXTS: Acts 1:1-11 and John 17:6-19

“All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” (John 17:10-11)

Today’s gospel lesson is part of what Bible scholars refer to as the “high priestly prayer” of Jesus, because it was offered on behalf of his people. That includes not only his first disciples, but also all of us—all of his followers, in every place and time.

Can you imagine what it would be like to hear Jesus praying for you? I’m sure it would be a wonderful thing, to hear the Lord himself speaking to his Father about you—speaking about how much he loves you, speaking about his concern for you, asking God to protect you.

I’m sure it was no less wonderful for those original disciples, even though they had certainly heard Jesus praying on many occasions. After all, he was the one who had taught them how to pray.

But this time, things were different. This was the evening of Jesus’ betrayal, the last night of his earthly life. He had washed their feet, shocking all of them by taking on the role of a humble servant. He had celebrated Passover with them, telling them that this would be their last Seder meal together. He declared that his body would soon be broken, that his blood would soon be poured out “for the forgiveness of sins” (Matt. 26:28). By now, they must have been wondering what was up.

Obviously, Jesus knows that his time is running out. As his friends listen, he prays, saying: “I am no longer in the world, but they are.”

What a powerful—and ominous—statement. Cryptic, too—just like the words that follow today’s reading, where Jesus continues his prayer by saying:

“I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17:20-23).

Like I said, cryptic words—yet Jesus’ meaning will become crystal clear in the hours that follow, as he leads his disciples across the Kidron valley to the Garden of Gethsemane, where he will be arrested. From there, he will be taken to the high priest’s house, and eventually to Pilate’s headquarters, and finally to a tortured death upon a cross.

Of course, we know how the story plays out. Easter morning arrives, and we rejoice. Jesus has come back! But he is not here to stay. Forty days after Easter—as we heard in today’s first reading from the Book of Acts—Jesus departs once again, being lifted up into the clouds, where he disappears. Someday he will come back, we are told … but we’re still waiting.

Now what? Those first disciples must have asked themselves that question. Maybe we ask it, also. Jesus is no longer in the world—but we are. Here we are, down here, on our own, with Jesus no longer in this world as a flesh-and-blood presence.

Or is he? Jesus’ prayer for us was that we might become one not only with one another, but also with his Father and him. That’s another cryptic statement, I guess, but I think we come close to understanding it if we listen to Paul’s familiar words in First Corinthians, chapter 12: “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it” (v. 27).

We are the body of Christ. That has been the Church’s understanding of itself for 2,000 years. In the 16th century, Teresa of Avila wrote: “Christ has no body on earth but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours; yours are the eyes through which the compassion of Christ looks out on a hurting world, yours are the feet with which he goes about doing good; yours are the hands with which he is to bless now.”

Ours are the hands with which Jesus wants to bless the world. And that task of blessing, to be effective, requires a kind of unity. The kind of unity of purpose you find on a ship with a well-disciplined crew. We are the hands of Jesus, and it’s “all hands on deck” as we maneuver the gospel ship through the turbulent waters of this world.

Unfortunately, we Christians have not always been a well-disciplined crew. Too often, we’ve looked more like a “ship of fools” who can’t get along with one another.

One of the ways we see this demonstrated is, of course, through the proliferation of Christian denominations whose defining characteristic seems to be that each one thinks it is somehow better than all the others. And yet, the church of Jesus Christ is supposed to be one church—one body. So these artificial units called denominations are problematic.

Several years ago, there was a big clergy convention in the United states, held at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. Some 50,000 preachers were in attendance, one of whom was a Methodist pastor named James Howell. On a website called “Day One,” Howell describes that conference, and he says this:

One of the speakers at the three-day event was the well-known devotional author Max Lucado. Max described the church as God’s boat, a vessel with one purpose—to carry us safely to the other shore. This is no cruise ship, it is a battleship. We are not called to leisure, but to service. Each of us has a different task. Some are concerned with those who are in danger of drowning, snatching people from the water. Others are concerned with the care and feeding of the crew.
Though different, we are all the same, for each of us can tell of a personal encounter with the captain who bid us come aboard and follow him. We crossed the gangplank of his grace and found ourselves here. Here we are on one boat, with one captain, and one destination. And though our battle is fierce, the boat is safe for our captain is strong and the gates of hell will not prevail against this grand vessel. Of that there is no concern. This boat will not sink.
Max says there is concern, however, not with the strength of the boat, but with the harmony of the crew. You see, when we first came on board we assumed that everyone here was just like us. But as we have wandered these decks we have found a few curious converts. Some wear uniforms we have never seen. Some sport styles we have never witnessed and we stop them and say, “Why do you look the way you do?” To which they respond, “We were about to ask you the same question!”
The variety of dress is not nearly as disturbing as the diversity of opinions. There is one group, for example, that clusters every morning for intense study. They promote rigid discipline and wear somber expressions. “Serving the captain is serious business,” they say. It is no coincidence that they tend to congregate toward the back of the boat, the stern.
There is another regiment deeply devoted to prayer. Not only do they believe in prayer, they believe in a certain posture for prayer. They believe you can only talk with God on your knees with head forward—that is why they can always be found on this vessel near the bow.
Still another group has positioned itself near the engine. They occupy themselves with studying the nuts and bolts of this ship—they are only comfortable if they can grasp the details. They are occasionally criticized by those who linger on the top deck, inspired by the wind in their hair and the sun in their face who insist, “It is not what you know, it is what you feel.”
Some think once you are on the boat you can never get off. Others say, you would be foolish to go overboard, but the choice is yours. Some believe you were recruited and subsequently volunteered yourself for service on this boat. Others believe you were destined for service before the boat was ever built.
There are those who address the captain in a private and personal language, while others think such conversation is gibberish. There are those who think the officers should wear special robes and others who think there should be no officers at all.

Then there is the issue of the weekly meeting at which the captain is honored and his instructions read. All agree on its importance, but some want it loud while others want it quiet.
Some want ritual, others want spontaneity. Some want to celebrate so they can meditate, others want to meditate so they can celebrate.
The consequence is a rocky boat. There is trouble on deck. Fights have broken out between sailors. There have been times, incredible as it may seem, when one group even refused to acknowledge the presence of any other group on the ship.
Most tragically, some adrift at sea have chosen not to board this boat. “Life is rough out here on the choppy seas,” they say, “but, I would rather face the wind and waves than get caught in a fight between those sailors.” 
Can there ever be harmony on the ship? That was the dream of the captain. Three different times in Christ’s high priestly prayer in John 17 is the plea, “that they may be one” (vv. 11, 21-22).
As Max Lucado wrapped up his message to the ministers, he invited his audience to think of some denomination or Christian group they had previously insulted or denigrated or put down, and then go find a member of that group and apologize. It was upset-the-applecart as folks climbed over one another to respond. There were hugs and handshakes, a marvelous moment of forgiveness and grace.
At the conclusion of the convention, the plan was to have Communion together. Sounds good … until you remember that the celebration of the Lord’s Supper has been and sadly remains a major bone of contention in Christ’s church. Some preachers left early, unable to overcome theological barriers. That was sad, but the word from those who stayed, as they responded to the movement of the Holy Spirit, was that the walls of resistance began to crumble. Differences in the way one group or another understood the ceremony became less significant. They began to realize that what united them was far more important than what divided them.*

James Howell concludes his piece by saying that, as crew members on God’s ship, we are all invited to the captain’s table. And I love that image. I hope that, in the future, more and more of us can embrace it—because that really will make for smoother sailing on the gospel ship.

Years ago, in my denomination, there was a catch-phrase—or a slogan—I used to hear a lot. We used to say we were “a united and uniting church”—by which we meant that we were not only open to the idea of working with other denominations, but that we were eagerly seeking opportunities to do that.

But I haven’t heard that slogan lately. And today, it seems—to me, at least—that perhaps we are not quite as eager to work with other Christians. That’s not to say we won’t do it—but I just don’t feel that we’re as enthusiastic as we used to be, especially at the local level. In many places in our church, it seems like folks don’t want to touch any project that doesn’t have our denominational crest stamped on it. And that’s a shame. Because, on those occasions when we do play well with others, we broadcast a message all the world needs to hear. We are proclaiming that we value—and love—all the members of Christ’s body. And we are demonstrating, through our actions, that we are happy to work with any and all of our brothers and sisters for a common cause.

And, you know what? Every time we do that, we become the answer to Jesus’ prayer that all his followers might become one.

____________

* http://day1.org/1256-in_but_not_of_the_world