May 10, 2008

Wind of the Spirit/Breath of the Spirit

Filed under: Faith Matters — Pastor Tim @ 7:53 pm

“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.”  Acts 2:2

“… [Jesus] breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’”  John 20:22b

Many of us are aware of the two accounts of creation.  In the first, the universe is created in six days, with human beings created the very last (Gen. 1:1-2:4a).  In the second, the first human is created before there are plants or animals (Gen. 2:4b-24).  They are different stories, each carrying their own bit of spiritual truth.  So each are included in our sacred texts.

Many of us are also aware that there are two different accounts of the birth of Jesus.  In Luke’s gospel, angels tell shepherds to find the family of Jesus keeping the Christ child in a manger in Bethlehem, because there was no room for them in the inn (Luke 2″1-20).  In Matthew’s gospel, Magi from the east follow a star to find the family of Jesus staying with the Christ child in a house in Bethlehem (Matthew 1:18-25).  Each story was judged inspired, so both are included in scriptures though they are different.

Did you also know that there are also two stories of the Holy Spirit coming to give birth to the Church?

In the familiar story in the second chapter of Acts, the Holy Spirit comes as a violent wind on the day of Pentecost.  The disciples are empowered to proclaim the gospel in every tongue so that thousands join to follow the Way of the Christ on that first day.  It is a wild and raucous party, with people thinking that everybody is drunk!

But the less familiar and much, much quieter story is told in John’s gospel.  The disciples are gathered in a locked room.  They encounter the risen Christ, who speaks words of peace to them.  Then the Holy Spirit comes to them as a breath.  They are empowered by this breath to spread acts of forgiveness to the world.

We preachers tend to emphasize the wild, windy Spirit when we want our congregations to be moved to change the world!  But I wonder if the breath of the Spirit might nurture transformations that are just as powerful.  Sometimes it takes a gentle, quiet confidence to provide power.

Whether as Wind or Breath, may the Holy Spirit blow on us to empower us to share the love of the Christ.

May 1, 2008

Up, Up, and Away!

Filed under: Faith Matters — Pastor Tim @ 12:13 pm

“When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.”  Acts 1:9

In the Apostles’ Creed, we affirm that “[Jesus Christ] ascended into heaven.”  But I admit that the story of Jesus’ ascension makes me want to giggle.  I just read in the i.UCC Daily Devotional (available through i.UCC.org) about a set of statues in the Chartres Cathedral of people looking in the sky, and hanging from the ceiling above them there are two feet, representing Jesus being lifted into the clouds!  This is one of those passages of scripture that doesn’t make a lot of sense to me when read literally.  Heaven is not someplace we can get to by flying above the clouds.  Yet I believe this is a profound story of our faith.

Forty days after Easter Sunday, the disciples are asking the risen Jesus if he’s ready now to defeat the Romans and to restore the kingdom of Israel.  Jesus answers by telling them there is no way to know when the kingdom of heaven will arrive, and by promising them the gift of the Holy Spirit.  Then he “disappears,”  and angels come to tell the disciples to quit gawking at the heavens.

This story suggests that the situation in our world isn’t going to get any better if we are always only sitting around waiting for divine intervention.  In fact, the Divine has already intervened!  This has taken many forms, including, but not limited to, these: the act of creation; the rescue from the flood; the exodus from slavery; the return from exile; the intervention of the prophets; the birth, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus; the coming of the Holy Spirit.  The Divine will intervene again, but we are called to tasks other than passively waiting for God to fix things up.

The ascension of Jesus opens us to receive the coming Spirit, and the coming of the Holy Spirit empowers us to be the Church, i.e. to be God’s work of intervening in the world.  The Church is called to intervene for God where the powers of domination, despair, and death - the powers of Rome, if you will - are still trying to assert their control.

April 9, 2008

Who Is My Shepherd?

Filed under: Faith Matters — Pastor Tim @ 11:06 am

The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.  Psalm 23:1

To live in a community (flock) that knows and follows God as shepherd is to know the satisfaction of abundant gifts.  But most of us do not live in such flocks, at least not most of the time.  A number of years ago, I wrote the “Consumer Capitalism Version” of the 23rd Psalm:

  • The Free-Market Economy is my shepherd, 
  • I shall always want more.
  • It maketh my cities sprawl across green pastures,
  • It leadeth my factories to pollute still waters.
  • It restoreth my greed.
  • It leadeth me down longer grocery store aisles for the sake of corporate profits.
  • Yea, though I walk on the brink of bankruptcy,
  • I fear no new debts.
  • For thou sendest another credit card offer to me;
  • Thy free gifts and thy temporary low interest rate, they comfort me.
  • Thou preparest a computer screen before me with Internet access to my creditors.
  • Thou floodest my e-mail Inbox with spam.
  • My e-mail capacity runneth over.
  • Surely bills and a credit rating shall follow me all the days of my life,
  • And I shall have job security until the next corporate merger.

How different would life be, if our true Shepherd were at the center of all we did?

April 4, 2008

In the Breaking of the Bread

Filed under: Faith Matters — Pastor Tim @ 10:30 am

“When he was at table, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.  Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him.”  Luke 24:30-31a

Two of Jesus’ followers were walking to some now unfamiliar location, Emmaus.  Its obscurity leads us to trust that the risen Christ can appear on the road to anywhere.

But the risen Christ’s presence, and the recognition of his presence are two different things.  Upon reflection, those followers of Jesus remembered their hearts burning within them as they encountered this stranger.  Upon reflection, they remembered his discussion of the Bible as one which reopened their world after it had been slammed shut by Jesus’ death.  Upon reflection, they could see how the divine presence had been alive with them on their journey.

Recognition happened later, however, as they broke bread with a stranger, and as he took over and became host of the meal.  As he had done at the feeding of the 5000, and again at the Last Supper, he “took, blessed, broke, and gave” the bread.  This particular sequence with the bread reflects the birth, the baptism, the crucifixion, and the resurrection of Jesus (according to Henri Nouwen).  Thus the resurrected Jesus was “made known to [those followers] in the breaking of the bread” [Luke 24:35].

Thus we encounter the body of Christ in these actions at the Communion Table.  The table provides an opportunity to reflect upon our lives, upon whatever road to Emmaus we are traveling, and upon how divine presence has been alive on our journey.

What encounter with a stranger has left you surprisingly blessed?  Which stories of faith have been told in ways that have opened up parts of life that had otherwise seemed to be dead ends?  When has your heart “burned within you,” with enthusiasm and joy?

March 22, 2008

Darkness

Filed under: Faith Matters — Pastor Tim @ 11:16 am

“Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark,…”  John 20:1

It always begins in darkness, doesn’t it?  The gift of new life wouldn’t be a surprise if it didn’t begin in the darkness.

Resurrection begins in the darkness - a darkness that can linger for days.  Darkness came over the land on noon on Friday, according to the synoptic accounts, as Jesus hung from the cross, as he suffered, and as he died.  That darkness continued through Saturday in the tomb where the body lay.   Before the sun had risen on Sunday morning, Mary arose to go to the tomb.

When she arrives and finds that the body is missing, her first thought is of more darkness.  “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” [20:2]  Resurrection light arrives, but it continues to look like darkness.  It is only after Mary hears her name spoken, that she recognizes the new light that is shining.

So, too, I trust that resurrection light is shining in our world in places that appear to be drenched in darkness.  May we learn to linger with our grief in the darkness until we hear our names spoken, until we can recognize resurrection light, until we can join with Mary to say, “I have seen the Lord!” [20:18]

March 13, 2008

Triumphal Entry

Filed under: Faith Matters — Pastor Tim @ 11:06 am

When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?”  The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”  Matthew 21:10-11

It’s quite likely that there were two parades into Jerusalem that day.  Caesar’s troops were marching in from Rome.  They came every year to ensure that order would be maintained during the annual influx of Jews for the Passover celebration.  At the same time, Jesus was arriving on a donkey.  Almost immediately, he went to the temple and stirred up the sort of disorder that those Roman soldiers were hoping to prevent.

Jesus is the Prince of Peace.  But he does not stand for any “peace” that depends upon brute force to be maintained.  He does not stand for any “peace” which ignores the plight of the underprivileged members of a society.  He does not stand for any “peace” which is essentially order established at the expense of justice.  Jesus parades into our lives to establish “shalom,” a peace that isn’t afraid to stir things up on behalf of just treatment for all people.

March 10, 2008

“Unbind him”

Filed under: Faith Matters — Pastor Tim @ 11:27 am

The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth.  Jesus said to him, “Unbind him, and let him go.”  John 11:44

I can’t help but picture this scene as if it were supposed to be part of a scary mummy movie - a dead man, wrapped in strips of cloth, stumbling out of a tomb.  I guess it was a scary scene for many of the religious authorities, who immediately met and made plans to have Jesus executed.  But what was frightening for them was not the sight of this walking dead man; instead it was the sense that they were losing control of their citizens.  If they lost control, then Rome would step in and take control.  That was the last thing they wanted.  You see, those authorities were bound just as tightly as Lazarus, entombed in the Roman heirarchy that sought to manage the affairs of the world.

Jesus would summon each of us from bondage in the same way that he summoned Lazarus from that tomb.  Along the way, he is often delayed (vs. 1-16); he encounters and deals graciously with our anger (17-27); and he weeps alongside us (28-37).

Ultimately, Jesus’ journey to the cross is to serve that same purpose - to summon us from the tombs of guilt and fear and death, to summon us to forgiveness and love and life.  May our Lenten journey with Christ lead us to hear that summons.

March 1, 2008

To See or Not to See, That Is the Question

Filed under: Faith Matters — Pastor Tim @ 12:45 pm

“Jesus said to [the man born blind], ‘You have seen him, and the One speaking with you is he.’  He said, ‘Lord, I believe.’  And he worshiped him.”  John 9:37-38

The ninth chapter of John’s gospel is the story of a man born blind who suddenly gains his sight through Jesus’ intervention.  But that miracle is not the main thrust of the story.  The story’s deeper plot involves the gradual growth of the man’s awareness of who Jesus is, while at the same time the religious leaders are refusing to see what is going on around them.  The man born blind gains spiritual insight, while the religious leaders remain blind to such things.

There are a number of sources of “blindness” in this passage.  Early in the story Jesus affirms that sin is not the source of the man’s physical blindness.  But perhaps that is being contrasted with the other blindnesses in the text.

  • Many neighbors of the man born blind have only recognized his condition, not the person behind the condition; so they no longer recognize him when he has sight.  They have been blinded by the act of labeling.
  • The religious leaders to whom the man was brought initially share the neighbors’ blindness; but after having this cleared up by the man’s parents, they now see only a violation of Sabbath law.  They fail to acknowledge the man’s healing, but are blinded by an overly strict adherence to tradition.
  • The man’s parents see and recognize him.  They see and acknowledge his healing.  However, they cannot see beyond their fear of authority figures (v. 22).  They are blinded by a penchant to avoid all conflict.

These, then, become the faith issues for us:

  • Can we see through others’ limitations and the labels we apply to them to know and treat them as people whom God loves?
  • Can we see around the traditions that have given shape to our lives to acknowledge new things God is doing in our midst, even when that makes us uncomfortable and may cause us to have to think about our life in different ways?
  • Can we see beyond official interpretations of the way things work to risk stirring up controversy for the sake of pursuing justice with God for the world?
February 23, 2008

Crossing Boundaries

Filed under: Faith Matters — Pastor Tim @ 4:19 pm

“[Jesus] left Judea and started back to Galilee, but he had to go through Samaria.”  John 4:3-4

I grew up in a rural area that became a city suburb because of “White Flight.”  When a few African-American families began moving into East St. Louis, subdivisions started sprouting up all around us as white folks didn’t trust their new city neighbors and fled to the countryside.  I was too young to realize what was happening, but I started to figure things out when I was invited to attend a ballgame with a friend.  His family took us to see the Cardinals in downtown St. Louis.  My family always traveled straight through East St. Louis to go to St. Louis, but my friend’s family drove us more than an hour out of our way in order to avoid East St. Louis.  They were convinced East St. Louis was too dangerous a place, and they told me that they would never go through there.

By a similar logic, most of the citizens of Judea and Galilee traveled back and forth via routes that avoided Samaria.  Samaritans, so the story went, were not to be trusted, and so there were major traffic routes that went around Samaria.  But the gospel tells us that Jesus had to go through Samaria.  Lest we think that Jesus was in a big hurry, and couldn’t afford to waste time traveling around it, our story tells us that he was invited to spend time there, so he stayed two days.  While there, he spoke with a Samaritan woman who was fetching water at Jacob’s well.  She was utterly surprised to be acknowledged by a Jew, and even more astonished that she was addressed by a man.  Further, he encouraged her theological reflections, something usually reserved for men.

It appears that Jesus has to cross all the boundaries that we’ve created to keep people apart.  We tend to create boundaries based on race and ethnicity, on gender or family make-up, on religious practices or generational traditions, on levels of income or education, on levels of physical or mental abilities….  But Jesus doesn’t let any of those limits keep him from embracing people with hope nor from offering them “living water.”

The point is NOT that Samaritans/foreigners/outsiders can become like us, so we should be inviting them into our circle.  The point is that outsiders ARE already like us - in need of love and acceptance and challenge, in need of being treated like whole children of God.  Jesus calls us to build community with all sorts of people.

February 16, 2008

Not All Black-and-White

Filed under: Faith Matters — Pastor Tim @ 1:01 pm

“[Nicodemus] came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”  John 3:2

I am currently teaching a philosophy class.  Two students were discussing religion and science this week.  One asked the other if it’s possible to be a Christian and to believe in evolution.  The second student replied that no “serious” Christians do.

In that student’s mind then, I guess I am not a serious Christian.  I don’t believe that evolution holds all the answers.  But for the purposes of science, I believe it’s the best theory we have at this time, like Newtonian physics was the most accurate theory before Einstein and relativity and quantum mechanics.  Some want scientists to teach “Intelligent Design” as an alternative to evolution and the Big Bang.  Intelligent Design probably carries some truth about God’s involvement in the formation of the universe, but I don’t see how it’s science at all.

Those of us who are religious are often prone to black-and-white thinking.  Either you follow the commandments or your don’t.  Either you’re a saint or a sinner.  Either you’re a serious believer or you’re not.

Since Jesus had overturned the tables in the temple, the opinions had begun to form.  Much of the religious establishment was saying he was a sinner.  Many of the more common folks were viewing him as a saint.  Nicodemus, a member of the establishment, came to Jesus under the cover of darkness, to try to decide for himself.  But their conversation wouldn’t permit Nicodemus to make any black-or-white decision.  Jesus talked about being “born again” or “born from above”; he talked about being “born of the Spirit” and about that Spirit behaving like a wind that “blows where it chooses; he talked about believing in both “earthly things” and “heavenly things.”  He seemed to be inviting Nicodemus to see the world in a variety of shades of gray. 

Some modern religious people think of being “born again” in black-and-white terms, defining who’s in and who’s out of the faith.  But that doesn’t seem to be the way Jesus was using the term.  He wasn’t telling Nicodemus he was out of favor with God because he wasn’t born again.  He was simply inviting him to break open the categories by which people are judged.

There is no mention of how Nicodemus responded immediately.  But after the crucifixion, we know that Nicodemus was one of the two men who tended to Jesus’ body and placed it in the tomb.  Perhaps he wasn’t a “serious” member of the religious establishment.  Or perhaps instead of judging so harshly against the religious establishment of his day, we moderns should learn to see that religious establishment wasn’t as black-and-white opposed to Jesus as we tend to imagine.