Gotta Keep Moving

A Sermon for Sunday, May 28, 2017. The Ascension of the Lord Sunday, Acts 1:6-12

The Ascension of the Lord—it’s a peculiar event, don’t you think?

Jesus, after being raised from the dead, spends 40 days hanging out with the disciples, teaching them about the kingdom of God. And then, whoosh! Up in the air he goes. Artists’ renderings of this scene are quite surreal and a bit ludicrous, as if aliens are beaming Jesus up. Whoowhoowhoop!

Jesus’ ascension is an episode that many preachers and churches avoid entirely during the church season because it is odd and difficult to grasp. It’s not grounded in the mud, spit and blood of life. It’s not as substantial as Jesus’ birth into poverty, his ministry among the sick and the poor and his brutal death. Even resurrection—the breath and heart beat returning to the body, the seemingly dead now come alive—is more palpable than ascension.

And yet as lofty and bizarre as Jesus’ ascension seems, it is what people of faith have sought to comprehend for thousands of years. Jesus’ ascension, his grand departure from the earth and his friends, is reflected in many of the stories we tell—stories that try to make sense of this epic moment:

Like Superman the man of steel, who often leaves the city of Metropolis and rises above to keep a watchful eye over humanity.

Like E.T. the extra terrestrial who tells the boy Elliott that he loves him and then boards his family’s space ship to return home to his planet in the stars.

Like Maui the charming demigod who embraces the young chieftain Moana with a hug and then leaves by transforming into a great hawk that soars off into the sky.

Like the zany Genie who, upon being freed from the lamp by Aladdin, zooms into the air and packs a suitcase for an adventure of his own choosing.

Like Mary Poppins the magical nanny who concludes that she has successfully brought a family back together and then, with a wink and a smile, flies away clutching her umbrella.

Ascension in those stories is about goodbyes, endings and beginnings, transition and change. And Christ’s ascension is all of those things and more—the shaping of Jesus’ glory as the one who conquered death and fear; the establishing of Christ’s rein above all worldly powers; and the fulfilling of God’s promise that human beings are in possession of and destined for a future brimming with hope in Christ’s mercy and love.

Naturally, it’s a lot to take for the disciples to take in and, understandably, they have anxiety about what is occurring before their eyes. With nervous excitement, they ask Jesus: “Is this when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”

The disciples know God is triumphant and yet Jesus, their friend, teacher and savior, is leaving them. They want to know what is going to happen and they can’t bare the thought of Jesus not being among them.

The disciples are likely wondering:

  Is Jesus going up for a few minutes to recruit an angelic construction crew before coming back to rebuild Israel?

    Is he going up in the clouds for a few hours for a period of prayer, rest and renewal before returning to end all of the world’s problems with a word or the touch of his hand?

When Jesus tells them they don’t need to worry about the time in which the kingdom of God will be formed, the disciples realize deep in their hearts that the Jesus they knew—the Jesus who preached and taught as they traveled dusty roads from one town to the next; who shared meals with them and healed and fed the despised and downtrodden—wasn’t coming back.

Their hearts ache with a truth they don’t want to accept. So they stare up in the sky, hoping the Jesus they knew will make a quick U-turn and re-enter their lives as before. They know time is marching forward but they’re not ready to do the same.

Sound familiar?

We don’t like to part with someone we deeply love and cherish (and move forward without them) anymore than the disciples, even when we know in our heart of hearts that it’s usually what is meant to be.

It’s why we get choked up or melancholy at the end of a movie or TV episode, when a main character we’ve grown to appreciate, bids adieu. Those stories remind us that nothing stays the same, that the people closest to us will one day leave and that change is inevitable, whether we enjoy it or not.

Of the multitude of viewing options available these days, no show embraces the concept of goodbyes and change better than the long-running international sci-fi hit Doctor Who.

 

For the non-Whovians out there, Doctor Who follows the adventures of a Time Lord, a humanoid alien known as The Doctor who explores the universe in his TARDIS—a sentient time-traveling space ship that appears as an ordinary blue British police box.

In 1966, after the show had been on air for three years, William Hartnell, the first actor to play Doctor Who, became very ill. So the show’s creators invented a plot device in which the character of The Doctor would regenerate or take on a new body and personality as a way of recovering from something that would kill an ordinary person. This allowed producers and writers to cast a new actor into the role without losing momentum in the breadth of the series.

Throughout the show’s run, 13 actors have played the role of the Doctor—all becoming beloved for the unique persona they brought to the character. But no matter how many times fans watch The Doctor regenerate and know that change is going to occur—that an actor you’ve come to enjoy will be replaced by one who is unfamilliar—they become a bit emotional.

That was certainly true for this fan and many others when Matt Smith exited the show as the 11th Doctor and Peter Capaldi took over as the 12th Doc in the final moments of the Dec 25, 2013 episode “The Time of the Doctor.” The 11th Doctor’s trusted companion Clara Oswald (played by Jenna Coleman) knows her friend and mentor is regenerating, but she can’t bear to see him go. And as he is transforming, The Doctor reminds Clara about the importance of change while also remembering his previous companion, the late Amy Pond:

            “We all change, when you think about. We are all different people, all through our lives. And that’s ok, that’s good, you gotta keep moving so long as you remember all the people that you used to be,” the Doctor reminds Clara and viewers. And Clara, speaking on the audience’s behalf, says, “Please, Don’t change.”

Don’t change. Don’t leave.

Those words are imprinted on the disciples’ faces as they look longingly into the sky as Jesus ascends into the heavens. And they’d probably remain stuck there, fixated on the clouds for hours and hours awaiting Jesus’ immediate return, if the two angels hadn’t appeared.

The angels tell the disciples they have work to do and they need to get busy. Christ has chosen them to be witnesses of love and grace to the ends of the earth. There’s no time to gaze at the sky. The disciples gotta keep moving to share and embody the story of God’s love in the entire world.

So often, I think, Christians get stuck when significant change is happening, especially in the life of the Church. Many congregations struggle with saying goodbye to their long-time beloved pastors who accept a new call or retire. They struggle with saying goodbye to programs that are no longer viable or sparking joy.

They grapple with welcoming new leaders and visions for ministry. They have difficulty letting go because, in the words of Marie Kondo (the author of The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up) there is “an attachment to the past or a fear for the future.”

Most of you in this congregation know that we are in the midst of a process of letting go. As a way of honoring Dave Fry’s legacy as the founding pastor of 32 years and his retirement in November, we’ve embarked on a capital campaign–Gifted Past, Bold Future. The campaign’s purpose is to give gratitude for years of faith-shaping ministry as we strive to pay off the mortgage debt and make room for new ideas that will shape people’s lives.

And while Pleasant Hill is embracing the change, particularly Dave’s farewell, in a healthy way, I imagine there is still some anxiety among us. While we realize that Dave’s retirement is unavoidable, we don’t want him to go. We don’t want things to change.

A Pleasant Hill Presbyterian Church without Dave Fry seems strange after decades of service. We know deep in our hearts that this church won’t quite have the same relationship with Dave as it does at this moment. Eventually, Dave will not be in his office every day or preaching from Sunday to Sunday or teaching classes or making pastoral visits or doing baptisms, weddings and funerals. Dave’s not ascending into the clouds, of course, but he will no longer be present among the congregation as he is now and has been for so long.

Like Clara Oswald, we might be in bit of a shock to see someone else in the head of staff role. And the new pastor, like the new (12th) Doctor, might be a little bewildered about how to “fly this thing” or operate Pleasant Hill.

But if we love God and treasure Dave’s ministry, we won’t be stuck in the past or resistant to change or looking off in the distance or leave the new pastor on their own to figure things out. Instead, we’ll answer Christ’s call to be the Church, to be his followers, to be his witnesses for love and grace for all people in every time and place.

And although Dave won’t be roaming these halls one day, and although Jesus is not physically present, we won’t truly be alone in our endeavors.

As Sirius Black tells young Harry Potter who laments never knowing his parents, murdered when he was a child: The ones who love us never really leave us, you can always find them in here.” (points to Harry’s heart)

Therefore, let your hearts not ache or be torn or anxious, for not too long at least. Dave will soon leave us with an amazing legacy to build on for many years to come. There is much to do and to experience as time goes onward. In the beautiful parting words of the hobbit Frodo to his best friend Sam in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King:

         “You have so much to enjoy and to be and to do. (Your) part in the story will go on.”

Jesus has gone ahead of us, preparing for a future full of hope. And he beckons us to follow and to continue the story that God began–a story with many twists and turns. And Christ assures us that something inspiring is coming—like a mighty rushing wind and tongues of flame—to guide us as Christians and the Church on the journey ahead.

Therefore, we gotta keep moving.

Amen.

Filled Up and Ready for What’s NEXT

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This summer I will have spent:

6 years serving one PC(USA) church as associate pastor for youth and mission.
9 years being an ordained minister of the word and sacrament in the PC(USA).
16 years working with youth in PC(USA) churches.

Many hours, days and months and yet at the age of 38, I still have my looks albeit with several
extra pounds. (Har, har, har). However as Indiana Jones tells Marian in Raiders of The Lost Ark, “It’s not the years honey, it’s the mileage.” When it comes to ministry these days…

I’m hitting the wall.

I’m burning out.

I’m drying up.

I’m stagnating.

(Perfect time to have a second child, born in November, right?)

Knowing that a significant part of my life–God’s call of me to serve–is broken, I flew out to Minneapolis, MN at the beginning of the week to get some repairs done.

But what I got from The PC(USA)s  2014 NEXT Church Annual Conference (held at Westminster Presbyterian Church) wasn’t a quick fix or an easy answer that would allow me to apply a technical change in my life, i.e. get 12 hours of sleep and you’ll be good as new or attend these workshops and worship services and your frustrations/apathy/pain will instantly disappear.

While technical solutions are applicable when the heat goes out or a pipe burst in the church building, they are useless when it comes to nurturing the holistic being of a church or inspiring a gifted church leader who is feeling spiritually empty.

 
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What I received from the NEXT Church Conference was…

an invitation to consider an adaptive approach,

an invitation to be still and listen for God (Psalm 46:10) who is actively speaking and moving in the world in God’s own way and time

an invitation to be moved by the Spirit to reflect, ask questions and imagine new ways to be whom God calls me to be and do what God calls me to do.

an invitation to discover the welfare God has for me by seeking the welfare of the city and its people (Jeremiah 29:7) who have been exiled into a concrete jungle of poverty, homelessness, addiction, abuse, and violence.

an invitation to be part of a present and future that God infuses with hope (Jeremiah 29:11)

an invitation, per the theme of NEXT, to Lead. Create. Discern.

Accepting that invitation to be and let God move me wherever I needed to go was invigorating and liberating. A beautiful gift…

Sermons by Alika Galloway, Daniel Vigilante, J. Herbert Nelson and Maryann McKibben Dana reminded me that I have to let go of my fears, worries and self-doubts (something I struggle with daily as I take medicine and go to counseling for depression and anxiety) and not allow myself to get stuck in the muck.  I have to let it go. (Or as my wife says, not let my frustrations make me the victim.)

Leader Testimonies, Ignite presentations and workshops like Not ChurchTheocademy and  90 Second Sermon and fellowship with friends (old and new) sparked my imagination and tapped into a yearning I’ve been having to smash clay pots and create something different from the shards.

Worship (which I don’t get to do much strictly as a participant) stirred up my passion for serving God and doing ministry. Listening to varieties of music styles and songs (African-American and Native-American and Taize) and hearing scripture retold in unique ways refreshed my weary soul. An afternoon of prayer, in particular, moved me greatly as our individual petitions to God regarding the heaviness of pain we carry inside were read out loud.

NEXT Bulletin

 

NEXT river

 

The centerpiece of worship as well as the conference and our lives and ministry was a communion table that NEXT artist in residence Shawna Bowman created during morning worship on the first day and which we decorated in the days following. As Shawna proclaimed: “Isn’t it amazing that when we build something new, it gets filled up.”

 

NEXT Communion table 2

 

I also have been filled beyond measure and beyond what I deserve from this conference.

The challenge, though–as I find myself re-entering the routines of everyday life, family and church–is not getting stuck in a particular way of being and doing that depletes my energy, intelligence and imagination.

I wish I knew exactly what I needed to do (a series of steps or a one-size-fits all solution) to ensure that I don’t lose this newfound sense of creativity, leadership and discernment that I want to share with others. The last thing I want is to dry up to the point where I have nothing life sustaining to give to God, my family & friends, and the church.

I wish I knew for sure that the ideas I’d like to try–in an effort to enrich ministry and life–are going to stick and flourish beyond my wildest dreams.

There are, of course, no guarantees.

All I can do is take a risk and trust in God who only knows what’s next.

NEXT Communion table

Photo Credits:  “Dry Land” courtesy of Google Images,  other photos from The NEXT Church Conference by Andy Acton, 2014.

Rain Down

Courtesy of Google Images and iBibleverses.christianpost.com
Courtesy of Google Images and iBibleverses.christianpost.com

A Pastoral Prayer for Sunday September 15, 2013, inspired by the hymn “Holy Spirit, Rain Down” which the congregation sung prior to the prayer:

Holy Spirit,

rain down your peace and love

in a world that is so desperately in need of such things

rain down your peace and love

on the broken, the sick, the poor, and the prisoner

rain down your peace and love

in communities such as Colorado where homes and lives are literally being wiped away.

rain down your peace and love

so that they may rise above the waters and carry one another to higher ground

rain down your peace and love

in places torn by violence and war, from our suburban neighborhoods and city streets to cities, towns and countries across the ocean

rain down your peace and love

on those who experience abuse, torture and injustice

rain down your peace and love

on children who suffer at the hands of madmen—

whether it be in Syria or in our own country.

rain down your peace and love

on the city of Birmingham, the deep South and the nation as it remembers

the deaths of 4 little girls—

Cynthia Wesley,

Carole Robertson,

Addie Mae Collins,

and Denise McNair—

who were putting on their choir robes when the bomb of madmen erupted through their church 50 years ago today

rain down your peace and love

as we reflect on the Light that has since shined through those dark days of racism and segregation

as we ponder how the ugliness of prejudice and hatred and injustice still pervades our society

rain down your peace and love

on the Church, grounding it in your promise that we will be loved and never abandoned

rain down your peace and love

on our very souls, transforming our hearts and opening our eyes to see you more clearly in our lives

Holy Spirit,

rain down your peace and love

as we pray together in the way Jesus taught his disciples, saying: “Our Father…”

Love Happens

A Sermon for Sunday May 26, 2013, Romans 5:1-5

trinityLast month, I preached a sermon on how we talk about God and the various names and characteristics we ascribe to God.

This morning, I want to focus on a particular way of understanding God that has been a central Christian teaching for centuries:

God as Holy Trinity

We will not be alone in our ponderings, for millions of Christians in the Western World observe this day of worship as Trinity Sunday—a time in which believers celebrate the profound mystery of our faith in the one, eternal, incomprehensible God who is…

the Creator that formed the universe

The skies and the heavens are marked by the work of God’s hands. [1]

the Christ who redeemed the world by conquering death

Nothing can separate us from God’s love that surrounds us.[2]

the Spirit that descended on the newly born church at Pentecost

The Spirit gives us our daily bread, forgives our sins and delivers us from evil so that we may work for the glory of God’s kingdom.[3]

In his letter to the early church living in Rome—the center of a world-dominating Empire that paid allegiance to Caesar—the apostle Paul wrote these encouraging words to followers about this one God in three persons:

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained accessto this grace in which we stand; and weboast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but wealso boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

Paul’s message is one of many biblical passages that our Church ancestors in the 4th Century drew upon to develop a better understanding of God.  After much debate and argument, they devised what has been known through the ages as the doctrine of the Trinity.

This particular set of beliefs affirms that there is but one God who has three distinct ways of being and acting as God. My seminary theology professor, the late Shirley Guthrie, put it this way[4]:

The works of Father, Son and Holy Spirit are indivisible. We may distinguish between God’s work as Creator and Ruler of the world; as Reconciler, Liberator and Savior of needy, sinful human beings; and as Renewer and Transformer of the life of human beings and all creation. But the will and work of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit cannot be separated or set over against each other. They can be understood only in light of each other and in their agreement with each other, for Father, Son and Holy Spirit are one God.

In plain terms, the Trinity does not function as a hierarchal relationship where God the Creator is on the “top” as the person in charge and Jesus and the Spirit are on the “bottom” as subordinate or lesser divine beings.  But instead, all three are equal to one another in spite of the different works or roles we associate with them. Creator, Christ and Spirit are all God, working in unity to create, liberate, judge, redeem, restore, heal, forgive, inspire, feed and love the whole of creation.

Make sense?

If you’re still confused and ready to tear out your hair, that’s ok.

Although the doctrine of the Trinity is one of the most efficient ways to comprehend who God is and what God does, Trinitarian language is still insufficient because God is a great mystery that can never be fully grasped.

In other words, the Trinity doesn’t solve the mystery of God. But the Trinity does point us toward the mystery of God that is beyond us, among us and within us.  As prolific author and Presbyterian pastor Frederick Buechner wrote[5]:

 (The) Trinity is a way of saying something about us and the way we experience God. … a way of saying something about God and God’s inner nature; that is God does not need the creation in order to have something to love because within God’s being, love happens. In other words, the love God is, is love…as a verb.

This active love of God that is constantly being poured into our hearts, according to Paul’s message, is precisely why we are able to endure suffering and still have hope that God will never forsake us or creation. This active love of God is what allows us to embrace the mystery of God during times of immense pain.

Just consider for a moment the major news events that occurred this past week. After viewing numerous articles, blog posts and videos, I am convinced more than ever before (as I think many of you will be) that even in the midst of tragedy, the active love of the triune God happens.

 Love happens

…………………………

130521120140-ap-23-oklahoma-city-tornado-0520-b-horizontal-galleryMonday afternoon A 2-mile wide tornado with winds up to 200 mph ripped through Moore, Oklahoma, killing 24 people including 9 elementary school children. [6]

As the twister barreled through schools in its path, teachers shielded the bodies of their students from the parts of the building that were crumbling around them.

“I was on top of six kids,” a middle school teacher told reporters as she worked her away across the rubble. “I was lying on top. All of mine are OK.”[7]

Upon seeing the tornado heading toward her school, a first-grade teacher began to move the desks around, telling the kids they were playing “worms who had to stay in their tunnels.” The teacher then grabbed all of the musical instruments in the classroom and asked her students to play and sing as loud as they could.  “They could scream if they were scared,” she said after the storm. “But just don’t stop singing.”[8]

Love happens

…………………………

Woolwich street attackWednesday afternoon 25-year-old Lee Rigby, a British soldier who had previously served in Afghanistan, was walking down the street near the Royal Artillery Barracks in Woolwich, a working class neighborhood in southeast London when the unthinkable happened.

Two madmen, self-proclaimed Jihadists hit Rigby with their blue sports car, crushing him against a metal street sign. Then the terrorists—armed with meat cleavers, knives and hatchets—got out of their car and butchered the military recruiter and father on the populated street. As the blood covered monsters strolled around shouting that they killed the man out of revenge, something else unexpected occurred.

A woman and her mother, who witnessed the murder as they walked up the street, approached the Jihadists and asked, “Can I help him?” The terrorists told the women that the soldier was dead but that they could come near the body.  One of the women then kneeled down by Rigby’s side to comfort him. According to eyewitnesses, she held his hand and began praying.[9]

A third woman, Ingrid Loyau-Kennett, a Cub Scout leader, former teacher and divorced mom of two, was peering out the window of the No. 53 bus when she saw the crashed blue car and Rigby’s body laying on the ground.  Thinking that she could help, Loyau-Kennett got off the bus and hurried toward the scene.  “When I approached the body, there was a lady cradling him,” she would later tell reporters.

Realizing that Rigby was dead, Loyau-Kennett looked around and noticed the two men walking back and forth, bragging about the killing. And then she did the unimaginable. She spoke to one of them:

906275-woman-confronts-attacker“I thought I had better start talking to him before he starts attacking somebody else. I thought these people usually have a message, so I said, ‘what do you want?”

As the man ranted about Jihad, Loyau-Kennett patiently listened, never once showing an ounce of anxiety or fear. After a couple of minutes, she said calmly, “Now it is only you versus many people, you are going to lose. What would you like to do?”  The terrorist said he wanted to fight the police when they arrived and then he walked away. Composed and undeterred, Loyau-Kennett attempted to engage the other terrorist, asking “Well, what about you? Would you like to give me what you have in your hands?”

Loyau-Kennett, whose efforts delayed the terrorists long enough for police to arrive, said she asked for the weapon because “I thought it was better having them aimed on one person like me than everybody there. Children were starting to leave school as well.”[10]

Love happens

 …………………………

o-HELEN-MIRREN-THE-QUEEN-OLIVER-BURTON-570Earlier Wednesday afternoon. In London’s West End, 10-year-old Oliver Burton, born with Down Syndrome and battling terminal cancer, completed the number one item on his bucket list—a visit with Queen Elizabeth II.

Well, to be honest, it was actually famed actress Helen Mirren who won an Oscar in 2006 for her portrayal as the monarch in the film The Queen.

When Oliver’s dying request to meet Queen Elizabeth was rejected by The Royal Family, a charity worker who heard about the boy’s plight, contacted Mirren who was delighted to fill “the royal shoes.”

Mirren invited the family to attend her play on the West End where she was reprising her role as the Queen. Afterwards, Mirren continued to play the part as she visited with Oliver and his family. She even knighting the boy and declared that everyone should call him Sir Oliver. “She stayed in character for the whole thing,” the boy’s dad told news outlets. “Oliver thought she was the real Queen, and well, that’s good enough for us.”[11]

Love happens

Regardless of the evil, the suffering, the insensitive responses to tragedy, apathy toward those in need, or harsh dismissals of people’s prayers to God,

Love happens

Even when we honestly admit during moments of frustration and anger that crap happens,

Love happens MORE!

At this exact moment, that love is being poured into our hearts by the one triune God who calls each of us to help mend a broken world with mercy and compassion.

Through the faithful ministries of this church and its people and through acts of selfless good committed elsewhere by the religious, the spiritual and the atheists,[12]

And in times in which suffering produces endurance and endurance produces character and character produces a hope that does not disappoint,

Love is happening.

Let us forever be an active part of it.

Amen.


[1] Reference to Call to Worship based on Psalm 8 used in PHPC Worship for May 26
[2] Reference to the hymn “God, Be the Love to Search and Keep Me” and Pastoral Prayer for Memorial Day by Mark Koenig of the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program, used in PHPC Worship for May 26
[3] Reference to The Lord’s Prayer used in PHPC Worship for May 26
[4] Christian Doctrine by Shirley C. Guthrie Jr., Westminster John Knox Press. Revised 1994.
[5] Beyond Words: Daily Readings in The ABC’s of Faith by Frederick Buechner, HarperOne Press. 2004.
[6] “We Will Come Back Stronger, Governor Avows” CNN Breaking News Blog, Tuesday May 21, 2013, http://news.blogs.cnn.com/2013/05/21/live-tornado-devastates-oklahoma-city-area/?iref=allsearch
[7] “Terrified children, teachers’ heroics, no shelter: Inside a tornado-ravaged school,” by Josh Levs, CNN, Wednesday May 22, 2013 http://www.cnn.com/2013/05/21/us/oklahoma-tornado-school/index.html?iref=allsearch
[8] “Oklahoma teacher used music to calm kids” by CNN, Wednesday May 22, 2013, http://schoolsofthought.blogs.cnn.com/2013/05/22/oklahoma-teacher-used-music-to-calm-kids/?iref=allsearch
[9] “He Said It Was A War” blog post by Andrew Sullivan, The Daily Dish, Wednesday May 22, 2013, http://dish.andrewsullivan.com/2013/05/22/he-said-it-was-a-war/

[10] “Cub Scout Leader, ex-teacher confronted terrorist” by Ahsley Fantz, CNN, Friday May 24, 2013, http://www.cnn.com/2013/05/23/world/europe/uk-woman-terrorists/index.html?iref=allsearch;

‘You are going to lose’: Incredible photo captures moment London mom stands up to knife-wielding terrorist” by Claire Duffin, The Telegraph/National Post, Thursday May 23, 2013, http://news.nationalpost.com/2013/05/23/i-asked-him-if-he-did-it-and-he-said-yes-british-mom-declared-hero-for-confronting-knife-wielding-fanatic-moments-after-he-slaughtered-soldier/;

“Fearless London woman describes the moment she confronted terrorists and became a national hero” by Sarah Rainey, The Telegraph/National Post, Thursday May 23, 2013, http://news.nationalpost.com/2013/05/23/national-hero/

[11] “Helen Mirren Steps in for the Queen to Grand Dying Boy’s Wish” by Luchina Fisher, ABC News, Wednesday May 22, 2013, http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/entertainment/2013/05/helen-mirren-steps-in-for-queen-to-grant-dying-boys-wish/
[12] A special nod to Pope Francis who defended atheists while giving a sermon on Wednesday May 22, http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2013/05/23/pope-francis-atheists/2355935/

Come, Holy Spirit!

A Sermon for Sunday January 20, 2013, Romans 8:18-27

tumblr_mbdgl3nQbk1qipxzlo1_500Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers[1] by best-selling author Anne Lamott is the inspiration for this month’s sermon series on prayer. According to the book’s dust jacket: “it is these three prayers—asking God for personal assistance, appreciating the good we witness, and feeling awe at the world—that gets us through the day and shows us the way forward.”

 Lamott says that when we say prayers of help, thanks, and wow,  we are making an attempt to have a conversation with God, “reaching out to be heard, hoping to be found by a light and warmth in the world, instead of darkness and cold”:

 Help me be more patient with my annoying co-worker.

Help me kick this addiction to alcohol.

Help me find a job so I don’t end up on the streets.

Thanks for the food on our table.

Thanks for the airline stewardess who found my passport.

Thanks for the brakes holding out till I could get to the repair shop.

Wow, God, this gorgeous sunset is breathtaking!

Wow, God, this choir anthem is magnificent!

Wow, God, this child of mine fills me with indescribable joy!

 These prayers reflect our desire and yearning to be in a personal relationship with God. And praying help, thanks, and wow certainly strengthens our connection to God. But slightly change the focus of the three essential prayers—from prayers for ourselves to prayers for others—and help, thanks, and wow take on new meaning.  

 Suddenly, we are in relationship not only with God but with God’s people. We are more attuned to God’s desire for us to be united in Christ’s love with all those whom God has fashioned.  We are more acutely aware of God’s yearning for the kingdom of love to be established in the world. Help, thanks and wow become forms of what is known as intercessory prayer—petitions made to God to intervene in the midst of conflict and suffering:

Help! Enter the mess[2] of destruction made by storms that ravage third world countries! Give the victims graciousness, encouragement and strength to rebuild their lives!

Help! Enter the mess created by tormented soul at Sandy Hooks Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut! Be with the victims and community as they continue to mourn the loss of loved ones. Give strength to those who daily seek counseling and medical treatment to deal with the trauma!

Help! Enter the mess of disease and countless treatments that have rendered my love one unable to see, speak or eat. Please bring an end to her suffering and give them peace. Comfort those who wait in agony for the pain to end!

Thanks be to you O God for the police who found those children who have been lost for 5 days.

Thanks be to you, O God for the pilot who kept his wits and landed the jumbo jet safely in the midst of a heavy storm.

Thanks be to you, O God for the church members who provide and serve monthly meals to the Clifton Men’s Shelter in Atlanta, who regularly knit prayer shawls for those who are sick and who donate blood to save the life of another person.

Wow, God! Your justice is unmistakably present as the poor and oppressed are welcomed with open arms and treated with more dignity and respect.

Wow, God! Your love is manifest in the relationship the church has been developing with a Muslim group in our community.

Wow, God! Your peace has brought reconciliation between guerilla fighters and government soldiers in Zamboanga City in the Philippines, the scene of much bloodshed in the last six years.

Intercessory prayer, if you didn’t already guess, is filled with passion and raw emotion, and therefore extremely difficult and exhausting to practice.

Praying for God to intercede in places of brokenness and darkness, to enter into periods of suffering and injustice (both great and small) requires every ounce of energy we have.  There is a lot of sorrow in the world and therefore much heartache to take to God on behalf of people who experience such excruciating pain in their life. Turning to God in an act of intercessory prayer can become depleting. And it is in those states of exhaustion that we become frustrated and cynical about whether our petitions are even making a bit of difference.

While God’s good works are evident in the world, the case could be made that God is not doing enough of what we ask.  Turn on the TV, go online or scroll through the news feed on Facebook and instantly we are reminded of how well slavery, genocide, war, violence, poverty, disease, prejudice and hate is thriving well in the 21st century in spite of all the progress that has been made toward love, peace and reconciliation. And if the messes keep getting messier regardless of God’s good works, it would be ridiculous to keep asking God to come in and clean things up.

And yet even in those moments of exhaustion, cynicism and doubt, God in the Spirit comes into the world all the same to give strength. As Paul reminds us:  

The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God,who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

Even when we don’t know how to pray for others or become tired of praying for others or can do nothing more than groan, God in the Spirit intercedes for us. God in the Spirit says: “Don’t stop praying, child. Don’t stop asking me to be in relationship with humanity and don’t ever stop being in relationship with me and other human beings.”

             Maybe we reach those moments in life—the unexpected death of a loved one or a tragedy like the Sandy Hook school shooting—where all we can do is pray and all we can pray is:

            Come, Holy Spirit!

            Kum ba Yah my Lord! Kum ba Yah! Come by here!

            Jesus, will you please butt in! Like right now!

             Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayers!

You might even pray in the way Kate Braestrup and her friend Laura did as they watched in horror as the Twin Towers fell in New York during the September 11 terrorist attacks[3]:

 We are both ordained ministers—she’s an Episcopal priest—and we both serve as chaplains for first responders. You would think, therefore, that Laura and I might have been able to come up with a better, or at least more specific, prayer than this one: ‘O God, O God, O God, O God, O God, O God, O God.’ But that was the one we prayed when the towers fell.

jacobs_year-of-living-biblicallyOften ‘O God’ is enough for the day because there are many things out of our control, things that can’t be fixed. More important, however, is that we continue to pray, continue to be in relationship with God and God’s people.  As author AJ Jacobs explains in his popular book The Year of Living Biblically[4]:

I still can’t wrap my brain around the notion that God would change God’s mind because we ask God to. And yet I still love these prayers. To me they’re moral weight training. Every night I pray for others for ten minutes—a friend about to undergo a cornea surgery, my great-aunt whose sweet husband died in their swimming pool, the guy I met in a Bible study class whose head was dented in a subway accident. It’s ten minutes where it’s impossible to be self-centered. Ten minutes where I can’t think about my career, or my Amazon.com book ranking…The Bible says not to boast, so I’m not going to say that I’ve turned into Albert Schweitzer or Angelina Jolie. But I do feel myself becoming a slightly more compassionate person.

Jacobs’ observation that he is becoming more compassionate by making intercessory prayer a nightly habit is important to note. 

When we ask God to enter the mess, we mustn’t expect immediate results.  God, after all, works in God’s own time and according to God’s plan, not ours.  And while there are instances where we can do nothing more than pray, “O God,” we mustn’t remain stuck in our exasperations.

Instead, we must allow ourselves to be shaped into stronger and more compassionate human beings through intercessory prayer or “moral weight training.”

We must allow ourselves to fully accept that we are called to be an active part of God’s plan, beckoned by the Spirit to become an answer to our prayers. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. whose birthday we celebrate tomorrow, explained it this way in a sermon he delivered in 1963[5]:

36899_412130107835_511337835_4428728_4357056_nThe idea that man expects God to do everything leads inevitably to a callous misuse of prayer. For if God does everything, man then asks for anything, and God becomes little more than a ‘cosmic bellhop’ who is summoned for every trivial need. Or God is considered so omnipotent and man so powerless that prayer is a substitute for work and intelligence…I am certain we need to pray for God’s help and guidance in this integration struggle, but we are gravely misled if we think the struggle will be won only by prayer. God, who gave us minds for thinking and bodies for working, would defeat his own purpose if he permitted us to obtain through prayer what may come through work and intelligence… We must pray with unceasing passion for racial justice, but we must also use our minds to develop a program, organize ourselves into mass nonviolent action, and employ every resource of our bodies and souls to bring an end to racial injustice. …One cannot remove an evil habit by mere resolution nor by simply calling on God to do the job, but only as he surrenders himself and becomes an instrument of God.

Or put another way by Shane Claiborne and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, authors and activists who share King’s theology[6]:

When we pray to God asking, ‘Why don’t you do something?’ we hear a gentle whisper respond, “I did do something. I made you.’ Prayer is important. Just as important is the call to become the answer to our prayers. …Prayer and action can go together; in fact they must. Otherwise we have little more than a bunch of inactive believers or worn-out activists, and neither do much good for the world.

 We can’t always control or fix the suffering that is happening in the world, but we can pray to God to intervene and respond to how God is calling us to be a part of God’s plan to change and redeem Creation.

With that in mind, let us close with a style of intercessory prayer that comes from the book Body Prayer by Doug Pagitt and Kathryn Prill. Let us begin by saying together the following words[7]:

 We profess that God wants goodness for the world and that God works for the salvation of the earth and all who are in it. We know that creation is not complete but that it is in the midst of re-creation. So we pray for our world to grow into the fullness that God desires for it. May God’s kingdom come; may God’s will be done. We live in the world; we join in its re-creation. We pray and live with the confidence that God will continue the good work that has been started. We pray and live with the confidence that the Spirit comes in the midst of our aches and groans for a broken world and inspires us to be a part of God’s kingdom building.

 Now, while sitting, I invite you to hook your fingers together, one hand underneath the other, with your hands clasped at chest height. Cradle your fingers and pull. You should feel tension in your chest, shoulders, and upper arms. As you continue to hold this posture, contemplate the tension that the world experiences as it awaits God’s work of re-creation. Consider the taut bond of prayer and action that seeks to make God’s kingdom a reality and whose connection can’t be broken. Hold the posture as I close us in prayer. Let us pray:

 Mighty and merciful Creator, you are the Lord of all.

In goodness and in evil, you, O God reign.

In peace and in war, you, O God reign.

In health and in illness, you, O God, reign.

In the simple and in the inexplicable, you, O God, reign.

May your Holy Spirit continually enter into the messes of the world

so the reign of your unconditional love and grace is known in

every place,

every heart,

every deed,

every prayer and

every action.

 Amen.


[1] Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers by Anne Lamott, Riverhead Books Publishing. December 2012.

[2] Ibid. “Help. Enter this mess” is a phrase used in the book by Anne Lamott

[3] Beginner’s Grace: Bringing Prayer to Life by Kate Braestrup. Free Press Publishing. 2010.

[4] The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow The Bible as Literally As Possible by AJ Jacobs. Simon & Schuster Publishing. 2007.

[5] Strength To Love: A Book of Sermons on God’s Divine Laws by Martin Luther King, Jr. Harper & Row Publishing. 1963.

[6] Becoming The Answer to Our Prayers: Prayer for Ordinary Radicals by Shane Claiborne and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove. InterVarsity Press Publishing. 2008.

[7] Body Prayer: The Posture of Intimacy with God by Doug Pagitt and Kathryn Prill. Walterbrook Press. 2005.

A Living, Breathing Light

A Sermon for Sunday Nov. 11, 2012,  Exodus 3:1-8a, Ezekiel 37:1, 4-10, John 1:1-5 (The Voice translation)

“Man’s First Breath”, http://doubtproof.files.wordpress.com

When I was in seminary several years ago, I learned a new way of praying, which I would like to share with you this morning.[1] I invite you to sit comfortably in your seat. Close your eyes. Relax. Let us now center ourselves in the presence of God:

 Take a deep breath in. Take a deep breath out.

Take a deep breath in. Take a deep breath out.

Breathe in God’s mercies.  Breathe out God’s mercies on others.

Breathe in God’s mercies. Breathe out God’s mercies on others…

Truth-telling, wind-blowing, life-giving spirit—we present ourselves now

for your instruction and guidance; breathe your truth among us,

breathe your story of light that shines in the midst of darkness

breathe your story of death and life that our story may be submitted to your will for life. We pray in the name of the risen Christ, a living breathing light among us.[2]  Amen.

…………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

Experts say that we take about 26,000 breaths, somewhere around 14,000 liters of air.

And we should breathe from our stomach, taking about 4-6 breaths per minute. But when stressed or in a hurry, we tend to breathe from our chest, taking 16-20 breaths per minute.[3]

From our breathing, we should get 99 percent of our energy. However, most of us only access 10-20 percent. It makes sense when you consider that we are busy all the time!

With everything we’re doing in our lives on a daily basis, when can we ever find the time to stop (or even slow down) and think aboutour breathing?[4]

Maybe this is the perfect time and place to ponder each breath, right here in this sanctuary during worship (or if you are reading this, from wherever you are sitting) 

We have several minutes, and nowhere pressing to be. So what’s the harm in giving it a try? The busy work will still be out there when the service ends.

For now, let’s take a moment to explore the act of breathing from a spiritual perspective. We might discover something remarkable about God and ourselves–an important truth we can carry into our week.

The best place to start is in the beginning

 when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light…

then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.”[5]

A wind from God, the Spirit, came over the deep and dark waters of nothingness. And then God spoke light into the darknessand the world was illuminated! 

Afterwards, God, the Spirit, made Adam from the mud and breathed the breath of life into him!

“God Appears to Moses in Burning Bush.” Painting from Saint Isaac’s Cathedral, Saint Petersburg

Many lifetimes later, a shepherd named Moses was leading a flock of sheep near the wilderness when…

 the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed… the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, ‘Moses, Moses!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ …God said further, ‘I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ Then the Lord said, ‘I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians.’”[6]

 Moses then says to God, “If they ask me who you are, what should I tell them?” And God replies:

I am has sent me to you…Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’

 The name LORD (translated from English to Hebrew) appears in the Bible more than 6,000 times. In the Hebrew language, the name is essentially four letters: Y, H, V, H. But it is pronounced “Yod, Heh, Vav, Heh.”

 Author and pastor Rob Bell points out that…

 Some pronounce the name ‘Yahweh’ or ‘Yahveh,” although in many traditions the name isn’t even pronounced, because it’s considered so sacred, so mysterious, so holy. In fact, the ancient rabbis believed that these letters actually functioned as vowels in the Hebrew language. They believed they were a kind of breathing sounds and that ultimately the name is simply unpronounceable because the letters together are essentially the sounds of breathing. Yod, Heh, Vav, Heh.[7]

 Based on this insight, it would seem that the name of God is the sound of breathing…

      Yod. Heh. Vav. Heh

 A newborn baby girl takes her first series of breaths…

       Yod, Heh, Vav, Heh

 A beloved pet cat breathes his last breath…

            Yod, Heh, Vav, Heh

 A congregation greets one another by saying  “Peace be with you.”

             Yod, Heh, Vav, Heh

 A friend tells you “There is no God”

             Yod, Heh, Vav, Heh

 In the Bible, breath is synonymous with Spirit/spirit. The Hebrew word is “ruach,” which is to be spoken from the gut. “Ruach.” It is the “ruach” that plays an integral part in the prophet Ezekiel’s vision of God restoring Israel following the nation’s captivity by the Babylonian Empire:

 Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.’I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.”[8]

“Fire-breathing business man” from Google Images

God the Creator and the Spirit—the ruachcreates, forms, transforms and renews life, all of creation! Fast forward a couple of centuries and the author of The Gospel of John proclaims that not only is God the Creator and Spirit creating life, but so is Christ, the God-breathed flesh and voice:

 Before time itself was measured, the Voice was speaking. The Voice was and is God. This celestial Word remained ever present with the Creator; His speech shaped the entire cosmos. Immersed in the practice of creating, all things that exist were birthed in Him. His breath filled all things with a living, breathing light—a light that thrives in the depths of darkness, blazes through murky bottoms. It cannot and will not be quenched.[9]

 The breath of God the Creator, Spirit and Christ/Word/Voice “filled all things with a living breathing light.” This living breathing light is alive in the ugly, dark, brokenness of the world. 

It cannot be extinguished any more than the living breathing light that brought forth creation from nothingness can be doused. It cannot be smothered any more than the living breathing light that beckons Moses and Ezekiel to bring God’s people to life can be snuffed out.

When we recognize that the triune God, the living breathing lightis within us,

When we breathe in and breathe out the mercies of God, the living breathing light, we suddenly become aware of the thingswe need to let go of in a particular moment—

            the anxiety

            the fear

            the judgment

            the hate

            the prejudice

            the cynicism

 We begin to accept that we are sacred creations who have the divine breath flowing through us.  And we see—maybe for the first time in our lives—that the person who is

             snoring in the pew behind you

             slowly ringing up your groceries

             sitting idly at a green traffic light

             yelling about politicians

 also has the divine breath flowing through them and every person they encounter. “There is a holiness,” says Rob Bell “to the people around us and how you treat them.”[10]

When we breathe in and breathe out the mercies of God, the living breathing light, we realize how vital it is to create more opportunities–

           Two minutes while sitting in 1-85 traffic

           Thirty seconds before the start of a meeting

            Half hour in the backyard looking at the stars

            Five minutes writing a note to a grieving friend

            An hour in Sunday morning worship

“Henri Nouwen” by Br. Robert Lentz, trinitystores.com

 —to be in conversation with God, to be in prayer with God. As the late Christian spiritualist Henri Nouwen once said:

There is probably no image that expresses so well the intimacy with God in prayer as the image of God’s breath. We are like asthmatic people who are cured of their anxiety. The Spirit has taken away our narrowness…and made everything new for us. We receive a new breath, a new freedom, a new life. This new life is the divine life of God.[11]

So let us slow down and pay more attention to the living breathing light that resides within us and sparks us toward a new freedom and a new life.

Let us fully embrace this divine life of God. For it is in Yod, Heh, Vav, Heh that we live and move and breathe and light the way. [12]

Amen.


[1] “Youth and Young Adult Ministry” taught by Dr. Rodger Nishioka, professor of Christian Education at Columbia Theological Seminary, 2002-2005.

[2] Prayer adapted from Prayers For A Privileged People “Prayer of Illumination” by Walter Brueggemann. Abingdon Press. 2008.

[3] Although this is common information, the phrasing and inspiration for the concept in this sermon comes from NOOMA “Breathe” 014. Rob Bell. Zondervan Publishing and Flannel Inc. 2006.

[4] Ibid

[5] Genesis 1:1-4, 2:7, New Revised Standard Version, http://bible.oremus.org

 [6] Exodus 3:1-7a, New Revised Standard Version. http://bible.oremus.org

 [7] NOOMA “Breathe” 014. Rob Bell. Zondervan Publishing and Flannel Inc. 2006. Words in italics are my emphasis.

 [8] Ezekiel 37:9. New Revised Standard Version. http://bible.oremus.org

[9] John 1:1-5. The Voice Bible Translation. Ecclesia Bible Society. 2012.  http://hearthevoice.com

 [10] Inspired and adapted from NOOMA “Breathe” 014. Rob Bell. Zondervan Publishing and Flannel Inc. 2006.

[11] Reaching Out: The Three Movements of The Spiritual Life by Henri Nouwen. Image Publishing. 1986.

[12] Inspired and adapted from NOOMA “Breathe” 014. Rob Bell. Zondervan Publishing and Flannel Inc. 2006.

Who’s Afraid of the Holy Ghost?

A Sermon for Sunday June 19, 2011; Luke 24:36-49, Acts 1:1-5 and 2:1-11

Nestled atop one of the North Carolina hill-sides of the Montreat Conference Center is the ole’ McCallum house, which has hosted many church groups over the last 60 years or so.  There are only two ways to get to the house:  One is to drive up a narrow and windy mountain road to the back of the property and then descend down a couple of flights of uneven stone slab steps while grasping a rusty and somewhat shaky black railing. The other is to trudge up a path of 94 gravelly steps that cuts through a heavily wooded area on the front of the property.  That might not seem so difficult during the day, but it can be particularly precarious and nerve-racking at night.

The McCallum house is a rustic place where the wooden floors creak, an occasional mouse scurries through the bathroom walls and spiders spin webs on the front porch.  The house also has a musty and dank stone-wall and concrete floor basement, which is accessed via a 5×5 dimly lit passageway whose ceiling is partially covered with a dingy swatch of grey carpet. There is hardly any furniture in the basement except for a rickety wooden chair and an antique wooden dresser in a small unfinished bedroom. The only reason why anyone would need to go in the basement is to use the bathroom when the facilities on the house’s main two floors are occupied. However, when guys are staying in the McCallum house during Montreat’s week-long High School Youth Conference, you don’t have to hear nature calling to venture down into a strange and creepy basement.  Just a wee bit of curiosity is enough to lead one to venture into the unknown.

So was the case for our 12 teenage boys who, after exploring the basement a few minutes before midnight on the Sunday we arrived at Montreat, came tromping into my room with concerned looks on their faces and a plea for pastoral assistance. “Andy, can you do a blessing that chases away the evil spirits in the basement!” they asked. “Seriously, you have to come down there and do something or we’re not going to make it through the week!”

I couldn’t help but laugh at the request and yet at the same time, I instantly felt pressure to adequately perform a non-Presbyterian task—one of those eerie Catholic exorcisms like you see in a horror movie.  I was laughing and giving the youth silly looks on the outside but on the inside I was starting to let fear and my imagination get the best of me. “What if there really are ghosts down here?” I wondered. “What if there’s a corpse hidden in the basement? What if someone buried another person alive behind the stone walls exactly like the Edgar Allen Poe short story, The Cask of Amontillado, in which an 18th century Italian aristocrat, Montressor, tells of the time that he took deadly revenge on Fortunato, a fellow nobleman who insulted him, by burying him alive behind a brick wall!”

My mind kept racing as I put my hands on the wooden chair and continued my charade of laughing. “What if I do this blessing wrong and something does snatch one of us up in the middle of the night? If I let a ghoul take away the kind and mild-mannered Philip S., I’m going to be in big trouble because his dad is on Session! Think Acton, think! Make this a good blessing man!”

I took in a couple of deep breaths and tried to become reverent and serious, but when I asked the guys to bow their heads to pray which they did without hesitation, I burst out with laughter. “This is silly!,” I thought. “There’s no reason to be scared! There aren’t any evil spirits in this basement; hello, it’s Montreat!” And so with that piece of reality settling in, I said a short and reasonable prayer asking God to keep us safe during the week and then I made the sign of the cross, a version that I once saw performed in a comedic film that goes:  Spectacles-testicles- wallet- watch.[1]

Everyone broke out in laughter until suddenly, without warning, the large wooden bathroom door swung open wide, knocking against the wall with a loud thud!!!! The guys jumped about 10 feet in the air and one or two even shrieked…as Zach H. casually walked out of the bathroom. No one, except for (adult adviser) Bernie K and I, had seen Zach go into the bathroom earlier to do his business, so for a fleeting moment the rest of the group seriously thought there was a ghost coming out of the toilet!

Eventually, we all fell to the ground laughing. And then I came up with a brilliant idea: “Later in the week I should borrow Katie’s baby monitor from the room she’s staying in with Elizabeth at the conference center’s hotel,” I surmised.  “And use it to scare the guys, make them think there are ghosts in the McCallum house.”  About mid-week, I hid the speaker in the basement and put the receiver in Bernie and (adult adviser) Chris L’s room where upon Bernie and I made ghoulish noises to freak the guys out that evening: arrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr…eeeeeeeeeeereerreeeerraaaaaahhhh.

We were quickly discovered, but one of the guys still asked if the receiver could be left in the basement while he took the speaker up to his room. “Just in case there are ghosts, I want to make sure I hear him” he said with a straight face.  I chuckled, smiled and nodded back. Who was I to argue? Although I knew we were safe in God’s hands, I still wasn’t ready to completely rule out those spooky supernatural occurrences that many reasonable and intelligent people claim to be true.

After all, I’ve grown up my entire life reading the stories of legendary Alabama storyteller Kathryn Tucker Windham who spoke truthfully about such matters as ghost and all things Southern, and who, as timing would have it, died at the age of 93, the Sunday after our group returned from Montreat.

Harper Lee, Kathryn Tucker Windham and Auburn Journalism Professor Ed Williams, 2003 Alabama Academy of Honor.

Kathryn Tucker Windham is noted as being the first female police beat reporter and feature writer for a big named Alabama newspaper in the 1940s; a pioneer for women’s rights in the workplace; a commentator on Southern culture for NPR’s All Things Considered in the 1980s; an award winning journalist, photographer and renown storyteller. But she is best known for her book series of “true” ghost stories, based on Southern folklore, beginning with 13 Alabama Ghosts and Jeffrey, published in 1969. Other titles were Jeffrey Introduces 13 More Southern Ghosts; 13 Georgia Ghosts and Jeffrey; 13 Mississippi Ghosts and 13 Tennessee Ghosts. And who is/was Jeffrey? Well, he was the name of the presence that took up residence in Kathryn’s house in the mid-60s, which prompted her to start collecting and retelling ghost stories. A wise and kind-hearted woman who was mentally sharp till the day she died, Kathryn and her children could recount with honesty and sincerity the times in which “Jeffrey” was in the house—loud footsteps echoing down the hall or in rooms that were soon discovered to be empty or household objects disappearing and reappearing in strange places that would’ve been nonsense for any family member to move.

I once heard her tell a Jeffrey story about the time she was invited to an all-male regional Kiwanis club meeting in southeast Alabama during college football season.  An avid fan of the Auburn Tigers, Kathryn was disgusted to see numerous Crimson Tide banners hung in the room, including a wall-sized one behind the lectern that read: “Yay Bama, Roll Tide!” Already convinced that the audience of 250 serious football loving businessmen would be bored with the Southern anecdotes and ghost tales of a gray-haired 70-year-old woman, Kathryn decided to bluntly share her feelings about the banners:

“I told them I was upset and that I was an Auburn fan and there wasn’t a mention of Auburn in that room and furthermore, I thought Jeffrey was an Auburn fan too. Well those men go, ehhhhhh, silly thing…I had not said more than two sentences when that banner fell off the wall behind me and clattered to the floor. It was wonderful! Those men pulled up their chairs and listened, I’ve never had a better audience. I could’ve told them anything that night and they would’ve believed it! ”[2]

 A few years ago, in a November 2009 interview that is posted on YouTube, Kathryn explained why people have always been drawn to ghost stories:

“There’s a fascination, I think, about ghosts because we’re really not sure. There’s something we aren’t certain about. Nearly everything we encounter, there’s some scientific explanation; you can explain nearly everything. But ghosts…do they exist? That’s something you have to decide for yourself. And the good ghost stories do not require that you believe in ghosts. I don’t care whether you believe in ghosts or not. The good ghost stories are the traditional tales, the stories that have been handed down in families…Whether you believe in them or not, they are a part of our Southern tradition. We are storytellers.”[3]

The writer of The Gospel of Luke and The Acts of the Apostles wasn’t from the American South, but he’s a darn good storyteller who carefully handles the stories, passed down from one family to the next, about Jesus and the disciples.  This morning’s texts are probably two of the most fantastic post-resurrection “ghost” stories in the New Testament.

At the end of Luke’s gospel, the disciples are huddled together in a hide-out somewhere—tired, hungry, and worried that about the Roman authorities finding them. They are discussing the various reports of how Jesus has appeared to the women at the tomb, to Cleopas and friend on the road to Emmaus and at another location to Simon-Peter. They are trying desperately to understand and make sense out of stories about their teacher and rabbi coming back from the dead when…Jesus appears among them and says, “Peace be with you!” The disciples, however, don’t respond with “And also with you!”  No, the text tells us “they were started and terrified and thought they were seeing a ghost.”

Jesus questions their fear and doubts, and then says to them, “Hello! Take a good look, it’s me! Look at my hands, look at my feet. I still got skin, which is covered in bruises and my nails have some dirt under them! You can even see a part of the bone where the nail went into my hand! Would a ghost have flesh and bones?”

The disciples hardly move and nary a one attempt to touch Jesus. Instead they stand there with their mouths hanging open, looking at one another, then Jesus. Looking at one another, then Jesus…who tries another approach at proving he’s not a ghost. He asks for food and when the disciples give him a piece of broiled fish, he immediately eats in front of them. After finishing his meal, Jesus recalls the words of the prophets and psalmists, opens up the disciple’s minds to the scriptures and then says:

“The Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”

          Now, here’s something strange about the text, if it wasn’t strange enough already:  the disciples who were startled and terrified that they were seeing a ghost when Jesus appeared are now being told that they will be clothed with power from on high!  In the first chapter of Acts, the writer says that power is the Holy Spirit…the Holy Ghost! And the disciples, now newly appointed apostles or messengers sent out by God to witness the good news of resurrection, have no reaction…at least none that the writer thought was important.  If I was a disciple who had just been scared out of my sandals by Christ-back-from-the-dead,  I would be freaking out if Jesus said to me, “Oh by the way, I’m leaving now but I’m gonna send the power of the Holy Spirit to hang out with ya for awhile.”



Mind ya, the Holy Spirit doesn’t just show up like an unexpectedly cool breeze on a summer day. No, the second chapter in Acts says that on the day of Pentecost, a big religious festival in Jerusalem, there comes a sound like the rush of a violent wind (like a hurricane) and it filled the entire house where the disciples are sitting, but no one is harmed and nothing is damaged! Then tongues of fire appear among them, resting atop each apostle’s head and all are filled with the Holy Spirit “and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.”  But that’s not all! Remember that there was a religious festival going on, so there were thousands of people, Jews from every nation, gathered in Jerusalem. And all of these folks heard the apostles speaking in each of their native languages and they were bewildered!  “Amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?…In our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.’”

Wow! These accounts at the end of Luke’s gospel and the beginning of Acts are more than just good stories; they are great stories! Bewildering, amazing, astonishing stories…that we are called to retell over and over and over again because God’s children, God’s people, are called to be storytellers. More importantly, we are called to embody these stories within our own story. Author and Presbyterian pastor Frederick Buechner reminds us that:

“In the long run, the stories all overlap and mingle like searchlights in the dark. The stories Jesus tells are part of the story Jesus is, and the other way around. And the story Jesus is is part of the story you and I are because Jesus has become so much a part of the world’s story that it is impossible to imagine how any of our stories would have turned out without him, even the stories of people who don’t believe in him or even know who he is or care about knowing. And my story and your story are all part of each other too if only because we have sung together and prayed together and seen each other’s faces so that we are at least a footnote at the bottom of each other’s stories. In other words all our stories are in the end one story, one vast story about being human, being together, being here.”[4]

Humanity is as at the heart of every story….Humanity is the story.

Do you see it there in this morning’s texts? Do you see and understand the humanity that the writer of Luke-Acts emphasizes so well?

Jesus, God-in-the-flesh, suffers unto death on a cross for the sins of the world and all the evil committed by human beings.

Jesus, God-in-the-flesh, eats a piece of fish caught by the same men whom he first called to be fishers of people.

Jesus, God-in-the-flesh, sends flawed human beings to tell of God’s merciful and redemptive deeds; to share God’s blessings; and to proclaim God’s name to all nations.

The Holy Spirit, God’s breath, blows through the house of newly appointed apostles, messengers of Christ’s love for the world.

The Holy Spirit, God’s breath, marks human beings with tongues of flame and enables them to understand other human beings through the power of language and story.

The Holy Spirit, God’s breath, collaborates with real people—people chosen to work on God’s behalf to help bring about justice, love and peace in our own world.

That is what humanity is all about: Jesus, God-in-the-flesh, and The Holy Spirit, God’s breath, inviting each of us (regardless of who we are or what we’ve done) to be in relationship with God and with one another, within and outside the walls of the church.  As a former colleague once put it: “The Spirit gives gifts in different measure to different persons precisely to make sure that the Church does not fall into dull conformity…Part of the message of Pentecost is that life does not begin and end with us or with other people’s definition of us. Life begins and ends with who God calls us to be.”[5]

Accepting this invitation to practice our humanity or to be human—be God’s children, be God’s people—is, of course, a difficult, daunting and sometimes scary task.  But the writer of Luke-Acts reminds us that we are never alone and we never need to be afraid…whether it be ghouls, evil spirits, things that go bump at night or even the Creator, Christ and Holy Ghost.

Because Jesus, God-in-the-flesh, commissions us to go out and witness together love-filled blessings of God that cast out all fear and evil. And Jesus sends the Holy Spirit, God’s breath, to accompany us as we go and to passionately stir our hearts so that we may tell and live the story of God’s amazing deeds all of our days.

Amen

[1] Nuns On The Run, 1990, starring Eric Idel and Robbie Coltrane, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0100280/. An awful movie except for that one scene. J

[2] Kathryn Tucker Windham on Alabama’s Ghost Trail, Part 2, 2009. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ERQBGDX6IGo

[3] Kathryn Tucker Windham on Alabama’s Ghost Trail, Part 1, 2009. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8j2Omlyu00E&feature=related

[4] Listening to Your Life by Frederick Buechner, 1990.

[5] The Rev. Mike O’Brien, the former senior pastor at Colesville Presbyterian Church, Silver Spirng, MD, where I first served as an ordained minister, 2005-2008.